Anne Applebaum understands the implications of modern Russian authoritarianism as well as or better than any journalist or historian operating in our current era. The graduate of the London School of Economics and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale University has a fairly enormous biography of achievement, working since the 1980s as both a historian and journalist predominantly focused on Russian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European issues. She’s also created and directed multiple think tanks, websites, and programs that examine the role of disinformation, specifically as generated by authoritarian regimes. Her 2004 book, Gulag, a meticulous account of Joseph Stalin’s internal prison system, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
Applebaum also has been targeted by Vladimir Putin’s propaganda apparatus for her writing. An early critic of the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and currently on staff at The Atlantic, she is eminently qualified to opine about the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the goals and motives of Putin. Her latest essay, “The West Must Defeat Russia,” explains the stakes for Russia and Putin in instigating his war on Ukraine, and clarifies why those stakes will compel Russia to see that conflict through right up until Russia itself is—hopefully—defeated.
Her main points: First, perpetuating the war as long as possible continues to serve Putin’s aims, which are still primarily dedicated to the weakening of “American power and American alliances.” Additionally, the only way to win the war is by completely defeating Russia and decisively crushing Putin’s “neo-imperial dream.” Applebaum believes that “we need to start helping the Ukrainians fight this war as if we were fighting it,” and that means not only viewing our role as “helping” Ukraine but actively seeking the defeat of Russia.
But perhaps most importantly, she provides insight into Putin’s motives and expectations, and how they are inextricably tethered to attitudes in the United States, its allies, and certain Republicans and their presumed presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Applebaum confirms what most of us already know: Putin enormously miscalculated the response of Ukraine and the collective response of the Western Alliance. Yet even despite the heroic success of the Ukrainian people on the battlefield, and despite truly horrific Russian losses, his primary goal—of weakening America and its alliances—remains viable, as the war drives suffering, strife, and struggle from Europe to Africa, and he capitalizes on the conflict in Gaza.
For Putin, Applebaum writes, even being stymied to a so-called “stalemate” on the battlefield has simply served to readjust Russia’s posture towards the conflict. He is now playing a waiting game, counting on his time-tested intelligence operation to sow seeds of impatience with—and ultimately disinterest in—the war among the U.S. and its allies who provide Ukraine with military, economic and moral support.
That’s not all he’s waiting for.
[D]espite his extraordinary losses, Putin still believes that time is on his side. If he can’t win on the battlefield, he will win using political intrigue and economic pressure. He will wait for the democratic world to splinter, and he will encourage that splintering. He will wait for the Ukrainians to grow tired, and he will try to make that happen too. He will wait for Donald Trump to win the 2024 U.S. presidential election, and he will do anything he can to help that happen too.
Securing a second electoral victory for Trump, who has on multiple occasions threatened to undermine our country’s commitment to NATO, if not abandon it completely, is obviously at the top of Putin’s wish list. But the pathetic susceptibility of Republican politicians and their favored media organs to his disinformation tactics is also key to the calculation, just as it was during the 2016 election.
Applebaum tallies up some of Putin’s recent successes:
Right now, Putin’s bets are on the Republicans who repeat Russian propaganda—Senator J. D. Vance, for example, echoes Russian language about the Ukraine war leading to “global disorder” and “escalation”; Representative Matt Gaetz cited a Chinese state-media source as evidence while asking about alleged Ukrainian neo-Nazis at a congressional hearing; Vivek Ramaswamy, a GOP presidential candidate, has also called [Ukraine President Volodymr] Zelensky, who is Jewish, a Nazi. Putin will have been cheered by the new House speaker, Mike Johnson, who is knowingly delaying the military and financial aid that Ukraine needs to keep fighting. The supplemental bill that he refuses to pass includes money that will keep Ukrainians supplied with the air-defense systems they need to protect their cities, as well as the fiscal support they need to sustain their economy and crucial infrastructure in the coming months.
Applebaum notes that part of the Republicans’ position is rooted in simply wanting to see President Joe Biden fail, no matter the consequences, and that at least some of the agitation among some Western nations can be attributed to a desire to see “a Russian victory, or at least a defeat for Biden.” But she allows that some of the objections are made in the good faith belief—by supporters of Ukraine—that, since Russia won’t ever give up, a truce is the most viable solution.
But such a solution would require the parties to stop fighting, though, and Applebaum sees no indication that Putin intends to stop fighting, nor that he would be willing to accept any “partition” brokered by Ukraine or its Western allies. His goal—the complete annihilation of Ukraine —remains unchanged, despite any wishful thinking to the contrary. In fact, as she points out, Putin has already transformed the Russian economy, putting it on a solid war footing, with 40% of its state budget—10% of its GDP—now dedicated to its military.
Applebaum’s point is that Russia is setting the stage for a permanent state of war, motivated by Putin’s belief that the West, with its fractured politics and its inherent susceptibility to his disinformation Wurlitzer, cannot sustain that type of commitment. Hence, that waiting game. The subtext to her position is that Putin can do this because he is a dictator presiding over a totalitarian state. He does not fear public dissent, because, as was made vividly clear quite recently, there is none of any significance that cannot be crushed.
Putin’s belief system was forged as a KGB officer stationed in East Germany, Applebaum notes, so the idea of perpetual war is “eminently plausible” to him; it is in his view a perfectly acceptable state of affairs. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev—showing no signs of vacillating from Putin’s program—recently and in great detail threatened Poland with losing “its statehood” for its actions supporting Ukraine, calling it a “historical enemy.” Poland, of course, is a member of NATO. So Medvedev’s warning—which was certainly made under Putin’s direction—can be understood as a fair representation of what a Russian victory in Ukraine would mean for the rest of Europe. As Applebaum explains, it’d be a situation “in which Poland, the Baltic states, and even Germany are under constant physical threat, with all of the attendant consequences for trade and prosperity.”
Applebaum’s position is that the stunning successes of Ukraine thus far in thwarting and reversing Russia’s invasion have not changed Putin’s essential calculation that the West can be manipulated into giving up on Ukraine, due to the nature of its democratic traditions, its responsiveness to public sentiment, its fickle political will, and (implicitly) the general ignorance of its populations to the consequences. That is what Russia’s disinformation matrix intends to cultivate, no matter the situation on the ground. Applebaum argues that the West should be focused on combating that effort, but more than that, she has several practical suggestions that tie in directly with the idea that it is not only Ukraine, but all of us, who are fighting for Russia’s defeat.
As she writes:
If Russia is already fighting America and America’s allies on multiple fronts, through political funding, influence campaigns, and its links to other autocracies and terrorist organizations, then the U.S. and Europe need to fight back on multiple fronts too. We should outcompete Russia for the scarce commodities needed to build weapons, block the software updates that they need to run their defense factories, look for ways to sabotage their production facilities. Russia used fewer weapons and less ammunition this year than it did last year. Our task should be to ensure that next year is worse.
Applebaum suggests that the U.S. and its allies in opposition to the Russian invasion should review the sanctions already imposed and streamline them to target the supply chains Russia uses to keep its war effort going. She also believes that the assets of Russian oligarchs and Russian deposits of foreign money—frozen at the outset of the war—should be seized and the money provided to Ukraine, demonstrating that the issue of reparations for this geopolitical catastrophe will not be forgotten. Spending more now will help prevent, deter, or at the very least prepare for larger conflicts—possibly with China, or Iran, as she notes—down the line.
In sum, Applebaum offers a clear-eyed assessment of the reality. It’s unfettered and unimpeded by the political gesticulations and pandering of people more interested in performing and catering to their constituents’ fears and prejudices than in actually standing up for our nation against a corrupt, malevolent tyrant.
In that respect, it neatly mirrors the same choice our country will be facing in 2024, when it decides who will be its next president.