Putin’s ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ involving Ukraine could backfire

Russian President Vladimir Putin unnecessarily has made Ukraine an existential issue for Russia.  Conventional wisdom is he wants to reclaim the mythical glory of the Soviet Union with Russia at the head of the table among great powers. There can be no question that Russia’s military capability is a legitimate threat to Ukraine and, by extension, the U.S. and its allies. It is important to point out, however, that Putin’s Ukrainian gambit is a threat to Russia as well, beyond the certain reaction of the U.S. and NATO if Russia does invade Ukraine. 

Putin’s rhetoric regarding Ukraine and the NATO presence in former Warsaw Pact nations is reminiscent of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s doctrine that no nation that has a socialist government (i.e., a government friendly to the Soviet Union) can be allowed to choose a different, non-socialist path. Reacting to efforts by the government of Czechoslovakia to follow its own political path, Brezhnev made a speech in Poland in 1968, making it clear that was not acceptable, “When external and internal forces hostile to socialism try to turn the development of a given socialist country in the direction of restoration of the capitalist system, when a threat arises to the cause of socialism in that country — a threat to the security of the socialist commonwealth as a whole — this is no longer merely a problem for that country’s people, but a common problem, the concern of all socialist countries.”

Brezhnev was successful in crushing the so-called Prague Spring, but his doctrine would come back to haunt him a decade later when he invaded Afghanistan. The Soviet foray into Afghanistan created many problems for an already sclerotic nation, but one of them is pertinent to what Putin faces today. As historian Joy Neumeyer points out, “The situation in Afghanistan contributed to a growing reluctance among the Soviet leadership to use force elsewhere.” She later quotes then-KGB head and later Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s assessment of the situation with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: “The quota of interventions abroad has been exhausted.”

Putin’s version of the Brezhnev doctrine is an effort to reclaim what has sometimes derisively been called the Russian near-abroad — those nations such as Ukraine that once were part of the Soviet Union. But, like Brezhnev when he went into Afghanistan, Putin finds himself in a difficult place quite apart from the threats the U.S. and NATO are issuing. He has sent troops into Kazakhstan to quell an uprising there, albeit at the request of the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. With a death toll of protestors of at least 164 and an angry and restive public, it is unclear whether Russian troops will have to return once they pull out. Belarus is another headache for Putin. He sent Russian troops there as recently as November to help deal with an immigration crisis caused by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko’s immigration tactics may be part of a grand game to invade Ukraine, but Putin should not ignore the law of unintended consequences. People in Kazakhstan and Belarus are restless, and Putin is making the problems of both nations his problems. 

If Putin follows through on his threat to move into Ukraine, he will not have the same reception he received from political leaders in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukrainian political leadership seems to accept the fact that it cannot defeat a Russian military attack, but Putin must understand that asymmetrical warfare on the part of the Ukrainians will be the reception he receives if he chooses that path.   

Putin has his own problems at home, as well, which may be a reason for his Ukrainian threats — to divert attention from those problems. The World Bank’s recent forecast of the Russian economy must be concerning for Putin — that “pandemic and inflation risks may hinder Russia’s economic recovery,” and that other risks include “geopolitics and the green energy transition.”  In addition to the political problems for Putin created by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Foreign Policy recently reported that Putin needs to pay attention to potential political problems from millennials and Generation Z: “According to polling, in the last couple of years, younger Russians have become the group most dissatisfied with Russia’s political system.” Should he choose to invade Ukraine, Putin will have to worry about the impact that Russian military casualties will have on domestic public opinion.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, President Biden’s point person on the issue of Russia and Ukraine, laid out the choice for Putin when he appeared on CNN on Jan. 9, right before the U.S.-Russia meetings in Geneva: “There are two paths before us. There’s a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid a confrontation. The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine. We’re about to test the proposition about which path President Putin is prepared to take.” 

Putin is a prideful man. He wants a resurgent “great Russia,” and he wants a U.S. in disarray, believing that is somehow to his advantage. The Biden administration and America’s NATO allies are giving him a way out of the crisis he has created with Ukraine. He should not doubt that President Biden and other NATO leaders will follow through with the measures they have laid out if Putin moves into Ukraine.  

At the same time, Putin should remember the history lesson of how the Brezhnev doctrine turned out for the Soviet Union as he configures a “Putin doctrine” for Ukraine and his other neighbors.  As Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.” Hopefully Putin will listen to the wisdom of Dostoyevsky for the sake of all involved. 

Patrick J. Griffin, a professor at American University, worked as an assistant to President Clinton and was secretary to the Democratic Conference in the U.S. Senate. He is a former board member of the National Democratic Institute.

William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations. 

Tags Antony Blinken Joe Biden Leonid Brezhnev NATO Politics of Russia Russia Russia-US talks on Ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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