Stephen Kotkin: Putin, Stalin, Hitler, Zelenskyy, and War in Ukraine | Lex Fridman Podcast #289 | Summary and Q&A
Historian Stephen Codkin discusses the similarities and differences between Stalin and Putin, the complex geopolitics behind Russia's perpetual struggle with the West, and the strategic choices that have led to Russian aggression.
Questions & Answers
Q: Why does Stephen Codkin believe that comparing Putin to Stalin is not accurate?
Codkin believes that while Putin and Stalin share some characteristics and historical context, they cannot be compared in terms of the scale of power, aggression, and the consequences of their actions. Stalin's actions led to the death of millions, while Putin's actions have not reached that level of humanitarian crisis.
Q: According to Codkin, what is the root cause of Russia's perpetual struggle with the West?
Codkin argues that the perpetual struggle between Russia and the West stems from the mismatch between Russia's aspirations to be a great power and its actual capabilities. Despite its aggressive actions, Russia's weaker position compared to the West drives its pursuit of power and influence.
Q: How does Codkin describe Russia's grand strategy and its pursuit of greatness?
Codkin explains that Russia's grand strategy involves investing in hard power, such as the military and cyber capabilities, weakening the West through various means, and maintaining a strong autocratic regime. Putin and his regime prioritize these objectives over the development of social welfare, investing in human capital, or improving governance.
Q: What role did the Ukrainian resistance play in changing the dynamics of the conflict?
Codkin acknowledges the significant role played by the Ukrainian people and their resistance in changing the dynamics of the conflict. Their courage, ingenuity, and effective information warfare efforts helped rally support from the West and contributed to a shift in response to Russian aggression. The Ukrainian resistance highlighted the importance of standing up to aggression and unity in defending one's country.
In this conversation, Stephen Kotkin, a renowned historian specializing in Russian history, discusses the similarities and differences between Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin. He emphasizes that while Putin cannot be compared to the dominance and power of Stalin, there are similarities in their aspirations to match the strength of the West while facing inherent weaknesses. Kotkin also highlights the strategic choice of aggression made by Russian leaders throughout history, which is not an inherent cultural tendency. He debunks the arguments blaming NATO expansion or Western imperialism for Russia's actions, instead emphasizing that international agreements and the freedom of countries to choose their alliances should be respected. Further, Kotkin addresses the recent invasion of Ukraine and the miscalculations made by Putin in initiating the conflict.
Questions & Answers
Q: What are the similarities and differences between Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin?
While Vladimir Putin cannot be easily compared to the dominance and power of Joseph Stalin, there are similarities in their aspirations to match the strength of the West while facing inherent weaknesses. Stalin is a singular figure in history, dominating in both longevity in power and the power of the military-industrial complex he helped build. On the other hand, Putin works in the same buildings and offices used by Stalin, which shows some connection between the two leaders. However, the scale of their abilities to cause grief is vastly different. Stalin caused the tragic deaths of 18 to 20 million people, whereas Putin's impact, although still significant, is not comparable.
Q: Is there a cultural tendency for Russia to be aggressive?
No, there is no cultural trait that inherently predisposes Russia to aggression. The idea that Russia has an eternal tendency for aggression is a misconception. Aggression is a strategic choice made by Russian leaders throughout history to match the power of the West, even though the gap between Russia and the West is often unmatchable. This strategic choice has perpetuated the cycle of personalist rule and worsened Russia's geopolitical dilemma. It is crucial to understand that aggression is not an innate cultural trait but a decision made repeatedly.
Q: How does Western imperialism play a role in Russia's aggression?
Western imperialism should not be considered a root cause of Russia's aggression. While it is convenient to blame the West for Russia's actions, it is essential to examine the empirical evidence and international agreements. Treaties signed by the Kremlin over the years acknowledge the freedom of countries to choose their alliances and foreign policies. NATO expansion or the voluntary desire of countries to join the West does not equate to a provocation or threat to Russia. The West's actions, such as offering services, investing positively, and integrating Russia into global institutions, should not be seen as a conspiracy to bring Russia down.
Q: Did NATO expansion force Putin's hand in the invasion of Ukraine?
No, NATO expansion is not to blame for the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The decision to invade Ukraine was a choice made by Vladimir Putin. The argument that NATO's expansion compelled Russia to invade Ukraine is flawed. International agreements, such as the UN Charter, Helsinki Agreements, and NATO-Russia Founding Act, recognize the sovereignty and freedom of countries to choose their alliances. Ukraine's desire to join NATO was its own choice, even though it was not ready for membership. Russia's invasion is a criminal act, not a response to NATO expansion.
Q: What are the errors and miscalculations in Putin's decision to invade Ukraine?
War never goes according to plan, and all wars are based on miscalculations. The problem lies not in the initial miscalculation but in the failure to adjust and recalibrate. Putin's history of aggression, from domestic murders to invading Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine, showed him that he could get away with such actions. The lack of significant consequences for previous actions might have led him to miscalculate again. Invading Ukraine seemed like a reasonable course of action to him, but the consequences and backlash were severe, showing the lunacy of the decision in retrospect.
Q: How does the invasion of Ukraine affect Russia's reputation and victimhood narrative?
The invasion of Ukraine has changed the perception of who the greatest victims of the Putin regime are. Before the invasion, it could be argued that Russian citizens were the primary victims. However, after the invasion, the atrocities committed in Ukraine have shifted the focus away from the suffering in Russia. The invasion and subsequent actions have led to a growing number of Russians fleeing the country. Additionally, the invasion challenges the victimhood narrative of Russia that blames the West. The international community recognizes the criminal acts of the Kremlin rather than an external provocation by the West.
Q: How can we understand the geopolitical choices made by Russia?
Geopolitical choices made by Russia, such as aggression and attempts to stand up to the West, stem from the dilemma of matching aspirations with capabilities. Russia aspires to be a great country and civilization but lacks the capabilities to match the strength of the West. However, the pursuit of this unrealistic quest for equality exacerbates the problem. Instead of building a strong state, Russia often falls into personalist rule, creating autocracies that worsen the geopolitical dilemma. It is crucial to analyze these choices as strategic decisions rather than inherent tendencies.
Q: How does Russian history prior to NATO expansion reflect a pattern of aggression?
Russian history predates NATO expansion, yet it shows a pattern of aggression similar to today. Examples of aggression and policies predate both the expansion of NATO and the existence of NATO itself. It is incorrect to solely attribute Russian aggression to NATO expansion. Throughout history, there have been instances of Russian aggression and policies that cannot be explained by external factors. Russian leaders have consistently shown a willingness to invade and exert dominance even before NATO expansion became a contemporary issue.
Q: How does corruption contribute to the power dynamics in Russia?
Corruption in Russia is deeply ingrained and perpetuates power dynamics. The regime in Moscow maintains its power through corrupt practices and repression. The oligarchic democracy in Ukraine, although flawed and corrupt, still had an open public sphere and a functioning parliament compared to Russia. Corruption in Russia extends to all industries and stifles the nation's capacity to flourish, affecting its overall growth, production, and culture. Corruption is not exclusive to Russia but significantly hampers its ability to thrive as a nation.
Q: Can Russia's journey towards power and influence be compared to an imperialist quest?
Russia's journey to regain power and influence should not be seen as an imperialist quest. Although some argue that Russia's actions are driven by an imperialist mindset, it is important to understand the strategic choices made by Russian leaders. These choices are based on aspirations to match the power of the West while facing inherent weaknesses. Russia pursues an elusive quest to stand as a great power, even though it lacks the capabilities to reach the same level as the West. This pursuit does not make Russia an imperialist power but reflects a perpetual geopolitical dilemma.
Q: How did Putin's decision to invade Ukraine miscalculate the outcomes?
Putin's decision to invade Ukraine did not go according to plan, which is typical of wars. War is based on miscalculations, but what matters is the ability to adjust and recalibrate as needed. In this case, the invasion of Ukraine resulted in severe consequences and backlash for Putin. The miscalculation was not in the initial decision but in the failure to account for the potential outcomes. Recalibrating quickly is essential in war to mitigate the consequences of miscalculations.
Summary & Key Takeaways
Stephen Codkin explains that while Putin cannot be compared to Stalin in terms of the scale of power and aggression, they share a dilemma of managing Russian power and aspirations in relation to the West.
He argues that Russia's perpetual geopolitics is a strategic choice, not an inherent cultural trait, and that it stems from the mismatch between Russia's aspirations and its capabilities.
Codkin highlights the importance of understanding Russia's grand strategy, which focuses on investing in hard power, weakening the West, and maintaining a strong autocratic regime.