Ukraine: First invasion, then Intelligenzaktion?

Jeremy Gordin asks what Putin plans to do after the Russian military conquest

This morning I called a friend who lives in Europe, asking him, as one does, “how are you?” When his response was not exactly an overjoyed one, I asked him why, and he replied, “Well, given that we might be on the edge of World War III ...”

Even though I live in South Africa, and though you can call me a wussy, or whatever else you care to call me, I am freaked out, very freaked out, by the Russian Federation invasion of Ukraine, today a week old. I take no pleasure in the deaths of hundreds of people, including young Russian conscripts; in seeing cluster bombs exploding; burning vehicles; smashed buildings; and terrified refugees.

I recall a paragraph I read – must be about 53 years ago – in Adam Hall’s first Quiller thriller, The Berlin Memorandum, written and set in 1965.

Having been injected with some sort of truth serum while unconscious, Quiller (“Q”) thinks to himself as he surfaces: “If you kick over an ant-hill, the first thing they do is to stop and clean their antennae with a foreleg. In their panic they resort at once to habit, to deceive themselves that everything is really all right and the sky hasn’t fallen down. The human species is a little that way inclined. Tea during the Blitz.”

I think the Russian invasion of Ukraine does feel (to many of us) as though the sky might be falling down – because it seems to be the first potentially serious confrontation between the “West” and Russia since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – though of course it’s not [i].

Above all, though, I think it feels this way because most of us thought that the Cold War was a thing of the past, with the USSR having dissolved at the end of 1991, and with Europe, including Russia, having ostensibly become a place of cooperation, even friendship, and the pursuit of mutually beneficial commerce.

Now, however, “officials” and analysts have said this invasion is the “largest conventional military attack” in Europe since World War II. And some five days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he’d put his nuclear “forces” on high alert.

One way we clean our antennae is to try to understand how this increasingly disastrous situation, this growing death and destruction, came about. As I wrote last week, and at serious risk of simplifying issues, there seem to be two main narratives at play.

The one is that there are seemingly rational, comprehensible reasons for Putin’s behaviour. Last week I mentioned the contention of my brother-in-law Jonathan Steele, for six years the Moscow bureau chief of the UK Guardian, that “The Russian president is a rational man with his own analysis of recent European history” and that what happened [prior to the invasion] was that “Putin was furious with the Ukraine government” for repeatedly rejecting the Minsk agreement. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

As per Steele, Putin was also angry with France and Germany, the co-signatories of the agreement, and the United States, for not pressing Ukraine’s president to implement them; and also furious with the Americans for shunning Russia’s early interest in joining Nato, for not taking on board Russia’s security concerns about Nato’s expansion and for deploying offensive missiles close to Russia’s borders.

To this I could also add the views, for example, of political scientist John Mearsheimer, “one of the most famous critics of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War”. Mearsheimer is known as a proponent of a school of realist international relations and has argued for years “that the US, in pushing to expand Nato eastward and establishing friendly relations with Ukraine, has increased the likelihood of war between nuclear-armed powers and laid the groundwork for Vladimir Putin’s aggressive position toward Ukraine”.

Just two days ago, in an interview in The New Yorker, Mearsheimer doubles down (as they say) on his views (it’s worth reading in full) – and adds: “[Putin] understands that he cannot conquer Ukraine and integrate it into a greater Russia or into a reincarnation of the former Soviet Union. He can’t do that. What he’s doing in Ukraine is fundamentally different. He is obviously lopping off some territory. He’s going to take some territory away from Ukraine, in addition to what happened with Crimea, in 2014. Furthermore, he is definitely interested in regime change. Beyond that, it’s hard to say exactly what this will all lead to, except for the fact that he is not going to conquer all of Ukraine. It would be a blunder of colossal proportions to try to do that.”

Besides repeating that he thinks Putin does not want to conquer the “whole” of Ukraine, Mearsheimer argues that what the Ukrainians need to do – and can do, for their own sake – is to pay attention to Putin’s needs and forget about flirting with the West and Nato in any way. I suppose this is called a “realistic” attitude. (Some more of what Mearsheimer says follows in this endnote here [ii].)

The countervailing view we all know, or ought to know – it’s right there on the TV feeds that we watch (BBC, CNN, Sky, and even Al Jazeera). This narrative is that Putin – who seems to be in sole control of the Russian Federation (though this might not be so) – is a nasty, malevolent, violence-prone autocrat and bully who has invaded Ukraine, a sovereign state, thereby flouting international law, destroying “democracy,” causing untold death and destruction, and possibly taking Europe (and the world?) closer to nuclear warfare [iii].

We’re seeing more than that. We’re seeing the bodies of Russian soldiers and of Ukrainians (civilians and soldiers), and we’re seeing and hearing from (it is reported) a million refugees trying to escape the bombing and the approach of the Russian army – plus those who have been “displaced” inside Ukraine.

But we’re also seeing and hearing about the bravery and steadfastness of the Ukrainian army and people, led by their President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who are saying that they are a sovereign people who don’t want to be bullied and are fighting back against seemingly unbeatable odds.

There are reports that Putin wanted a blitzkrieg war but that this has failed, due to the Ukrainians refusing to accept (militarily and in all other ways) Russian hegemony peaceably; and because his army does not seem to be all that it was cracked up to be (dreadful logistics); and because its ordinary frontline soldiers weren’t told that they were going to be killing their traditional neighbours. In short, it is being reported that Putin has badly miscalculated militarily. But how much of this is wishful thinking (from American and English miliary pundits and “strategists”), we do not know.

In Russia, the rouble and the stock market have cratered; and thousands (again, it is said) have been arrested for protesting against the invasion.

We’ve also seen the Western world – and other places – react with horror and anger to Putin’s moves. Apparently serious sanctions have been levelled against the Russian banks, financial systems, and trade, and in terms of sport and cultural activities [iv] . Moreover, it is the attitude of people throughout much of the world in reaction to the Russian invasion that genuinely appears strong and resolute. In the security council vote at the UN, the Chinese abstained rather than voting with the Russians.

New Yorker editor David Remnick, who worked in Moscow for some time and interviewed and wrote in detail about Putin in his 2006 book Reporting, doesn’t suggest Putin is mentally (or even perhaps physically) ill.

But he wrote on February 26 that “Like many aging autocrats, Putin has, over time, remained himself, only more so: more resentful, more isolated, more repressive, more ruthless. He operates in an airless political environment, free of contrary counsel. His stagecraft – seating foreign visitors at the opposite end of a twenty-foot-long table, humiliating security chiefs in front of television cameras – is a blend of [the movies] ‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘The Great Dictator’.

“But there is nothing comic in the performance of his office. As Putin spills blood across Ukraine and threatens to destabilize Europe, Russians themselves stand to lose immeasurably. ... But Putin does not care. His eyes are fixed on matters far grander than the well-being of his people. He is in full command of the largest army in Europe, and, as he has reminded the world, of an immense arsenal of nuclear weapons. In his mind, this is his moment, his triumphal historical drama, and damn the cost.”

So, what is Putin’s endgame? Does he, as Mearsheimer and others suggest, merely want to create a land corridor from the Crimea to Russia? But what then of his need for “regime-change” – which Mearsheimer concedes has to be one of his goals?

On 21 February, Bill Chappell of NPR reported that: “The U.S. has sent a letter to the UN warning that Russia has created a ‘kill list’ of Ukrainians to be attacked or detained if it invades the country, according to White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

“[Sullivan] said it’s a sign of how brutal and violent events could become if Russia invades Ukraine. The US has intelligence that suggests ‘there will be an even greater form of brutality because this will not simply be some conventional war between two armies’,” Sullivan said.

Today Bloomberg’s Kitty Donaldson tweeted that “Russia’s intelligence, the Federal Security Service, has drafted plans for public executions in Ukraine after cities are captured ...”

Now, where have we heard of that sort of thing before? Ah, yes. ... “The Intelligenzaktion, or Intelligentsia mass shootings, was a mass murder conducted by Nazi Germany against the Polish intelligentsia (teachers, priests, physicians, and other prominent members of Polish society) early in the Second World War (1939–45). The operations were conducted to realise the Germanization of the western regions of occupied Poland before territorial annexation to the German Reich. The mass murder operations of Intelligenzaktion killed 100 000 Polish people; by way of forced disappearance, the Nazis imprisoned and killed selected citizens of Polish society, identified before the war as enemies of the Reich; they were buried in mass graves at remote places”.

Hysterical stuff, I hear you say. Not possible in the 21st century. The BBC is right there, etc.

Let’s hope you right. I know two things though. The first is that American intelligence about Putin’s plans has so far been spot-on (presumably because the feed is coming from Russia).

Secondly, if you’d told me a couple of weeks ago that Putin would launch an imperialist war, bomb his neighbours, and put his nuclear “arrangements” on high alert, I would have suggested that you were insane.


[i] Even a haphazard list of “recent” potentially damaging “conflicts,” or apparently discrete events, of different sorts that could have gone sideways – and for many, many human beings did – is very long indeed.

In 1973 the war between Israel and surrounding Arab countries, the former receiving its arms from the US, the latter from the USSR, could have gotten out of hand. In the 1980s, the same could have happened when the Soviet Union and Cuba backed the People's Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) against South Africa during The Border War. In 1986, the US bombed Libya (which NATO did again in 2011).

From December 1994 to August 1996, Russia literally flattened Chechnya (this would continue later). In 1990, there was the Gulf War. In 1999, NATO bombed Yugoslavia (the Kosovo War). In late 2001, the United States and its “allies” invaded Afghanistan. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq.

In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. Between February and March 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Presumably to keep safe its large naval base in Syria's northwestern city of Tartus – its only one in the Mediterranean – Russian air strikes reportedly killed at least 1 700 Syrian civilians, and later flattened Aleppo, between September 2015 and the end of 2016.

And bringing us closer to the present invasion, in March 2014, at the same time that Russia annexed Crimea, protests by pro-Russian, anti-government separatist groups took place in Donetsk and Luhansk (the Donbas). Armed Russian separatist groups seized government buildings throughout the Donbas, leading to armed conflict with Ukrainian government forces – and then on 21 February 2022, Russia officially recognised the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics and started moving troops in Ukraine.

[ii] “My argument is that he’s not going to re-create the Soviet Union or try to build a greater Russia, that he’s not interested in conquering and integrating Ukraine into Russia. It’s very important to understand that we invented this story that Putin is highly aggressive and he’s principally responsible for this crisis in Ukraine. The argument that the foreign-policy establishment in the United States, and in the West more generally, has invented revolves around the claim that he is interested in creating a greater Russia or a reincarnation of the former Soviet Union. There are people who believe that when he is finished conquering Ukraine, he will turn to the Baltic states. He’s not going to turn to the Baltic states.”

Mearsheimer also says: “What I’m saying ... is that when push comes to shove, strategic considerations overwhelm moral considerations. In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if the Ukrainians were free to choose their own political system and to choose their own foreign policy. But in the real world, that is not feasible.

The Ukrainians have a vested interest in paying serious attention to what the Russians want from them. They run a grave risk if they alienate the Russians in a fundamental way. If Russia thinks that Ukraine presents an existential threat to Russia because it is aligning with the United States and its West European allies, this is going to cause an enormous amount of damage to Ukraine.

“That of course is exactly what’s happening now. So my argument is: the strategically wise strategy for Ukraine is to break off its close relations with the West, especially with the United States, and try to accommodate the Russians. If there had been no decision to move NATO eastward to include Ukraine, Crimea and the Donbass would be part of Ukraine today, and there would be no war in Ukraine.”

[iii] What piece of Hindu scripture, from the Bhagavad-Gita, famously (or infamously) ran through his mind of Robert Oppenheimer when he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945? “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

[iv] Which are easy to giggle about, but anyone who remembers the effects of sport sanctions against SA, and who knows how seriously all Russians take football, should not laugh too soon.