Putin’s Gambit

What if Russia’s motives in Ukraine are even more insidious than we think?

Photo-illustration from iStock/FrankRamspott and Flickr/stockcatalog
Photo-illustration from iStock/FrankRamspott and Flickr/stockcatalog

In 2007–2008, I wrote several articles on Vladimir Putin’s Russia that were published here in Israel, both in Hebrew and in English. Given the direction of Putin’s policies, I argued, it was not absurd to think of a divided Ukraine in the future, a situation that would further isolate Russia from the world. I didn’t know how long it would take for all this to play out, but now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, I’ve begun to reflect on Putin’s actions—both in terms of the current conflict and beyond. The picture that’s emerging feels like a mix of dystopian fiction, alternate history, and wild speculation. But it may be nothing more than the reality that is now unfolding before us.

The picture first emerged somewhat gradually, starting with the assumption that Putin was trying not so much to take over Ukraine as to create a new geopolitical reality. When Putin says that Russia doesn’t intend to occupy Ukraine, he might actually mean it, just not in the way we think. By the time he’s done, there will not be a Ukraine to occupy, because the modern independent state that exists today will be partitioned—East Ukraine would predominantly consist of ethnic Russians and West Ukraine of ethnic Ukrainians, with an impermeable border between the two. The only question was: Where would this border fall?

A friend of mine, a translator of Isaac Babel, answered with a single word: Zbruch—the river featured in the first short story in Babel’s Red Cavalry. It sounded like a joke, until I looked at a map. The river runs north to south and, at first, seemed like a possible line of demarcation. But when I looked again, it occurred to me that a more natural border would run diagonally, from the point where Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus meet up north, down to the border shared by Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova in the south. West Ukraine would be left with about a fifth of its current land mass. And it would be a region that could realistically be folded into what is now the European Union.

I mentioned this to another friend, one who had fled Russia with his wife and two kids on the very morning that Putin invaded Ukraine, landing in Jerusalem three days later. A Yiddishist, he said with an ironic smile, “Yes, maybe they will even reinstate the historic state of Galicia”—a region known for its unique Yiddish culture. I later looked at the map again and was not surprised to discover that the eastern border of Galicia was originally bounded by the Zbruch. I now saw that East and West Ukraine would look quite different from what I first imagined. Most of today’s Ukraine would go to Russia, and ethnic Ukrainians would be left with a tiny remnant of a state that had almost no connection to its historic capital, Kyiv.

Another day or two passed. Putin continued to bombard Ukraine. Then on March 4, the Russian Army bombed the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant—the first military power to knowingly attack such a facility—and it became clear that Putin had no plans of slowing his aggression. The war was in its eighth day, and my thoughts on Putin’s motives began to change. What were his strategic goals? And would he realize them before taking any other drastic steps—like deploying a dirty bomb or even an actual nuclear weapon.

At this point, realizing that Putin was on a campaign of massive ethnic cleansing, I started to panic. Putin was creating conditions that would scare Ukraine’s population into a westward flight, inciting millions of people to leave their homes. Russia would then invade and rule whoever stayed—most of whom would likely be Russians. Putin was not concerned about their well-being. What he wanted was to force as many non-Russians westward as possible, leaving a predominantly Russian East Ukraine. And he would kill as many Russians as necessary—both his own soldiers and civilians—to reach that goal. He was, after all, bombing the cities in eastern Ukraine at that very moment.

Before our Friday night Sabbath meal, I told my wife that I had too much on my mind, that I desperately needed to talk to someone who was following the situation as closely as I was. She could see how unnerved I was and said she understood. So I went to the other room with my phone and called my translator friend again.

We both are ex-Soviet Jews, wrote our doctorates on Dostoyevsky, have translated Russian literature, and are worried about the state of the world in general—and the current war in particular. When I told him what I had come to realize, he said he’d read something like this already. What he then shared with me blew my mind—not only had the Russians already written up most of these ideas themselves, but they had also gone much farther in their thinking than I could have ever imagined.

I did a quick search online and found an article by Taras Kuzio, a British academic and Ukraine expert, published by the Atlantic Council on March 3. It was titled “Inside Vladimir Putin’s criminal plan to purge and partition Ukraine,” and in a mere 1,400 words it explained the entire political and ideological background to Putin’s war. Kuzio references a think piece in Ria Novosti, a state-owned news agency, that was published on February 26, just two days after the war was launched. It announced “a new world being born under our eyes,” though as Kuzio notes, it was later deleted and is now only accessible in archive format. I also came upon an article attributed to Putin himself: “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published in English in July 2021. It laid out—in nearly 7,000 words—the groundwork for this invasion. My friend also sent me a link to an article appearing on February 26 in Komsomolskaya Pravda that was titled “Three possible scenarios for the future partition of Ukraine after Russia’s special military operation.” Included was a map showing how Ukraine would be split into several states or regions: Novorossiya (New Russia); Malorossiya (Little Russia), to be called Ukraine; West Ukraine, consisting of the historical areas of Volyn and Galicia; and two regions whose future was to be determined, Bukovina and Zakarpattia (Transcarpathia)—these, the article argues, would likely be ceded to Romania and Hungary, respectively. My Yiddishist friend’s joke had now turned into a frightful reality.

An 1833 map of Galicia; the Zbruch River forms the vertical part of its eastern border

That was when the pieces fell into place. The refugee crisis had been a deliberate part of Putin’s calculations. So had the targeting of a nuclear plant, which was meant to show that Russia was not afraid of either creating a nuclear disaster or using its nuclear weapons. This also put in context the threats that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had made about World War III being a nuclear war. And the major sanctions that had been levied on Russia were incorporated into Putin’s plans too. Not just because he’d been hiding his wealth in myriad locations and accounts for years. But because creating a financial crash within Russia would serve his ends. And this is where things get a little trippy.

Putin doesn’t want to just take over a land mass and a people. He wants to create a new reality—one in which he has maximum control over the lives of the people in his power. Doing so means cutting off their access to the outside world. This was done, first, by all the foreign companies that immediately curtailed activities in Russia. The few vestiges of Western media that still functioned in the country—the BBC, Facebook, Deutsche Welle—were censored by the Russians themselves. The government announced a 15-year jail term for anyone who spread “fake” news about Russia’s military, which is to say, anyone who said anything not aligned with the official version of events. And a plummeting ruble makes it nearly impossible for Russians to travel anywhere—which doesn’t really matter because, with most of the world’s airspace closed to Russian airlines, all flights abroad have been canceled anyway. The West thinks it’s isolating Putin. But it’s really isolating the Russian people and making them that much more dependent on Putin.

This opening move—Putin’s gambit—will eventually put him in supreme control of his people. And the tool he will use to finalize his control will be the economy. In 2014, his invasion of Crimea resulted in isolating sanctions that devalued Russia’s currency from about 35 rubles to the dollar to around 60—halving individual earnings and savings but not yet totally crippling Russian spending power. Now, after Russia’s invasion of the rest of Ukraine, the ruble is worth a quarter of what it was before. It may soon be worth even less. Putin has signed two executive orders limiting the withdrawal of foreign currencies out of Russia and allowing Russian commercial and governmental bodies to repay major foreign debt using rubles—in essence forcing creditors into forgiving their loans. Russians who managed to get out of the country have no access to their money now that Visa and Mastercard have blocked all transactions related to Russia, turning ATM cards into useless pieces of plastic, with all assets remaining in Russian banks. And since the state, cut off from global markets, can no longer offer its people the relative economic stability that they’d enjoyed until now, Putin will need a different financial principle with which to anchor the economy. That platform may end up being cryptocurrency.

Realizing this, I did a quick keyword search—“Putin,” “cryptocurrency”—and found a short article from Reuters, published less than a month before Putin ordered the invasion, in which he had directed “Russian politicians and the central bank to reach consensus … following a clash over how much control is needed on cryptocurrencies.” Previously, it says, the Russians had adopted an anti-cryptocurrency stance. But in 2020, they legalized cryptocurrency and even planned “to test a digital ruble to facilitate payments for individuals and businesses and try to make its currency more global in the face of Western sanctions.” Putin’s plan was to take the Russian economy completely online. Not to the Internet—but to the Intranet.

I saw a slew of articles debating whether cryptocurrencies could help Putin relieve his sanction woes. But I also saw older articles arguing that Putin had enabled ransomware crimes via Bitcoin as well as an article from 2017 in which Putin adviser Sergei Glazev called the creation of a cryptoruble a “useful tool” to evade sanctions. It became clear that Putin wasn’t interested in Western notions of value. He’s one of the richest people on the planet by anyone’s count. What Putin wants is to usher in an entirely new reality. For this he needs total control. And there’s no better time to take over an entire social order than during wartime. The Bolsheviks announced their Decree on Land, abolishing all private property, one day after occupying Russia’s government offices. Such a takeover is not necessary today, because Putin and his neo-Bolsheviks already occupy every governmental office that exists.

But he still needs the means to control his population. And, in a reality in which currency is worthless, there’s a unique opportunity to create value out of ones and zeros, not in the abstract form of a Bitcoin, but in a real society where people need food—now.

First Russians will trade their rubles for cryptorubles. When their rubles run out, they will turn over their gold and other valuables. And, after that, their property. It will be a new kind of totalitarianism. A crypto-state that controls its people through digital means. Putin will become the world’s first controlitarian.

This might sound like the speculative imaginings of a writer with too much time on his hands. And it’s admittedly easy to dismiss such seemingly wild ideas. But dismissal was also Volodymyr Zeleneskyy’s response to Putin’s essay on the Ukrainian people—he trolled Putin by saying he was “envious that the president of such a great power can permit himself to spend so much time on such a volume of detailed work”—and today his country is caught in a devastating battle for its independence and sovereignty.

Putin will not stop until he gets what he wants. And the best chance the world has to stop him is to understand what he wants. It has nothing to do with stopping NATO’s expansion, but rather with inaugurating a new type of social control. This is scarier for the world than anything that’s currently being discussed—a new reality we thought could only exist in the imaginations of science-fiction writers. And once this scenario is in place, it will be exceedingly difficult to roll back. We can hope that world leaders, privy to considerably more intelligence information than writers are, will realize all this and do something concrete to stop a Russian crypto-state from forming. But, as far as history is concerned, world leaders have never been all that dependable. Our best hope is that the invasion will not go according to plan—and that 14 years from now, the fantasies I’ve set down will not have manifested into reality.

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David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar whose recent work has appeared in Speculative Nonfiction, EastWest Literary Forum, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. His latest book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, and his edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer's essays will be published in May. He was born in Israel, grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Jerusalem.


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