In October 1989, I was in what was then West Germany. It was one month before the Berlin Wall was breached — a stunning moment that would lead in short order to the collapse of communist East Germany and the reunification of the German state less than a year later. In hindsight, the discussions I had in West Germany that fall were almost as remarkable as the globe-changing events that followed; every German leader I met with then — to a person — insisted that Germany would not and could not be reunited in their lifetimes.
I was there with then-CIA Director William Webster, meeting with senior intelligence and government officials to better understand the changes sweeping across the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe. These people simply could not conceive of a reunified German state and an effective end to the Cold War, nor could they envision the path that might take them there. Never mind that CIA analysts were telling me that the “German Question” — a phrase implying reunification — was back on the table.
I share this history to make two points. First, as the physicist Niels Bohr famously said, “prediction is difficult — especially about the future.” Second, I think we have arrived at a moment in the Ukraine War that shares much in common with 1989 in West Germany, in that this is a time when all of us have trouble imagining the future with any certainty, and some of us may be looking ahead with too much certainty, just as those German officials did in 1989. And as a result, many of us may look back and wonder how we missed what was coming.
Such forward thinking may be especially difficult for the Russians themselves. I sensed this in recent off-the-record meetings with very knowledgeable, internationally minded Russians, people who strongly oppose the war (”off-the-record” meaning I can discuss what they said, but not who said it). These are sophisticated policy analysts who left Russia as President Vladimir Putin went to war. While they fully understand that the war in Ukraine is going very badly for their country, and that Russia might actually lose, they can’t quite get their heads around how that would look and where it might lead.
In particular, the idea that Putin’s regime might collapse is almost impossible for them to visualize. Putin and his system are so deeply embedded in their experience of Russia that even the most clear-eyed Russians I have spoken with believe that even if the Russians lose (I can’t speak to whether they think a win is still possible), Putin would hang on to power in some weakened state.
They may be right. But increasingly, such assumptions look as shaky as the assumptions made by those West German officials more than three decades ago. We — and they — should not be surprised by a Ukrainian victory, and if that happens, we should not be surprised to see some startling changes within the Kremlin itself. [Continue reading…]