Lorenz M. Lüthi
As we are slowly coming to terms with a new reality in international relations, we try to make sense of it using the anecdotal and fragmentary information available to us. Few outside of Russia can claim to understand what is going on in Vladimir Putin’s head. Most of us are guessing about the rationale behind the war, the decision-making process that led to its outbreak, and the long-term goals Putin is trying to pursue with this military assault on Ukraine.
The first casualty, when war comes, is truth, as the oft-cited saying goes. The aggressor Russia and the victim Ukraine wage a propaganda war at home and abroad, and opportunistic partisans in the rest of the world are not shy to use the conflict to score cheap points. Ideological convictions often trump logical thinking and detached analysis.
Yet, we still must ask what led Putin to start this war, because the answer will guide future European and North American policies towards Russia for a long time to come.
Whether or not Russia ever received a promise in the 1990s, as Putin claims, that NATO would not expand into East Europe is a matter of debate among scholars—with proponents on either side. Yet, three decades later, this is a moot point. International relations are not static but dynamic.
It is important to note that NATO is not an imperialist project, as Russian propaganda and some talking heads in the North Atlantic claim. It was established in 1949 as a voluntary association of nations with the purpose to protect West Europe from a possible Soviet military attack. In fact, western European governments asked the United States to commit to military deterrence in the wake of the Czechoslovak coup in early 1948 and during the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49. NATO expanded to include Greece and Turkey in 1952, in the wake of Korean War, a war that had been started by North Korea—an ally of the Soviet Union and Communist China—in mid-1950.
By the 1990s, post-Communist countries in East Europe asked to join. For some of them, long-time Russian/Soviet occupation belongs to the darkest chapters of their national history—think about Poland and the Baltic states in the last 200 years. They were keen to escape the Russian shadow before while this window of opportunity was open. Initially, however, NATO was not keen to accept them.
Ukraine has never formally asked to become a member of NATO. And up to February 24, 2022, NATO had no plans of letting Ukraine join. The Russian propaganda about Ukraine becoming a bridgehead of American imperialism is a red herring. And with a relatively weak army, Ukraine has never been a security threat to Russia.
In the 1990s, Ukraine decommissioned its nuclear weapons in exchange for Russia’s binding recognition of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia legally accepted that Ukraine was an independent state, with legitimate security interests, and with a right to pursue its own foreign, defense, and domestic policies.
Going back to the first years of his leadership in Russia in the early 2000s, Putin has repeatedly denied that Ukraine has a history of its own; lately he has even denied that it has a right to exist. Constructing an increasingly bizarre view of Russian history over the course of two decades, he and his minions have handcrafted a justification for the ‘unification’ of the two ‘Slavic brother nations’. Since 2005, Putin has interfered in Ukraine’s domestic politics—at the beginning by using gas supplies and energy transit as a lever. Ultimately, this interference triggered the Maidan Revolution in 2014, during which Ukrainians sacked pro-Russian President Yanukovych after he had reneged on signing the EU association agreement under pressure from Putin.
Since then, Putin has pursued policies to dismember Ukraine—first in Crimea in 2014 and afterwards in the Donbas. It is irrelevant in this discussion that Crimea originally belonged to Russia, or that the Donbas has a large Russian-speaking population. Russia has signed legally binding international agreements to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Why then is Putin so interested in absorbing Ukraine into a Greater Russia?
On the one hand, he has repeatedly asserted that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster for Russia. Moscow lost influence in some of the Soviet Union’s most developed and industrialized parts. To be clear, Putin does not want to restore the communist Soviet Union. Instead, he aims at recreating the Soviet imperial project, in which Russia lords over what Putin considers its borderlands. This also includes the Baltic states, which have been the target of repeated Russian cyber attacks, and the Caucasus, where Russia has annexed two regions of Georgia in 2008. Here, too, Putin’s Russia used the red herring of supposed Georgian NATO membership to create facts on the ground after it had fanned separatist movements for years.
On the other hand, Putin follows old Soviet policies of pushing the United States out of Europe. At least since Joseph Stalin’s infamous Germany note in March 1952, Moscow has pursued a consistent policy of trying to establish its own dominance in all of Europe on the basis of a supposed ‘collective security’ arrangement that would exclude the United States. Successive Soviet leaders—Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Iurii Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev—dangled the prospect of ending Europe’s Cold War division before European eyes in an attempt to get the American-led NATO out of Europe. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia lacked the political will and military power in the 1990s to prevent post-Communist eastern Europe from joining NATO. Putin, however, restored Russia to a degree of economic well-being and national unity that allowed him to demand, in late 2021, the withdrawal of NATO troops to the original alliance territories before new member states joined in 1997, i.e., to the west of the former Iron Curtain, leaving all of East Europe undefended. NATO rightfully refused. Given the clear and long-standing evidence of Putin’s malfeasance towards the non-Russian territories of the former Soviet Union, East European countries once again received confirmation of why joining the alliance was the correct decision in the 1990s. They had used their window of opportunity wisely.
So why now?
The timing and nature of Putin’s military assault on Ukraine is a much harder question to answer. Since 2014, it has been clear that the Donbas was in Putin’s crosshairs; it was only a matter of time before he would take decisive steps there. Like in Crimea in 2014, Putin cynically moved on the day after the end of the Olympic Winter Games. He knew he had popular backing for the ‘independence’ of the Donbas. There, Putin in fact used a page from Stalin’s 1945 playbook when the Soviet dictator politically recognized Iranian Azerbaijan after an ‘appeal’ from a puppet movement he had created there. American opposition foiled Stalin’s game, but the episode helped to spark the Cold War.
But why not follow a salami tactic of taking the Donbas and then further destabilizing and dismembering Ukraine?
One possibility is that Putin knew that his old tricks would no longer work that easily, since the rest of Ukraine has a progressively smaller population that identifies as Russian the further West he would go. Thus, military assault was the only tool to achieve his goal of reuniting the two ‘Slavic brothers’ under his leadership.
Another possibility is that he truly believed that the military attack would be a triumphal cakewalk, that Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers as liberators from a supposedly oppressive and tyrannical government. As we know now, he could not have been more wrong. After twenty years of his own interference in Ukraine’s domestic politics, many Ukrainians have developed a strong sense of nationhood.
The nature of Putin’s autocratic regime might help us to understand his miscalculations. Even before his assent to power, Putin did not believe in a democratic order with a vibrant and pluralistic political culture. For three decades, he has been a proponent of autocratic rule as the best tool to achieve political stability and economic wellbeing. The suppression of political opposition, which gradually accelerated over the course of his 22-year rule might have created a semblance of stability, but Russia remains at an economic standstill. At least, Putin used oil, gas, and wheat exports to pay down external debt that stemmed from the Soviet period and amass a war chest of foreign currencies. Russia’s economy is largely insulated from the world economy, except for its long-term reliance on resource exports. Until February 27, it looked like that Russia would be able to weather sanctions for a long time. The sanctions against the Russian Central Bank, however, will have quick and devastating economic consequences.
Yet, the suppression of the political opposition and the creation of a corrupt Führerstaat have deprived Putin of dissenting but constructive advice. He lives a luxury life, in a bubble where he is surrounded by KGB friends, true believers, cynical opportunists, and sycophants who echo his ideas and thoughts. At the same time, he has fashioned a public image of himself as a masculine superhero, riding bare-chested on a horse, diving for antique treasure, and playing hockey with Russia’s sports superstars.
His insulation from the Russian people and their daily problems has only increased during the pandemic. He has barely appeared in public for two years, hunkering down in his bubble while mismanaging the pandemic. One million Russians have died—in a population of 144 million. It is a sad world record!
Visible to all, he recently reappeared a changed man. The masculine superhero has turned into a paranoid megalomaniac. He now physically distances himself from other politicians, as we could witness in various high-level meetings in Moscow in the last weeks, although his recent meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing is an exception. He received French President Emmanuel Macron, his own cabinet, and the oligarchs in neo-Baroque marble kitsch, designed to impress the outside world with his imperial style and ambitions. Yet, since he, as a self-appointed ruler for life, is running an autocratic regime that has sent people to death either by assassination, brutal incarceration, or poisoning, he probably understands that this is a fate that may befall him, too. Students of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong will recognize that this is a leader who ultimately needs to subject, and thereby deform, state, government, and society to the necessities of his own physical survival. This also applies to other current leaders who aim to rule for life; just think of Recep Erdogan or Xi Jinping.
It is in the context of his visions for a Greater Russia, insulation from constructive dissent, paranoia, and megalomania that Putin decided to go to war in Ukraine. He probably assumed that this would be an easy victory—a Hitler-style Blitzkrieg triumph—that would go unchallenged by the world. He may have even assumed that this easy victory would convince the outside world to give him what he longs for—autocratic dominance of Europe at the expense of all liberal democracies.
Putin has worked for years to divide the North Atlantic world, to draw close to China in that country’s rivalry with the United States, to play on the naïveté and narcissistic megalomania of former President Donald Trump, and to support and even fund right-wing and ethno-nationalist movements at home and abroad. Just think of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national, the German AfD, Nigel Farage’s UKIP, or the racist right-wing of the Republican Party in the United States. Each of these groups has endorsed, or at least fallen for, Putin’s game of peddling autocratic and ethno-nationalist forms of rule, including calls for major political realignments in the Western world and even constitutional changes in some countries.
These facts make his recent claims that the supposed ‘military operation’ in Ukraine aims at removing supposed neo-Nazis and terrorists from the Ukrainian government particularly disingenuous. Ukraine is a vibrant democracy. Its very existence demonstrates to all Russians that there is an alternative to Putin’s autocratic rule.
So what can we expect Putin to do next in his brutal assault on Ukraine?
Putin knows that he is playing a high-stakes game. Since he can see two likely ends to his own life—dying peacefully in bed or with a bullet in his head—he will do everything to preserve himself. That requires preserving his rule in Russia, since no autocrat like him can expect to go into peaceful and secure retirement. The fate of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet serves as a warning.
None of this augurs well for Ukraine. The war, which Putin cannot afford to lose at this point, is not going well for him. Ukrainian resistance is fierce, and even if he manages to install a puppet regime, the vast majority of the Ukrainian population will not accept it. Still, in this current situation, Putin can only escalate in the hope that high civilian losses will convince Ukrainians to fold. It is not a pretty outlook, and it will definitely not endear Ukrainians to him or to Russia.
As we observe Putin in his Moscow bubble, we cannot but think of Bruno Ganz’s Hitler in the movie Downfall. An aging, exhausted, paranoid, and isolated autocrat faces his own hubris but still blames everybody else for defeat. Maybe Putin too will end up dead in a bunker—with a bullet in his head.
Lorenz M. Lüthi is a professor of history of international relations at McGill University and the author of Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2020).