What Putin Wants

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters)

Two days before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a Russian reporter asked him, “Mr. President, do you think it is possible in today’s world to resolve problems with force and remain on the side of good?”

The question seemed primed to give Mr. Putin a platform to respond to Western demonization over what it sees as his readiness to spread Russia’s sphere of influence through brute military force. It came at the end of a Kremlin press conference where the Russian leader had already laid out his rationale for his recognition of the Donbas “republics” and aggressive stance, citing failures on the part of the West and Ukraine’s government to live up to agreements reached in 2015 and prior. Mr. Putin responded in philosophical and foreboding terms.

“Why do you think that good must always be frail and helpless? I do not think that is true. I think good means being able to defend oneself. We will proceed from that.”

The Biden administration had consistently warned that the massive Russian force was always intending to conquer Ukraine. Yet, even as Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities and troops, and armored vehicles streamed across the country’s borders on all sides, there remains a certain disbelief or lack of comprehension in much of the West over what motivates Mr. Putin to initiate the first European incursion of this magnitude since World War II.


Ukraine in Moscow’s Sights

Theories abound as to Mr. Putin’s broader goals at home and abroad and his initial negotiation points focused on NATO’s eastern European presence, yet the stage of action remains Ukraine.

In a long essay penned this past summer and again in an hour-long address announcing the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, Mr. Putin set out his vision of Ukrainians and Russians as “one people” separated by poor decisions of Bolshevik revolutionaries and weak moves of Moscow’s leaders during the fall of the Soviet Union.

A Ukrainian soldier walks past debris of a burning military truck on a street in Kyiv. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“As a result of Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He is its author and architect. This is fully confirmed by archive documents,” said Mr. Putin in his recent address. “Now grateful descendants have demolished monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. This is what they call decommunization. Do you want decommunization? Well, that suits us just fine. But it is unnecessary, as they say, to stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real decommunization means for Ukraine.”

There is a good deal of debate over Mr. Putin’s historical telling of Ukrainian nationhood, but wide agreement that his goals in discussing these points are not academic.

“Putin’s history is not really history and it’s mostly self-serving,” said Richard Suny, a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan, specializing in Russia and the Soviet Union. “The West also misreads his saying that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. … Putin acknowledges that there are distinctions between Ukrainians and Russians, and Belarusians for that matter too, and that today there are three states, but he subscribes to an old Tsarist vision that looks at them as one people.”

In accordance with this viewpoint, what Mr. Putin ultimately wants to achieve with his invasion, Professor Suny believes, is an ally in Kyiv, something he ironically scuttled achieving through less violent means by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing Donbas separatists following the Euromaidan protests in 2014.

“What he wants is a friendly or neutral government in Ukraine, but he ruined that in 2014 and now Ukraine is much more united against Russia,” said Professor Suny. “The best he can get is [President Volodymyr] Zelensky, who really would have liked better relations and tried to tone down the West’s statements; that road seems closed now.”

Many see in Mr. Putin’s actions a desire to install a more pliant leader in Kyiv, like the present leader of Belarus or Viktor Yanukovyc, who was ousted as Ukraine’s President in 2014. Yet, how he could achieve that with an invasion is unclear. Most feel that Russia’s leaders are clear-eyed about the undesirability of a drawn-out fight or occupation and there is no significant tide of pro-Russian feeling in Ukraine outside of the eastern provinces already under Moscow’s sway.

Professor Peter Rutland, who teaches Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Wesleyan University, felt that Mr. Putin’s plans are likely as bellicose as they appear.

“[Putin] thinks that he can accomplish his goals [in Ukraine] through strength. He hopes to make chaos and then to say that he is the only one who can bring order; after that, he assumes the people will fall in line,” he said.

As the Russian invasion commenced, Mr. Putin once again appealed to history, saying that since 2014, Ukraine has come under the control of “far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis” supported by NATO. The reference is one often made by Mr. Putin, drawing on the World War II era collaboration between Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazis. Ukraine’s President Zelensky is Jewish, as is its previous Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman. While certain fringe ultra-nationalist elements there do embrace antisemitic themes and, even in some mainstream circles, there is admiration for nationalist leaders who aided in the Holocaust and promulgated pogroms in 1919, Jews living in Ukraine today do not face discrimination from the government.

Even as there has been an increasing gap between some of Mr. Putin’s words and his actions, his statements seemed to support views that his goal is regime change rather than occupation or annexation.

“It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force,” he said. “The current events have nothing to do with a desire to infringe on the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. They are connected with defending Russia from those who have taken Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and our people.”

Mr. Putin’s words also lend support to a recent American warning to the United Nations that Russia had plans to kill and imprison certain Ukrainian political figures.

“We will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”

David Satter, a commentator and author on Russian affairs and Soviet history, said that even though Russia can likely overpower Ukraine’s army with relative ease, achieving their goals could prove more difficult.

“What [the Russians] want is freedom of action within Ukraine, a level of control over Ukraine’s politics and foreign policy and, most importantly, no Western alliances,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s accomplishable. They can invade and occupy Kyiv and install a group of people they call the government, as they did in Chechnya, but that wouldn’t have much legitimacy.”

‘Strategic Depth’

A Moscow puppet in Kyiv would fulfill Mr. Putin’s desires to turn it into a vassal state reminiscent of Warsaw Pact-era Eastern Europe, a result he has already achieved to some extent in other former Soviet republics. Still, Ukraine’s geography and Russia’s desire, or nostalgia, for a wider buffer zone under its influence plays a significant role.

“Any further expansion of the North Atlantic alliance’s infrastructure or the ongoing efforts to gain a military foothold of the Ukrainian territory are unacceptable for us,” said Mr. Putin in his remarks announcing the broad military strikes. “Of course, the question is not about NATO itself. It merely serves as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. The problem is that in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape. Fully controlled from the outside, it is doing everything to attract NATO armed forces and obtain cutting-edge weapons.”

The West largely scoffed at Mr. Putin’s recent demands that the U.S. and NATO allies address Russia’s “security concerns,” noting that none of those powers has any offensive intentions toward Russia.

An armored personnel carrier burns and damaged light utility vehicles stand abandoned after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Marienko Andrew)

Professor Suny said that, while Mr. Putin has chosen a “self-destructive” path toward achieving his goal, his desire for more of what is known as “strategic depth” was not out of step with what is sought by other large powers.

“No country wants armed enemies near its border,” he said. “The expansion of NATO right up to Russia’s borders, arming Ukraine, rockets in Eastern Europe, [and] war games in Latvia — Putin looks at all these things as an existential threat to Russian security.”

Ukraine’s application for NATO membership has been at the center of Mr. Putin’s justifications for invasion and the organization’s expansion eastward is at the core of what he would like to counteract.

Formed in 1949 as a mutual defense treaty organization of nations that formed the anti-Soviet Western bloc, NATO remained after the end of the Cold War and, since then, has incorporated many Eastern European nations once under the Soviet sphere as well as former Soviet satellites, including Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Ukraine’s application for membership has been long stalled, largely in deference to Russia’s known aversion to its becoming a member.

In the West, NATO presents itself as a peaceful entity and, while each country is obliged to defend its fellow members, since the fall of the Soviet Union, its military clout is not directed at any specific country.

In his remarks regarding his moves in the Donbas, Mr. Putin made it clear that he saw NATO as a direct threat to Russia.

“We clearly understand that under such a scenario, the level of military threats to Russia will dramatically increase many times over,” he said, referring to the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine. “I pay special attention to the fact that the danger of a sudden strike against our country will increase many times over. Let me explain that U.S. strategic planning documents contain the possibility of a so-called preemptive strike against enemy missile systems. And who is the main enemy for the U.S. and NATO? We know that too. It’s Russia. In NATO documents, our country is officially and directly declared the main threat to North Atlantic security. And Ukraine will serve as a forward springboard for the strike.”

Yet, many believe that Mr. Putin’s “security concerns” never could have been fully addressed, even had the West agreed to redeploy some of its missiles in counties bordering Russia or to table NATO membership for Ukraine.

“The type of threat from NATO that [Putin] fears is not military, its popular revolutions toppling pro-Russian leaders, like what happened in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014. He’s afraid of that spreading to Belarus, which almost happened in 2020. He doesn’t want Euromaidan spreading to Minsk or Nur-Sultan [capital of Kazakhstan] and certainly not to Russia,” he said.

So-called “color revolutions” that have ousted several leaders from power in former Soviet states and elsewhere, Professor Rutland says, are Mr. Putin’s primary concern and that quashing what he sees as the West’s political and social influences supersedes alleged military threats.

“[Putin] doesn’t see these movements or today’s government in Ukraine as an expression of the will of the people; to him they’re the result of CIA meddling,” he said.

Putin ‘Sees Things Going Russia’s Way’

Mr. Putin’s comments last week contained copious accusations that in the post-Cold War era, Russia was robbed of its rightful sphere of influence and place on the world stage.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a redivision of the world, and the norms of international law that developed by that time — and the most important of them, the fundamental norms that were adopted following WWII and largely formalized its outcome — came in the way of those who declared themselves the winners of the Cold War,” he said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after convening an online NATO leaders summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 25. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

Such comments are aimed largely at arousing patriotic enthusiasm for the present war among Russians. However, they also reveal a goal Mr. Putin has often referenced of restoring his nation to what he sees as its deserved place among the great powers, a status that faded quickly with the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Putin is looking for a long-term shift in the balance of power,” said Professor Suny. “He refuses to accept an inferior status and doesn’t want to see Russia driven back into Asia.”

Mr. Putin’s statements accuse America of being engaged in a constant struggle to stifle Russia’s power, linking sanctions over his present invasion to this perceived effort.

“A pretext for another sanctions attack will always be found or fabricated. Regardless of the situation in Ukraine. There is only one goal — to restrain the development of Russia,” he said. “I want to say clearly and directly that in the current situation, when our proposals for an equal dialogue on fundamental issues have actually remained unanswered by the United States and NATO, when the level of threats to our country is increasing significantly, Russia has every right to take retaliatory measures to ensure its own security.”

Professor Rutland said that Mr. Putin’s desire for a prominent role on the world stage has motivated many of his international moves.

“The overall goal is to get respect and recognition,” he said. “That’s why [Putin] is so active in Syria and in Mali. He was excluded from NATO and the G-7 after he annexed Crimea and feels he’s being treated as a pariah.”

A rough patch of events that left the West, and particularly America, looking weak and unstable, Professor Rutland posited, was the impetus for Mr. Putin’s choosing the present moment for his move against Ukraine.

“[Putin] thinks the U.S. is deeply unpopular and on the run because of its inaction over Syria and its withdrawal from Iraq, [and] the chaos of the January 6th riots; it looks bad for America as a global power and he’s looking to take advantage of that,” he said. “Geopolitically, he sees things going Russia’s way.”

Following America’s botched evacuation from Afghanistan, many felt that the embarrassing folly would encourage global competitors to take advantage of U.S. weakness. Mr. Satter felt this loomed especially large in Mr. Putin’s calculations.

“The withdrawal from Afghanistan was an invitation to aggression,” he said. “If the U.S. was so cold to a country that we invested in, fought for, and that depended on us, why should we do anything serious to help Ukraine?”

How War Plays in Moscow

Some observers of Russia’s troop buildup and subsequent invasion pointed to domestic concerns as playing a weighty role in Mr. Putin’s decision to pursue war.

Russia’s leader has done an increasingly effective job of eliminating internal political opposition, with many of his highest profile enemies dead or in prison. While Russia’s government is overwhelmingly loyal to Mr. Putin and polling shows that both he and his autocratic vision enjoy high popularity, some feel war against Ukraine is chiefly intended to bolster his standing and quell any percolating dissidence.

An armored vehicle rolls outside Mykolaivka, Donetsk region, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, in eastern Ukraine, Feb. 27. (AP Photo)

“Putin’s big objective is to consolidate and strengthen his power in Russia,” said Mr. Satter. “The Crimea effect has worn off and he may feel the need to reinvigorate those feelings. … In Russia there are 110 families that control 35% of the country’s wealth; that’s a vulnerable situation.”

Following the 2014 Crimea annexation, Mr. Putin’s popularity soared from 60% to 80%, which some feel Mr. Putin is eager to re-create ahead of elections in 2014.

Others are skeptical of this reading, especially based on wide belief that Russia’s elections have become increasingly fixed and serious opposition candidates are blocked from running. Professor Rutland said that relying on Crimea as a model to bolster support was fraught.

“Crimea was bloodless, it was an easy thing with no downside, but there’s no evidence that a majority of Russians are positive about war with Ukraine,” he said. Professor Rutland posited that Mr. Putin’s incursion was primarily motivated by his own nationalist vision and was largely “in spite” of his own people’s preferences.

On the first day of Russia’s invasion, as news reports spread of bombings and attacks, Western media widely covered anti-war protests in multiple Russian cities attended by sizable crowds in a country where anti-government protest can quickly lead to arrest. According to the Associated Press, last Thursday alone, 1,745 demonstrators had been detained, roughly half in Moscow.

Professor Suny said that much of Russia’s treatment of dissent, as well as aspects of its foreign policy, are historically driven by a sort of inferiority complex and fear of the winds shifting against Kremlin leadership.

“Most Russian governments from 1900 till the present have been insecure, and [while] governments that are insecure may look powerful, they are afraid that things could turn on a dime.”

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