The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been in the making for a long time. It’s a reverberation from the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago and the fall of the Russian Empire three quarters of a century before that. It’s also the product of Vladimir Putin’s paranoid, embittered, and power-addled mind—a mind steeped in a conspiratorial pseudo-history of Russia’s role in the world and of endless imagined foreign plots to undermine that role. This is not NATO’s war. It’s not Ukraine’s war. It’s Putin’s war, and he’s the one responsible for all the horrors that will follow.
In the months leading up to the invasion, many journalists and academics argued that it was caused by NATO expansion—that any great power would behave just like Russia if a hostile (or rather defensive) military alliance were marching toward its doorstep. People who say such things always ignore several pertinent facts. First, Ukraine was many years away from joining NATO (if its accession was going to happen at all). Second, the NATO countries on Russia’s doorstep are tiny Baltic republics with a combined population of about five and a half million people. And third, when Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, it was not because he thought Ukraine posed a military threat, but because—after the Euromaidan protests there had led to the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-backed kleptocratic leader, Viktor Yanukovych—he was terrified that Ukraine was becoming a modern western democracy.
Back when Putin absorbed Crimea, political scientist John Mearsheimer opined that the “taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” Similarly, a few days ago—just before Putin invaded Ukraine—international affairs professor Stephen Walt was still making the same argument, insisting that Putin’s actions are perfectly intelligible and predictable manifestations of great power behaviour:
Given the United States’ own tendency to indulge in worst-case analysis and view minor security problems in distant lands as if they were existential dangers (not to mention its willingness to use force to try to solve such problems), you’d think the U.S. foreign-policy community would be acutely aware of great powers’ tendency to exaggerate threats and be highly sensitive about their immediate vicinity’s security environment. Try to point this out, however, and you’re likely to be denounced as a naive apologist for Putin.
Walt argues that the “widespread inability to empathise with the Russian perspective on this crisis” among American commentators and politicians has exacerbated the crisis. He also believes the American response “reveals there is still a reflexive tendency to assume the United States has the right, responsibility, and (most important of all) capacity to dictate political arrangements all over the world, even in regions that are more important to others than they are to the West.” At a time when Ukraine’s democratically elected president was pleading with Moscow not to invade his country, abolish its sovereignty and massacre untold numbers of civilians, Walt was focused only on what he regarded as American meddling in how countries around the world are governed.
Over the past week, as Russia was preparing to launch what is now the largest conflict on European soil since World War II, many western pundits and academics kept scraping around for a way to blame the west for Putin’s actions. Thomas Friedman, for instance, boasted that he had the foresight to be one of a “very small group of officials and policy wonks” who were critical of the expansion of NATO in the late 1990s and early 2000s—but whose voices were “drowned out” by the Washington establishment. He concluded that “America and NATO are not just innocent bystanders” in the current crisis. This blame-the-west stance is no longer limited to “a small group of officials and policy wonks”: immediately before the invasion of Ukraine began, the political commentator Candace Owens announced to her millions of Twitter followers: “NATO (under direction from the United States) is violating previous agreements and expanding eastward. WE are at fault.”
The idea that Putin would have been content with the status quo in his “backyard” if only NATO hadn’t expanded after the Cold War is belied by the obsessive revanchist ideology he’s been broadcasting to the world for many years. For example, in a recent address, he argued that “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine” was “entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” He also argued that the “right of secession from the Soviet Union” and the “disease of nationalism” (by which he meant the existence of independent states like Ukraine) had destroyed Russian unity. And he repeated his belief—voiced many times over the years—that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a historic tragedy, though not because he thinks the union was a particularly successful supranational entity:
The Soviet Union was established in the place of the former Russian Empire in 1922. But practice showed immediately that it was impossible to preserve or govern such a vast and complex territory on the amorphous principles that amounted to confederation. They were far removed from reality and the historical tradition.
Putin’s reason for regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century is solely that the Soviet system was a closer approximation of the old Russian Empire than the post-Cold War Russian Federation. He believes it’s his duty to restore as much of that old empire as possible—and Ukraine is the centrepiece of this effort. NATO expansion is a convenient justification for Putin’s imperialism, but it’s a fantasy to assume he wouldn’t have found some other excuse to pursue his imperialist ambitions. The supposedly realist analysis offered by Walt and Mearsheimer falls apart because it fails to take into account the motivations that emerge from the internal character of governments—from their unique histories to the personalities of their leaders.
In August 1990, Mearsheimer published an essay titled “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War,” in which he predicted that, without the shared threat of the Soviet Union to hold it together, NATO would soon disband. He also considered it possible that Germany would invade a small Eastern European country to gain strategic leverage over Russia—and observed that Moscow could potentially “play a key role in countering Germany and in maintaining order in Eastern Europe.” What happened instead was the opposite of what Mearsheimer predicted: Germany became the anchor of the European Union. Meanwhile, Moscow relentlessly attempted to expand Russian hegemony—by poisoning political leaders, subverting democratic impulses within its borders (and democratic processes in other countries) and invading its neighbours. While Germany prioritised European integration after the Cold War, Russia became increasingly hostile towards the liberal democracies to its west.
In 2009, Russia’s envoy to NATO dismissed the prospect of joining the alliance, which would have required Moscow to pursue democratic reforms. His explanation for Moscow’s decision was telling: “Great powers don’t join coalitions, they create coalitions. Russia considers itself a great power.” And Putin doesn’t consider Russia merely a great power—he considers it a great imperial power—and one that, after the Cold War, was betrayed, humiliated, and unjustly diminished. No analysis of Putin’s behaviour makes sense unless it takes these facts seriously.
Nor does it make sense to assume Putin was engaged in honest diplomacy as he massed almost 200,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and demanded that Kyiv effectively cede its right to make decisions about its own alliances and future to Moscow. To appreciate just how brazenly dishonest Putin can be, it’s useful to revisit some recent history.
On 11 September 2013, the New York Times published an op-ed by Putin entitled “A Plea for Caution From Russia.” This was back when Putin was able to convince editors at the most prestigious newspaper in the United States that it was acceptable to publish a rant from the Russian leader about American hubris and aggression: it was less than two years after the formal end of the Iraq War; there were still tens of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan; and NATO had recently waged an air campaign in Libya. Bashar al-Assad had recently used chemical weapons to massacre over a thousand Syrian civilians in a suburb of Damascus, and the Obama administration was considering whether to launch airstrikes in retaliation for this gruesome attack. These circumstances offered Putin an opportunity to adopt the pose of a responsible world leader who cares deeply about international law, norms and stability, and to urge Washington to stand down. As he put it:
Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression … It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States … Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force.
Putin further asserted that he was concerned about any military action that wasn’t authorised by the UN Security Council, an entity which had “underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.” And he claimed to be worried that the UN could go the way of the League of Nations if “influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”
Six months later, Russia unilaterally invaded Crimea.
And eighteen months after that, in September 2015, Putin bypassed the United Nations and launched a brutal air campaign in Syria that continues to this day. Over the past few months, as the world’s attention was anxiously focused on the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border, Russian and Assad regime forces have been pulverizing civilians in Idlib. This is the latest episode in one of the most cruel and indiscriminate military campaigns of the twenty-first century—the human cost of which has all but vanished from the headlines.
Despite Putin’s record of naked duplicity, his demonstrated willingness to inflict massive violence on civilians in pursuit of his geopolitical aims, and his fanatical desire to restore some semblance of the Russian Empire, some American pundits and politicians have continued to insist that he has been negotiating in good faith all along. For example, in the tweet referenced above, Owens suggested that “every American who wants to know what’s *actually* going on in Russia and Ukraine” could find out by simply reading the transcript of Putin’s deranged pre-invasion address. And even as Russian forces descended on Ukraine from every direction, the former US congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard declared: “This war and suffering could have easily been avoided if Biden Admin/NATO had simply acknowledged Russia’s legitimate security concerns regarding Ukraine’s becoming a member of NATO, which would mean US/NATO forces right on Russia’s border.”
Gabbard has a habit of reflexively taking Moscow’s line whenever the Russian military is dumping ordnance on civilians. For example, after Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria, she said it was “mind-boggling” that the United States condemned the bombings and argued that Washington should work with Moscow in the country. She also went on what she characterised as a fact-finding trip to Syria in 2017, during which she met with Assad—something other US politicians and officials had declined to do after his chemical attacks and the years of daily atrocities he had inflicted on the people of Syria.
While NATO expansion has been a useful political talking point for Putin, it’s a mistake to simply assume that western policy is the proximate cause of his actions. For example, it’s unlikely that NATO expansion somehow prompted Putin to wage a seven-year war on Syrian civilians. Putin clearly pursues his interests without regard for any of the international norms and institutions he claimed to embrace in his 2013 op-ed. And yet, some US commentators—more eager to undermine the Biden administration than confront Russian aggression—have gone well beyond blaming NATO expansion. During his monologue on 23 February, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson argued that the “price of energy is about to go up dramatically in this country thanks to Joe Biden’s adventurism in Eastern Europe.”
Over the past several weeks, Putin has demonstrated that he doesn’t feel the need to maintain even a semi-plausible rationale for threatening his neighbours with military extinction. Before the invasion, Moscow insisted without a shred of evidence that Ukrainian forces were preparing to launch a major offensive against the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. And Kremlin officials, including Putin, have repeatedly made the absurd and disgusting accusation that the government in Kyiv is perpetrating a genocide against Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In a truly Orwellian attempt to invert the plain meaning of words, Russian propagandists have described the invasion of Ukraine as a “peacekeeping” mission. After deploying almost 200,000 Russian troops to encircle the country, Putin said it was Ukraine that had “amassed large troops.” And in an even more dizzying inversion of the facts, Putin claimed that he’s “de-Nazifying” Ukraine—a country led by a Jewish president who was elected with 73% of the vote.
It’s conceivable, however unlikely, that Putin is a rational actor who was just one concession away from withdrawing his forces. Even if this were the case, those who argued for those concessions should consider the precedent this would have set—that dictators can surround sovereign countries with an invasion force and expect to dictate what the governments of those countries are allowed to do. Ukraine, the United States, and NATO were right to refuse Putin’s outstretched hand—a hand that was covered in blood long before this hideous, pointless war.