Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Putin’s War Was Never About NATO

Russia makes its own choices—however bad they are.

By , a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 4. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

As NATO met in Madrid last week, conspiracy theories about its role in Ukraine spread fast in Russian media. More respected theorists such as John Mearsheimer, meanwhile, still reiterate their claim that in making war, Russia was merely reacting to the West. Similar arguments have been put forth by other prominent thinkers, including Noam Chomsky.

There’s just one problem with this theory. At an event in June, leaning back casually in his chair, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that in Ukraine, he is fighting a war of imperialist conquest—not defending himself against NATO, as his apologists have repeatedly claimed.

“It is also our lot to return and strengthen,” Putin stated, referring to past Russian conquests, as he compared his legacy to that of Peter the Great.

As NATO met in Madrid last week, conspiracy theories about its role in Ukraine spread fast in Russian media. More respected theorists such as John Mearsheimer, meanwhile, still reiterate their claim that in making war, Russia was merely reacting to the West. Similar arguments have been put forth by other prominent thinkers, including Noam Chomsky.

There’s just one problem with this theory. At an event in June, leaning back casually in his chair, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that in Ukraine, he is fighting a war of imperialist conquest—not defending himself against NATO, as his apologists have repeatedly claimed.

“It is also our lot to return and strengthen,” Putin stated, referring to past Russian conquests, as he compared his legacy to that of Peter the Great.

The Russian president had already said before the invasion that he did not believe Ukraine was a real country, claiming that Ukrainians were part of Russia’s “own history, culture, and spiritual space.”

Since that was ignored by his apologists, Putin has now explicitly stated that he identifies with Peter—even if his Great Northern War against the Swedes did last 21 years, a not-so-subtle signal that Putin believes he can dig in with regard to Ukraine—and is inspired to “take back” what he believes to be rightfully Russia’s.

In this conception of regional history, Ukraine doesn’t even exist. It’s simply a province occupied by uppity serfs who need to be subdued for their own good.

Experts who should know better often frame Putin as a noble savage, not a savvy political actor. He is portrayed as strong and terrifying but also not responsible for his own actions. Instead, per the “realists,” as they call themselves, these actions are the inevitable outcomes of Russia’s so-called security concerns.

At the root of this is a deeply patronizing attitude toward Russia and Russians themselves. Only Americans, in this framing, make choices; everyone else merely responds or acts in accordance with the machinery of immutable state rules.

In order to hold someone responsible for their actions, you must first grant them agency. Mearsheimer, Chomsky, and German politicians who have dragged their feet on supplying heavy arms to Ukraine are refusing to do a very simple thing: recognize that Russia, all on its own, chose to invade a sovereign country and butcher its citizens. There was nothing compelling Russia to pick this war—or the 2014 war. Prior to 2014, the majority of Ukrainians did not want to be in NATO, and between 2008 and 2010, 88 to 93 percent of Ukrainians held positive views of Russia.

If Russia wanted Ukraine in its orbit, it could have chosen the path of economic incentives, political cooperation, and genuine aid. Instead, the Russian leadership chose imperial fantasies, demonizing Ukrainians on state TV, and, finally, an all-out, tragic war.

Of course, for Germans the memory of their own racist imperialism still haunts their decisions. They’re hesitant to be seen as too aggressive toward Russia, as evidenced by a long-standing “special relationship” with Moscow—but by conflating “Soviet” with “Russian,” the Germans are playing right into Putin’s hands. It was Ukraine that was the first victim of Adolf Hitler’s war on the Soviet Union, just as it was the first victim of Soviet terror itself.

Therefore, it is important for Western nations to listen to Ukrainians—who do not see themselves as serfs and who are willing to die to ensure that their children are not stolen or taken into Russian bondage. Ukrainians need heavy arms right now, not later, not whenever.

As Sarah Rainsford, a longtime Eastern Europe correspondent, has pointed out, Putin’s remarks in June about sharing a legacy with Peter the Great did not appear to come from a place of fear. Putin didn’t look cornered but relaxed and smiling. Putin’s army of online apologists has largely taken his demeanor as a sign that Russia is winning and further Western involvement will only result in more unnecessary bloodshed.

Of course, this defeatist position is deeply wrong. It is borne of a myth that Putin is a 3D chess player and policy ninja—a myth promoted by Russian propaganda for decades now. The costs to the West are regularly mentioned, but it is the much higher price Russia is paying—in economic growth, in manpower losses, and in the destruction of its diplomatic reputation—that Russian propaganda currently seeks to divert attention from.

The truth is, Putin is overconfident. He has surrounded himself with yes men, and that’s one problem when it comes to convincing him the cost for Russia is too high. The other problem is that he views his soldiers as just another massive horde of serfs that can be sacrificed. Major losses don’t deter him, not yet, anyway. In order to be deterred, he needs to have some empathy for his own people. He has none.

An overconfident bully is vulnerable. Even Joseph Stalin, a man far more terrifying than Putin, had his reckoning. Russian historians, including the former head of the Russian State Archive, Sergei Mironenko, have pointed out that after Stalin ignored his own spies telling him that Hitler was about to attack, the immediate aftermath of the invasion had the Russian leader wondering if he was going to be arrested.

Western pundits panicking over Russia’s advances in Ukraine’s east need to pull themselves together and consider the long game. The Kremlin has none; its future plans are an ethnonationalist fever dream not dissimilar to Hitler’s own deranged fantasies. It took six years of war and massive sacrifices to beat Hitler. Today, all we really have to do is keep hammering Russia’s economy and arming millions of determined Ukrainians.

A sadly telling video recently made the rounds on social media. In it, a disgruntled Russian war widow shows off the humiliating “gifts” she received in honor of June 12, a national holiday in Russia. The woman bitterly laughs at the small package of sugar, a bottle of vegetable oil, some buckwheat, oatmeal, and a few other such delicacies she had been so generously given by her country’s corrupt officials.

In a different situation, I may have felt sympathy. As such, I look at the video and see weakness. I see a country that has painted itself into a corner with its own lies, its cruelty, its pretensions of grandeur. I see an enemy that can and must be defeated.

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington.

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