It’s Time to Debunk Putin’s Existential Fallacy

One key to securing peace in Ukraine will be exposing the faulty argument for the war’s necessity.

By , a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops occupy - Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in central Moscow on September 30, 2022.
Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops occupy - Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in central Moscow on September 30, 2022.
Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops occupy - Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in central Moscow on September 30, 2022. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has provoked—with one notable exception—every imaginable form of policy pushback from the United States and its allies. In the last month alone, Western governments have significantly increased their military, economic, diplomatic, and moral support for Ukraine. Kyiv keeps getting more (and better) weapons, training, and intelligence, even from NATO members that earlier dragged their feet. The European Union and the United States have imposed new sanctions on Russia, moved closer to a price cap on Russian oil exports, condemned Russian nuclear threats, dismissed Moscow’s claim that Ukraine was planning a “dirty bomb” attack, organized an overwhelming United Nations majority to reject Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, and more.

This extraordinary international response makes the one exception to it all the more puzzling. Western governments and senior political leaders have had almost nothing to say about the bizarre theory with which Putin justifies the war in the first place. He insists that Russia is at war with the entire Western world, that it is an all-out struggle for survival that his country cannot afford to lose. By ignoring his claim, as well as through actions and statements that can even seem to validate it, Western governments miss a crucial opportunity to stir second thoughts in Russia about the entire enterprise. Promoting internal division in a country so rigidly controlled is hard, but staying silent lets Putin off too easy. How and when the war ends may well depend on the strength of Russian second thoughts.

It doesn’t always matter, of course, whether the parties to a war agree or disagree about what they are fighting over. Usually, in fact, they agree. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein wanted Kuwait; the United States made him give it up. France wanted Algeria to remain part of France; the Algerians didn’t. An old joke of introductory international relations courses captures the zero-sum nature of many conflicts, especially territorial ones: “We don’t disagree about anything—we both want Italy.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has provoked—with one notable exception—every imaginable form of policy pushback from the United States and its allies. In the last month alone, Western governments have significantly increased their military, economic, diplomatic, and moral support for Ukraine. Kyiv keeps getting more (and better) weapons, training, and intelligence, even from NATO members that earlier dragged their feet. The European Union and the United States have imposed new sanctions on Russia, moved closer to a price cap on Russian oil exports, condemned Russian nuclear threats, dismissed Moscow’s claim that Ukraine was planning a “dirty bomb” attack, organized an overwhelming United Nations majority to reject Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, and more.

This extraordinary international response makes the one exception to it all the more puzzling. Western governments and senior political leaders have had almost nothing to say about the bizarre theory with which Putin justifies the war in the first place. He insists that Russia is at war with the entire Western world, that it is an all-out struggle for survival that his country cannot afford to lose. By ignoring his claim, as well as through actions and statements that can even seem to validate it, Western governments miss a crucial opportunity to stir second thoughts in Russia about the entire enterprise. Promoting internal division in a country so rigidly controlled is hard, but staying silent lets Putin off too easy. How and when the war ends may well depend on the strength of Russian second thoughts.

It doesn’t always matter, of course, whether the parties to a war agree or disagree about what they are fighting over. Usually, in fact, they agree. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein wanted Kuwait; the United States made him give it up. France wanted Algeria to remain part of France; the Algerians didn’t. An old joke of introductory international relations courses captures the zero-sum nature of many conflicts, especially territorial ones: “We don’t disagree about anything—we both want Italy.”

So, is Ukraine another “Italy”—something Russia wants that the West won’t let it have? Not at all, says Putin. He has explained the war in many different ways—with much grand talk about Russia’s historical destiny, ethnic identity, and civilizational autonomy—but his justifications have gradually merged into a single apocalyptic narrative. The West, says Putin, is out to “destroy” Russia itself. And what he has in mind goes far beyond everyday sharp-elbowed competition for military and economic advantage. Western elites, he claims, “have always dreamed about” breaking up Russia into separate units, setting its peoples against each other, and condemning them “to poverty and extinction.”

If Russia’s enemies succeed, Putin insists, a future of comprehensive oppression by the West lies ahead. This tyranny will be material (“they want to loot” Russia’s natural resources, he says) but also ideological (“they see our thought and our philosophy as a direct threat,” and “our culture and art present a danger to them, so they are trying to ban them”). Western governments are motivated, he claims, by racial hatred (a “Russophobia” that combines elements of “totalitarianism, despotism, and apartheid”) and by a determination to stamp out his country’s traditional values (Russia’s leader worries a lot about gender identity). In his Sept. 30 speech, he labeled the West’s cultural outlook as “pure Satanism.”

Putin’s rants stand out even in his own country, but he is far from alone in making many of these claims. His picture of Russia in existential peril has been picked up by other Kremlin officials (who have actually begun to use the term “de-Satanization”), by government propagandists, and by once reputable scholars and experts. Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, the state media outfit, fears that if Russia loses it will no longer be legal to buy dresses for her daughters. Dmitri Trenin, who led the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center before the war, echoes Putin on most points but adds special touches of his own. The United States and its allies, Trenin believes, want to “permanently neuter the country by seizing its nuclear arsenal.” They see a chance to “hit Russia very hard, make it an international outlaw, press the Kremlin to surrender unconditionally.” Another analyst well known to Western counterparts, Sergey Karaganov, treats the war against Ukraine as this century’s version of earlier invasions by Napoleon and Hitler. (Never mind that this time Russia did the invading.)

One of Russia’s most thoughtful, independent, and best-connected political commentators, Tatiana Stanovaya, has long insisted that the country’s elite does not really buy the enslavement-and-extinction version of Western aims. Yet the many doubters—most of them hesitant to speak up—hardly ever hear the United States and its allies rebut their own president’s claims. Senior Biden administration officials do call Russia’s attack on Ukraine “unprovoked,” and they regularly add that such aggression threatens the “rules-based international order” on which global stability depends. It is necessary, they say, to “punish” countries that break the rules, the better to discourage future infractions. Western governments have promised to make the cost of aggression high.

Yet such formulations do little to challenge the narrative that Russia is in mortal danger. Some of them may even seem to confirm it. The theme of punishing Russia conjures an endless grudge match in which one side does its best to grind the other down. Invoking the rules that underlie international order simply provokes Putin’s indignant retort: “Who made these rules?” And the pride that Western governments take in the unity of their alliance does produce the occasional bloodcurdling threat. Responding to Putin’s recent nuclear threats, the European Union’s senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, warned that, if escalation occurs, Russia’s army will be “annihilated.” Talk of this kind helps the Kremlin sustain support for its “existential” war. Questioning the president’s theory of the case, not to mention defying his orders, becomes still harder..

Fortunately, the outlines of a better public-diplomacy line—one that calls out Putin’s hysterical exaggerations—are obvious. Western spokespeople would have little trouble making the case that Russia has invented a struggle for survival where none exists—that its leaders are seeking to deceive their own people, cover up their own mistakes, and preserve their positions of power. Virtually every statement by Putin in recent months and years is full of wild claims that can hardly withstand a serious review of recent history.

If U.S. presidents aimed to destroy Russia, would they have reduced the U.S. military presence in Europe by 75% over a 25-year period (including the removal of all tanks a decade ago)? Would Germany have cut its armed forces in half? Would NATO, whose enlargement Russian officials claim to find so threatening, have sought a partnership with Russia to address major issues of European security? Would the alliance have agreed to limit military deployments on the territory of new NATO members bordering Russia? Would the European Union have risked energy dependence on a country it wanted to subject to “poverty and extinction”?

The list of such questions can be carried forward right to the eve of the current war. Why did Western governments respond to the Russian buildup on Ukraine’s borders in 2021 by proposing new arms control negotiations? For more than 30 years, they had hoped, often skeptically, sometimes naively, to create what U.S. President Joe Biden called, when he met Putin last year, a “stable and predictable” relationship.

That the facts do not support Putin’s claim to be fighting a war for Russia’s right to exist does not, of course, mean it would be easy to mount an effective public-diplomacy campaign to debunk it. Many U.S. and European officials will have doubts about such an effort, and their arguments have to be taken seriously. Some will say that the effort will have little chance of succeeding and that state control of Russia’s information space makes it hard to dent public and elite opinion or to overcome the rally-round-the-flag effect. Others may worry that talking too much about the West’s limited intentions undercuts the more important message that has to be sent in wartime: that Russia cannot hope to win. Still others will say that such a campaign opens up a discussion about the terms of an eventual settlement for which the United State and its allies—and most of all, Ukraine itself—are not ready.

Yet failing to take on Putin’s claim that the West wants to destroy Russia would be a mistake, particularly now. With the war effort floundering and its costs rising, Russians—both the elite and the broader public—need to hear a full-throated challenge to what their leaders are telling them. Western governments do not aim to break up Russia into pieces; they do not aim to make it a “colony”; they do not aim to seize its nuclear arsenal; they do not seek to “loot” its natural resources or “ban” its culture and art. This message does not need to be gentle or statesmanlike. Better that it be too simple to ignore and too frequent to forget: “When Putin says Russia’s survival is at risk, he’s lying to you.”

Rebutting the Kremlin’s paranoid fever dream does not mean replacing it with a message of harmony and goodwill. This is no time for ritual praise of Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy, lame professions of respect for the Russian people, or asking why we can’t all get along. Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies are very likely to be uneasy—at best—for a long time to come. Western governments are not going to give up on defending each other or backing Ukraine. But with Russia, they can settle for an anxious coexistence. Only Putin and his most obedient followers are thinking about extinction.

Above all, dismissing the Russian president’s talk of existential conflict should make it easier to speak more directly about what he is actually up to. He did not invade Ukraine because the West left him no way to avoid a fight to the finish. He did so because he now treats ethnonationalist policies as the source of political legitimacy. Such policies threaten Russia’s neighbors—as well as Russia too—with continuing chaos and destruction.

There is no need to go all the way back to World War II to see what happens when governments conceive their goals in these terms. The Balkan wars of the 1990s make it plain enough. The breakup of multiethnic Yugoslavia was followed by almost a decade of genocidal violence in which its leaders acted on the same ideas that Putin has now embraced. If new borders stand in the way of old nationalism, they said, so much the worse for those borders.

Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, did not embroider his rhetoric with claims that the United States and its allies were trying to enslave his country. They were simply trying to keep him from enforcing the ethnic hierarchy he preferred. His relative candor made Milosevic easy to understand. Strip away Putin’s rhetorical clash-of-civilizations embroidery, and he is easy to understand too. A generation after the collapse of the multiethnic Soviet Union, he is today’s Milosevic, comfortable with mass killing in the name of ethnic triumph and revenge.

The astonishing unified support that the West has offered Ukraine and the skill with which Ukraine has used it may slowly be convincing Russians that this war is a dead end for them, that ethnic triumph is not their goal, and that they can live within their borders. To strengthen this conviction, Western governments should focus at last on the one vulnerability they have not bothered to exploit—Putin’s absurd claim that Russia’s survival is at stake.

Stephen Sestanovich is a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 1997 to 2001 he was U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union.

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