Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine stems not from Soviet nostalgia, but a deeper desire for Russian Imperium. How should the West respond?
As you likely have seen, the predicted invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces has indeed come to pass. It has only been a few days, and the fog of war is still thick on the ground, but the invasion seems to be total and the resistance has been fierce. Russian forces have attacked all across the country, from the coastal cities of Odessa and Mariupol, to the northern areas around Kharkiv and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to the capital of Kyiv itself. Ukraine’s defense has been stronger than many observers – including the Russians – had anticipated, and acts of heroism have been reported widely. The war is moving very quickly, and the facts on the ground may have even changed by the time you read this; as such, this piece is not meant to be an exhaustive update on the military situation in Ukraine – there are far more knowledgeable people than I writing about that. What I can do, however, is explain and correct a key misconception in how many Western pundits and politicians – President Biden included – view Vladimir Putin’s motivations for this attack. They are correct in seeing Putin as driven by historical factors and nostalgia for past glory, but they ascribe that longing to the wrong era. He looks not to the Cold War of the 20th century, but to the Great Power conflict of the 19th. The Russian President does not seek to become the leader of a revived Soviet Union, but a new Tsar. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn’t; understanding this historic rationale and properly contextualizing it can help us better understand Putin’s worldview, learn a great deal about his future ambitions, and determine how best to respond to this unprovoked invasion.
The most useful resources in analyzing Putin’s historic aims and influences are the speeches he has delivered justifying his intervention in Ukraine. The two most relevant ones to my historian brain are those he gave on February 21 and February 24 (the transcripts of those speeches are linked). Much of the content of those addresses relates to Russia’s specious rationales for invasion, but the historical aspects are the most important to gaining a window into Putin’s deeper motivations.
The main historic misconception that so many pundits and politicians have taken from these addresses is that Putin seeks to reassemble the Soviet Union which he served as a KGB officer. This is half-correct, in that Putin indeed does wish to recreate the Russian past – he just wants to go farther back in history to the days of the Tsar. This matters because those two empires, despite controlling many of the same territories, had vastly different ideologies of power and nationality. Putin knows this, and chose his words wisely to signal what he is trying to recreate. This is particularly evident in his stemwinder of a speech given on February 21. The first tell in that speech comes early on, when he says: “I would like to emphasize once again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an integral part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” This labeling of Ukraine as “integral” shows that Putin views Ukraine as an inseparable part of Russia itself – much like he sees Belarus – and ties that description to historic, cultural, and religious factors. He then immediately reinforces this conception by appealing to the “oldest times”, when Ukrainians (he labels them as “the inhabitants of the south-western historical territories of ancient Russia” so as to avoid the awkward demonym) “called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.” Putin then jumps to the 17th century when “a part of these territories was reunited with the Russian state,” completely avoiding the centuries-long interregnum when Ukraine was either semi-independent or linked with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as well as the violent process by which that “reunification” with Russia occurred (in eerie parallels to today). These lines are meant to tie Ukraine and Russia together as a historic unit, inseparable and properly understood as one and the same. Of course, the history is not this simple and the conveniently-forgotten nuances tend to undermine Putin’s narrative.
This rhetoric serves to link Ukraine and Russia historically, but it does not distinguish between the Soviet and the Tsarist conceptions of Russian empire. Putin does not mention the Russian Empire of the Tsars by name, but it is clear through his rhetoric that this is the imperium he wishes to bring back, not that of the USSR. This is mainly distinguishable by looking at what Putin chooses to criticize and what he chooses to leave out of his narrative. From the brief discussion of ancient Ukraine-Russia ties, the speech jumps directly to 1917, skipping over the centuries of Tsarist rule – by doing so, Putin marks that era as the historic norm to be desired. In fact, Putin is highly critical of the Soviet leadership which he claims “created” Ukraine out of whole cloth, stating that “the Bolshevik policy led to the emergence of Soviet Ukraine, which even today can rightly be called ‘Vladimir Lenin Ukraine’. He was its author and architect.” He also calls out Stalin and Khrushchev by name for arbitrarily “cutting off parts of [Russia’s] own historical territories.” Still, this criticism of territorial alterations is minor in comparison to the speech’s lambasting of the Soviet conception of empire, which – without having to say it directly – portrays the Tsarist conception as desirable and historically correct by comparison. To be clear, both the Imperial Russia of the Tsars and the empire of the Soviet Union were oppressive and immoral in similar ways (the Oprichniki led to the Okhrana, which led to the Cheka, which led to the NKVD, etcetera, etcetera) but the ideologies behind those imperial units were very different. This is the key to Putin’s speech and unlocks his motivations and plans for the future, and therefore deserves extensive quotation.
First, Putin explores the Soviet idea of empire created by Lenin and the early Bolsheviks. This involved a confederal structure under the auspices of the Communist Party with significant autonomy given to the various socialist ‘republics’ which were often organized around the concept of ‘nationality’. This autonomy included the rights to self-determination and even secession, rights which in practice were not respected, but did exist in theory – a fact that would contribute to the rapid collapse of the USSR in 1991. Putin’s main issue, however, is that of nationality – a very 19th century attitude which echoes the concerns of many of the Tsars. At one point, he refers to “the bacillus of nationalist ambition” – apparently only directing that pejorative at countries other than his own. He details this conception in depth, and it is worth reading his words directly (emphasis added):
Many questions immediately arise here. And the first of them is actually the most important: why was it necessary to satisfy any boundlessly growing nationalist ambitions on the edges of the former empire? The transfer of huge, often arbitrarily formed administrative units, the Union Republics, which often had no relation to the territory. I repeat: they were transferred together with the population of historical Russia. Moreover, these administrative units were in fact given the status and form of national state entities. Once again I ask myself: why was it necessary to make such generous gifts, which the most ardent nationalists did not even dare to dream of before, and, moreover, to grant the republics the right to secede from the unitary state without any conditions? … In view of the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples, the Leninist principles of state-building were not only a mistake, but far worse than a mistake.
This peroration touches on some important points that are revisited later in his speech, as well as in his February 24th address. One is that Putin views the “administrative units, the Union Republics” as “arbitrarily formed” and with “no relation to the territory.” These “administrative units” now form many of the independent states of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, from Kazakhstan to Georgia and Estonia to Poland – and of course, Ukraine. According to Putin, not only were those Union Republics created with a lack of care for territory, they involved the mass transfer of “the population of historical Russia” to these new statelets. The historical Russia that Putin is referring to is the Empire of the Tsar, and he believes that the various nationalities which now often have their own independent states should be properly seen as subjects of Russia. A version of this ideology existed in the 19th century and was known as pan-Slavism; this assertive imperialist doctrine claimed that Russia had the obligation to protect and nurture Slavic populations across Europe, bringing them under the Tsar’s wing even if they lived in other countries. Translated to the modern day, this is a rationale for completely redrawing the map of Europe (and Asia, for that matter) and restoring large chunks of former Russian imperial territory, thus destroying the liberty of the nations that now exist on that territory. If his pronouncements in this speech are interpreted through a broader lens than just the current crisis, Putin does not intend to stop at Ukraine. Much of Eastern Europe, including several NATO allies, may find themselves squarely in the crosshairs of this imperial fantasy. This is reinforced by the final line quoted above, where Putin implies that the “historical destiny of Russia and its peoples” is to be re-unified under unitary leadership and a single government – his. Putin doubled down on this in his February 24 speech, stating that, with respect to the Ukraine invasion (emphasis added):
I reiterate: we are acting to defend ourselves from the threats created for us and from a worse peril than what is happening now. I am asking you, however hard this may be, to understand this and to work together with us so as to turn this tragic page as soon as possible and to move forward together, without allowing anyone to interfere in our affairs and our relations but developing them independently, so as to create favorable conditions for overcoming all these problems and to strengthen us from within as a single whole, despite the existence of state borders. I believe in this, in our common future.
Besides the grotesque framing of self-defense, the passage above signals exactly the Tsarist revanchism that has been described throughout this piece. It gives away the game, so to speak, by treating Ukraine and Russia “as a single whole, despite the existence of state borders.” Putin basically is indicating his plans for Ukraine post-invasion: a compliant, authoritarian, satellite state which acts only at the behest of Moscow and is ripe for full integration in the future. Vladimir Putin is trying to turn a free and independent Ukraine into a bigger Belarus by invading it, while simultaneously consolidating Belarus into a mere province of Greater Russia by forcing it to participate in that invasion. In the final line of the quote, Putin promotes a “common future”; Ukrainians are fighting – and dying – to avoid that permanent subordination.
The last key takeaway from Putin’s speeches that has major historical implications is his direct call to overturn the American-led world order and replace it with an entirely different system of international relations; one which would allow authoritarians like himself to dictate terms to weaker nations. Combined with his Tsarist fantasy of returning much of Eastern Europe to the Russian yoke, this is a shot across the bow of the United States, NATO, and free nations everywhere. To understand this, it is crucial to again examine Putin’s words in detail – particularly those in the February 24 address. In that speech, Putin laid out his problems with the current world-system – the one which has held since the fall of the USSR in 1991. He claims that the US has abused this system purely for its own gain and to stymie powers like Russia:
As a result [of the fall of the USSR], the old treaties and agreements are no longer effective. Entreaties and requests do not help. Anything that does not suit the dominant state, the powers that be, is denounced as archaic, obsolete and useless. At the same time, everything it regards as useful is presented as the ultimate truth and forced on others regardless of the cost, abusively and by any means available. Those who refuse to comply are subjected to strong-arm tactics. … . Instead [of multilateral negotiations], we saw a state of euphoria created by the feeling of absolute superiority, a kind of modern absolutism, coupled with the low cultural standards and arrogance of those who formulated and pushed through decisions that suited only themselves.
This is meant to prove that the US-led world order which has kept the general peace (War on Terror notwithstanding) since 1991 is merely a front for American interests, backed up by American firepower and bullying. Some might find that argument persuasive in the abstract, especially if they are generally anti-interventionist, but the examples used to bolster the point let slip the incredible bias and misdirection behind these claims. When the some of the prime cases of this thesis are the righteous NATO intervention to stop Serbia from carrying out a genocide of Bosnians in 1999 and the minor combat operations undertaken by the West against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, it looks far less convincing. When the massively destructive combat operations carried out by the Russian regime since 1991 are totally ignored – even when those atrocities occur in the same places where they complain about Western intervention, as in Syria – the argument totally collapses. But what is more important than this poorly-argued indictment of the world order is what Putin said next (emphasis added):
What I am saying now does not concern only Russia, and Russia is not the only country that is worried about this. This has to do with the entire system of international relations, and sometimes even US allies.
This statement, combined with the attack on the American system seen above, is meant to signal an attempt to create a new world; one in which autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will have the ability to bully their neighbors and run exclusive spheres of influence wherein their word is law. This is not purely a Russian project, as Putin very clearly hints that he has spoken with other world leaders (likely the aforementioned autocrats) who are also “worried about this.” Some analysts have proposed the idea that various autocrats around the world are linked in a general desire to overturn American hegemony; this speech is proof that this is no longer just an idea, but is rapidly being made into a reality on the streets of Kyiv.
Several historical analogies have been bandied about to describe the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, but none of them have really grappled with the ideology laid out above. Cable TV pundits seem obsessed with World War II analogies, while some more historically-minded commentators have gone with World War I. Neither is correct, as I do not believe that this immediate conflict will metastasize into a bigger conflagration as rapidly as those crises (Sudetenland, Franz Ferdinand assassination) did. A more appropriate analogy would be a (relatively) minor and localized conflict that foretold a re-organization of global affairs, setting the stage for a broader war farther down the line. One event – which coincidentally involved 19th century Imperial Russia – springs to mind: the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. Putin’s sharing of imperial ideologies with the Tsarist Empire, including modern-day pan-Slavism, alongside the desire to overthrow the established order and the fundamental reorientation of international relations, make this an apt analogy.
That war was preceded by a long period of Russian embarrassment in Europe, much of it centered around the problem of the Straits – essentially the debate as to whether Russian warships would be allowed in the Black Sea, and if they could gain passage out to the Mediterranean. The stage was set by the London Convention of 1840, which forbade non-Turkish warships from the Black Sea altogether – an agreement the Russians signed. The issue again came up in the following decade, when Russia sought to cow an increasingly-modernized Ottoman state, a process which ended up resulting in the Crimean War. Russia had seemingly lost the fight over the Straits decisively when they were forced into signing the Treaty of Paris of 1856 as ‘losers’ of the war. The Black Sea clauses of this treaty were seen as a humiliation for a rising power like Russia; they forbade the Tsar from building a fleet in his own warm-weather ports and allowed the Ottomans (and by proxy the hated English) to close the Straits entirely, cutting Russia off from important commerce. Tsar Alexander II took the opportunity of war elsewhere in Europe (the Franco-Prussian War of 1870) to toss out the offending clauses of the treaty without any input from the Concert of Europe – the group of Great Powers which had tried to use consensus to peacefully solve European issues. The Concert ended up ratifying this action by Russia, paving the way for further unilateral aggression to return that Empire to its ‘rightful place’ in Europe. That action came in 1877, when Russia used the pretext of oppressed Slavic minorities in Ottoman Europe (the Balkans) to declare war on Turkey and invade southeastern Europe. I’ve written more in-depth about that war in the past, but in short, Russia decisively defeated Turkey and imposed severe terms on it, which both removed the prohibitions on Russian militarization of the Black Sea and created several hypothetically-Russian-aligned states in the Balkans. Some of these gains were rolled back at the 1878 Conference of Berlin by the canny diplomacy of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, his diplomatic attache Lord Salisbury, and the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Still, the Russo-Turkish War proved fatal to the Concert of Europe, fracturing the Continent into a series of shifting alliances which would eventually harden into the blocs that fought the Great War less than 40 years later.
I’m sure you can see the parallels just from reading the narrative above, but let’s lay them out directly. Russia clearly has had a long period of embarrassment in Europe, going back all the way to the fall of the Soviet Union – a period directly referenced by Vladimir Putin this past week. As with the Black Sea clauses of the 19th century, modern Russian politicians feel damaged and threatened by the world developments since the 1990s – ones which they assented to at the time, just as the Tsar signed the initial Straits Convention and the updated Treaty of Paris. Russia’s unilateral abrogation of the treaties and the lackluster response from the Concert of Europe in 1871 maps almost perfectly onto the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and the accompanying poor response from the international community. All of that history leads up to the larger-scale regional conflict – the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 and the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately (I hope and pray I am wrong), I see the two wars as ending in parallel manners: with a defeat of the defenders and a painful treaty imposed at gunpoint. But unlike in 1878, we are not blessed with some of the savviest diplomats in the history of Europe to save the situation. To put it bluntly, Biden is no Bismarck. The last, and perhaps most distressing, parallel will not be able to be known for some years to come: the total realignment of the world system, greater regional conflicts, and calcifying alliance blocs that inexorably drift towards global war. In the modern example, it seems clear that we are entering a new age of Great Power conflict, one which entails a drastic shift from the prior model of global relations – autocrats in Russia, China, Iran, and the like all seem to be pushing for this change. What remains to be seen is how – and whether – these regional conflicts and broader realignment of alliances play out. Nothing is set in stone, and the future is something we can shape as the dominant world power.
So what should we do? How should the United States respond to this conflict in Ukraine, and how should we prepare for a future of Great Power rivalry? Those responses need to be calibrated to the constraints we have as a nation and an alliance bloc, as well as taking into consideration the historical motives behind Putin’s aggressive revanchism. The United States should enact as many of these measures as is possible unilaterally or with a select group of serious allies (Poland, the UK, the Baltics); we need to dispense of the days when German thirst for gas or Italian desire for handbag sales could handcuff American foreign policy. There are three categories of actions that we must take immediately to help the people of Ukraine before we work on some larger changes that can give us a leg up in the coming realignment.
First, we need to sanction Russia (and Belarus) in as many ways as possible to cause pain to Putin, his cronies, other officials, and important economic sectors. The sanctions packages currently announced by the Biden administration are not enough. We need to directly sanction Vladimir Putin, all Russian officials involved with the invasion, the oligarchs that bolster Putin’s power, and their families. This includes freezing assets, denying visas, deporting targets from the country, and confiscating property like real estate and yachts. These actions should only be used to go after those in power; the idea that we should deport all Russians living or studying in the US is counterproductive and un-American. Key sectors must also be sanctioned to the highest extent possible. Currently, some Russian banks have been hit with these measures, but they should be extended to all Russian financial institutions. There has been talk of removing Russia entirely from the SWIFT banking communication system, but I do not favor this move (although I do not oppose it harshly). Full blocking sanctions on all Russian banks would be just as devastating, would not require the assent of European partners, and would not incentivize the creation of an alternate system run by our enemies – one which we could not penetrate. There must also be major sanctions on prime Russian industries, especially on energy, minerals, and food; the price dislocations we might feel in the West are more than worthwhile given the immense damage these sanctions would cause to the Russian economy. And that is what should be aimed for: immense damage. The best way to stop Putin’s aggressive aims is to foment unrest at home; economic sanctions would greatly improve the odds of such unrest.
Next, we need to provide the Ukrainians with large-scale, comprehensive aid packages. This includes economic assistance, financial aid for refugees, and support for the Ukrainian government in-country or, eventually, in exile. Most importantly, this must include massive amounts of lethal military aid. We should be pumping Ukraine full of firearms, anti-tank missiles, armor, anti-air defenses, and other offensive and defensive supplies and materiel. The US and our NATO partners should be covertly assisting the Ukrainian resistance by providing them with intelligence support, training, and logistics. We should also consider cyber operations to disrupt Russian communications in the field, and information operations to spread the truth about this invasion inside Russia and to her soldiers. A newly popular idea that has been floated is that of establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, akin to that which we established over Iraq during the conflicts there. This has been requested by the Ukrainian government and could seriously disrupt Russian operations; it would also get the US military directly involved in a shooting war with Russia, a peer nuclear power. No-fly zones require the power that institutes them to enforce them – that is, to shoot down planes which try to break the system. Right now, there is no real possibility for a global war emanating from the Ukraine invasion (one reason I find the WWI/II analogies flawed), but enforcing a no-fly zone would drastically increase those chances. Nobody, not even a hawk like myself, should want to see that happen.
The last immediate set of actions that must be taken to respond to the invasion of Ukraine involves redeployment of American and NATO military assets in Europe. Mistakes of the past have led to the terrible situation we are currently in; we cannot save Ukraine in the short-term, but we can stop Putin there and bog him down in a costly insurgency that could eventually topple the regime – similar to the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan. The military aid discussed above can bolster the resistance against Russian tyranny, but only NATO force deployments can ensure that Russian revanchism is halted in its tracks. We should move most of our troops and materiel in Europe to the potential front region, namely the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania. These changes should be permanent, and should include large-scale offensive firepower in the form of cruise missiles, advanced aircraft, and littoral combat ships. Only overwhelming force backed up by treaty guarantees and solidarity will deter Russia from aggression directed at the NATO states that lie within its former imperium.
That brings us to the long-term, structural responses to the realignment signified by the Ukraine crisis. The first and swiftest change must be to re-open and fast-track NATO membership for countries like Sweden and Finland. Both Scandinavian nations have been reticent to join the Atlantic Alliance, but are now potentially on the front lines of renewed Russian imperial aggression. We should admit both nations on an expedited basis and reinforce them just as suggested with our other front-line allies. Alongside this expansion, we need to ensure that all NATO members fully fund their defense commitments, especially given the clear and present need demonstrated by the unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The United States, in a world where our hegemony is challenged in multiple theaters by multiple powers (China being the biggest concern), cannot bear as much of the weight of the defense of Europe as we have in the past. We should recommit to NATO, but in a form where the alliance is sustainable. Part of that sustainability has to come from a reorientation on the part of Europe, away from dependence on Russia and China for resources and markets. The prime issue here is Europe’s reliance on Russia for energy supplies, exemplified by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; they must look elsewhere for this critical commodity, including Gulf Arab states, Israel, and the United States. Here in the US, we can do our part to service that need by tapping into our immense natural energy resources. America can and should be the world’s energy superpower – we sit on enormous reserves of oil and gas that can make us energy independent while also becoming a larger exporter of fuel. The only thing standing in our way are burdensome regulations and a utopian commitment to so-called ‘green’ energy – nuclear excluded, of course. There are many who are worried about the climate and potential future impacts of fossil fuels – present company excluded – but it is hard to worry about climate impacts in 100 years when we’re facing civilizational threats in the here and now. Scaling up energy production (including nuclear) will help reduce costs for ourselves and our friends, while simultaneously removing a major source of income for our autocratic adversaries – Russia, Iran, and Venezuela all derive significant income from oil extraction.
On a related note, we should stop working with Russia entirely on all international projects if we truly seek to isolate them on the world stage. This means refusing to work with them on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, and arms control; full isolation will likely need to wait until the next GOP administration, as too many of these flawed international projects are key to the Biden team’s foreign policy. Finally, the US should take the opportunity presented by this fundamental global realignment to create a new, more durable world order that can bring us through the challenges of the 21st century by fixing the errors of the past. The ideal of international comity through broad, cooperative, consensus-based institutions should rightly be seen as a dead letter; authoritarians have used, abused, and captured these organizations, perverting them into rubber stamps for human rights abuses. Nothing says this more plainly than the United Nations Security Council being unable to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due to the permanent Russian veto in that body. Not only that, but the Russian UN envoy sat as President of the Security Council while it debated his country’s unilateral military act! These institutions – the UN, the International Olympic Committee, Interpol, to name a few – are farcical, corrupt shams. The US should immediately defund and quit these bodies, setting up alternatives which only include democratic nations that oppose the authoritarian bloc. Given the catastrophic failure of the existing institutions, we certainly can’t do any worse.
All of these are acts which must be undertaken by nation-states and the politicians who run them, but that does not mean that we citizens are meaningless. If you want to support Ukraine in the face of this horrible aggression, there are things you can do. Donations to Ukrainian organizations, military efforts, or relief groups are always needed. You can call your elected officials and let them know that you want the US government to support Ukraine, either with some of the suggestions above, or whatever you think is right. Most of all, you can talk about this with the people in your life. Explain to them the stakes of this fight, why we should care, and what we can do about it. It may seem like a small gesture, but everything counts. Last, but certainly not least, you can pray for peace and the safety of the brave Ukrainians who are picking up arms to defend their freedom, their homeland, and their history.
Slava Ukraini! Glory to Ukraine!