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 term ‘useful idiot’ has a long and storied Cold War history, often being used to pejoratively describe Western leftists who amplified and played into Soviet propaganda. Useful idiocy came in many forms, from outright laundering of Soviet lies (see Walter Duranty) to simply falling for the USSR’s disinformation and false narratives. Some in the latter category still exist today and seriously argue that, for instance, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg were not actually spies (apparently they have not seen the Venona Files). Most of these useful idiots were on the political left, but the main thing that their politics had in common was a reflexive anti-American bent. Useful idiocy as a relevant political concept fell out of favor at the same time the Soviet Union did, and most thought it relegated to works of history. Now, just as Great Power conflict has returned with a vengeance, so have the useful idiots.
The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are starting; Americans who care about human rights or geopolitics should join me in skipping them.
The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games live in infamy as a terrible example of how a genocidal authoritarian regime can use international media and sport to serve as propagandists for its evil cause. Despite our appropriate modern appraisal of the Nazi Olympics, the Games were a clear success at the time and greatly legitimized the Hitler regime in the eyes of the wider world. Newspapers around the world largely covered the events as though they occurred in a free nation, only occasionally touching on authoritarian Nazi policies in between race results and medal tables. Some papers even promoted the ceremonial aspects of the Games – obvious and direct Nazi propaganda – with wide-eyed admiration. There were those brave few who pushed boycotts of the Berlin Games for the very abuses we see today as blatantly immoral, but their pleas mostly fell on deaf ears. We must not make that same mistake again.
Russia is poised to renew its offensive in Ukraine; what is NATO going to do about it? Unfortunately, if recent indications hold true, very little.
History has returned with a vengeance. Europe is once again on the precipice of a large-scale land war instigated by an expansionist Russia looking to exert suzerainty over its independent neighbors. The last major Russian offensive in Ukraine back in 2014 led to the illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as a burgeoning separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country, backed militarily and financially by Moscow. Russia did not fight this conflict in the open, instead using proxies, special forces, mercenaries, and non-uniformed soldiers colloquially known as Little Green Men. The NATO response was relatively minor, consisting of some economic sanctions and tough talk on the part of the Obama administration; ironically enough, the lead diplomatic envoy dealing with the crisis on behalf of the United States was one Joe Biden. Since then, the war in Ukraine has continued, causing tens of thousands of casualties, while Russian control over Crimea has been cemented. Malign Russian influence in Europe and its confidence and aggression abroad have also increased over the past 8 years, assisted by weak and inconsistent Western policy. The constant state of intermittent conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine has brought the region back to a state of trench warfare reminiscent of the First World War. In recent months, however, Russia has begun a conventional military buildup on Ukraine’s borders and looks ready to launch a full-scale assault using tanks, artillery, and air power. This is an even bigger threat to European peace and American global hegemony than Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine was nearly a decade ago, yet it seems like our response will be even more lackluster than last time – if not downright conciliatory. This is a recipe for disaster.
History is, by its very nature, contingent; that contingency has gone by many names over the eons: luck, chance, fate, or – if one is inclined to see the workings of the divine in history – Providence. The famed Renaissance political philosopher and theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, in his masterwork The Prince, called this element of randomness Fortune and saw it as a major factor in the passage of history and the practice of statesmanship. He did not, however, see Fortune as the only factor in human affairs, instead writing that “I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.” What is more important than luck is how the statesman deals with that element of chance – fortune or misfortune – and his ability to succeed in achieving his goals regardless of the quirks of fate. That, for Machiavelli, meant that a key job of the statesman was to “direct his actions according to the spirit of the times” so as to tame the whims of Fortune and use them to his own advantage. To bring this idea down from the lofty heights of political philosophy to the everyday practice of government, Machiavelli analogized Fortune to a flowing river, saying:
I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.