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.
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.