Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Putin’s Dreams: What did he hope to get out of the war?

The Signal

What did he hope to get out of the war? Anatol Lieven on nationalist ambitions, historical narratives, and Moscow’s fraught relationship with the West.
Three days before invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin justified the impending attack as necessary for Russian security, saying that Moscow had spent 30 years patiently negotiating with NATO while being lied to and blackmailed by the West. The Kremlin, he said, wouldn’t repeat the errors of those who failed to take Hitler seriously before World War II. Last summer, however, in a long essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin offered a different view of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia. Drawing on historical details from past centuries, he argued that Ukraine was an artificial modern concoction on historically Russian lands. Years earlier, he offered still another view, speaking of Russia as an “energy superpower” on account of massive oil and gas reserves, whose value depends on pipelines that run through Ukraine. How do these ideas fit together?
Anatol Lieven is the senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. According to Lieven, Putin’s chauvinistic views about his country are historically inaccurate and illogical but essential to supporting his certainty that Moscow is, and must always be, a global power. Putin has long spoken of Russia as an alternative Western civilization, different from Western Europe or the United States but equal in importance. Yet, Lieven says, the Kremlin has never been economically or politically strong enough to fulfill these ambitions. As Lieven sees it, Moscow’s military failures in Ukraine, and the Ukrainians’ determined resistance, also represent a defeat for Putin’s vision of Russia and Ukraine. The question now is how that vision will wind up influencing the way he seeks to end the war.
Michael Bluhm: What did Putin see in Ukraine?
Anatol Lieven: He would agree with the late U.S. national-security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who wrote that Russia ceases to be a great power without it. As long as Russia keeps Ukraine as a satellite or a subordinate, Russia is a vital power on the world stage. Without Ukraine, Russian power is vastly reduced.
Then there’s the fear, which you can call paranoid, that America is going to establish Ukraine as a military base, expel Russia from its naval base at Sevastopol and its remaining positions in the Caucasus, and blockade the Russian enclave in Moldova.
There’s also an intense nationalistic feeling that you could hear continually intensifying in Putin’s statements: Ukrainians are a brotherly people who belong with Russia—though younger brothers, of course. There’s a depth of emotionality in the attitude to Ukraine that doesn’t apply to Georgia, Moldova, or the Baltic states. It’s this idea that Ukrainians are family, and Ukrainian behavior before the war was a betrayal within the family. Historically, large parts of Ukraine were conquered by Russia from the Turks, not by Ukraine. The feeling is, These areas naturally belong in Russia—and if Ukraine was going to turn against Russia, Russia was damn well going to take these areas back.
Bluhm: You mention the shared history between Russia and Ukraine going back more than 1,000 years. Putin discussed this history in detail, in a long essay about the two countries that he published last summer. Where does Ukraine fit in Putin’s thinking about the history of Russia?
Lieven: It goes back to the fact that the origin of the Russian state was in Ukraine and then moved north after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. Ukraine is regarded by many Russians as inherently part of Russia.
Moscow invading Ukraine was never a prelude to invading the Baltic states, let alone Poland or Romania. Russia doesn’t regard these places in the same light; they’re completely different.
There’s this deep belief that Russia and Ukraine are one—but dominated by Russia. It’s been a close relationship. Ukrainians who showed themselves loyal—first to the Russian Empire and then to the Soviet Union—advanced to the very highest positions. Ethnic Ukrainians—not just Russians born in Ukraine—also played a tremendous part in Russian culture. The first great Russian novelist, Gogol, was an ethnic Ukrainian. Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Cossack, who has often been tipped as a potential successor to Putin, is an ethnic Ukrainian, born in Ukraine.
This feeling that we are closely bound together encourages the belief that if the Ukrainians are now against us, it can’t be because ordinary Ukrainians are really against us; it must be on account of the wicked plots of the Americans and a small minority of Ukrainian fascists. Out of that came the fatuous belief that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian invasion and greet the Russian army with flowers. To explain this crazy misapprehension, you have to understand these deep elements of emotional bias in Putin’s view and wider Russian attitudes to Ukraine.
Mehrnaz Taghavishavazi
Mehrnaz Taghavishavazi
More from Anatol Lieven at The Signal:
The dilemma for Russia is that it’s partly European and Western, but it’s largely not. It’s never been accepted by Europe as part of Europe, because it’s much poorer and has a different culture. That’s deeply offensive to Russian pride: We’re the heirs of Byzantium. We’re the biggest state and the largest population in Europe, and yet we’re treated with contempt by Europeans. This has created a desire among Russians to see their country as a separate civilization—not an inferior part of Western civilization, but separate and equal. But Russia has never been strong enough to maintain this idea of itself as a separate and equal civilization.”
Putin’s preferred phrase about Russian identity for a long time was the idea of Russia as the Third West. There are already two Wests, Europe and America, which are closely related culturally but significantly different. There are big differences between America and Europe on issues such as religion, guns, and attitudes toward the individual, yet they’re both considered the West. Putin asks, Why shouldn’t Russia be a third West, with highly distinctive aspects, but also closely related to the others? The last time I saw Putin was at a conference in Russia in October. He didn’t talk much about Ukraine but did talk an awful lot about attacking woke-ism and LGBTQ ideology. I thought he was looking for the Republican nomination for U.S. president in 2024. That rhetoric about carving out Russia as distinct from the dominant Western culture and ideology—but it’s not fundamentally different from the rhetoric of hardline conservatives in Europe and, even more so, America.”
Now, he’s trying to fulfill his vision of turning Ukraine into a brotherly party—by force. From that point of view, Ukraine has already won. Putin’s attempts to capture Kyiv and overthrow the Ukrainian government were completely defeated and have been publicly abandoned by the Russian government. All their troops have withdrawn from northern Ukraine. They’ve basically gone back to an expanded version of what they did in 2014: take the whole of the Donbas and then either negotiate a ceasefire and peace settlement or hold the land bridge between Donbas and Crimea. Military defeat has shown Putin that the wider agenda is simply impossible. His original dream has been shattered by reality, and he’s gone to a much lesser alternative.”

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