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What Drove Putin to Invade Ukraine
o, Russia has now invaded Ukraine.
The invasion has been a long time in the making. Contrary to Putin’s protestations – and those of his apologists – the invasion of Ukraine was never about concerns over Ukraine joining NATO. First off, the claim that Ukrainian membership would threaten Russia’s borders is absurd on its face: Estonia and Latvia have been members of NATO for years, and both border Russia.
Furthermore, the question of Ukrainian membership in NATO has been a relative dead letter since approximately 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych took over the presidency of the country. “Entry into NATO is not realistic for our country today,” Yanukovych stated at the time. In 2016, president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker estimated it would take 20-25 years for Ukraine to join NATO and the EU. Yanukovych’s successor, Petro Poroshenko, signed a constitutional amendment dedicating the country to seeking membership in NATO and the EU in 2019, but acknowledged that the country was a “long way” from meeting membership criteria. In reality, Ukraine has flirted with both NATO and Russia for a long time, maintaining a stance of strategic independence.
So, what drove Putin?
The answer comes from Putin’s own mouth. Just days ago, he gave a militant speech in which he said, “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space. Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.” He added that Ukraine had been created by the Soviets, and that it was time to reconstitute the Russian empire. “The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of Bolshevik and Soviet leaders,” Putin said. “[T]he collapse of the historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience.” According to Putin, Ukrainians are being subjected to tyranny by Western powers:
Ukraine itself was placed under external control, directed not only from the Western capitals, but also on the ground, as the saying goes, through an entire network of foreign advisors, NGOs and other institutions present in Ukraine….Are the Ukrainian people aware that this is how their country is managed? Do they realise that their country has turned not even into a political or economic protectorate but has been reduced to a colony with a puppet regime?
Putin has offered a variety of excuses for his action. He says that he has been welcomed into Ukraine by separatists in Eastern Ukraine – but he is invading Kiev itself. He says that Ukraine wants its own nuclear weapons – a wild accusation given that Ukraine gave up its 5,000 nuclear weapons in 1994 at the behest of both Russia and the United States. He says that America does “not need a big and independent country like Russia around. This is the answer to all questions.”
The real reason Putin is moving now is threefold.
First, Russia has a major advantage right now: natural gas and oil. Europe has spent the last decade destroying its own energy capacity at the behest of Greta Thunberg and company. Simultaneously, they have shipped in enormous amounts of Russian carbon-based fossil fuel. One-third of all EU natural gas is provided by Russia at this point – and the price of natural gas, which was low in the 2015-2020 period, has now skyrocketed, giving him tremendous bargaining power. Indeed, Deputy Chair of the Security Council for Russia Dmitry Medvedev tweeted, “German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has issued an order to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Well. Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2.000 for 1.000 cubic meters of natural gas!” There is a reason that the West has thus far exempted Russian energy markets from sanctions – according to the State Department, it would do too much economic damage.
Second, the West has demonstrated utter incapacity to challenge Putin’s prior predations. He invaded Georgia in 2008, to no serious consequences. He invaded Crimea and Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014, to no serious consequences. Even while the United States complains about Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, special climate envoy John Kerry maintains that we must work with Russia on climate change: “I hope President Putin will help us to stay on track with respect to what we need to do with the climate.” Even as President Biden condemns Putin, the United States continues to broker with the Russian government to come to a conclusion on an ill-advised nuclear deal with the Iranian mullahs. Putin has no reason to think that any consequences will be either long-lasting or significant. And on a broader level, Putin has watched as the West surrenders to aggressive dictatorial powers repeatedly, from Hong Kong (2020) to Afghanistan (2021).
Third, Putin envisions a reimagined world order. He clearly lusts for a return to Russian glory, and he sees that China has oriented itself under Xi Jinping toward a similar purpose. Both Russia and China see themselves as enemies of the United States, and are acting accordingly. Putin believes that if he takes Ukraine and Xi takes Taiwan, the West will be put back on its heels – the unipolar era of American power will be effectively ended, and a multipolar world in which Russia plays its historic role will re-emerge.
It is this most important rationale that the West simply cannot understand. As it turns out, cultures around the world value more than access to bank accounts and McDonald’s. Putin and Xi and the mullahs all think in terms of historic greatness, empire, and national glory. This is particularly true in Russia, where Stalin still bears a 70 percent approval rating. In Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize-winning book, Secondhand Time, she tells the story of a factory worker imprisoned and tortured by the communist regime. After the end of the Cold War, this factory worker told Alexievich, “When I go into my grandchildren’s room, everything there is foreign: the shirts, the jeans, the books, the music…Savages! I want to die a Communist. That’s my final wish.”
This sentiment was well understood by George Orwell. In 1940, he wrote of Hitler’s appeal:
[H]e has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
Many other cultures and countries understand that appeal. In fact, Americans used to believe in a higher purpose for themselves than mere increases in GDP. No longer. In the West, we’re not concerned with things as base as national mission or the legacy of Western civilization,. We are, in other words, a weak horse.
Putin knows that. Xi knows that. The mullahs know that.
All of which means that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is merely the first crack in the dam that holds back the floodtides of global chaos. Our material comforts are premised on a global order with the United States at its unchallenged head. Putin has challenged that order. The West seems unlikely to respond. We’re too busy blowing out our debt and naval-gazing about climate change, with gender fluidity, with supposed systemic racism, with income inequality. Russia and China can’t touch the West in terms of wealth or military might. But without a higher purpose, no country of any GDP can stand up to the naked aggression of nations animated by grim purpose of its own.