What Putin’s War in Ukraine Tells Us About Russia—And a Possible Way Forward

In short, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a simple power grab. And that’s why many experts have misunderstood it.

Attempts by international-relations theorists to explain Russian behavior in terms of the founding of “realism” as they think of states apart from their cultures and histories, not to mention the personalities of their leaders. Thinking that the war was the result of NATO expansion, they misunderstood Russia as a normal state seeking general guarantees of security, which in turn meant they misunderstood its violent and destructive tendencies. As ruthless and ruthless as Vladimir Putin may be, the issue is much bigger than a dictator.

Wars reveal a lot about societies, and this is no exception. The invasion of Ukraine is not about a legitimate grievance or a dictator’s aspirations, but about a more serious problem of Russia’s imperial self-perception. And that’s why ensuring Ukraine’s victory and the defeat of those ambitions is so important.

history of empire

Russia’s history is one of expansion and empire, a past from which, with rare exceptions, it has been unable and unwilling to break away. This, and not domestic panic, explains the passive support in the early stages of this war. The independence and Westernization of Ukraine are absolutely unacceptable to Russian imperialism.

The attack on Kyiv was the culmination of a project of imperial restoration. This was reflected in efforts such as the creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 1992 to strengthen Russia’s military presence in Central Asia; attempts to create energy dependence on Russia; subversion and co-optation of former Soviet states; the seizure of parts of Georgia; and threats against the Baltic states.

The 2022 war has been a disaster for these ambitions. Russia’s military has been humiliated, its army driven first from the outskirts of Kyiv, then from Kharkiv and now Kherson, its arsenal reduced to a jumble of second-rate equipment, its Black Sea flagship sunk, Its call-up was an administrative mess. Its Central Asian alliances have collapsed, as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, in particular, have effectively opposed the Ukraine war, distancing themselves from Russian influence. Its oil and gas arsenal is not enough to bring Europe to its knees. The Russian economy has been hurt by the sanctions, even as hundreds of thousands of the country’s most talented young people have fled, while others have been swept up in a devastating press-gang.

Wars are somewhat of a social test, and have exposed the corruption that pervades post-Soviet Russia, and the paranoia that informs its decision makers. When Russians like Vladimir Solovyov or Margarita Simonyan boast about the Nazis and Satanists of the West on Russian television, they are not just cynics, although they are those. They reflect a broad government mood and disposition.

The invasion of Ukraine profoundly changed European attitudes toward Russia; This would lead to the expansion of NATO’s borders as Finland and Sweden joined. It has animated Poland and changed German attitudes among others. This has led Ukraine, through its suffering at Russian hands, not only to deepen its hatred of Moscow but to build a democratic nationalism that will make it Russia’s most staunch enemy.

Russia may have sympathizers in Africa and Asia, but they can do it a little too well. The country is at risk of becoming a Chinese vassal state, and even lesser powers like Turkey could topple it down. When Russia announced it would stop allowing Ukrainian grain exports, President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to escort the grain carriers with Turkish warships, and President Putin backed down.

tough road ahead

It would be reassuring to believe that the stream of disasters will bring reform, if not revolution, to Russia. It is possible but impossible. It’s not that the mechanisms of repression are too strong: it’s that, alas, Russian culture appears to be one of the familiar, even when coupled with a distrust of the Kremlin’s plans. Centuries of despotism, followed by more than two generations of totalitarianism, have left their mark. Russia’s benevolent heroes too often fled, were exiled or simply murdered. There isn’t much to work with here to create a democratic and law-abiding culture, at least in the short term.

Instead, two possibilities loom. There is a civil war because the system falls apart. There are indications that this may be the case. Paramilitary organizations have emerged outside the control of the Russian military. There are occasional outbursts of anger and discontent, and incidents of mutiny in the armed forces. Sooner or later, a bunch of angry veterans will appear on the streets of Russia to avenge humiliation and defeat. Russia has known chaos and civil war before. There’s no reason to think it can’t happen again.

The other possibility is that either by stalemate or outright defeat, Russia still holds together under its current leadership, or perhaps one in which President Putin, like many of his enemies, mysteriously falls out of a window and his Another ex-undercover policeman arrives in his place. This is more likely and also has a more dangerous outcome. Russia must have been defeated and humiliated, and must be planning revenge.

In this way a kind of cold war has returned. The West must be on guard against a threat that will take many forms. He would have to re-arm himself and strengthen his eastern flanks. It must protect its infrastructure from sabotage while protecting its societies from sabotage and disorientation. Russia will be vulnerable but still dangerous and it will take patience and determination to contain it.

We’ve been here before. At the end of his summary of the decade following World War I, Winston Churchill wrote of “Russia, self-excluded,” “sharpening bayonets in her arctic night” even as she saw “visions of hatred and death”. announced. As he also said, the Russian challenge and others were no greater than those we had already overcome. With Western determination, a weak and isolated Russia would be thwarted. In decades or generations, it may even find a different way back to the Western world. that it has always feared and envied—and secretly admired.