Putin’s Obsession with Ukraine
Daniel Speckhard was the senior NATO official overseeing the membership development program that led to the entry of seven central and east European members in the early 2000’s. In that position, he was privy to discussions with Ukrainians where they expressed interest in a partnership that would open the possibility of a future membership. He was later the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, immediately north of Ukraine, where Russia is currently holding military exercises that could be used in an invasion of Ukraine. A member of the Board of Trustees of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs and President of Corus International, he says he is watching current events “with an acute interest.”
Why does Putin care so much about Ukraine, and what is he trying to achieve with the saber rattling and a potential invasion when it comes with such great risk and potential cost to Russia?
While I can’t get inside Putin’s head, I think the answer revolves around four key areas – political, security, economic, and cultural.
First and foremost, for Putin this is a political issue. I have no doubt that since the first day of coming to power, and likely before that, Putin’s singular strategic focus has been restoring Russia and rebuilding its Great Power status, after the breakup of the Soviet Union and what the country perceived as the humiliating defeat in the Cold War. In my long engagement with Russia, I have never met a Russian, young or old, or liberal or conservative, opposition or government, who thought that Ukraine and Belarus’ independence were anything more than a fluke of history and that they should be part of a greater Russian commonwealth or federation. You may be able to find a few brave Russian commentators out there who have a liberal, Western view or put a different political spin on Putin’s objectives, but they are few and far between. Putin understands this and believes that history will judge him on how well he restored the Russian commonwealth space and its greatness in the world, that is, according to his definition of “greatness.” Where in the US, it has always been “it’s the economy, stupid,” economics in Russia have never risen to the same level of pride when it comes to the political realm and views of the average Russians.
Of course, Putin’s approach to power politics ignores the way the world has fundamentally changed. In the globally interconnected, socially-interfaced, cyber world of today, these battles over geography -- as if control over land equals power -- are a great leap backwards. A lingering echo of a 19th and early 20th century, where severe repression at home and wars on the continent of Europe were the staple. Today it only serves to cover up for poor governance and a corrupt and oligopolistic system that delivers little to its people.
Second, security is at the front of the mind for Russians and Putin when they see Ukraine growing closer to NATO. Russians like to say: Think of how Americans would feel if Mexico were to join a military alliance with China, with the potential prospect of China stationing a healthy proportion of its 4 million strong military on its border or missiles that could almost instantaneously, without warning destroy US cities. Russia has always endeavored to keep some symmetry in the security threat that they pose in relationship to the US, and a future where Ukraine could be part of NATO creates an imbalance that Putin is unwilling to risk.
But here a reality check is needed. NATO has been a defensive alliance from its creation and if it weren’t for Putin’s move into Ukraine in 2014 and his moves that threaten Ukraine today, the U.S. and Europe would be focused elsewhere, and the Alliance would be adrift. He is creating the very threat he’s warning against, and the question is - is it just a pretense for acting on his territorial ambitions or perhaps an effort to cover up his weakness at home?
Third, economically the Russia wants Ukraine to stay within its sphere. Since the early 2000’s Putin has worked to recreate an economic union, with Russian oligarchs tied to the Russian governing class politically supporting and taking advantage of these special relationships. Putin has also understood that economic power is an important currency in global power and he needs Ukraine for longer term plans to build an economic powerhouse that can compete with the West and China.
His problem is the Russian economic sphere is unattractive to Europeans and probably to most Russians if they had a choice, for it’s built around empowering oligarchs whose main purpose in life is keeping Putin in power. It was so unappealing to most Ukrainians that when a former Ukrainian government decided at the last minute not to sign a European Union – Ukraine Association Agreement in 2014 it led to the Maiden Revolution that overthrew the government and led to widespread protests across the country for and against the overthrow of the government. These protests in turn prompted a Russian military invasion into Eastern Ukraine, created a Russian protected separatist group in Donetsk that simmers to this day.
Finally, the current challenges are cultural. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox Church 1200 years ago. In the minds of most Russians, Ukraine is part of Russia’s story. These ties are also so deeply woven across the fabric of families throughout Russia, where intermingling of Russian and Ukrainian blood through generations of intermarriage has created in the minds of many Russians a shared sense of cultural ownership. And in the two World Wars in the last century, there was no distinction between Ukrainians and Russians as they fought as Soviets the invading forces. But the glow of that memory overlooks the great famine in Ukraine, which Ukrainians view as a deliberate act by Stalin to force Ukrainians to collectivize their economy and come under the Russian heel. At least 3.9 million died in what Ukraine and the U.S. Congress have declared to be a genocide. (Putin calls it a “common tragedy” and accuses the Ukrainian government of rewriting history.)
And what does harkening to medieval history have to offer as a model for a 21st century Russia? Slobodan Milosevic used medieval Kosovo as his touchstone as he went to war to expel the Albanians who live there. He, too, sought the backing of the Orthodox Church in a cynical drive to expand state power. Perhaps Putin is attempting to distract public attention from the failure of governance, a moribund economy and a society with a shrinking life expectancy and birthrate? In the short run, Putin may fare better than Milosevic in his ambitions to expand his country’s reach, but in the longer term this approach is likely to consign Russia to the forever role of spoiler and provocateur on the global stage and falling ever further behind economically at home.
No one can defend Russian aggression toward Ukraine, and we should all feel deeply for the Ukrainian people as they continue to suffer. At the same time, it is important for Americans to know how Russian explain their motivations and perspectives as we work to respond to this crisis in the heart of Europe.
Is there any way the U.S. and Europe can defuse the tensions, protect Ukraine’s independence, and avoid forsaking NATO principles of supporting the country’s rights to self-determination? I don’t see it. As one more fully understands both the perspectives of the West and Russia, there is little common ground to build upon. The threat of sanctions is not going to dissuade Putin from his long-term aspirations with respect to Ukraine, and he will likely use his portrayal of the NATO security threat to continue the squeeze on the country. Equally, the West cannot stand by silently while Russia chips away at Ukraine’s independence and territorial sovereignty without being reminded of the past disasters of appeasing a foreign power with these concessions in the hopes of avoiding further encroachment.
In the end, the US and Europe will need to remain steadfast on their fundamental values and beliefs toward democracy, a peoples’ right to self-determination, and human rights as they stand up to Russia. For Europe, dependent on Russian gas to supply its industry and heat its homes, this is a tall order. But any other approach will result in us losing our way in what is already a deep labyrinth of conflicting messages, false narratives, Russian manipulations, and manufactured provocations. We will end up playing into Russian hands, placing Ukraine in even a weaker position. Ukraine has the most at stake, and we need to make sure Ukrainians stay at the center of deciding what they are willing to risk and what they are willing to fight for. If we stay true to our values, we may not be able to avoid further Russian military actions, but we will be the light that so many countries continue to want to believe in and aspire to in the face of a such an imperfect and oftentimes dark world.
You can find more of Ambassador Speckhard’s commentary on international issues here (link).