Taking Putin Seriously
April 30, 2022—for two months Russian armed forces have been attacking Ukraine under the direction of President Vladimir Putin. They have targeted civilian population centers as well as military and strategic objectives. Fathoming why Putin would launch such an assault invites speculation about his motives, his state of mind, and his objectives. It also begs the question of what role a thousand years of Russian history may have played in his calculus.
As the great American poet Maya Angelou famously cautioned, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” It is difficult to imagine better advice in dealing with Vladimir Putin and the 2022 crisis in Ukraine. Since ascending to the presidency of Russia in 2000, Putin has—in words as well as in deeds—shown the world who he is. In doing so, he has clearly highlighted the centrality of Russia’s history with the West in his thinking. Whether he is honestly making a case for his confrontational policy or using Russian history to rationalize that policy and manipulate the Russian people, it is useful to consider that history.
First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it has become a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian Territory.
In 2022, in his speech justifying the invasion of Ukraine he echoed those same themes:
Why is this happening? Where did this insolent manner of talking down from the height of their [US] exceptionalism, infallibility and all-permissiveness come from…The answer is simple. Everything is clear and obvious. In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union grew weaker and subsequently broke apart. That experience should serve as a good lesson for us, because it has shown the paralysis of power and will is the first step towards complete degradation and oblivion.
In Putin’s telling of history, what Americans saw as a triumph of liberal democracy in the Cold War meant economic calamity, social dislocation, and political humiliation for Russia.
From that standpoint, it is easier to appreciate Russian bitterness toward the West, especially the United States, which led a collaboration with post-communist leaders like Yegor Gaidar to administer capitalist “shock therapy” to the former Soviet Union. That rapid introduction of privatization and market pricing obliterated familiar (if dysfunctional) economic relations and ushered in years of wrenching social adjustment. While it is difficult to verify the exact causal links between this US-led economic revolution and the ensuing increases in poverty, mortality, and corruption, the Russian people associate their suffering with this regime, and Putin explicitly nurtures that narrative.
It should have been equally clear that the rapid eastward expansion of NATO to the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well as former satellite states of Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria would wound Russian national honor and stoke ancient anxieties about the West. Indeed, Gaidar himself warned in 1996, “NATO expansion is the best gift you can make to the Russian ultranationalists.”
Notwithstanding the kernels of truth underlying Putin’s stated grievances about the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, he has never hidden the fact that his ruthless political program at home and abroad is driven by single-minded determination. His goal is not simply to ameliorate these contemporary problems, but also to avenge Russia’s disgrace and reassert its role as a pivotal geo-political actor, especially along its western border. Repeatedly he has acted on this vision to restore the former Russian Empire, first Chechnya in 1999, then South Ossetia in 2008, and next Crimea in 2014.
His current military intervention in Ukraine is the latest manifestation of a consistent twenty-year campaign Putin has waged to re-establish Russia as a superpower with a recognized sphere of influence in its near abroad of former Soviet republics as well as ex-Warsaw Pact nations. These are the same regions that Tsars had historically sought to align with Russia. His expansionist ambition, as Putin has intimated (see speeches cited above) runs along two dimensions, one strategic and the other historical. Strategically, it seeks to counterbalance a perceived hostile and incorrigible West.
At the same time, mirroring the unfortunate examples of Adolph Hitler’s 1939 annexation of Czech Sudetenland to protect ethnic Germans or Slobodan Milosevic’s 1998 intervention in Kosovo to support ethnic Serbs, Putin claims he is trying to reconnect ethnic Russians with the historical Russian state. As he argued just prior to the invasion:
Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the seventeenth century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after.
This argument is not a recent invention. Since 2014 Putin has referred to the region as Novorossiya (New Russia), the old Tsarist designation for the area of modern Ukraine north of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea that Russia seized from the Ottoman Empire.
Putin’s appeal to Russian history provides a rationale for his confrontation with the West, but it also taps into deep wellsprings of Russian identity. There are many possible reasons proposed to explain the timing of Putin’s invasion: perhaps he needed to finalize agreements with China and other nations to minimize the impact of likely sanctions on Russia; perhaps President Trump was too unpredictable; perhaps it was because President Biden and his team, unlike Trump, wanted to bolster NATO and welcomed the prospect of Ukrainian membership. Timing aside, though, Putin has explicitly linked the invasion to Russian history and it behooves us to take these arguments seriously.
Taking Putin Too Seriously
Considering Putin’s persistent threats and aggressions, it is tempting to personalize an explanation for the Ukrainian invasion. Indeed, several prominent commentators have portrayed Putin as the problem. They ascribe the heartbreaking humanitarian crisis, obvious war crimes, and his nuclear brinkmanship in Ukraine to his evil, authoritarian ways, if not what some characterize as his paranoia about the West. George Soros, for example, penned an editorial calling for Putin’s ouster. The Guardian suggested that his removal through internal forces is inevitable. In perhaps the most shocking and incendiary example, Senator Lindsay Graham wondered aloud, “Is there Brutus? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military [to assassinate Putin]?”
Fixating on Putin and discounting the complexity of the political forces inside Russia may yield unanticipated and unwelcome results even if he were somehow removed.
Instead of thinking carefully about the deeply rooted Russian point of view that Putin both exemplifies and exploits, continuing to rely on a Western, globalist understanding of history would replicate the same post-Cold War triumphalism that guided American dealings with Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. This triumphalism and the examples of Iraq and Libya were not lost on Vladimir Putin. As those two cases demonstrate, there is a significant risk in presuming that overthrowing an authoritarian leader and instituting regime change to reflect American ideas and institutions will improve the situation. Both of those “victorious” moments preceded descents into chaos for their respective nations.
A failure to appreciate the historical forces and experiences that brought Putin to power risks bringing about results as problematic as what happened in Iraq and Libya, only this time on the doorstep of America’s European allies, and with a nuclear power.
What, then, are the historical experiences that undergird the Russian outlook and what sensibilities shaped that outlook?
Russia’s History with Ukraine and the West
Perhaps the best way to cultivate an appreciation for the Russian point of view toward Ukraine and the West is to acknowledge that both are closely bound up with Russia’s story of national origin in the medieval state of Kievan Rus. From the beginning, this early Kievan version of what came to be Russia had to navigate among threats from the Mongol Empire in the east, the Byzantine Empire to its south, and Lithuanian or Germanic powers to the west.
The Primary Chronicles
The Primary Chronicles—histories compiled by Russian Orthodox monks and intended to record the development of Russia from approximately 850 to 1320 CE—locate the nascent Russian state in the capital of present-day Ukraine. Although some historians have raised questions about their precise accuracy, the Chronicles are widely taken to represent the events that shaped the Russian state. They document not only ancient conflicts that resonate with Russia’s contemporary security interests, but also the adoption of Orthodox Christianity as a foundation of Russian and Ukrainian identity, an enduring source of cultural tension with the West.
On the first point, many of the same areas Russia is contesting in modern Ukraine such as Kherson—just north of Crimea—and Lviv—the center of western Ukraine—figure prominently in the Primary Chronicles’ narrative about the rise of Kievan Rus. On the second point, Russians and Ukrainians can both trace their identities to Kievan Rus and the transition from its early Varangian (Viking) rulers to slavic leadership. Most notably, the Chronicles cite Vladimir I (Volodymyr in Ukraine)—later St. Vladimir—as the Kievan Rus leader who introduced Orthodox Christianity to Kievan Rus in 988. In Kiev, there is a statue of Prince Volodymyr bearing an Orthodox cross. In 2016 though, Putin, flanked by his Defense Minister and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, installed a new statue of Vladimir in Moscow just outside the Kremlin walls.
This act highlighted what some call the “memory war” going on between Russia and Ukraine over the historical and cultural meaning of Kievan Rus. On the occasion of the statue’s unveiling, Putin stated, “Prince Vladimir has gone down forever in history as the unifier and defender of Russian lands, as a visionary politician.” Predictably, Ukrainians reacted with outrage.
Prince Alexander Nevsky
Another major reference point and formative event in the narrative of early Russian history is the 1242 triumph of the Kievan Prince Alexander Nevsky over invading Livonian Knights, a Germanic religious order seeking to extend Catholicism eastward and subjugate regions of the Orthodox Rus. Tellingly, famed director Sergei Eisenstein immortalized that Kievan victory of Alexander Nevsky which halted western Catholic expansion on the eve of WWII in his eponymous film depicting patriots of Kievan Rus repelling Germanic invaders. Eisenstein’s thinly disguised depiction of the crusading Livonian Knights as marauding avatars for Nazis was a powerful propaganda tool. That Stalin would see value in reaching back almost 700 years to produce a film aimed at rallying Russians against potential western threats testifies to the profound influence of this ancient history on the Russian mindset.
Moscow’s Rise to Power
The historical connection between Russia and its western neighbors of Ukraine and Belarus is further complicated by the events surrounding Muscovy (the medieval name for Moscow) eclipsing Kiev as the center of slavic power. Weakened by Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century and by succession struggles among its princely class, Kiev fragmented and declined as a political and military center. In fact, Catholic Lithuanian forces conquered the Kievan Principality in the early fourteenth century even as it continued to pay tribute to the Mongols of the Golden Horde.
In this same period, the Princes of Muscovy reached an agreement with the Mongols. In exchange for Mongol support, Muscovy would collect tribute from their slavic vassal states—including Ukraine—and provide a buffer against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Through that arrangement Muscovy not only prospered but also grew strong enough to assert control over Ukraine and adjacent slavic states while beginning to launch wars of liberation against the Mongols. By the late-fifteenth century, Ivan III (the Great), Grand Prince of Muscovy, had retaken Ukraine from the Polish-Lithuanian state and freed Russian lands from Mongol rule. From that point, Moscow succeeded Kiev as the center of the Russian state of which Ukraine was a part, albeit a culturally more significant part than other Russian lands. Moscow’s leadership in the reunification of Russian territory is central to Putin’s historical narrative that Russia and Ukraine are one.
Peter I (the Great)
This early history of security threats and cultural challenges originating on Russia’s western border recurred over centuries. As Nicholas Riasnovsky and Mark Steinberg show in their comprehensive text A History of Russia*, the ambivalent relationship with the West came into specific relief during the early eighteenth century reign of Peter I (the Great). Determined to modernize Russia and bring it on par with major European powers, Peter moved its capital from Moscow to his new outpost on the Baltic coast, St. Petersburg. Inspired by his travels in Denmark, France, Prussia, and Netherlands, he instituted a determined reform of the military and the government, imported European technology, and perhaps not least, imposed a systematic reorientation of the privileges and customs of the boyars (Russian nobility).
While Peter’s re-orientation toward the West was intended to import modern technology and practices and position Russia as a great power, it never overcame the religious and cultural differences that separated Russia from Europe. Riasnovsky and Steinberg document how Peter ultimately became embroiled in a conflict with the other great Baltic power of the time, Sweden.
In the Great Northern War of the early eighteenth century, King Charles XII of Sweden enjoyed a series of military successes against an alliance of Denmark, Norway, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. Like the Livonian Knights, Charles advanced through Russia’s northwestern borderlands. After he defeated all the alliance members except Russia, he rejected peace overtures from Peter. Sweden invaded Russia through present day Belarus and Ukraine. In 1709, however, Peter I achieved an historic victory over the invading Swedish army in the Battle of Poltava in currently contested areas of Ukraine.
Notably, Ukrainian Cossacks—an ethnic group of free peoples and skilled warriors from the southern steppes of Ukraine—aided Charles’ army. This alliance was especially disturbing from the Russian point of view and highlights the vexed historical relationship between Ukraine and Russia. In 1650, after leading a partially successful uprising for Ukrainian independence from the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, a previous Cossack leader, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav with Tsar Alexei (Peter’s father) guaranteeing a significant degree of autonomy for Ukrainian Cossacks in exchange for bringing Ukraine under Russian governance. Peter’s defeat of the Swedes re-established Russian control of Ukraine, agreed to in Pereyaslav a half century earlier.
Catherine the Great’s Conquest of Crimea
The complicated and intertwined history of Russia and Ukraine is also reflected in Catherine the Great’s conquest of Odessa and Crimea after a series of military campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. The hostilities culminated in 1782 when she formally annexed the region including its leading city, Odessa, and critical seaport of Sevastopol, historically the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet for Russia and the Soviet Union.
Even after Ukraine’s separation from the Soviet Union, treaty obligations maintained Russian access to its naval base there. Moreover, Odessa—like much of the Donbas region—is home to a significant population of Russian speakers who are more culturally oriented to Moscow than their fellow citizens in western Ukraine. Vladimir Putin clearly has exploited their historical ties and sympathies as a justification of his “special military operation”. The cultural connection with Russia is symbolized by a Monument to the The Founders of Odessa in Odessa’s central square featuring Catherine and her lead emissary in the Crimea, Prince Grigori Potemkin.
While one can only wonder about the current fate of the statue given Putin’s bombardment of Odessa, the history of the monument is itself a commentary on Russo-Ukrainian relations. Originally erected in 1900 to honor Catherine, the Soviets replaced it with a monument to the pro-communist revolt of sailors on a warship in Odessa harbor, an event that Eisentstein memorialized in another famous film, his 1925 epic Battleship Potemkin. Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, plans emerged to recreate the statue in Odessa’s central square, but Ukraine’s President at the time, Leonid Kuchma, opposed the project. Following Kuchma’s defeat in 2005, efforts were revived and the statue was completed in 2007.
Lessons From Napoleon’s Invasion
Nineteenth century Russian history opened with Napoleon’s 1812 invasion which, like earlier attacks from the West, proceeded through Belarus and Ukraine. Perhaps even more than Peter’s historic victory at Poltava, Napoleon’s offensive cemented in the Russian mind the imperative of preventing Ukraine from serving as an invasion route. In fact, the grinding war of attrition pursued by Russia against Napoleon can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the Great Patriotic War (WWII) against Nazi Germany.
Russia was again at war in present day Ukraine in 1853 when Tsar Nicholas I asserted Moscow’s authority to protect Russian Orthodox residents living under Ottoman rule. (Sounds eerily similar to Putin’s rationale for protecting ethnic Russians in the Donbas region of Ukraine, no?). After early Russian successes, Britain and France allied with the Turks to protect their maritime trade and attacked Russia in the Crimean War which lasted into 1856, with horrific casualties on both sides.
The Crimean War was another historical experience that profoundly shaped Russian orientation toward the West. Beyond the Franco-British intervention and its reinforcing historical security concerns, their costly defeat in the Crimean War forced Russians into a painful re-valuation of their conflicted geo-political place as a European but not-quite-Western nation-state. Westernizers, epitomized by Alexander Herzen, led the campaigns to abolish serfdom and introduce modernizing social reforms. However, an influential opposing movement of Slavophile intellectuals arose extolling Russia’s distinct cultural and religious foundations as superior. Personified by Nikolai Danilevsky, the Slavophiles celebrated the Russian concept of sobornost, the social unity reflected in Russia’s communal peasant life.
Slavophiles explicitly contested adopting Western values and championed the virtues of Russian Orthodoxy against both Catholic and Protestant Christianity. They perceived a pan-Slavic civilization distinct from western Europe with Russia as the spiritual and political defender of all Slavic peoples. More than that, this Slavophile analysis draws direct lines to the views expressed by Vladimir Putin. In his classic work, Russia and Europe, Danilevsky asserted:
Recently it would not have been out of place to write several pages of various reasons why Russia never conquered this Russian krai [a reference to Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine], since it is impossible to conquer what was already ours without conquest.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Russia’s relationship with the West reflected a core tension: admiration for and adoption of European philosophy, literary forms, music, science, and technology on the one hand, but deep suspicion of the West as a potential threat to Russian identity, culture, and security on the other.
Two World Wars and the Soviet Experience
Twentieth century Russian/Soviet history is more familiar to most Americans. The devastating German invasions in WWI and WWII only served to amplify Russians’ historical apprehensions about security threats from the West. At the end of the First World War, both the United Kingdom and the United States landed expeditionary military forces in the new Soviet Union. Although the impetus for this incursion was to reestablish the eastern front after the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s separate peace agreement with Germany, it evolved into support for the anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian Civil War. Although the target of this Western incursion was the emerging Soviet state, it reinforced the old narrative of Western hostility to Russia.
The Cold War
The advent of the Cold War further fortified the suspicion of the Russian people that they faced a hostile West, now bolstered by America’s active leadership role in NATO. The stage was set for the superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union at the 1945 meeting of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin in the Crimean resort of Yalta.
While Churhill and Roosevelt insisted on the goals of free elections and national self-determination spelled out in the 1945 Yalta Agreement, Stalin would not budge from his position that Russians needed friendly governments on their western border and a demilitarized Germany to secure their nation against any future invasions. Indeed, Stalin clearly conveyed to both Roosevelt and Churchill that the Soviet Union saw the areas occupied by the Red Army as a sphere of influence essential to Soviet security. He stated:
For the Russian people, the question of Poland is not only a question of honor but also a question of security. Throughout history, Poland has been the corridor through which the enemy has passed into Russia. Poland is a question of life and death for Russia.
The Yalta Agreement’s compromise language on liberated nations articulated broad principles of self-determination, but left Stalin enough ambiguity to assure the installation of friendly regimes under the watchful eye of the occupying Soviet forces. The final document used phrasing like “interim governmental authorities, broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population” and “the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people [emphasis added].” For the Russians, however, any free elections that instituted an eastern European regime unfriendly to the Soviet Union—especially following the horrifying losses of over 20 million Russians in WWII—were unthinkable. The idea of a Western-oriented Ukraine would have been laughable.
The West, of course, saw the Soviets’ post war behavior as drawing an iron curtain across central Europe and violating the Yalta commitment to free elections. It was in this atmosphere of mistrust and irreconcilable objectives that NATO was formed as an alliance to secure Europe against any further Soviet expansion.
Stalin’s anxiety about security on his western border as well as his commitment to communist expansion aligns with Russia’s historical experience, and it would be naive to discount the continued importance of this view in contemporary Russian thinking. But beyond any practical security concerns, it is important to acknowledge that the long history of Russians in Ukraine and adjacent Slavic regions dates to the earliest recorded history of the Russian state in Kievan Rus. That historical experience established cultural affinities and historical narratives that were not easily erased by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the declaration of Ukraine’s independence.
As George Kennan—the architect of the US containment strategy against the Soviet Union—observed in 1997, extending NATO into central and eastern Europe would be “the most fateful error of American policy in the post-Cold War era.” Apprehending all too well the Russian perspective, Kennan warned:
Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian Democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.
In effect, he not only predicted the rise of Putin and the ultranationalists that Gaidar feared, but he also foresaw how the West’s triumphalist approach could lead to the unwelcome outcomes now seen in Ukraine. Indeed, the Russians’ feelings that the West reneged on its promise that NATO would not expand eastward turbocharged Kennan’s pessimistic forecast.
The Russian Perspective
As satisfying as it might be for some observers to complain about the West’s fateful error of expanding NATO to the edge of post-Soviet Russia, reality is what it is: Ukraine is under attack and the war is exacting an awful human toll. However, taking the Russian historical perspective seriously can provide valuable insight.
For example, the Soviet military interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 are explainable in much the same way as Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. And while explanation does not equal justification, historical understanding can inform the West’s choices. To downplay or even dismiss Russian history and interests in formulating responses risks compounding the fateful error Kennan and others warned about. Rather, appreciating Russian history and perspective seems more essential than ever if an end to the conflict is the goal.
The extensive economic and cultural sanctions recently imposed by the West may be instinctively appealing as a strong signal of unified Western opposition to the invasion and its atrocities. These sanctions might indicate to Putin and his lieutenants that they miscalculated not only in their assessment of how fiercely the Ukrainians would stand and fight, but also in their confidence that the West was too fractured and inward-focused to unite. Nevertheless, if Russian history tells us anything, it is that this kind of economic and diplomatic pressure may also be a counterproductive approach.
To the extent that Russians perceive sanctions as confirming historically rooted suspicions about the West’s animosity, they may elicit the same dogged resistance the Russians displayed in 1812 and 1941, especially if Russia can maintain tight control of what information reaches its people. At least in the short run, sanctions appear to have provoked resentment against the West and support for the Putin regime.
In fact, it seems that Russia, so far, is not totally a pariah state. Putin continues to maintain relations and trade with many nations, most notably China, India, and Iran. Key European states have not found alternatives for their Russian energy supply.
While it is possible that Putin and his military misjudged the response to their invasion, they clearly took stock of what their Soviet predecessors termed the “strategic correlation of forces” before they acted. This kind of reasoned analysis underlies foreign policy decisions like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact in 1939, the creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, and their use of force to maintain that Pact in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Assuming Putin continues to behave in accordance with recent historical examples, it might be helpful to examine a specific historical case, the Cuban Missile Crisis, for clues as to how the West might take account of the Russian historical perspective. In 1962, the naval blockade of Cuba accompanied a behind-the-scenes agreement to remove NATO’s Jupiter ballistic missiles based in Turkey on Russia’s border. That model is well worth considering because it illustrates how taking account of Russia’s historical security concerns about the West can be leveraged to find an exit strategy. NATO missile bases on the Soviet southern flank posed a threat in a region Russians perceived as perilous to their security dating to the days of Kievan Rus and carrying through the reins of Catherine the Great and Nicholas I. Addressing these concerns, albeit quietly and behind the scenes, was the linchpin to de-escalating the crisis. Perhaps a similar sensitivity to Russia’s historical concerns can point toward a plausible diplomatic resolution in Ukraine?
The Cuban Missile Crisis comparison is also instructive because it implies the wisdom of treating Russia as a major power to be reckoned with and with whom the West needs to find mutually acceptable outcomes. This would mean communicating sensitive positions through diplomatic channels rather than the triumphalist approach exemplified by Secretary of State Blinkin’s pronouncement that the United States was trying to offer Russia an “off-ramp” from the Ukraine crisis.
The off-ramp, however, amounted to a promise to engage in talks but with the precondition that NATO’s open-door policy of including new members was not up for discussion. That kind of talk sends the rather undiplomatic message that it is up to the West to bring Russia back into the community of nations on terms that may or may not address their concerns, a sure way to fuel the Russian sense of grievance and disrespect.
The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once said of his country, “A nation which rejects its past is miserable.” It seems that Putin is celebrating rather than rejecting Russia’s past, and to turn Pushkin’s admonition around, perhaps a nation which dismisses an adversary’s past is bound to be miserable.
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Editors: Craig Carroll, Stacia Wilson Peer Review Completed By 6 Individuals
So very informative!