Just a few weeks ago, it seemed inconceivable that Russia would invade Ukraine. This is the 21st century after all, and invading another sovereign country seems like such an antiquated approach to conflict resolution. And after all, what was the conflict that needed resolution? Ukraine presents no threat to Russia. At least no military threat. It isn’t like Chechnya, which harbored terrorists who slipped into Russia to plant bombs in its cities, nor did it pose some other kind of destabilizing threat to Russia that might warrant some kind of disproportionate military response. Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear warheads long ago, and Ukraine’s senior military brass have been straightforward in their assessment that if Putin chose to attack Ukraine, there was little Ukraine could do about it.
Yet that is the path Putin chose, and no one should be surprised by the scope of his ambition. For the better part of two decades, Putin has insisted on three things. First, that Ukraine is historically part of Russia. Second, that the establishment of Ukraine as an independent country is part of a long-term strategy by the West to undermine the Russian state. And third, that Russia has the right to assert control over its “near-abroad.”
The persistent theme in the media — that Putin is a madman making up a self-serving narrative out of whole cloth — ignores the long history that brought the world to this point. Part of the inclination to portray Putin as unhinged is because he repeatedly frames Russia as the victim of Ukrainian aggression, while the world has watched as Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 seizing its territory, and over the past months encircled its less-powerful neighbor with battalions of tanks, girded for war. The core Russian demand over the years — that Ukraine forever forsake its ambitions to join NATO — stands in stark relief against persistent Russian actions that explained exactly why Ukrainians have felt the need to be part of an alliance that might come to its aid.
It is difficult for many of us to take seriously historical narratives that differ from those we grew up with. The renderings of history that we learn early on in school ground our beliefs about right and wrong, about who is a hero and who is a scoundrel. We come to believe these truths to be self-evident, and resist the notion that others might view the world differently. This is vividly illustrated by the struggle many white people continue to have with the notion that Black Americans might have different narratives of our nation’s history than the ones that populate conventional textbooks. In a similar vein, we struggle to understand how Russians might view the West as the aggressor — which we have come to view as Russian paranoia — since Russia has so often been the aggressor in conflicts over the years. Understanding Putin’s perspective does not mean that he is right — or that his actions are excusable — but it can help us to better calibrate our own responses.
If one considers the Russian perspective — just for a moment — paranoia on their part may be warranted. Over the past 600 years, Russia has been invaded time and again by its neighbors. Turkey, Poland, Japan, Sweden and Germany have each invaded Russia at least twice. France only invaded once, but unlike the others, Napoleon Bonaparte made it all the way to the gates of Moscow in one of the most chronicled military campaigns in history. If Ukraine itself never took a shot at Russia, it is probably because for all but a few decades of Russia’s thousand-plus years of existence, Ukraine was part of Russia. Indeed, it was the heartland of Russia, as the state we now know as Russia was originally founded during the 10th century with Kyiv as its capital.
It is a sordid, conflict-ridden history, and one that drove Stalin’s determination to surround the Soviet Union with client states. It is this history that informs Putin’s oft-quoted comment that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century. Although the Soviet Union was our ideological foe, Putin’s pining for the Soviet era has been about borders rather than ideology. The Soviet Union built its phalanx of client states in Eastern Europe and along its southern flank — regions that Putin now refers to as Russia’s “near-abroad” — to provide a buffer zone, to protect the homeland from the next invading foreign armies that were sure to come. The siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Stalingrad, where an estimated two million civilians and soldiers died just 80 years ago, remain seared in the Russian psyche.
Against that backdrop, the US policy of containment over the better part of the past century played into Russian historical fear of encirclement, further animating Russian paranoia. While keeping the Soviet Union in check was the premise behind the creation of NATO, Russian nationalists, who watched NATO continue to expand after the USSR was relegated to the ash heap of history, have long viewed NATO as just one more instrument of western power ultimately designed for the destruction of the Russian state.
As if to confirm those fears, in 1997, while western powers were debating whether to admit former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO, US foreign policy senior statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski published an article arguing that the ultimate US policy objective must be to break Russia up into three smaller states. A year later, after the US Senate ratified NATO expansion, George Kennan — the architect of the US policy of containment to combat the USSR decades earlier — predicted that the push to expand NATO toward the Russian border would ultimately provoke the Russian response we saw this week.
Yet each step along the way — despite one warning after another — we have preferred to label Putin a madman rather than seriously consider the possibility that Russian fears of the West might be as historically grounded as the West’s fears of Russia. With a new American missile system recently installed in the Polish woods just 100 miles from the Russian border and 800 miles from Moscow and set to be operational later this year, it is remarkable that American pundits continue to be befuddled by Putin’s motives, seemingly forgetting how the United States and Russia marched to the brink of nuclear war sixty years ago at the height of the Cold War, when Russia planted its missiles 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Putin emphasized the point this past December, to any who might have been listening: “Are we deploying missiles near the US border? No, we are not. It is the United States that has come to our home with its missiles and is already standing at our doorstep.”
The conventional wisdom is that Putin’s goal is to rewrite the post-World War II borders and rebuild the territorial footprint of the Soviet Union, yet over the years he has consistently framed his ambitions as dating farther back in time. Rather than the post-World War II world, he has envisioned a return to the Great Powers world that existed prior to World War I, when regional powers had the latitude to control political affairs within their own domain, unfettered by international law or the dictates of a global superpower. On February 4th, with little fanfare in the American media, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping — who has long shared Putin’s resentment at living under the heavy hand of US dictates — announced the return to just such an era, as together they affirmed Russia’s freedom of action over Ukraine, and China’s similar rights with respect to Taiwan.
But things turned out not to be as simple as they seemed just a month ago. As Thomas Friedman wrote the other day, this week we saw “a raw, 18th-century-style land grab by a superpower — but in a 21st-century globalized world. This is the first war that will be covered on TikTok by super-empowered individuals armed only with smartphones, so acts of brutality will be documented and broadcast worldwide without any editors or filters.” And so it has been. We watched this week as elementary school kids climbed out of a basement in eastern Ukraine, after their school was shelled by Russian troops. We heard about the Russian soldiers who laid down their arms, saying they thought they were there to gather intelligence, but had no interest in shooting people. We watched a national leader become a global hero, as the Ukrainian President stood his ground, urged his fellow citizens to stand up against Russian aggression, and refused US offers to fly him out of the country. And we watched as an overwhelmingly powerful military found out that things were not going to be as easy as they had thought. All in real time.
This week, just a day after China endorsed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China declined to vote with Russia in the UN Security Council against a resolution deploring Putin’s action. Xi Jingping, who just four weeks ago announced a new world order, seemed to have had his own calculus regarding any military move against Taiwan abruptly upended. Putin did Xi the favor of testing the waters this week, and it turns out the water is very, very cold. Just a few days ago it appeared that the rising group of authoritarians across the globe might help Putin not just win the day, but win the future. Now, he is facing global condemnation, and Xi Jingping has abruptly turned his back.
Just days ago Vladimir Putin was demanding Ukraine’s unilateral disarmament and surrender as the price of starting peace talks. Now, peace talks have begun with no preconditions. Perhaps what we thought just a few weeks ago might actually be true; that this is the 21st century, and there are things that you just can’t do anymore.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Follow him on Twitter @joedworetzky or Instagram at @joefaces.