What are the causes of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine and why have they created Europe’s most serious conflict since World War II? The answer is in the mind of President Vladimir Putin, the only person in today’s Russia with the authority to go to war.
Richard Betts warns in his seminal work Surprise attack: lessons for defense planning, ‘Pure bolts from the blue do not happen. Sudden attacks occur after prolonged political conflict.’
I must stress that I do not agree with any of Putin’s views. However, it is important for us to record what he says—and he says a lot—and to understand how he thinks.
We need to discuss three major issues: Putin’s perception of why the USSR collapsed more than 30 years ago and what he claims was Russia’s humiliation by an America that proclaimed it won the Cold War; his views about the eastward extension of NATO and its alleged threat to Russia; and the creation of a nation-state called Ukraine 30 years ago and why Putin wrongly considers it part of Russia.
Putin has described the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 as the most serious geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He witnessed the USSR go from being a peer competitor of the US to becoming a bankrupt power whose GDP collapsed by over 40% in 12 months. Russian citizens lost their life savings, jobs, apartments and perks with the communist party. There were huge shortages and queues for basic foodstuffs, widespread hunger and, it is said, even famine in some remote parts of the USSR.
Rodric Braithwaite, UK ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992 and chairman of London’s Joint Intelligence Committee from 1992 to 1993, says America and its allies ‘failed to avoid triumphalism’ over the disintegration of the Soviet empire. The belief in Washington that America won the Cold War, and that it was now the world’s sole superpower, ‘led America into one diplomatic misjudgement after another in the next three decades’. Braithwaite considers that the Americans acted as if Russia’s foreign and domestic policy was theirs to shape. He quotes President Bill Clinton’s adviser, Strobe Talbott, as saying, ‘Russia is either coming our way, or it’s not, in which case it is going to founder, as the USSR did.’
The rotting Soviet economy was declining so rapidly that President Mikhail Gorbachev was begging Washington for a sort of Marshall Plan, involving loans of US$100–150 billion. President George H.W. Bush was facing his own acute budgetary problems and his Treasury secretary, Nicholas Brady, advised that it would be ‘an absolute disaster’ to give the Soviets ‘any money to stay as they are’. Brady went on to articulate America’s strategic priority: ‘What is involved is changing Soviet society so that it can’t afford a defence system. If the Soviets go to a market system, then they can’t afford a large defence establishment. A reform program would turn them into a third-rate power, which is what we want.’
Bush, advised by Brady, also opposed the idea of providing the Soviets with ‘maneuvering room’ for paying their debts. Brady was firmly against the idea of a massive Western financial package to stabilise Russia’s economy in its transition to capitalism. He said: ‘We have just had a momentous triumph for our values and for our vital interests. I think we are in a strong position not to be rushed into hasty decisions. We should be able to resist pressures for large-scale cash assistance.’ Instead, Congress approved US$400 million annually to help dismantle and control Soviet nuclear weapons, including those in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Braithwaite claims that all this seeped into the Russian public consciousness and aroused an overwhelming sense of humiliation and resentment which coloured the making of Russian policy for decades ‘and was persistently underestimated by Western policymakers and commentators’. In Braithwaite’s view, Western diplomacy towards Russia and Eastern Europe has been by turns arrogant and incompetent.
Many commentators don’t agree with Braithwaite’s interpretation of the reasons for the Soviet collapse. They consider it was more to do with the bumbling financial incompetence of authorities still captured by their state planning ideology. They also point to the disastrous impact on the Soviet state of the deadly political war between Yeltsin and Gorbachev.
So, how was NATO’s enlargement handled? Robert Hunter, the US ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998, observes that NATO at its 1997 summit, following the conclusion of the NATO–Russia Founding Act, found Russia to be deeply opposed to any idea of NATO membership for Ukraine. Hunter records that the prevailing view in the Bush administration was that, since the Soviet Union had lost the Cold War, the US and NATO ‘could do as they pleased’. He notes that increasingly evident revanchist Russian impulses, backed by an emerging capacity to act on them, were ignored.
Hunter observes that Putin’s presentation at the Munich Security Conference in January 2007 was notable for its bluntness. Putin said NATO expansion represented a serious provocation that reduced mutual trust. ‘And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?’ He then quoted the speech of NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990: ‘The fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.’
There are many different views about what promises were, or were not, given to Moscow about NATO’s expansion. Mary Sarotte in her recent book, Not one inch: America, Russia, and the making of post-Cold War stalemate, argues that on 9 February 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker, in conversation with Gorbachev, proposed: ‘Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no US forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?’ The Soviet leader replied that any expansion of the ‘zone of NATO’ was not acceptable. And, according to Gorbachev, Baker answered, ‘We agree with that.’
Some claim that there’s no record of the Baker–Gorbachev exchange. But Sarotte footnotes her source as West German chancellery documents in a letter that Baker sent on 10 February 1990 to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, recording his meeting with Gorbachev the previous day. Sarotte also quotes from National Security Agency records that Robert Gates, deputy head of the National Security Council, posed the same question to KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov in KGB headquarters on 9 February 1990. That record states that Gates thought the idea that ‘NATO troops would move no further east than they now were’ was ‘a sound proposal’. US authorities continue to point to the lack of any written agreement afterwards as a sign that the secretary of state and Gates ‘had only been test-driving one potential option of many’.
In his 2016 book, The new Russia, Gorbachev reflects that the issue of enlarging NATO was just one manifestation of America’s triumphalism after ‘winning’ the Cold War and its ‘superpower illusions’ (using the words of former US ambassador Jack Matlock), which reached their apogee—said Gorbachev—during the Bush administration. Gorbachev concluded, ‘I believe there is a desire to keep Russia half strangled as long as possible.’
Of course, former Warsaw Pact members had an entirely different view about NATO’s expansion after 40 years of subjugation by the USSR. They had experienced violent occupation by Moscow, not least in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Rather than organically expanding at America’s behest—as some commentators suggest—NATO was enlarged at the specific request of Eastern European countries for obvious security reasons.
Debates about Russian membership of NATO were resolved 30 years ago, basically in the negative. Russia was considered too big to join NATO because it would dominate Europe. That geopolitical judgement still holds: Russia is too huge and unpredictable for integration within the Western orbit. That certainly can’t be considered a legitimate reason to invade Ukraine.
Putin’s perception of Ukraine as part of Russia has been rightly utterly rejected by the vast number of Ukrainians of both Russian and Ukrainian descent now defending their homeland from Russia’s brutal invasion. Putin’s refusal to accept that Ukraine is a separate country is outrageous.
In 1991, Gorbachev’s aide, Georgy Shakhnazarov, advised him that Russia should officially declare that the Crimea, Donbas and southern parts of Ukraine ‘constitute historical parts of Russia, and Russia does not intend to give them up, in case Ukraine leaves the Union’. But apparently Gorbachev never followed this up with either Boris Yeltsin or the president-elect of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Putin allegedly authored a paper in July 2021 titled, ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, a 7,000-word diatribe arguing that Russians and Ukrainians are one people sharing essentially ‘the same historical and spiritual space’’ He argues that modern Ukraine is ‘entirely the product of the Soviet-era’ and claims that Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game turning it into a barrier between Europe and Russia, ‘a springboard against Russia’.
Putin’s real fear is that the continuation of an independent, democratic Ukraine will contaminate Russia and threaten his position as president. The Maidan revolution in Kyiv in February 2014 that led to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich’s pro-Russian regime continues to haunt Putin. A month later, in March 2014, Putin ordered the invasion and occupation of Crimea.
Putin even claims, ‘It would not be an exaggeration to say that … the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.’ He threatens to ‘never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that this way they will destroy their own country.’ Putin quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the son of a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother, that historically Russians and Ukrainians ‘constituted a single people’ and that post-Soviet Russia should preserve its Slav core consisting of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus populated by ‘three fraternal peoples’.
Underlying Putin’s posturing is his aim to re-establish Russia as a great power (velikaya derzharva). His view is that without dominance over Ukraine, Russia cannot be a great power and that a Ukraine closely associated with NATO—even remaining outside the alliance—is a threat to Russia.
Putin now believes Russia can demand that its role as a great power be obeyed. But he has seriously overreached and his barbaric attack on Ukraine promises to permanently make Russia a pariah state. Only Putin’s removal can bring any hope of resolution to this bitter conflict.
So, what does the future look like? It’s predictable that Russia and Ukraine will remain enemies for life. And given that Putin may have further territorial ambitions in the Baltic countries, there’s a heightened risk of a Russian war with NATO that could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Putin must consider future contingencies both at home and overseas that threaten Russia’s very existence. The risk here is that an isolated and declining Russia with a terminally damaged reputation will be even more dangerous.
Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. His book The Soviet Union: the incomplete superpower was published in 1986. This first appeared in ASPIs the Strategist.