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Putin’s Ukraine War Is Not About NATO, But Dead Imperial Dreams

Russia
Image: Creative Commons.

Revanchism Drives Putin’s Ukraine War: Last week, as Finland and Sweden joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russian President Vladimir Putin made a startling confession: he had no objection to those two countries joining NATO. His reasoning was that Russia had no territorial disputes with them, but it did with Ukraine. This flew in the face of his claim for months, years even, that NATO is a threat to Russia.

Putin Can No Longer Explain His War

At this point, Putin’s logic for the war is absurdly contorted. For months, he argued that it was primarily about NATO expansion. He claimed his war was with the West, and that he was defending Russia against looming Western depredation. This rhetoric seems mostly designed for a Western audience – to turn the war debate in the West into an internecine fight over whether we provoked it or not.

But domestically, Putin has served up traditional Russian nationalism. Ukraine does not exist, Putin has asserted. It is not meaningfully independent of Russia or the ‘Russian world.’ Putin even took to comparing himself to Peter the Great, strongly signaling a traditional Russian imperialist approach to the smaller peoples on Russia’s fringes.

Yet now, with NATO expanding to the Russian border, again, he asserts that that is not so important after all. That is almost certainly a lie. Putin is likely worried. The expansion undercuts his casus belli, but he lacks the political and military strength to contest it, so he must feign nonchalance. He similarly lied when he asserted that Russia would ‘mirror’ any NATO force deployments in Finland. Russia no longer has the conventional strength to do that. Its army is being chewed up in Ukraine.

NATO Expansion is a Reason for the War, But Hardly the Main One

In a general sense, NATO has motivated Russian strategic concern for decades, including during the Cold War of course. And Russia has signaled its rejection of NATO expansion for years. But this concern only makes sense if NATO is offensively oriented, or offers membership to states over which Russia has some special say.

The former claim – that NATO has offensive intentions – is one Putin will naturally make, but it is totally unconvincing. NATO has never attacked the Soviet Union or Russia. Western states did intervene briefly in the Russian civil war, but that was a century ago and circumstances have changed. Most obviously, Russia now has nuclear weapons. Even if NATO wanted to attack Russia, which it does not, that would be suicidal.

More importantly, there is no hint in NATO public opinion, defense budgets, or procurement that NATO has such intentions. The western public resoundingly rejected imposing a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine for fear of escalation with Russia. Even if public opinion supported confrontation, Europe’s militaries are much too small. 

Europe required American support to undertake the small Libyan War of 2011, and Germany, the core would-be opponent of Russia if NATO were aggressive, badly lacks the military to execute such a conflict.

The second claim – that Russia has special rights in Eastern Europe – is the real reason Moscow rejects NATO expansion. And that is not really about NATO at all, but rather, Russia’s demand for a sphere of influence, regardless of the beliefs of the people in it. The strongest evidence of that is the desperation of so many countries near Russia to join NATO.

Putin and the Russian elite retain the czarist-Soviet belief that it should be able to dominate or bully the smaller peoples around the Russian heartland. So Russia’s reasoning is not really NATO at all, but revanchism. It rejects NATO expansion because it rejects the foreign policy independence of the smaller peoples near it – Chechens, Georgians, Ukrainians, and so on.

The Imperialist Hangover in Russian Strategic Culture

To allay Russian anxieties, NATO only sparsely stationed Western military equipment and forces within the new easter members’ borders. A serious expansion only began in 2017, when Putin’s belligerence after the 2014 absorption of Crimea became undeniable. These forces are still quite light. This is nothing like the NATO of the Cold War, which Putin never admits to his own public.

Instead, the driver is Russia’s imperial refusal to be a smaller, reduced power if that means the autonomy of non-Russian peoples near it. If Russian great-power status requires the subjugation of peoples near it, so be it. The war has brought this impulse in Russian strategic culture to the fore. 

The West may only be awakening to this, but it is the core reason so many states in eastern Europe wanted – and want – to join NATO. They do not believe Russia has shed its imperialist instincts. And Putin, with his well-known lament for the USSR’s collapse and constant meddling in his neighbor’s politics, signals this repeatedly. No one in eastern Europe trusts Putin to respect their sovereignty. 

Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a military parade on Victory Day, which marks the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2022. 

Hence if the Ukraine war is driven by ‘NATO expansion,’ that is better understood as what NATO offers – a reprieve to members from Russian meddling and potential invasion. NATO is endogenous to that impulse. That is a persistent element of Russian strategic culture, and the hankering to join NATO among Russia’s neighbors will not cease until it respects their sovereignty.

The imperialist mindset hangs on in post-imperial states where foreign control is associated with greatness and glory. Even America had a bitter experience with this hangover when it returned the Panama Canal to Panama in 1980. Britain and France also have struggled with their reduced status since World War II. But in the Russian case, the step back from empire has hardly begun. And the war will drag on because of it.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRobertEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Goran

    July 14, 2022 at 4:21 pm

    I am appalled by the cowardice of high ranking officers in the Russian security apparatus who are letting this gnat Putin inflict this much damage to Russian society.

  2. magneto

    July 14, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Russia is a joke, although the mayhem it is causing is not a joke. Economy smaller than South Korea, and as evidenced by their poor performance in Ukraine, a military that is seriously unprofessional. Russia has always had an unhealthy obsession with acquiring other countries territory. This, despite having the largest country in the world. I believe that russians take their vast land territory for granted and only get excited about acquiring other territories.
    What the Ukraine conflict has shown is that Russia’s claim to be a great power is a sham, as evidenced by their failures to subdue Ukraine. The use of ancient Soviet weapons in Ukraine by russia shows it to be a backward country, hoping the world will swallow the tissue of lies it has invented to invade Ukraine.

  3. Jim

    July 14, 2022 at 6:10 pm

    I remember the Libyan War, at the time the West’s excuse was “R2P”, the Right to Protect (I thought it was bogus because it was really about regime change and not liking Gadofi for his supposed sins against the West and his independence.).

    The author of this article at the end spills the beans and contradicts his own thesis: The West has no aims against Russia, it’s all about Russian ambitions (and paranoia).

    But then he cites Fareed Zakaria, RUSSIA IS THE LAST MULTINATIONAL EMPIRE, FIGHTING TO KEEP ITS COLONIES.

    The point of Zakaria article is that Russia could (should) be broken up into four or five statelets.

    The author has the audacity to claim the West has no aims against Russia then cites Zakaria. Give me a break.

    In terms of the present war in Ukraine, it has been ongoing since 2014 when the U.S. supported a coup. Followed by the Minsk II agreement which was entered into in bad faith and done to “buy time” according to former President Poroshenko.

    During that time the Ukraine military randomly shelled the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine who had objected to the coup, over 10,000 died, mostly the residents in the breakaway regions, many calling these actions terror bombing. Then in the days before the war & invasion Ukraine stepped up the random shelling, in one day over a thousand shells were lobbed into the Donbas.

    Evidence exists, but must be developed, that Ukraine had a plan to attack the Donbas in a blitzkrieg. (Maybe that is why Zelensky played coy and repeatedly said no invasion was going to take place, so as to get Russia to pull back and then launch the attack when Russia was on its back foot.) We may never be able to pin down the veracity of that claim.

    The idea that NATO should expand up to Russia’s border and that if Russia feels threatened, too bad, is simply not Realism. It is the attitude of Empire.

    Pound sand diplomacy is the action of an Empire, not a Republic that has mutual respect for other nation-states’ security interests.

    Empire scribes… almost always make rationals for the Empire, while dismissing the concerns of other nation-states that refuse to bow down to the empire.

    I, as an American, refuse to support policies that appear to be nothing but the ambitions & greed of an Empire. And which make the American People suffer (“We must sacrifice for the Empire.”)

    This Ukraine project was wrong-headed from the beginning, and is immoral now: killing Ukrainians & Russians, so as to weaken Russia, treating Ukraine like a doormat so the collective West (really Washington) can bang on and breakdown the Russian door.

    The American People are getting wise and those responsible for this war (American diplomatic failure, refusal to engage diplomacy in good faith) will be held accountable by those who love our Republic and refuse to let it be turned into an Empire “nobody could love” except the scribes & grifters who live off the blood spilled by Empire.

    • Walkergw

      July 15, 2022 at 1:42 am

      Russian Troll says what?

      • Jim

        July 15, 2022 at 10:38 am

        No, just a run-of-mill American willing to confront zombie warmongers who always & reliably cheer for blood & guts, as long as it’s somebody else’s blood, whether American or foreign.

    • Him

      July 15, 2022 at 2:17 am

      The use of deceptive language is how sneaky people try to receive the simple-minded. Often, the deceivers are deceived themselves. The Bible calls such people “deceiving and deceived”.

      The prime way you fool people is to describe it as “NATO should expand up to Russia’s borders”. When you use words like that, of course you fool the people to say that NATO should not “expand”.

      When when you have a Hitler-like Putin — and a nation of foolish Russians who are happy to live under Dictators for 100 years, and happy to send soldiers to die for lies that the Dictators feed them for 100 years – then, border countries need protection.

      When border countries, like Poland, Baltic states, Romania etc run from Russia to seek protection, that is not “NATO expanding”. That is people seeking protection from Russian mania.

      I strongly suspect that you, Jim, believe what you wrote. That puts you in the category of “deceiving, and deceived”.

      I’ll put it in language that you probably can understand:

      If you have beaten your wife for decades (as Russia has killed and terrorised the people who lived under Communism), and she runs to the police for help, that is not your wife expanding the police presence. That is the wife running for protection.

      I have talked to people who lived under Russian communism in the Baltic States, in Romania and in former East Germany. They all have stories of the evil that the Russians did to their people under the Russian occupation.

      Consider: it is the dark evil of the Russian soul – even in the people who tolerate their brutal Russian dictators – that cause its neighbouring countries to seek protection against Russia.

      And the deception is to call that “NATO expanding”.

      As said, Jim, you probably believe your own propaganda. That is the nature of the foolish people who are manipulated by the powerful.

      The stupid people of this world are easily fooled by deceptive language, because they don’t think to test whether the words are accurate. And that is why people like you, Jim, succeed in fooling so many people, and fool yourself. That’s why dictatorships control so many people like yourself, because people like you deceive and are self-deceived.

      • Jim

        July 15, 2022 at 11:18 am

        Yes, I do believe what I wrote.

        However, there is no deception, self or otherwise.

        You write of the Soviets, that was over 30 years ago. Since that time Russia’s behavior is markedly different.

        Your “wife beater” analogy is a false comparison after the fall of the Soviet Union (before its fall, it does seem apt)… at the time I did support NATO expansion (Poland for obvious historical reasons) because I, and almost all Americans, did not know it was part of a larger plan to dismember Russia as Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard makes clear, the “grand prize” in his book is Russian dismemberment.

        The U.S. recruited Ukraine for NATO membership (Bush called for NATO membership in 2008).

        I assume you are a Christian, so am I, but saying all Russians have a “dark soul” is an unchristian characterization for an entire People. (It also ignores the remarkable resurgence of Christianity after 70 odd years of enforced atheism.)

        Christians who cheerlead death & destruction should look in the mirror in humble self-reflection.

        Actually, I’m a free thinking Christian who follows the evidence and is skeptical of the powerful.

        It’s the “powerful” who wanted this war, think about that. Actually, it seems you are projecting your own manipulated state of mind, following the powerful. Again, look in the mirror.

  4. Ghost Tomahawk

    July 15, 2022 at 12:31 am

    We sit here in our ivory tower looking down on everyone and berating Russia for imperialism and interfering in nations affairs… yet the last 30+ years of US foreign policy is exactly what Russia is doing.

    But Russia is the bad guy… with our political class all over the world peddling influence and profiteering on corruption.

    Those who live in glass houses…

    My position on this has been to not get involved. Let the euro trash who have been paying lip service to defense for decades sort this out. If they can’t beat Russia… then it sux to be them. Sorry America can’t continue to save the world from itself and it’s lazy socialist wannabe nation states.

  5. Walkergw

    July 15, 2022 at 1:50 am

    Ding ding ding! Winner winner, chicken dinner!

    Putin doesn’t care about the world outside. There is only two things that Putin cares about. Staying in power, and rebuilding the Russian empire as he takes the downfall of the USSR as a personal insult. So the real danger isn’t with Norway and Sweden. It comes with previous USSR member stated as members of NATO. If Putin believes he can, he will try to “repatriate” some NATO states such as Lithuania, Poland and other Eastern European countries. This will almost invariably lead to Nuclear war. And so he must be stopped and he must lose against Ukraine. It is the only way for peace in Europe.

  6. Harald Ullrich

    July 15, 2022 at 2:40 am

    A voice from Germany: I find this article inconsistent in several respects. The argument throughout is that NATO (which probably also means U.S. dominance in NATO) is not aggressive and that the West has never attacked the Soviet Union or Russia.
    Missing from this view to me is a discussion of the American-led policy of containment, which resulted in the intellectual blueprint for the 40-year cold war and a whole list of (proxy) wars and conflicts: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chile, Cuba (including attempts to assassinate Castro), Guatemala, and other South and Central American states.
    It was also forgotten to mention that a whole list of coups d’état and interventions by the U.S. and, to some extent, its allies in other states is almost standing practice.
    These are not conspiracy theories but are partially documented and were confirmed only a few days ago by former presidential advisor and U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton very freely in a CNN interview.
    Finally, there is no consideration of the military assets maintained by different countries. After all, these means would ultimately be the basis for “empire” policies.
    Again, it is not Russia that is in the first place, but the USA.
    Officially reported U.S. military spending in 2021 was $801 billion. This was as high as the combined military spending of the next 10 countries. In order of size, the next 5 behind the USA are China ($293 billion), India (76), the UK (68) and Russia (65).
    I served 23 years as an officer in the german armed forces.

  7. from Russia with love

    July 15, 2022 at 6:02 am

    one of two things – either the author of the article is stupid or the author of the article writes for stupid people.
    The article is a bunch of fraud and outright lies.
    from the very first lines, the author begins to invent “Putin’s theses”, which Putin never said, and refute them with a clever vmdom. I figured it out, I disproved it myself. victory! 🙂
    with the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO, is NATO coming to the borders of Russia? author, open a geographical map. the Baltic countries are already in NATO and already near the Russian border, and Finland and Sweden have long been cooperating with NATO and their entry into NATO is nothing more than a formality. yes, officially giving Russia the right to take retaliatory measures, but a formality.
    NATO is not an aggressive alliance? after the attacks on Iraq, Libya, Serbia, Afghanistan, Syria… is he serious? Who is he writing this for?
    fight imperial ambitions? the author can start right now! to give the peoples of America self-determination. return power to the indigenous population – the Indians, and send all migrants to their homeland (whites to the EU and England, blacks to Africa). is the author ready for this experiment, or when it comes to the United States, does his “morality” and “conscience” turn off? 🙂

    • Omega 13

      July 15, 2022 at 11:01 am

      ROTFLMAOAY!

      You need to work on your troll game, tovarishch.

      • from Russia with love

        July 16, 2022 at 5:05 am

        that’s all what can you say? what a pitiful sight 🙂
        but your presence here explains why the author of the article wrote this nonsense for fools.

  8. David Tate

    July 15, 2022 at 9:13 am

    I don’t buy into the notion that Russia has “Imperialist” dreams. Let’s keep in mind that the European Union and NATO have expanded to the East, relentlessly following the end of the Cold War. The United States and European Union have overwhelming economic superiority over Russia. The US and European Union generate over $39 Trillion in annual GDP while Russia generates far less than $2 Trillion in annual GDP. NATO holds overwhelming military superiority over the Russian Federation. NATO member states spend over $1 Trillion annually on defense. The Russians spend less than $70 Billion annually on defense. NATO is the most powerful military alliance on Earth. It is interesting that European monarchs, kings, pontiffs, tyrants, and totalitarians have dreamed of a unified Europe with a military and economic “empire” stretching from the Atlantic Coast to the Ural Mountains. This notion dates back to Charlemagne. Napoleon is an example of an emperor that attempted to unify Europe under an economic and military coalition. The Russians defended themselves against two major military alliances in the first half of the 20th Century. These disasters resulted in the collapse of the Russian government and economy a number of times between 1914 and 1945. These European coalitions also inflicted well over 20 million casualties on Russia between 1914 and 1945.

    • Goran

      July 15, 2022 at 9:42 am

      The empires you are talking about, the EU and NATO, countries have to apply to join. That does not seem menacing, now does it? Comparing a process of EU accession that is structured and democratic to Russia grabbing a country by its limbs, clubbing it and dragging it into its prehistoric cave are two very different processes. It’s like wondering why nobody wants to be strapped down in your basement while amusement parks all over the world strap people down on a regular basis. Double standards 🙂

    • Omega 13

      July 15, 2022 at 10:59 am

      Russia has always been a paper tiger. Look at how their vaunted military is being chewed up by the corrupt Ukrainians? They’ve always been like that. All bluster. Pfah

  9. marcjf

    July 15, 2022 at 11:47 am

    The Monroe Doctrine assigns [assumed] special rights to the USA. So what is so different to Russia assuming it has special rights in its sphere of influence?

    The reasons for this war are many and varied, but I suspect if Russia could have secured its percieved interests through peace, it would have done so. It decided that was not possible, so chose war.

    It takes two to tango, so this is not a manichean struggle between good and eveil, and all sides must bear some of the blame.

    I’d like to see peace break out but frankly don’t see that as likely just now.

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