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

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. 


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 ( 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. 

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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.