Round Table Presentation
What Motivated Russia to Invade Ukraine?
Robert C. Felder
June 2, 2022
Robert Felder is a retired U.S. Ambassador who splits his time between Florida and Argentina. He is a member of a private and exclusive 100-year-old club (“The Round Table”) in Buenos Aires whose membership is limited to 21 and always includes 7 Argentines, 7 Americans, and 7 “Brits”. Eight times a year the group assembles and, in rotation, one of the members presents a speech on a topic of his own choosing. The group then discusses that topic, followed by dinner. The speech printed here was presented on June 2, 2022.
I have chosen a somewhat risky and inevitably controversial subject for this evening. Risky in the sense that events could overtake parts of my presentation at any time. Controversial in that we have all watched events unfold in Ukraine over these past few months and have developed our own views about what I am going to address. I ask that when you hear declarative statements in this paper about one or another matter, you understand that I am merely expressing a viewpoint. I hardly claim that I know more than you or anyone else. There is no settled truth about any aspect of this subject. It will probably take historians years to have a clear and conclusive understanding of what went down. So why have I chosen this topic? In truth, I thought about a number of others, but I kept coming back to this, which seems to have formed part of many of my lengthy conversations with friends through March and April. I hope this paper leads to vigorous debate this evening about what I am addressing or any other aspect of the war in Ukraine.
Also, please understand that this paper is not intended to justify in any way what Putin and Russia have done in Ukraine, but simply to attempt to understand it at least a little better. I doubt anyone here would disagree with the proposition that this war has been horrendous and shameful. There have been extraordinary violations of basic human rights and what we have come to consider western civilizational norms. Watching videos and pictures of destruction in Aleppo, parts of Iraq or Yemen, for example, discomfit us. But similar scenes from Mariupul and elsewhere in Ukraine almost make us want to wretch. This is, after all, the Christian west. We thought this kind of war and this kind of destruction would not recur in Europe. Putin, his accolytes and Russian soldiers have almost certainly committed war crimes. Both Presidents Biden and Trump have spoken of genocide, although in April, Biden took the position that that particular determination would eventually have to be made by the International Criminal Court or other appropriate international tribunal.
Yet, at the same time, we should recognize that we live in a world in which governments use and manipulate information to condition public opinion. This is the case regarding both domestic politics and international relations. And it certainly is the case when war is involved. “Truth is the first casualty of war” is a saying attibutable to the ancient world. Winston Churchill offered a modern corollary when he justified anti Nazi propaganda by noting at a Teheran conference in November 1943, that “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a body of lies”.
We are all well past a time when we would accept uncritically as truth whatever political, military, intelligence or media sources tell us. We have vivid memories of being assured by all of the above that the existence of weapons of mass destruction justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That error led to a decade of warfare, the virtual destruction of Iraq as it existed, the loss of thousands of U.S., allied and Iraqi soldiers at a cost of over $100 billion. And then there were many years of bogus information about Afghanistan. This is not to say that we should distrust whatever we read about this war. Only that we should be aware of this propensity by all sides to mislead.
Just to begin with, Putin’s early assertions that the invasion was to rid Ukraine of anti-semitism and corrupton was blatant propaganda and poorly done propaganda at that. He doubled down on this line just a few weeks ago on May 9 when he used the annual commemoration of the victory over Nazi Germany to essentially say that the invasion was a preemptive strike to prevent an assault on Russia led by U.S. backed neo-Nazis. “The danger was growing day by day”, he said, “So Russia…took a forced, timely and correct decison…We saw how military infrastructure was being developed, how hundreds of foreign advisors began to work and regular deliveries of modern weapons from NATO countries were occuring”. He told Russian troops that they were fighting for the motherland… “so there is no place in the world for torturers, death squads and Nazis”. These comments could reasonably be described as agitation propaganda, or agit prop. They were clearly directed at his domestic political audience and troops. Again, fully understandable in the context of war, but not to be believed. Yes, there have been important voices in the west for some years now calling for an arms buildup in Ukraine. But not a single voice I have heard has suggested using them to attack Russia.
My view is that there is no one answer as to why Russia invaded Ukraine. I think many factors contributed, although some inevitably weighed more heavily than others. I remember from my years of service in government that many arguments were habitually presented for and against a particular course of action before decisions were taken. I remember, for example, that Colin Powell told me in a semi-private setting well after he left office as Secretary of State that the decision to invade Iraq was not based exclusively on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction program. There were at least two other significant motivations.
In 2009, George Friedman, who is a world class futurologist and political analyst, published a book called “The Next 100 Years”. In it, he predicted that Russia would become increasingly aggressive and that, sometime around 2020, its aggression would result in an invasion of Ukraine. In April of this year, he wrote that “My goal has been to try to provide a roadmap of the future, one built around the forces that compel and constrain nations…If I was right in 2009, then there was no mitigation possible…The men and women sleeping and dying on the cold ground in Ukraine are there…because the Russians were not going to permanently accept their fate and because Ukraine did not want to share Russia’s fate…If Putin had never been born, someone else would seek to reconstruct the Russian Empire”.
Now that is quite a remarkable feat of prognostication. Not only did he get the basic fact of the invasion right 13 years before it happened; he almost hit the timing right on the head. Without rejecting his premise regarding strong and abiding Russian nationalism, I do not fully agree with his underlying historical determinism. My own view is that there are alternative scenarios that could have played out, war was not inevitable, and individual leaders can affect events and their outcomes, including war and peace. Putin has brought to his role his own particular background and set of beliefs. A former KGB operative, he has an acutely nationalist bent not perceived in his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Yet, he is not out of the Russian mainstream. Up to the Ukraine invasion, according to what is regarded as serious polling, he was considered favorably by a majority of the Russian electorate. This is way down from the 80 percent approval rating he enjoyed only a few years ago. Of course, it can reasonably be argued that, by controlling information, Putin’s regime has shaped Russian public opinion as much or more than it has reflected it. This has become less the case in recent years as the internet has accelerated the flow of information to people and may well account for the drop-in support for the regime. At the same time, domestic support levels for leaders in the West at anything like 60 percent is virtually unthinkable. More about this later.
Clearly, Putin’s words since he took power 17 years ago have struck chords with the Russian people. And even if George Friedman´s vision back in 2009 was not to be fully believed, we in the west should, perhaps, have been listening more closely to Putin, and paying more attention to his geopolitical concerns and, to the extent deemed appropriate, taking actions of different kinds to head off what has happened in Ukraine since February.
In his State of the Union address all the way back in April 2005, Putin said “First and foremost, it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest political catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory”. In 2018, in the lead up to the Russian Presidential election that year, he told a reporter that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the single most important event in Russian history that he would like to change. In a documentary called ¨¨Russia, A New History¨, released in December 2021, Putin asked rhetorically “What is the collapse of the Soviet Union? This is the collapse of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union”. These are strong, even passionate words. There are other statements made by Putin and other senior regime figures that could be cited, but these make the point. Putin and his team, and probably many in Russia, maybe even a majority, do not accept what happened in the early 1990´s as a final resolution of Russia’s fate.
Of all the perceived losses perceived to have occurred in 1991, the loss of Ukraine was certainly the most acute. Just before the February invasion, Putin gave a speech in which he said “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space. Ukraine’s borders have no meaning other than to mark a former administrative division of the Soviet Union”. Putin´s argument that Ukraine has always been one and the same with Russia and that it has been repeatedly and forcibly colonized by different western forces has been a defining part of his world view. One that he has, in fact, articulated many times. According to his logic, divisions between Russia and Ukraine have always been the work of outside powers. It was Poland in the 16th century, the Austria Hungarian empire in the 19th century, the Nazis during World War II and, more recently, the European Union and the United States.
As the extraordinary resilience and unity of the Ukrainian population in the current war have demonstrated, these Russian claims are at an absolute minimum debatable. They are probably not reasonable. Saying Ukraine doesn’t really exist is akin to saying Ireland doesn’t really exist because it was long under British rule or that Norwegians are really Swedes. Ukrainians, in fact, have a rich and distinctive history going back centuries.
As noted above, Putin and other Russians have also claimed that Ukraine was a failed state taken over by neo-Nazis. That is false, even absurd. Zelensky is Jewish and, in the 2019 Parliamentary elections, Ukraine’s far right political party, Svoboda, won only 3 percent of the vote.
Putin´s obsession with Ukraine can almost certainly be traced mainly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Until 1991, most of today´s Ukraine had been ruled by Russia for the past 300 years. To Putin and many Russians, their former European empire, as opposed to their Asian empire, was all important. The nation’s great composers, novelists and artists have almost all been European in orientation. The loss of glittering old place names such as Odessa and Sevastopol injured the Russian sense of self. Clearly, there is a profound disagreement over history. Ukraine does not read its history this way, but the Russians, by and large, do.
Beyond historical interpretations, there are geopolitical and economic realities. Ukraine is by far the most significant former Soviet republic after Russia. Its population is almost as large as that of Spain. Before the current invasion, it was among the world´s largest producers of grain, especially wheat. Some argue that high up on Putin’s list of motivations for attempting to seize Ukraine was its oil and gas wealth in the eastern and southern portions of the country. Not that Russia needs more oil and gas, but controlling what Ukraine has might give Russia even more international leverage.
Much has been written about Russia’s fear of military exposure on its western flank. Indeed, as a land power, Russia is inherently vulnerable. Its border with Europe is extremely susceptible to invasion, situated as it is on the north european plain. This flat expanse of land begins in Germany. Just east of the Carpathian Mountains it pivots southward, opening up right on Russia’s doorstep. Historically, it has been a major thoroughfare of western military encroachment. Remember Napoleon and Hitler. The Russians do.
As a result, Russia historically has tried to push its borders as far west as possible. When national borders could not be extended, Russia established buffer zones between itself and Europe. At the height of the USSR, the buffer zone extended well into Central Europe. That is obviously no longer the case. Moscow is, indeed, only 300 miles from the Ukraine border.
However, Russia’s real and, I think, legitimate security concerns go well beyond Ukraine. Consider that, in 1989, St Petersburg was 1000 miles from the nearest NATO troops. Today, military bases in Estonia are only 200 miles from that city. Moscow is only 500 miles from Latvia. One of Russia’s consistent demands has been for NATO to stop expanding to the east. Yet, NATO has not stopped expanding since the fall of the USSR, growing from 17 members in 1990 to 30 now. Up to and including the Biden administration, the U.S. has flirted with the idea of including Ukraine in NATO. Vice President Harris said just last year that, in principle, Ukraine would be welcome in NATO. Although inconvenient, we should not dismiss these Russian concerns out of hand or ignore what the U.S. reaction would be, and indeed has been in the past, to the stationing of hostile military forces near our border.
Beyond that, the narrative of Western betrayal has figured prominently in Moscow´s rhetoric for decades. In a speech at a Munich security conference in 2007, Putin accused the west of violating a pledge by considerably enlarging NATO, most especially with the inclusion of the Baltic states in 2004. He asked, “What happened to the assurances our western partners gave after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact”.
What was that supposed pledge all about? Secretary of State Baker, in a meeting with President Gorbachev in February 1990 on the status of a reunited Germany agreed, in fact, that NATO would not expand beyond Germany. The then NATO Secretary General said the same thing in a speech in May 1990. Russia and the west finally struck a deal in September 1990, that would allow NATO to station troops beyond the Iron Curtain, but the deal only concerned a reunified Germany. The Soviet Union still existed, and the countries of eastern Europe were still part of the Warsaw Pact that was not dissolved until July 1991. So, clearly, when the west was offering the guarantees Putin has referred to, no one knew the Soviet Union would collapse entirely. James Baker’s supposed guarantees in 1990 couldn’t reasonably be expected to be binding in the post 1991 world. In addition, whatever promises were made were given orally and were never recorded in a treaty or other written agreement. The real kickoff of NATÓs enlargement came quite a bit later in 1995 and it was at the request of the Eastern European countries. Membership talks began with Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic in 1997 and these countries became members in 1999.
But diplomatic niceties and forms aside, the eastward expansion of NATO has been a source of Russian geopolitical angst since its inception. At the same time, on the other side, it responded to an historical undercurrent deep within the American psyche and its foreign policy traditions. I ask the group to forgive my concentration on U.S. thinking and policies. In this instance, European countries’ thoughts and political reactions have been and are equally important. I just know less about them.
Although not all have agreed, most foreign policy-oriented Americans have long believed the purpose of U.S. power to be not only security, but also the spread of liberty at home and abroad. As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” That was certainly hyperbole at the time. But successive generations of Americans have taken the exceptionalist calling to heart. Through the power of its example as well as its many interactions, interventions – pick your word – abroad, including World War I, World War II and the Cold War — the United States has succeeded in expanding the footprint of liberal democracy. But the ideological aspirations of the United States have often fueled overreach, producing outcomes at odds with the nation’s idealist ambitions. President William McKinley in 1898 embarked on a war to expel colonial Spain from Cuba, insisting that Americans had to act “in the cause of humanity.” Yet, victory in the Spanish-American War turned the United States itself into an imperial power as it asserted control over Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, including the Philippines. As he prepared the country for entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared before Congress that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” After U.S. forces helped bring the war to a close, he played a leading role in negotiations over the League of Nations, a global body that was to preserve peace through collective action, dispute resolution and disarmament. But such idealist ambitions proved too much even for Americans. The Senate shot down U.S. membership in the League. Closer to the present, John F. Kennedy stated eloquently in his inaugural address “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty”. Less eloquently, George W. Bush proclaimed ,“The Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty,” just before launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the war resulted in far more bloodshed and chaos than liberty. Likewise, two decades of exhaustive U.S. efforts to bring stability and democracy to Afghanistan fell far short. Across these historical episodes, noble ambitions sometimes became divorced from strategic realities. It is through this historical prism that some have viewed the decision to support the expansion of NATO, even right up to Russia’s borders.
To be sure, few can argue that NATO meant well in opening its doors to eastern European countries and even, of course, to Ukraine. Yet was it wise policy? About that, there has been significant debate in western academic circles. One school of thought, certainly the majority both in the U.S. and western Europe, holds that NATO expansion has been enormously successful. It furthered security, stability as well as democratic and economic development in many Eastern Europe countries. Some take the position that, while NATO enlargement was absolutely the right thing to do, NATO may well have been mistaken when it issued the Bucharest summit declaration in 2008 to include the statement that Ukraine and Georgia “Will become members of NATO”. NATO wasn’t ready. Neither were these two countries. The Bucharest declaration, as seen by some analysts, gave Putin an excuse to do what he has ultimately done. However, few agree that NATÓ’s enlargement can be the exclusive justification for Putin’s indiscriminate killing of civilians in Ukraine. He did the same thing previously in Grozny and Aleppo, two cities that nothing to do with NATO.
However, let me cite a few academicians that hold somewhat different points of view:
Alex Pravda of Oxford University has written “Winding up NATO in 1992-1993 and creating a new Euro-Atlantic security organization with the United States and Russia as the leading cofounders would have minimized the likelihood of Russian resentment and efforts to rebuild a sphere of influence. Many in the academic community supported this approach at the time as by far the safest way forward. Unfortunately, hubris plus NATO bureaucratic momentum prevailed”.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, wrote “Expanding NATO was a strategic mistake with regard to our relations with Russia…We could have tried harder to come up with a genuine European security architecture that could have provided an umbrella for new economic relations as well”
Charles Kupchan, Professor at Georgetown School of Foreign Service, has taken the position that “It was a cardinal error to expand NATO and proceed with the construction of a post-Cold War security order that amassed western power against Russia… The U.S. should have stuck with the development of the Partnership for Peace, a more flexible security arrangement that enabled all European states to cooperate with NATO without formally expanding the alliance and drawing new dividing lines”.
Daniel Treisman, a political science professor at UCLA, wrote, “The mistake was not so much expanding NATO as failing to include Russia in a serious way in a new security architecture and a network of mutually beneficial interactions above and beyond NATO. With the exception of the new START treaty, arms control agreements such as the ABM treaty were allowed to atrophy…Regardless of whether NATO should have been expanded, the policy of pretending that Ukraine and Georgia were on the path to membership, when, in fact, they were not, was a uniquely self-defeating approach”.
These expressions of opinion, and I could have cited many more, underscore the view that there might have been another way to restructure security in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, and that Russia almost certainly did feel threatened by NATO expansion. I share the view that suggesting Ukraine and Georgia were on a path to becoming members of NATO was unnecessarily provocative and ultimately mistaken. The west certainly does not want to be forced to assume the NATO treaty´s Article 5 obligations, under which members are obligated to come to the defense of any other member that might be attacked. Witness how the west has delayed or avoided direct military support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion. The U.S. refused to enforce a safe air corridor over Ukraine and also declined to facilitate a Ukrainian request for fighter jets. Some other countries, at least as of early May, had not yet sent Ukraine heavy weapons. Clearly, and thank God, the west does not wish to risk nuclear war and potential mutual annihilation over Ukraine. So why provoke Russia and Putin by frequently raising the specter of Ukrainian membership in NATO? The only answer that occurs to me is that these statements were intended somehow to dissuade Russian military action against Ukraine and constituted a sort of bluff. If that is the case, the bluff evidently failed. Indeed, Putin might well have reasoned that it would be prudent to carry out the invasion before Ukraine was admitted and article 5 guarantees became effective. We know that French President Macron assured Putin in the days leading up to the invasion that Ukraine would not become a NATO member, but those assurances came pretty late, and, as I am arguing, the invasion was not based on one factor alone.
Beyond the reconstruction of greater Russia, Putin’s particular obsession with Ukraine and the matter of NATO expansion, I also want to note that Russia has been goaded by the west in at least three other international situations since Putin became President. I am not suggesting that the west was mistaken to do what it did in any of these cases, although it might well have been. Clearly, Putin took the message that Russian interests were not being taken into account by the west. I believe his inherently intense nationalism was at least exacerbated by these situations. They were:
Serbia and Kosovo. Since at least the beginning of this century, Russia has had particularly strong ties with Serbia. This was partly based on shared Orthodox and Slavic roots and on growing economic interaction, especially in the oil and gas sectors. But the relationship was heavily centered on the question of Kosovo’s independence.
The Kremlin strongly supported Serbia’s opposition to the province’s independence and branded it a violation of international law. Moscow saw it as indirectly threatening the integrity of Russia itself. If the province of Kosovo could become independent without Belgrade’s consent, why could others not do the same? Putin told journalists in 2007 that “It would be hard for us to explain to the different peoples of the North Caucasus why people in one part of Europe have this right, but they do not”. In fact, Chechnya was a very real case of a Russian territory where dissidents advocating independence were still active following their war of independence in the 1990´s. But, with the backing of the U.S., the U.K., France and many other countries, Kosovo declared independence in 2008, which was recognized by the International Court of Justice in 2010. Russia and, of course, Serbia simply had to accept the fait accompli, although many countries, including Russia and Serbia have never recognized Kosovo.
Libya and Gadhafi. The former Soviet Union had developed a tight relationship with Libya beginning in 1976, primarily involving the construction of military bases and military training. Putin subsequently cancelled Libyan debt in return for favorable commercial and construction contracts, more military purchases, and Russian naval access to Benghazi.
The Libyan revolution in 2011, followed by NATOs intervention, has complicated ramifications, beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that Russia opposed the NATO intervention, although it did not block it in the Security Council. Interestingly, Putin criticized Medvedev, who was his stand in as Russian President at that time, for not exercising Russia’s veto right. In the end, Russia lost an ally in Gadhafi. And it lost some $4 billion in commercial contracts, in addition to assured naval access to Benghazi. The Russian perception is that the west again took action to the detriment of Russian interests.
Syria. This situation is even more complex. It is certain that the west, again led by the U.S., has been attempting to bring down the Assad regime. Had they succeeded, Russian interests would have been adversely affected. Syria has been a beachhead for the projection of Russian power in the Middle East. Importantly, under Assad, Russia established a naval base at Tartus in northern Syria. Had Assad fallen, it is reasonable, but not certain, to assume that the base would have been closed or shifted hands. So, in September 2015, Russia formally entered the Syrian civil war as the Assad regime was increasingly under threat. The Russian intervention stopped the advance of opposition forces backed by the west, including Turkey. The situation in Syria further crystallized Russia’s rivalry with the west.
At the risk of being repetitive, I am not suggesting that the west, and in particular the U.S., was mistaken in its approach to Kosovo, Libya, or Syria, although I do think that the results in Libya have been particularly disastrous. The point I am making is simply that these situations contributed to Putin’s mindset regarding rivalry and conflict with the west.
All the factors I have mentioned thus far concern Russia’s foreign policy. Many believe, however, that a significant motivation for the invasion of Ukraine derived from Putin’s fear that, over time, living next to a functioning democracy would undermine his increasingly authoritarian rule. Indeed, viewed exclusively in foreign policy terms, the invasion as such may not completely add up. There was no prospect of Ukraine joining NATO anytime soon and Putin could have achieved some of his other objectives, such as securing independence for the self-declared Donbas republics, with a limited and less costly intervention. The result of the strategy he did adopt has been, thus far, disastrous for Russia and for Ukraine. Putin has turned the Ukrainian population irrevocably against him. Even if the Russian army were more effective than it has proven to be, it almost certainly lacks the capacity to occupy, subdue and hold a country of more than 40 million people. I, myself, am not persuaded by the argument that Putin was frightened by Ukraine’s democratic example. He seems rather to be disdainful and dismissive of President Zelensky and the Ukrainian political system. But I do think it appropriate to take into account the evolving domestic political situation in Russia prior to the invasion as part of the attempt to understand it.
To quote the scholar Daniel Treisman “Starting about four years ago, Putin has been reshaping the system through which he exercises political power. Gone is the soft authoritarianism of his early years, administered in part by liberal economists and technocrats who favored Russia’s integration with the west and sought to attract investors with a show of commitment to the rule of law. Now, Russia is a repressive police state run by a small group of hard-liners…who see Russia as besieged by foreign forces and view hard power and ruthless social controls as the only way to protect the regime. Repression at home did not cause the Russian decision to invade Ukraine, but each supports the other. In this environment of insularity and insecurity, war helps justify domestic repression and the fear of Western influence at home helps justify war.”
Even before the invasion, almost all genuinely independent politicians had been jailed or forced into exile – most notably Alexei Navalny. Between 2015 and 2022, the number of political prisoners in Russia climbed from 36 to 81, according to the Memorial Human Rights Center. Civil society has been severely curtailed in recent years. Many organizations the Kremlin branded as extremist or undesirable were shuttered. Some surviving liberal nonprofit organizations, such as the Levada Center, a respected independent polling entity, and the Russian chapter of Transparency International, have been required to identify themselves as foreign agents. Well prior to the Ukraine invasion, the regime banned all political demonstrations, and thousand have been arrested for violating these bans. The regime has exercised tighter and tighter control over the media. Similarly, anti-government posts on social media have led to prison time. Since 2019, on the Kremlin’s orders, internet providers have had to install equipment that can block, censor, or slow the loading of websites. Although repression has been on the rise gradually since Putin reassumed the Presidency in 2012, it has been accentuated since 2018. One indication of this is that, again according to Levada Center polling, 84% of respondents in 2021 said they would not express opinions about the forthcoming parliamentary elections in a public place.
Economic decline cannot explain Putin’s shift toward greater repression. Although Russia’s economy has been largely stagnant over the past decade, the government hardly lacked resources. In January of this year, the Bank of Russia’s gold and currency reserves were valued at over $630 billion. Periods of anti-government protests in the last decade were triggered by electoral fraud and corruption, not economic grievances.
So, why the embrace of tougher repression? It could be, in part, that in recent years controlling political opposition has become much harder to accomplish. Russian society has continued to modernize. Even as the economy struggled in the past decade, Russians were becoming better educated and more connected. As elsewhere, information ecology (do you mean this to be ‘technology’? in Russia has clearly evolved in recent years. For example, by 2021, more Russians, and many more younger Russians, got their news from the internet than from publicly manipulated television. At the same time, support for liberal values has been growing. When asked which rights and freedoms they consider most important, more and more Russians say freedom of speech (61% in 2021, up from 34% in 2017) and the right to receive information (39% up from 25%), according to Levada Center polls.
In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin’s popularity, as measured by the Levada Center, surged to around 80%. And it stayed at that level until a 2018 decision to raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 63 for women led to a drop that stabilized at around a 65% approval rating in 2020. That seems very high by our standards, but, perhaps not by Putin’s. Consider this: When the Levada Center asked respondents to name politicians they trusted, the proportion mentioning Putin fell from 59% in November 2017 to 33% in January 2022.
It stands to reason that Putin was probably at least somewhat unnerved by these numbers. Given that increased repression had not succeeded in shoring up support for his regime or in reversing the population’s drift toward liberal values, he may very well have calculated that an invasion of Ukraine would provide him with the same kind of domestic political bump that his takeover of Crimea eight years earlier had achieved. I don’t believe that domestic political considerations dominated Putin’s thinking prior to the invasion. He was by no means at risk of losing his grip on power in the short term. However, my surmise is that these considerations must have played some role in his decision to go to war. We have no reliable polling regarding Russian public opinion since the invasion, but given how the situation on the ground has progressed, including the extent of Russian casualties and other losses, I would wager that as time goes by, Putin’s domestic political standing will deteriorate beyond what was portrayed in the recent polls cited above.
The one argument I am loathe to accept regarding the motivation for the war is that Putin is, somehow, crazy. Yes, to us the invasion seems highly irrational and, as I said, the wanton killing and destruction has been virtually unfathomable. But so many authoritarian rulers in the past have been cruel and bloodthirsty. Putin probably sees himself as one of the seminal figures of Russian history imbued with the task of restoring Russian greatness. Yet, his decisions related to this invasion have been highly flawed. He has serially over-estimated Russia’s own non-nuclear power while underestimating Ukrainian resolve. He miscalculated NATO’s reaction and the building strength of Western sanctions. His initial battle tactics were seriously flawed. But none of this means he is deranged. I believe he has been the victim of a system he himself established in which he has only a few trusted advisors, and in which dissenting views have not been welcome. He probably was led to believe that the war would be over in a week. When it wasn’t, Russian vulnerabilities were uncovered, and new decisions had to be taken. Those, in turn, appear to have resulted in further errors.
But why now? Why in February 2022? Some have asserted that Putin is ill and have published pictures of him looking ashen or tightly gripping furniture. This to suggest that he has a health imperative to rush forward with his grand dreams. I saw a few pictures of myself the other day that I had to beg my wife not to send to my children and grandchildren. As far as I know, I am not sick. In other words, while I’m no doctor, I am not at all convinced Putin is mortally sick and that his health strongly affected the timing of the Ukraine invasion.
Another point related to timing: It would appear clear that the kind of armored invasion undertaken by Russian makes more sense on the hard ground of winter. I consider plausible the speculation that the invasion was ultimately delayed by a few weeks because of a supposed request by Chinese President Xi to Putin to hold off until the end of the Beijing Olympics
Much more importantly, from my point of view, is that Putin thought the invasion would serve to break apart the Western alliance. In another major miscalculation, he judged that most of Western Europe would not back strong sanctions based on German and other countries´ dependence on Russian oil and gas. With Nord Stream II soon to go online, he thought he had enormous leverage now. He also, in my judgment, and as many commentators have pointed out, believed that the current U.S. administration was essentially weak. Biden simply does not project strength and the manner of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan suggested incompetence going beyond Biden himself. Nonetheless, up to this point, I believe the West taken together has managed this terribly complicated problem reasonably well, supporting Ukraine with significant assistance and galvanizing the Western alliance while holding the specter of nuclear war at bay. The Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine goes beyond the scope of my paper, but not the scope our discussion.