• Jan 27, 2022
  • Insights

Putin’s unrequited Ukraine craving: the backstory

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Photo: Max Kukurudziak

Written by Yaroslav Baran. Published by Policy Magazine

The crisis at Ukraine’s borders has dominated news coverage for weeks, and has sparked a flurry of diplomatic engagement in an effort to de-escalate the threat of an imminent Russian invasion. Amid the acute focus on the hourly breaking news, insufficient attention has been paid to understanding the backstory at play.

What are the psychology and motivation behind the Kremlin’s moves?  How do they differ from our own? How does Vladimir Putin operate? And why is it that this crisis matters globally – beyond Ukraine, beyond Europe, and beyond the NATO-Russia strategic face-off?

The starting question is why does Ukraine want to join NATO in the first place? It aspires to join this critical collective security alliance precisely to protect itself from further Russian invasion. Is this fear justified?  Absolutely – if 900 years of history are any indication.

The drama playing out today can be traced back to medieval Ukraine. We could start the historical context with Prince Yuri Dolgorukyi “the Long Arm” – a scion of the ruling Kievan dynasty nicknamed for his ironically Putin-esque encroachment on other lands – who was banished to the outer northeast of the medieval Ukrainian kingdom, then called-Kievan-Rus’ or Kievan Ruthenia (after Kyiv, its capital, and the Rus’ Vikings from Sweden who established the state and dynasty).  Prince Yuri fled and regrouped in a then-sparsely-populated swampy forestland called Suzdal, and built a fort that would eventually evolve into the present city of Moscow.  From this new base on the outer frontier of Kievan Rus’, he launched a series of raids over years to repeatedly sack Kyiv and try to shift the centre of hegemony in the region. In essence, he was the first Muscovite invader, setting of a near-millennium-long trend.

A fundamental reorganization occurred after a 240-year regional occupation by the Golden Horde which sacked Kyiv in 1240 and controlled the entirety of Eastern Europe until the late-1400s. As the Mongol empire broke up, the Suzdal region – starting to become known as “Muscovy” – established its own state and by now had evolved its own language and culture distinct from that of medieval Ukraine. Ukraine, in contrast, was moving toward a more central-European orientation, with increasing political, trade and cultural association with countries such as Lithuania and Poland. From this mix also emerged one of Europe’s first proto-democracies with a “free state” of Cossacks (which means “free men” in a regional Turkic dialect) establishing itself on the Ukrainian steppe and pushing out residual foreign overlords: Lithuanians and Poles to the west, Ottoman Turks to the south, and of course, Muscovite invaders from the northeast. A notable divergence in political culture also emerged; while Moscow increasingly embraced the tenets of absolute monarchism, the Cossack Hetmanate in Ukraine offered up Europe’s first modern constitution, post-Florentine republic and elected head of state.

The Ukrainian Hetmanate Republic – which grew into one of Europe’s largest countries by geography – continued to fend off Russian invasions for centuries until it fell to the army of Catherine II of Russia in 1775. In the absence of a sovereign state since that time, Ukrainians continued to struggle to reassert their independence from Russia through numerous peasant revolts, a briefly-lived independent Ukrainian National Republic after World War One, and a renewed Ukrainian National Republic in the latter half of World War Two. The rest is recent history: the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Ukraine’s declaration of independence that year, and a renewed hyper-nationalism under Vladimir Putin seeking to reverse what he has called the “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

Putin and his predecessors have coveted Ukraine for centuries, not only for economic reasons, but for core reasons of national consciousness and historical mythology. Without Ukraine, Russian history starts in the fifteenth century with the collapse of the Mongols and the emergence of Muscovy.  By claiming Ukraine as its own – despite separate language and culture – Russia can lay claim to a more ancient medieval heritage that goes back to the 700s:  the legacy of the Kievan empire, its rich ties to Byzantium, the introduction of Orthodox Christianity to Eastern Europe, and a squarely European identity. Seven hundred years of history are added, as is a legitimacy to the later mythology of the Russian Orthodox Church as inheritor of the sacred role of “protector of the faith” – the “Third Rome” left standing after the demise of the Roman Empire, the sacking of Constantinople a thousand years later, and the transfer of the title of Caesar (“Czar” in Russian) to Moscow. But this mythology only works by holding onto Ukraine – seven hundred years of dots which need to be connected to make the myth work.  The underlying psychology is not dissimilar to the nouveau riche trying to either buy, marry into, or swindle an aristocratic title to try to solidify power through appropriated heritage.

This school of historical revisionism also cannot accept the dissolution of the Soviet empire, which it saw (ironically, given the logical disconnect between nationalism and Bolshevik theory) as the pinnacle of Russian greatness. Indeed, the lyrics of the Soviet anthem spoke of the USSR as a reincarnation of “Great Rus’” or “Great Ruthenia” – i.e. medieval Ukraine.

Facing this kind of aggressor, three things matter: unity, resolve, and credible deterrence. Anything short of that is seen by the Judo master as potential weakness waiting to be exploited.

Given these motivations of nationalism, revisionist history, and a toxic mix of revanchism and irredentism, Putin cannot be underestimated. His motives also make him harder to anticipate: existential passion, even as a convenient domestic casus belli, is harder to predict than logical calculations such as economic advantage.

His modus operandi is also entirely different than the standard Western approach to diplomacy. Putin has oft been referred to as a chess master, and there is some sense to the analogy. But it is more an issue of patience.  Yes, he will advance a pawn on the board (say, like Nord Stream 2) and then leave it alone for seven years (say, until Angela Merkel is gone), all the while keeping that pawn in his peripheral vision as other chess pieces move around the board, waiting for it to become optimally useful. But the real key to understanding Putin’s approach is recognizing his background:  he is an ex-KGB chief and a blackbelt in Judo. Through both of these traditions, he has a lifelong training in patience, assessment, identifying vulnerability in an opponent, and in striking at the right time. Even when matched with a bigger foe, he knows he can fell giants with patience, discipline, and throwing all his force in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.

As already demonstrated with Crimea, he is willing to endure medium-term pain in order to advance an empire-restoring legacy. Grab what you want, hang onto it tightly, and batten the hatches until you ride out the storm.  Restoring past glories is also worth several years of economic sanctions, when you know your resolve is stronger than your foe’s. Putin knows attention spans in the West tend to be short-lived, that Western governments change (sometimes with help from his own info-war campaigns), and that practical considerations such as trade and natural gas flow will eventually erode Western countries’ resolve to uphold sanctions.  Thus Vladimir Putin invaded and continues to hold parts of Georgia and Moldova. Thus he brought Chechnya to heel. And thus he seized both Crimea and a big part of Donbass from Ukraine.  Mr. Putin may not follow the Chinese political tradition of thinking in centuries, but he does think in decades while the West tends to think and plan in quarters, or, at most, four-year election cycles.

Facing this kind of aggressor, three things matter: unity, resolve, and credible deterrence. Anything short of that is seen by the Judo master as potential weakness waiting to be exploited. This is precisely why unity in NATO is essential. There can be no public dissent between allies, the threatened recourse must be very painful (more so than the post-Crimea sanctions) and there can be no bluffs like Obama’s “red line” in Syria. Putin has to believe it.  Where are the Western nations in this regard? At best, they get a C+ grade. Germany continues to waffle on real measures with its reliance on Russian Natural gas – a reliance Germany itself has fostered.  France continues to speak of negotiated compromise solutions in tones ominously reminiscent of the 1938 Munich Conference. The United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland and the United States do recognize the importance of credible deterrence, and have pledged or supported sending lethal artillery such as defensive anti-tank armaments. Canada is somewhere in middle, with a mix of defiant pro-Ukrainian rhetoric backed up by 260 soldiers, non-lethal military equipment including body armour, metal detectors, thermal binoculars, tactical medical bags and surveillance technology plus a $120 million loan. For those placing bets on Russian Roulette, this does not quite feel sufficiently resolute. And if the deterrent threat is not believed with Ukraine, the next place for Russia to test it is with smaller NATO countries such as Estonia – a prime candidate for “hybrid warfare” destabilization, given its geography, size and demographics.

The Americans and the British have a special role in this crisis. We can debate all we want about whether this is “our fight” or not, or whether NATO has an obligation to get involved in deterrence to protect non-member states. But if the moral obligation isn’t compelling enough – stepping in to protect a France-sized European country from being beaten about like a piñata by an imperialist aggressor – there is a wider global threat to inaction.  Abandoning Ukraine imperils all future non-proliferation and disarmament campaigns. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine overnight became the world’s third-largest nuclear power. Three years of intensive international negotiations ensued, culminating in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum – an international treaty whereby Ukraine willingly gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for guarantees from Russia, the United States and United Kingdom. All three signed guarantees that they would defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yes – today’s aggressor is one of the signatories, but the remaining parties have a treaty obligation to step in. It can be argued that insufficient response to Crimea is already an abrogation of this treaty responsibility. But certainly, failing to defend Ukraine now would mean not only the potential destruction of Ukraine and the destabilization of Europe through the first wholescale invasion of a European country by a foreign power since the Second World War. It would also send a signal to any future non-proliferation candidates (Iran? North Korea? Pakistan?) that international security assurances in exchange for disarmament will not be respected. In other words, buyer beware: you can only rely on yourself, and the best way to do so is to arm yourself to the teeth.

This not just a Ukrainian affair that can be written off by appeasers or cynics as “not our problem”.  It is a globally-impacting crisis whose conclusions will reverberate well beyond Eastern Europe. The Kremlin’s actions are those of post-imperial atavism and insecurity. But they are very dangerous, and they are crimes of passion. NATO must understand them for what they are, understand what is motivating them, and understand the psychology of the perpetrators. They also need to fully grasp the broader implications of failure to deter Russia. Hanging in the balance may be the competition between two worldviews: a liberal-democratic and rules-based international order that upholds sovereignty and democracy, or an ascendency of a new Russo-Chinese autocratic world order where great powers invade and partition at will, and where might is right.

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