The World

Putin’s War Is Not About NATO or Empire

Putin sitting in front of a TV with a bunch of different faces.
Vladimir Putin holds a Russian Security Council meeting via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on March 24, 2022. Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty Images

Commentators analyzing Vladimir Putin’s motivations for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine often cite his claims that Ukraine’s NATO aspirations threatened to bring alliance bases to the frontier of Russia. Or they may point to statements and actions they think suggest he wants to resurrect the former Soviet Union or the Russian Empire. But if that is really what is driving Putin, why is there no indication that he has any territorial ambitions on Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other former republics of the USSR. It’s Ukraine, not Turkmenistan. Russia is the dominant political force in the region; if it is trying to recreate the Soviet empire, why hasn’t it attempted to simply incorporate these other states? If they are already vassals, as some would say, why was Belarus the only former Soviet republic (other than Russia) to vote against the March 2 United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan abstained, while Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan did not vote.)

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It is important for speculation about Putin’s imperial ambitions or his alleged concern about NATO not to deflect from a focus on what is the greatest animating fear for Putin: a liberal democracy on his doorstep in the form of the constitutional order of Ukraine.

That is why NATO – and especially the United States — must take a stand in Ukraine. Americans have been discouraged in recent years by repeated attacks on democracy the world over as well as in the United States. The democratic backsliding in Europe, such as in Hungary and Poland, has been particularly disheartening to many Americans, given the U.S. role in helping reunite Europe after the Cold War.

Now in Ukraine, an entire population, led by a courageous president, is risking its survival or being forced to flee horrific bombardment in a fight for democracy, for the ideals that Americans have so long espoused.

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In contradiction to Putin’s claim that Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO poses a unique and looming threat to Russia’s frontier, seizing Ukraine would actually accomplish just that. If the invasion succeeds and Ukraine becomes a part of Russia, bases inside Poland or any other NATO countries neighboring Ukraine would then really be on Russia’s doorstep. In fact, Putin ignored all evidence that NATO had no plans to admit Ukraine anytime in the near future, and even furthered Ukraine’s aspirations to accession with his own actions in 2014, when he exponentially multiplied Ukraine’s – and Eastern Europe’s — security concerns by seizing Crimea and triggering the war in the Donbas.

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For Putin, Ukraine has been the outlier. Ukraine has been pursuing freedom and democracy determinedly, though haltingly, on its own, and it has had a good deal of success. The fact that this democratic process has been playing out on Putin’s doorstep, perhaps most notably with the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” against his stooge, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, is terrifying to Putin.

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In the information age, a state of terror such as the one that Putin’s Russia has become, cannot countenance states of consent, especially next door. It is Ukraine’s constitutional order — with its independent (though still troubled) judicial system, freedom of the press, multiparty politics, largely legitimate elections,  vibrant civil society, and general respect for human rights — that Putin cannot tolerate, lest it provide too tempting an example for democratic activists in his own country who have vehemently opposed him at great risk to their lives and to the public in general that shares so many ties to the people in Ukraine. The “peaceful coexistence” of the Cold War is, in this respect, not acceptable to Putin.

Allowing Russia to advance its borders wouldn’t mollify Putin with some lessening of his perception of a national security threat, so long as each new border abuts the territory of a NATO member. In fact, Putin himself signaled as much in his December demands to the alliance, which included, for instance, that NATO withdraw infrastructure from its own member States in Eastern Europe.

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The principal U.S. intention in agreeing to NATO’s expansion to the former Warsaw Pact countries beginning in 1999 was not to create a cordon sanitaire around Russia. Rather, the expansion was intended to shore up the nascent domestic movements toward liberal democracy within those former Soviet satellites. It was the constitutional, not the international, objective that drove NATO enlargement.

So Putin’s war is a consequence of his fear that Russia as it is today will inevitably slip from his grasp and that more democratic-leaning leaders there, not just those in Ukraine, will one day petition to become members of NATO and that it will become a state of consent. If the West can protect Ukraine — with advanced anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and other defensive weapons, with a sustained airlift and land convoy of food and medicines, with global economic ostracism of Putin’s regime — that day will come.

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