The Roots of Putin's Strategic Fiasco in Ukraine | Opinion

As we entered the fourth month of Russia's war with Ukraine and assess its military, strategic and economic repercussions, many wonder what in the world President Vladimir Putin was thinking when he ordered this invasion. It appears that blind hatred of the West and of Ukraine scrambled Russia's strategic calculations and plunged it into an unprecedented geo-strategic setback—even if its position in the Ukrainian frontline ultimately improves.

From many conversations held with Russian policymakers, we know that the vision which denies Ukraine peoplehood, and the Kremlin's resulting aggressions, are nothing new. This war's atrocities flow from the dark misapprehensions held by many Moscow elites concerning Russia's destiny, history and geopolitics. This viewpoint rejects the possibility of harmonious co-existence and cooperation with the West. This war is less about Ukraine and more about Russia's place in the international order.

Russia's assault against Ukraine did not start February 2022. It started after February 2014, when Putin illegally annexed Crimea and tore off the Donbas region. This was not a surprising move on the part of the regime that invaded Georgia, declared all of the USSR "a zone of privileged interests," and views the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "tragedy." Rebuilding the Russian Empire has become Putin's political raison d'etre.

Over the last three months, we have witnessed genocidal atrocities in Ukrainian towns committed by the Russian military and learned that Russian book publishers are erasing any mention of Ukraine.

Putin is trying to eliminate Ukraine's culture, people and physical presence. He is not the first leader in the Kremlin to target Ukrainians. During the Holodomor or Great Famine, Joseph Stalin's regime committed genocide against peasants in the Soviet Union through a man-made famine killing at least 4 million Ukrainians and many others through the forced collectivization of agriculture.

History repeats itself here as tragedy, with Putin's propaganda openly calling for Ukraine's annihilation as a country. He believes Ukraine belongs to Russia, calling it Malorossiya (Little Russia). In a 5,000-word essay published in 2021, Putin claimed that the common history and culture between Russia and Ukraine makes them one people. Like other dictators before him, Putin has flatly told the world what he thinks and what his victory would look like.

As a matter of historical record, Putin is wrong. Ukraine and Russia are not one, as Ukraine has its own distinct history. When Moscow was a pristine forest swamp, Kyiv was the center of a civilization integrated with Europe through Norse-rooted nobility and Byzantium religious and diplomatic influence. The Ukrainian Eastern Slavic state predates Russia. Kyiv gave its medieval name, Rus, to the Muscovite dominated entities which would supplant it later. Before and during the long period of Russian and Soviet domination of Ukraine, Ukrainians maintained their own identity, traditions and connections with the West.

A destroyed Russian tank begins to rust
A destroyed Russian tank begins to rust in woodland near Kyiv on June 7, 2022. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Putin's regime is disingenuously weaponizing history because Putin and his inner circle, graduates of the KGB or Communist Party, cannot stomach a world in which Ukraine is part of Europe. This is why after the 2014 Euromaidan Protest, when protesters demanded President Viktor Yanukovych sign the association agreement with the EU, Moscow poured out resources to stop it.

The goal of limiting NATO and EU reach in Eastern Europe is not a defensive mechanism, as Putin claims, but rather a desire to shift the balance of power and tilt the world order in favor of Moscow and Beijing.

Putin blames Washington for the expansion of NATO and claims that Europe and the U.S. have ignored promises to limit NATO expansion and address Russia's security concerns. As a matter of historical record this is also not true. Aside from the fact there is not a single signed document which backs up Russian claims, the Central European states did not have to be strong-armed into NATO. They remember what it was like having the Russians as powerful hegemons, including three partitions of Poland in the 18th century, the bloody suppressions of the Polish rebellions in the 19th century, the Red Army miraculous defeat at Warsaw in 1920, the crushing of the Hungarian revolutions in 1848 and again in 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. Ukrainians want protection of their democracy just like the Poles and the Czechs do, and that means NATO.

Putin's disdain of liberal democracy, which he (and Chinese President Xi Jinping) envision as an obstacle they must overcome, has isolated Russia, and pushed it toward China. In 2005, I attended a presentation in the Kremlin where Putin signaled the shift toward China, diversifying energy markets. This shift makes Russia primarily a supplier of raw materials to Beijing.

Putin and Xi declared their ill intentions toward the West with the recent 5,000 word Winter Olympics declaration, proclaiming that together they would champion an authoritarian axis against the American led democratic order. Putin believed this agreement would provide him the much-needed assistance in his endeavors to limit NATO and reconstruct Russia's sphere of influence. Again, he was wrong.

Rather than coming to Putin's defense when Russia started seeking more weapons to fight in Ukraine, China has largely remained on the sidelines. Chinese hesitancy is demonstrated by clear splits among China's ruling elite on how to respond to the war in Ukraine, further complicating Putin's plans for an "authoritarian axis." For now, China is above all interested in protecting its economic growth and access to Western technology and markets that would be cut off if Beijing embraces Moscow's aggression.

Putin grossly miscalculated the responses of the West's leaders, as well as those of public opinion, China, Ukraine and even his own military capabilities. He has allowed his blind hatred of the West and of Ukraine to cloud his analytical prowess. Putin has single-handedly expanded NATO, to include Finland and Sweden, incentivized European cohesion, re-militarized Germany, destroyed the Russian economy, pushed Russia further into China's steel grip and most importantly, reinvigorated the Western democratic order after three decade of malaise.

Not bad for a former KGB lieutenant-colonel.

Ariel Cohen, PhD, is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Institute and author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis. He managed audience research projects for Radio Liberty and provides commentary for CNBC, Bloomberg, Forbes and various TV networks.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.