Why Putin Is Fixated on Ukraine

In his masterful history of Russian culture, "the Icon and the Axe," the late historian James Billington wrote: "In the words of the popular proverb, Moscow was the heart of Russia; St. Petersburg, its head; but Kyiv, its mother."

As diplomats and intelligence officials in Washington and in allied capitals struggle to gauge Vladimir Putin's intentions toward Ukraine – he has now amassed 130,000 troops on or near the border – much is made of the Russian president's KGB background. The U.S. and its allies understand the Russian leader's strategic thinking – his desire to keep Ukraine out of NATO, to push back NATO forces farther west. They understand that Putin's threat to Kyiv isn't just military. Through cyber attacks and economic pressure, he seeks to destabilize and perhaps even overthrow the government of Volodymyr Zelensky, installing a more pro-Moscow regime in his stead, thus accomplishing Putin's goal of reabsorbing Ukraine into the Russian empire without firing another shot.

Less attention is paid to another side of Putin; he is a full-throated nationalist, an orthodox Christian who grew up in an era in the Soviet Union of state-mandated atheism. Throughout Russian history, the Soviet era aside, the Tsars sought a close relationship with the Church–and vice versa. Putin has revived that tradition. Going back as far as the ninth century, Kyiv became the center of Christianity in the Slavic world. Politically, it became the de facto capital of a Slavic civilization bound by religious, economic and dynastic ties. For centuries, as Billington pointed out, Kyivan Russia was called "Rus."

Vladimir Putin Russian President
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with judges of Russia's arbitration courts and courts of general jurisdiction via teleconference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on February 9, 2022. Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Putin has famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union the most catastrophic geopolitical event of the 20th century. He certainly believes that. But of all the countries that Moscow lost in the 1991 collapse, Ukraine is first among equals, as evidenced by Putin saying 'Russians and Ukrainians are one people – a single whole."

For that reason, Putin longs for Kyiv – and to reunite Ukraine and Mother Russia. "Goal number one for the Kremlin is to get the empire back together. Not necessarily the Soviet Union, but the empire," said retired General Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe. "This is part of his psychological mindset. He wants it to be his legacy."

The key question now: How much will Putin risk to establish that legacy? The cunning KGB officer is acutely aware of the risks of a full-blown attack on the rest of Ukraine. (Moscow severed Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, and paid little price for it.) Those risks are both domestic and international. He knows that Ukrainians are more united than they have ever been to push back against Moscow's pressure. "They will fight, there's no doubt about that," said Hodges, who met with Zelensky in Kyiv last week.

Ukraine's military is significantly larger and better equipped than it was in 2014. And while it is still outgunned by Moscow's armed forces, Kyiv's military would make a major invasion very ugly for Moscow. Moreover, Ukraine has already begun training civilians – including former Army members – in counterinsurgency warfare. The prospect of urban warfare in major cities such as Kharkiv and Kyiv requires huge numbers of forces to go block by block and building by building. Hodges said he does not yet believe Moscow has sufficient troops at the border to accomplish an all-out invasion and occupation.

Internationally, a full bore invasion would be costly to Moscow. Even the Germans – the weakest link among NATO nations given Berlin's commercial interest in doing business with Russia – have reluctantly agreed to go along with a punishing array of sanctions, including the abandonment of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which Germany desperately needs to replace the coal and nuclear power plants it has shuttered. At a press conference following his meeting with new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, President Joe Biden was emphatic: Should Russian tanks and troops cross the Ukrainian border, "there will no longer be Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it." And while Scholz, whose party has traditionally been more open to doing business with Moscow, wasn't that specific, he said Berlin and Washington were "absolutely united," adding, "we will not be taking different steps."

With a gun cocked at Ukraine, Putin hopes to renegotiate post-Soviet security arrangements in eastern Europe. Some of his written demands sent to Washington have already been dismissed out of hand. For instance, he called for NATO to pull back to its 1997 positioning, which would mean kicking out seven members who joined in 2004, including the three former Soviet Republics, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also dismissed Putin's insistence that Washington guarantee Ukraine never joins NATO. That's Kyiv's choice, Blinken points out, though it is highly unlikely that all NATO members would agree to accept Ukraine should it ever apply, as the NATO charter requires. Germany in particular has reservations about further expanding NATO right up to Russia's border, knowing it would infuriate Moscow and potentially threaten Berlin's trade relationship with Moscow. But Washington has signaled that Putin's other demands, including conventional arms control talks, are very much on the table.

The U.S. and its NATO allies hope that the calculating KGB officer will be the one making the fateful choice as to whether to push deeper into Ukraine militarily. Former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Thomas Pickering believes that with an array of carrots and sticks put before Putin, diplomacy can eventually succeed in this standoff. The nagging fear among Western leaders, diplomats and intelligence analysts is that the other Putin, the fierce Russian nationalist whose grandiose dreams of reassembling "the empire" begin with the "Mother of Russia, Kyiv" is always there also. The choices he makes in the weeks or months ahead could lead to catastrophe.