What Putin really thinks — opinion

As fresh U.S. military aid heads towards Ukraine’s beleaguered military, the debate on how the war in Ukraine ends will continue apace.

By NV journalist Dmytro Tuzov and Ivan Lozowy, a lecturer at the Kyiv Mohyla Business School.

Politicians, analysts, journalists, and pretty much everyone else has a view on how the war will end, which is often conflated with how the war should end. But this war is still very much up in the air, as the wide swings in territorial gains and losses over the past two years show.

One of the key issues in debates over the future course of this war concerns [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin’s motivations. The Russians and Putin himself have advanced a plethora of reasons for the invasion of Ukraine. These claims are easily refuted and as is usually the case with Russian declarations—the cacophony of explanations does not aim to convince—their sheer mass is intended to only sow confusion in order to conceal the real motives.

Dissecting these claims, understanding what drives Putin and Russia is critical, because a grasp of motivation leads to an understanding of the enemy’s goals, which in turn is the only solid basis for policy decisions by Western leaders, who in turn will ultimately decide the fate of this war.

For starters, it is important to note that the Russian population generally supports Putin and the war against Ukraine. Putin and the median Russian share the same motivation in attacking their neighbor and continuing this very costly war.

Read also: Putin won't stop at Ukraine's borders, German defense minister says

According to the Levada Center, as of February this year, 77% of Russian citizens support the war in Ukraine. This despite massive casualties, crippling sanctions, and the failure of the initial invasion two years ago. Ordinary Russians support a wide network, which appears to be genuinely organic, of volunteers who raise funds and materiel for their soldiers fighting in Ukraine. While in many videos the wives and sisters of Russian soldiers ask for better training and equipment, practically none question what their loved ones are doing fighting and dying in a foreign country in the first place. Despite horrific losses and hundreds of thousands who have fled the country, many Russian men continue to mobilize into the military.

Discontent, on the other hand, has been muted. For a nation of over 130 million people, few have protested and only several thousand have been arrested. A veiled protest at Alexei Navalny’s funeral of 16,000 people amounts to very little. By contrast, when Ukrainians came out in the Maidan protests to oust the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, one million people took to the streets, in a country three times smaller than Russia.

A good starting point in delving into the motives of Putin and the Russian population is the view of those who know Russians best, their neighbors, who were until fairly recently ruled from Moscow. Thirty years ago, then-Estonian President Lennart Meri declared: "Whoever really wants to help Russia and the Russian people today must make it emphatically clear to the Russian leadership that another imperialist expansion will not stand a chance." Those who have felt the full force of Russian aggression and occupation understand its source. During a discussion on Feb. 26 at the Atlantic Council, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski said of the Russians: "They’ve grown to the largest, territorially, state on Earth. And yet still they crave other people’s land."

Read also: Polish intelligence chief warns Putin prepares for ‘mini-operation’ in NATO territory, awaits Western response

The Balts and the Poles understand Russia’s consistent, constant underlying yearning for aggression. Poland's president Andrzej Duda has warned repeatedly that Russia will attack other European countries if it wins in Ukraine. This view has achieved traction in Europe, not only among Russia’s closer neighbors. “We’re going to have to get used to the idea that it’s realistic that Putin will [attack a NATO country within 5-8 years],” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of Germany’s Bundestag Defense Committee.

The Ukrainians have no doubt about Russia’s motivations. In his address on the second anniversary of the war, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned: “imperial ambitions and revanchism disappear only with the defeat of the one who is infected with them.”

To an extent, Putin telegraphed his intentions in advance. His infamous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 was characterized by U.S. political scientist Andrew Michtas “a declaration of war on the West.” In his article from six months prior to the 2022 invasion, Putin declared Ukraine to be “our historical territory,” thereby negating Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders and a multitude of bilateral and multilateral treaties. The subsequent official annexation voted in Russia’s parliament of four of Ukraine’s oblasts is a logical continuation of Putin’s—and Russia’s—intentions.

The core reason and motivation for Putin and for the Russians in invading and attempting to conquer Ukraine is their emphatic embrace of themselves as an imperial and expansionist power.

The Russian obsession with Russia as a great (meaning large) and powerful (meaning dominating others) country is epitomized in their concept of the “Russian world.” This concept sees Russia as an exceptional nation, one destined to establish a Pax Russica over neighboring countries and beyond.

This mission to enlarge Russia, thereby making it “greater,” is so important to Russians that it borders on religious fanaticism, and at times oversteps this boundary. Thus, it is logical that the Russian Orthodox Church is fully and publicly in support of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Priests regularly bless Russian soldiers and even tanks that are on their way to Ukraine.

Throughout its history Russia has engaged in a relentless expansion, albeit in fits and starts, to become the largest (by land mass) country in the world. For Russians, their greatness is measured not in economic wealth or the population’s welfare, but rather by how big the country is, how many other countries it controls. Russia’s desire to dominate, conquer, and occupy Ukraine persists not merely for historical reasons, but also because of Ukraine’s size and economic potential.

Ending the war in Ukraine is not easy, but it is absolutely necessary in order to put a stop to Russia’s insatiable appetite for conquest. If Putin and Russia are not stopped in Ukraine, they will drive forward, wreaking havoc and destruction in their wake.

What the West does is important, even critical, in deciding the fate of the war in Ukraine. Good decisions depend on a correct grasp of many factors, including motivation. This war deserves a more serious look by some Western leaders at what intentions are driving Putin’s war machine forward.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine