The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” (Abraham Lincoln, Second Annual Message, December 1, 1862)
At the close of the Cold War, successive administrations, Bush first and then Clinton, imposed a humiliating and punitive settlement on Russia and its people. At the time, critics said that such a settlement would create severe hardships, stoke divisions, encourage plunder of state assets, throw the economy into a steep fall, and nuture a soil for the rise of revanchist, strong man leaders. But their voices were drowned out in the clamor of self congratulatory speeches of the “winners.”
A decade later, the critics had their “I told you so moment.” The economy had imploded in spectacular fashion. Tens of millions had been stripped of their jobs, meager savings, and pensions. Life expectancy had fallen precipitously. State assets and natural resources had been privatized and seized by a handful of oligarchs. Barter had become commonplace. The country had splintered along national and ethnic lines. Civil wars had erupted. The experiment in parliamentary government and democracy had disappointed many. And Russia, a great power in the 20th century, had been reduced to an also ran before the sun dawned on the 21st.
Meanwhile, NATO, not ready to retire, even though its raison d’etre had disappeared, proceeded to expand eastward in order to consolidate its post Cold War dominance.
Russia’s unparalleled societal descent and implosion triggered a surge of resentment and neo-nationalist feeling, a collective yearning for a Russia that commands respect and fear – not derision – in capitals around the world. Predictably, many Russians and their leaders felt betrayed and embittered. A motto, popular in Russia at the time (and remains so today), captured the depth of the social breakdown and national humiliation, “The nineties: never again.”
Into this hypercharged cauldron stepped Putin. In Putin the Russian people found someone who wanted to Make Russia Great Again. Though there was little in his early working life that would have predicted his political temperament or his meteoric rise, it became apparent in the first days of his presidency that his ambition went beyond bringing some coherency to the Russian state, or reinvigorating the Russian economy, or restoring some measure of respect to Russia internationally.
Putin in power set his sights on the reconstitution of the Russian empire, reaching beyond its present borders and projecting fearsome power on a global level. If he had any inspiration, it wasn’t Lenin, who he despised for his advocacy of the right of nations to self determination. Rather his lineage is to Russian empresses and emperors in earlier centuries who successfully defended or pushed outward the boundaries of the Russian Empire.
It is in this light that we should understand Putin’s order to invade Ukraine. If anything, the expansion of NATO – ill considered and provocative for sure – was as much a pretext and cover for the invasion as its underlying cause. Does anybody really think that Putin would have respected the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors if NATO had remained within its old borders? To believe so is to misread Putin, as reactive and defensive, not imperialist, belligerent, and empire building. It is to be trapped in old Cold War categories of analysis that can easily conceal new realities.
And that is no place to be if you want to understand Putin’s mindset and motivations for invading Ukraine – not to mention appreciate that the rollback of NATO and construction of a new peace and security architecture in Europe pivots, first of all, on Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. It is, Lenin might say, the key link in the chain of struggle at this moment.