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Why did Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine?

The world has been gripped by ongoing developments in Ukraine. However, less attention has been paid to the Kremlin’s ideological justifications for the war. Whilst Putin’s claims may sound strange, they reflect ideals central to the Russian leader’s worldview.

March 28, 2022 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

A protest sign with the face of Vladimir Putin and the words “all I want is peace a little peace (piece) of Ukraine” being held at a protest in London on February 29th. Photo: Amani A / Shutterstock

Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Russian Security Council on March 1st was yet another example of the Russian leader “living in a parallel universe”, French TV presenters said. Putin showed himself, again, to be chilling, a sociopath with no remorse for the suffering his invasion is bringing to Ukraine and Ukrainians, and the families of dead and wounded Russian soldiers. Putin claims his “special military operation” is successful despite it not conquering Ukraine in the two days the Kremlin bragged it would. According to the Kremlin, the war has allegedly been longer because the Russian army is fighting Nazis and nationalists and not the regular Ukrainian army. Putin stressed again that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that Ukrainians have been led astray by “nationalist propaganda”. He also intimated that some are followers of Ukrainian nationalist leader from the 1940s Stepan Bandera.

Putin outlined his goal as destroying the “anti-Russia” created by the West. But even if Russia occupies Ukraine, it will not rule over 40 million “Little Russians”. Instead, it will have to deal with some 40 million Ukrainians who have become patriots and nationalists because of his invasion. Putin has destroyed any support for Russia in Ukraine. Mariupol, which is 80 per cent destroyed, was a bastion of the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, one of two successors to the Party of Regions.

Putin’s anger with the West and its alleged lack of respect for Russia is being taken out on Ukraine through indiscriminate destruction and civilian deaths. Putin is a very angry man unable to get over the disintegration of the USSR and willing to take his conflict with the West to the brink. All that is missing is a scene of him stroking a white cat like the madman Blofeld from the James Bond films.

Putin looked visibly unhinged when he ranted at both last Monday’s meeting with his security chiefs and during his press conference on Friday. Most western commentators came away believing that Putin is unstable and erratic.

The best way to understand Putin is to dissect his personality into three components.

The first is Putin’s career as an officer in the KGB, which he joined in the 1970s at a time when most Soviet people had given up on communism. This was after all the “era of stagnation”. But stagnation was not the way Putin remembered the USSR. He has remained loyal to its memory, even stating that its demise was a “geopolitical disaster”. Putin is visibly nostalgic for the USSR and incorporated the Soviet national anthem and its historical mythology about the Great Patriotic War into his understanding of Russian national identity. The source of Putin’s xenophobia and paranoia about western conspiracies behind colour revolutions and opposition protests lies in his KGB background. Putin, for example, believes Russian forces have failed to make progress in the invasion of Ukraine because Americans and other NATO members are on the ground fighting with Ukrainian “neo-Nazis and drug addicts”.

Putin’s second personality trait is the adoption of a Tsarist Russian form of imperial nationalism, which believed that the three Eastern Slavic peoples were mere branches of a single pan-Russian nation. Putin has repeatedly denied the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians and said that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”. Putin’s personality cult has massively increased the new Tsar’s narcissism and his belief in a historical mission to “Gather the Russian Lands”. Crimea was the first to be “gathered” in 2014, Belarus the second in 2020, and Ukraine is the last piece of the Russian World jigsaw.

Putin is literally obsessed with returning the “Russian Land” of Ukraine to the Russkyi Mir (Russian World), which is best understood as a twenty first century reincarnation of the medieval Kyivan Rus’. In 2016, Putin unveiled a huge monument next to the Kremlin to Grand Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr) who ruled Kyivan Rus’ over a century before Moscow was founded. Putin’s Tsarist imperial nationalism believes that the three Eastern Slavic peoples were born in “Kievan Russia” and should always remain together in the pan-Russian nation.

“Little Russian” Ukrainians have no right to choose their foreign orientation, especially outside Eurasia in the EU or NATO. Since the mid 1990s, Russian leaders have demanded that the West view Eurasia as Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence where NATO, the EU and UN peacekeepers are excluded. Putin’s invasion goal is the transformation of Ukraine into a country resembling Belarus with regime change from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to a Ukrainian Lukashenka. No matter how unrealistic this is, and Russia seems unable to capture the capital city of Kyiv, Putin will settle for nothing else. The “Belarusisation” of Ukraine will be undertaken by means of the death list that was leaked by US intelligence. Putin understands his “denazification” of Ukraine as the cleansing, by incarceration or murder, of pro-western and Ukrainian nationalist (he considers them to be one and the same) politicians. Other targets include church leaders, civil society activists, academics, think tankers and journalists. “Denazification” has already begun in Russian-occupied areas in southern Ukraine.

Putin’s third personality is that of a corrupt kleptocrat. Because politics and money are closely connected in Putin’s political system, the ultimate leader must be the wealthiest to receive respect from his lower oligarchs. The “Blackmail State” permits the oligarchs to plunder Russia and not be prosecuted only if they remain loyal to the Tsar and do his bidding at home and abroad.

Corruption and kleptocracy reinforce the cynicism that pervaded among the Soviet peoples during the “era of stagnation”, and which deepened during the chaotic asset stripping of the state in the 1990s. Russian leaders export their cynicism regarding the human character to western leaders who, Putin and the Kremlin believe, are of a similar mindset to them and it is just a question of negotiating the price. Prior to the invasion, the Kremlin brushed off sanctions assuming they would be as weak and malleable as those introduced on earlier occasions. This includes those imposed in response to the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin badly misjudged the West’s response to this crisis.

Following constitutional changes in July 2020 that allowed Putin to remain in power until 2036, making him de facto president for life, his delusions of righteousness have exponentially grown. There are no more balances of power in Russia. Indeed, there is only a Tsar who has conflated the Russian state with his inflated ego. Putin and Russia have become one. Putin’s demand for an extreme concentration of power is a sign of his megalomania. This is coupled with his extreme isolation from the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surrounded by sycophants stroking his ego, Putin is uninformed and never takes advice. At the same time, he believes that he is all-knowing. This trait is made even worse when dealing with Ukraine. As most Russian elites think similarly to Putin about Ukraine, there are no academics, think tankers and especially journalists in Russia who understand the country.

Russia’s dictatorship cannot exist without internal and external enemies.

The origins of Putin’s paranoia lie in KGB attitudes to dissidents and the opposition, who were viewed as agents of foreign powers. These Soviet attitudes are reflected in Russian legislation requiring the registration of independent media and opposition and civil society groups as “Foreign Agents”. Following this logic, “colour revolutions” are CIA operations directed against Russia. A Ukrainian people is a conspiracy devised by Austrians, Poles and others to divide the pan-Russian nation. The opposition in Russia is working for foreign interests. Transposed to Ukraine, the Kremlin believes the country is a US puppet state run by Western Ukrainian “fascists” who came to power in the Euromaidan Revolution. As justification for his invasion, Putin claimed Russian speakers were being subjected to “genocide” by the US puppet regime, a claim rejected by the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest court, on March 16. Russia’s “military action” aimed to liberate Little Russian Ukrainians from the American and Ukrainian nationalist yoke. At a press conference soon after the invasion, Putin described Ukraine as being run by “drug addicts and Nazis”. Putin was not saying this for effect, he really does believe it.

Is Putin a madman? He is certainly obsessed, paranoid, angry and bitter. His 22 years of power have shown him to be a sociopath with no feeling for the loss of Russian or non-Russian lives. His invasion of Ukraine has already killed 7000 Russians, according to US estimates, and 14,000, according to Ukrainian, in only three weeks, higher than US losses in Iraq over eight years of occupation and Afghanistan over twenty. 7000 Russian casualties are nearly half of the Soviet casualties sustained in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The crisis instigated by Russia last November was completely artificial and a product of Putin’s three personality traits discussed above. Putin’s obsession with Ukraine led him to launch a badly planned invasion. This has resulted in the greatest rift in West-Russia relations since the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s.

Taras Kuzio is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London and professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. He is the author of the recently published book Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War.

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