By Ethan Kaiser
In the early morning of Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war against Ukraine, phrased as a “special military operation.”
Just two days before, Putin recognized two breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine bordering Russia: Donetsk and Luhansk. These two areas have been the sight of civil war, with portions of the two regions under Russian-backed separatist control. But instead of recognizing just the separatist controlled regions as independent republics, Putin opted to recognize the whole region, even those under Ukrainian control, as parts of the “republics.”
The reasoning was very obvious.
These “republics” would ask for Russian military assistance against Ukrainian aggression, and Russia would be “compelled” to defend the sovereignty to the new “nations.” Putin has followed this line of thinking exactly when he made his declaration of war against Ukraine.
Now, let’s take a step back. Why is this happening? Why did Russia recognize these “republics” to justify an invasion?
Putin actually gives the answer — the real answer —in his speech.
Putin said Ukraine is not a legitimate state, and their existence dates back to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, not considering the fact that Russia has recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty and pledged to respect their borders. He also said it was “madness” that the republics, not limited to Ukraine, were “allowed” to leave the USSR without any terms or conditions. Both of these statements are inaccurate, and I encourage everyone to read this piece providing the real history behind Russia and Ukraine.
If you listen to what Putin says, he usually has one answer: NATO. In fact, in a speech he gave after he recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, he said similar things. One being that they did not want Ukraine to be a member of the alliance, and the other being that Russia has felt threatened by NATO’s expansion eastward since the end of the Cold War, and doing so was a breach of a promise the West made to Russia. But these statements are not accurate. In fact, much of what Putin said was not accurate.
But if this war was really about NATO, and Russia’s security concerns with the alliances move eastward as Putin has said before, why did he feel the need to talk about the Ukrainian state this way? Putin could have easily stuck to his (wrong) guns about NATO without delegitimizing Ukraine’s existence.
In fact, Putin’s “madness” quote goes beyond Ukraine. Other former SSRs include Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and the NATO member states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. He has also expressed how he feels about this in the past, with the annexation of Chechnya, the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea.
Given Putin’s militaristic actions against his non-NATO neighbors, his threats to nations like Finland and Sweden for even contemplating joining NATO, and his obvious gripes for former SSRs leaving the Soviet Union, his reasons for invading Ukraine are clear — he is an imperialist.
Putin will say this is because of NATO, or neo-nazis in Ukraine, but these do not hold up for several reasons.
Let’s start with NATO. Putin has never been a supporter of the alliance, but specifically, he mentioned that they broke their word about eastward expansion, and they felt threatened by Ukraine potentially joining NATO. Dealing with the latter, United States President Biden, Ukrainian President Zelensky and German Chancellor Scholz have all said either in public announcements or to Putin directly that Ukraine is not going to be part of the alliance in the immediate future. Putin’s counter to this is whether that will remain the case in the future. But NATO is a defensive alliance. Article V is a mutually defensive alliance, not mutually offensive. Are there instances where NATO or coalitions led by NATO have acted offensively? Yes. Take the Kosovo war, where NATO intervened against Serbia because there was ethnic cleansing against Albanians. But Serbia is not Russia, and it would be foolish to think that because NATO interfered in Serbia to stop a genocide, it would also fight a war with Russia.
Putin’s former comments about NATO’s expansion eastward are also dubious.
Putin, the Russian government and its defenders will say that after the Berlin Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact was crumbling, U.S. leaders assured the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand eastward. However, no formal agreements, treaties, or supposed discussions after German unification occurred brought this up. In fact, when asked about this in 2014, former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev said: “the topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification.”
In fact, the agreement that was made was that “no new military structures would be created in the eastern part of [Germany]; no additional troops would be deployed; no weapons of mass destruction would be placed there. It has been obeyed all these years.”
“All these years” refers to the years of German reunification to 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. It is also worth mentioning that Putin did not start making this talking point until 2007, well after he was already president of Russia.
Let's get one thing clear. NATO did not "expand eastward.” Rather, democratic states decided, of their own will, to join a defensive alliance to protect against an aggressive and expansionist neighbor, which in hindsight, seems like a fairly reasonable decision to make. The question we should be asking is not why NATO expanded eastward, but rather why so many post-Soviet states wanted to join NATO in the first place.
Russia is an aggressive and militaristic power that has all of Eastern Europe scared, and they think being part of NATO is the only way they can maintain their sovereignty and security; it was the annexation of the Crimean peninsula that drove Ukrainians to petition to be a part of NATO, even if it was not likely to happen. Putin also stated that he sees Ukraine and its history as a part of Russia and delegitimized their existence as a nation state.
Putin has also said it was to de-nazify Ukraine, calling out the neo-nazi Azov battalion in the Ukrainain ranks. But these talks exaggerate the presence of the far right in Ukraine. The Azov battalion is bad, and there is a far right presence in Ukraine, but far right parties collectively received about 2% of the vote in the most recent legislative elections, with only 1 seat out of 450. Ukraine also elected incumbent President Zelensky with 73% of the vote, who is jewish, and a Pew Research poll showed Ukraine is one of the least antisemetic countries in Eastern Europe, with only 5% of the population saying they would “not be willing to accept Jews as citizens of their country”, compared to 11% in Russia. Putin is also one to talk about de-nazification, because his government has been at arms length with the Wagner Group, a private army whose foundation and leaders are rooted in neo-nazism, and have fought on the side of Russia in Syria and Ukraine. The group’s leader, Dmitry Utkin, has “SS” symbols tattooed on him, and has expressed a “passion” for the Third Reich.
The truth is that Putin does not care about Nazis in Ukriane, and the only threat he feels from NATO is the threat of not being able to bully and invade his neighbors.
You might be wondering why I provided all this additional information after I already gave the answer to why Putin is doing this. The reason is many people hear what Putin says and believe him.
We’ve seen prominent media figures like Tucker Carlson, and politicians like Tulsi Gabbard and former President Trump either praise Putin or claim his gripes with NATO are legitimate. A recent poll shows about 1 in 4 Americans believe Putin’s gripes with NATO are a valid reason to invade Ukraine.
These people need to be called out, and we cannot allow this false notion to spread and gain legitimacy. The fact of the matter is these beliefs are nothing more than clout by Putin to justify his imperialism.
But what separates this moment from prior actions is Putin admitting his intentions to the world, whether he knows it or not.
You cannot say you are invading another sovereign country because you feel threatened by NATO and say your old empire never should have collapsed in the first place. Either you do it defensively or you do it because you want to reinstate your empire with the invasion of a state you do not even believe should exist. Putin can no longer hide behind NATO.
The mask is off.
Putin wants to reinstate a Russian empire. His blood and soil speech proves this. Right now, resistance in Ukraine is holding, with Russia suffering heavier casualties than expected. But if Russia ends up being victorious, anyone who thinks Russia will stop their aggression with Ukraine is sorely mistaken.
Putin himself admitted it.
Note: ‘Blood and soil’ is a nationalist slogan expressing Nazi Germany's ideal of a racially defined national body united with a settlement area. It has been used as fascist rhetoric to idealize a national or ethnic boundary and justify invasion because of ‘shared blood.’