The Long Shadow of the Soviet Union: Demystifying Putin’s Rhetoric Towards Ukraine

LSE IDEAS Strategic Update by Björn Alexander Düben

What are the Kremlin’s claims about Ukraine?

In trying to justify its unprecedentedly threatening force posture, the Kremlin’s narrative in recent weeks has essentially revolved around two distinct claims:

How much substance is there to Russian complaints about NATO enlargement?

For many years, Putin has made it abundantly clear that he considers the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO an unacceptable red line. What is puzzling, however, is why the Kremlin has chosen this exact moment to up the ante regarding Ukraine’s NATO ambitions. Ukraine’s post-Maidan governments have openly pursued NATO membership, which the Western alliance had first pledged to Kyiv (albeit as a distant goal) in 2008. But there has been no noteworthy progress in this direction for many years, let alone in recent months. In some core NATO member states, public opinion remains firmly opposed to Ukraine joining the organization, and NATO’s own regulations would probably prohibit such a step in the foreseeable future. More broadly, while NATO has continued to expand in recent years by admitting several small states from the western Balkans (Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia between 2009–2020), the last time the alliance has expanded eastwards, closer to Russia’s borders, was nearly 18 years ago, in March 2004, when multiple Eastern European nations (including the Baltic states) joined the alliance.

How much of a threat could NATO actually pose to Russia?

Legal and historical questions aside, the Kremlin has made it abundantly clear that it perceives NATO expansion and a purported Western ‘encirclement’ as a fundamental threat to Russia’s national security and, indeed, its survival. Although Moscow disavows any plans to launch an attack against Ukraine, it has consciously portrayed NATO enlargement as a threat so severe, that it might justify preventive military strikes. It is not surprising that Russia (which has an economic output smaller than Italy) would feel deeply concerned about the growth of a potentially hostile military alliance which, on paper, combines the military and economic power of the United States with dozens of other great and middle powers, along its western flank. However, it is worth pondering how great a military threat NATO could objectively pose to Russia’s national security.

NATO aside, what other motivations might Putin have for considering an attack on Ukraine?

It is also possible (and equally plausible), that the Kremlin’s proclaimed fear about a potential future accession of Ukraine to NATO serves as little more than a pretext and that Putin might consider renewed military action against Ukraine for altogether different reasons. The fact that Moscow entered its negotiations with Washington by issuing a range of extremely sweeping demands, which it could be certain would be rejected — including that NATO refrain from deploying multinational military forces on the territory of many of its own member states — suggests that it might be projecting an image of openness to negotiations merely to convince the world (and its own population) that it was trying to avert an escalation which had long been planned. What could these altogether different reasons be?

Conclusion

One of the perils of authoritarianism is its concentration of inordinate amounts of power in the hands of a few individuals. The fate of Ukraine now largely rests with Vladimir Putin and his closest associates, and we can at best make educated guesses about their perceptions and intentions. Indeed, there has been some debate among psychologists whether Putin — after 22 years of near-absolute power and shielded from all those who might dare contradict him — still has a lucid cognitive grasp of what is happening in Russia and the world. In 2014, Germany’s then-Chancellor Angela Merkel memorably stated that Putin seemed to be living “in another world” and “she was not sure he was in touch with reality”. Some useful observations can nonetheless be made based on the statements and prior conduct of Russian officials regarding the general geostrategic environment in which Russia interacts with Ukraine and with NATO. It seems that, in strategic terms, Russia would stand to gain little (and lose a lot) from invading Ukraine. But there are other, equally compelling factors — particularly those pertaining to nationalist convictions and regime preservation — that could be motivating Putin to pursue such a strategy regardless. If that is the case, geopolitical concessions (regarding the future role of NATO, for instance) would be unlikely to significantly shift the balance and change the calculus of the Kremlin, and a more promising strategy to avert further Russian aggression against Ukraine might be to create credible deterrents of sufficient magnitude to convince Putin that the price Russia (and he personally) would have to pay for any invasion would be prohibitively high.

About the author

Björn Alexander Düben is a Lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University. He previously taught International Relations, Security Studies, and Intelligence Studies at King’s College London and at LSE. Besides his academic work, he has worked for the Foundation for an Open Society in Riga (Latvia) and as an analyst for a top-tier London-based law firm involved in highprofile litigation in the post-Soviet space (including Russia and Ukraine). He holds a PhD in International Relations from LSE and an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. He is an Associate of LSE IDEAS.

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LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.

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LSE IDEAS

LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.