What does Putin want? The story behind the Russia-Ukraine conflict
Right now, 100,000 Russian soldiers are sitting on Ukraine’s freezing border asking themselves the same question as the rest of the world: what is Vladimir Putin thinking?
The clouds of war have gathered over Europe but only the president of Russia knows whether they will open.
Three decades at the heart of power have brought him to this point.
Since watching the Berlin Wall crumble as a young intelligence officer, Putin has been on a quest to reconstitute Russia’s place on the world stage.
For him, the trauma brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union is personal – reversing that humiliation is his life’s work.
When Russia’s sphere of influence crumbled with the fall of communism, the Kremlin watched helplessly as its near neighbours turned westward.
One by one, Eastern European and Baltic countries looked to Western Europe and America as they began to carve out new economic, political and cultural futures.
The West, for its part, was only too happy to oblige.
James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the international affairs think tank Chatham House, told Metro.co.uk that Putin is driven by a sense of righting what he sees as history’s wrongs .
‘I don’t think anyone can claim to know [Putin’s mind] in its entirety’ he said, ‘but first, he is an ultra-nationalist and believes in the greater destiny of Russia…for Putin, Russia does have a special destiny, to be more than the sum of its parts.’
The Euromaidan protests began in November 2013 when the pro-Russian government attempted to reverse long-running efforts to integrate the country with Europe.
In February 2014, it was swept away after months of huge and often violent demonstrations, culminating in a revolution and the installation of a pro-European government.
Ukraine is now closer to the West than ever before but parts of the country with stronger links to Russia have been in open revolt ever since.
Mr Nixey said: ‘Putin regards [Ukraine’s] current status as a historical anomaly and injustice.
‘It is his mission, I think, at least as much as gaining power and the acquisition of wealth, to ensure that Russia is not humiliated in the way that it was in the 1990s – that it continues to be regarded, in his eyes, as a great power with a de facto veto on all matters of global affairs.’
And that, ultimately, is why Putin’s soldiers are massed on Europe’s border.
Ukraine is, in his words, a ‘red line’.
The tension in Ukraine involves another of Putin’s obsessions: the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
Founded in 1949, the military alliance hinges on the principle of collective security – that is, if one Nato member is attacked, every other member is obliged to come to their defence.
It has been dominated by the US since its inception and used to be largely confined to Western Europe but, since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has enlarged to include several countries once under the control of Moscow, jutting up against Russia’s border.
For Putin, this is a great affront and represents a threat to Russia’s security and standing in the world.
In December 2021, he formally demanded sweeping changes to Nato, including a moratorium on further expansion and the scaling back of Western military presence in Eastern Europe to pre-1997 levels.
Crucially, he also demanded a commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join. On this point, what is at stake for Nato is the idea on which it was founded: that membership is open to any democracy which chooses to apply.
Ukraine is an ‘aspiring’ member, although it is highly unlikely to be admitted any time soon.
For Putin, this does not matter – the very notion of Western troops stationed on Ukrainian soil is an insult.
Asked about Putin’s demand on Ukraine’s membership this week, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said it ‘violates the whole idea that every nation has the right to choose its own path’.
He continued: ‘And this is not only about Ukraine. This is also about, for instance, the right for Sweden and Finland to join some day, if they so decide.’
That, in a nutshell, is the impasse we are at today: Putin asking for something he knows the West won’t give him; the West saying no to a man who won’t take no for an answer.
We know the future Putin wants for Russia and his demands for the present – but to understand the Ukraine crisis, it is also important to realise he is fixated with a very particular reading of history.
In July 2021, he published a self-penned 7,000 word essay called ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, a laborious analysis spanning 1,000 years which seeks to make a case that Ukraine is part of a larger Russia.
He describes Russia and Ukraine as ‘parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space’ and calls ‘the wall that has emerged’ between the two countries since 2013 ‘our great common misfortune and tragedy’.
This view of Ukraine’s history is popular among Russian nationalists but is highly disputed. In an unusually sweeping statement for a British defence secretary, Ben Wallace took Putin’s history homework to task this week.
In an article published by the Ministry of Defence, he called the Russian president’s analysis ‘short on accuracy and long on contradictions’.
Mr Wallace wrote that ‘Ukraine has been separate from Russia for far longer in its history than it was ever united’ and said that you can ‘fabricate a case for a more expansive Russia’ only if you ‘start and stop your view of Russian history between 1654 and 1917’.
Regardless of its historical merits, the treatise makes one thing clear beyond doubt: Putin possesses a genuinely held conviction that Russians and Ukranians are ‘one people’.
‘Ukraine is especially close to his heart’, Mr Nixey said. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I think all the countries of the former Soviet Union and, to a degree, the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic states are also important to him – but Ukraine does have this special historical significance.’
Ukraine has been at war for a long time.
Eight years since it began, the ongoing conflict in the east of the country has settled into a grinding stalemate with no end in sight.
Russia annexed Crimea in February 2014 after the Euromaidan protests and formally admitted it into the Russian Federation just three weeks later.
The Kremlin did so following a disputed referendum which reported 97% of voters were in favour of joining Russia. The United Nations does not recognise the validity of the vote.
Simultaneously, pro-Russian protests broke out in the eastern Donbas region, which has closer cultural and linguistic ties to Russia than much of Ukraine, and the situation devolved into armed conflict between the government in Kyiv and separatist groups backed by Moscow.
Two self-declared breakaway quasi-states emerged, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. They are not formally recognised as country’s by the UN or even Russia and the Ukrainian government has declared them terrorist organisations.
Ukraine, Western nations and international organisations have accused Russia of orchestrating a ‘hybrid war’ by propping up groups who will fight on their behalf.
The Kremlin has denied military involvement in Ukraine and sought to muddy the waters over what action it has taken, including sending troops into Crimea without insignias on their uniform (they were dubbed ‘little green men’ by Ukrainians – in Russian media, ‘polite people’).
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there have been more than 13,000 casualties on both sides since the conflict began and deadly skirmishes and shelling continue to break out sporadically.
Malaysian Airline Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014 by a Russian-manufactured missile over an area controlled by separatists, killing all 298 people on board.
As things stand, the Ukrainian government estimates around 7% of its territory is occupied by Russia or armed groups backed by Moscow.
Now the Russia-Ukraine conflict is on the verge of entering a new phase, one which could be more ruinous than the last eight bloody years.
Mr Nixey said: ‘Not only is it the most tense since 2014, it’s got the potential to be much more serious than that.
He added: ‘This has a potential to be worse because other powers can get drawn into the conflict.
‘I think Russia has upped the ante and is more serious than ever. It has learned that might is right, in a way – that muscularity and things that go bang do have a positive effect.
‘They can bring people to the negotiating table by force and, to some extent, they can get a degree of capitulation – only a degree, of course, but they can get a degree of it.’
The conflict has had a tough emotional toll on Ukrainians abroad. Petro Rewko is chair of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, an organisation which represents the community in the UK.
He said people are terrified about becoming cut off from family, speculating that some may even consider returning to a war zone rather than face the prospect of separation.
Mr Rewko told Metro.co.uk: ‘It is difficult, even for those of us born here – we still have cousins and second cousins and aunties and uncles who still live in Ukraine, we all have those family connections.
‘It’s a very tense situation. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was a new dawn, it was a new beginning.
‘We’re in the 31st year of independence, the longest period that Ukraine has had its own sovereignty and been an independent country.’
That independence hangs in the balance.
The next potential tipping point in the crisis will be when Washington sets out its formal response to Putin’s demands, which it has committed to doing this week.
US secretary of state Anthony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva on Friday for talks which ended cordially, keeping hopes of further negotiations alive.
The Americans have even raised the prospect of a meeting between Putin and Joe Biden soon and the UK’s defence chief is expected to fly to Moscow for the first bilateral talks with Russia since 2013.
But for strategic and domestic political reasons, the US can’t and won’t give Putin everything he wants.
How far is he willing to compromise? Again, only he knows – but Putin is negotiating with a gun held to the West’s head.
For Mr Nixey, no amount of bargaining over changes to Nato policy will get to the heart of the matter.
He told Metro.co.uk: ‘The West doesn’t address the fundamentals of the problem, which are what Russia perceives to be its rights.
‘Without addressing that, there can be no escape, it can’t be done through treaties.
‘If Russia genuinely believes that it has a right above and beyond the precepts of international law… then ultimately this is going to go on for a long time until Russia, quite frankly, is faced down and told that under no circumstances can this ever possibly work out for you.’
There has been a build-up of Russian military personnel and hardware on Ukraine’s eastern flank for several weeks but there was an even more worrying development this week.
Troops have poured into Belarus, Russia’s ally which borders Ukraine’s north, for ‘military exercises’. It lies just 60 miles from Kyiv.
Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan consultancy, told Reuters that Ukrainian troops – which are already heavily outnumbered by Russia – would have to be spread thinner elsewhere in order to protect the capital.
He warned: ‘They don’t have enough manpower so they’ll have to make choices.’
On the chances of Russian success, Mr Nixey said: ‘[Russia] has its strategic setting off point in Crimea, it’s got proxies in the Donbas and 100,000 troops circled on Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders.
‘So if Russia wants to, it can of course take Kyiv and nobody could do a damn thing about it – but it would be costly, it would absolutely be costly, both in terms of Ukrainian resistance and the response.’
For Ukrainians watching from afar, that prospect is horrifying. Mr Rewko said: ‘It’s just unthinkable and there would be bloodshed on both sides. Does the world today really need another war?
‘I think the answer is “no, it doesn’t” because no one’s a real winner in war, ever, and it is the general population of both countries that will suffer.’
Few doubt that Russia has the firepower to overwhelm the Ukrainian military, even with the extra support that has flooded in from the West (including anti-tank missiles from the UK dispatched this week).
But foreign secretary Liz Truss warned Moscow that an invasion ‘will only lead to a terrible quagmire and loss of life, as we know from the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war and conflict in Chechnya’.
Because Ukraine is not a member of Nato and military engagement with a nuclear power risks all-out war, the prospect of Western troops being sent to defend Ukraine is out of the question.
Instead, the West would retaliate with economic sanctions, cutting off Russia from international trade and banking with the aim of tanking its economy.
But given that Russia has been under such measures since Crimea was taken, it’s unclear how much this threat will frighten Putin or whether it would force him to change course.
In the meantime, it will fall to the Ukrainian people to offer resistance should the Kremlin send its troops across that freezing border.
Mr Rewko said: ‘Ukrainians are stubborn people, they will stand their ground…they are hardened, this isn’t the first time they’ve been under this sort of situation.
‘The history of Ukraine has always been invasion and occupation by other countries. They will stand and fight for what is their country and their territory.’
Only Putin knows if that resolve will be tested soon.
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