Three days before invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin justified the impending attack as necessary for Russian security, saying that Moscow had spent 30 years patiently negotiating with NATO while being lied to and blackmailed by the West. The Kremlin, he said, wouldn’t repeat the errors of those who failed to take Hitler seriously before World War II. Last summer, however, in a long essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin offered a different view of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia. Drawing on historical details from past centuries, he argued that Ukraine was an artificial modern concoction on historically Russian lands. Years earlier, he offered still another view, speaking of Russia as an “energy superpower” on account of massive oil and gas reserves, whose value depends on pipelines that run through Ukraine. How do these ideas fit together?

Anatol Lieven is the senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. According to Lieven, Putin’s chauvinistic views about his country are historically inaccurate and illogical but essential to supporting his certainty that Moscow is, and must always be, a global power. Putin has long spoken of Russia as an alternative Western civilization, different from Western Europe or the United States but equal in importance. Yet, Lieven says, the Kremlin has never been economically or politically strong enough to fulfill these ambitions. As Lieven sees it, Moscow’s military failures in Ukraine, and the Ukrainians’ determined resistance, also represent a defeat for Putin’s vision of Russia and Ukraine. The question now is how that vision will wind up influencing the way he seeks to end the war.


Michael Bluhm: What did Putin see in Ukraine?

Anatol Lieven: He would agree with the late U.S. national-security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who wrote that Russia ceases to be a great power without it. As long as Russia keeps Ukraine as a satellite or a subordinate, Russia is a vital power on the world stage. Without Ukraine, Russian power is vastly reduced.

Then there’s the fear, which you can call paranoid, that America is going to establish Ukraine as a military base, expel Russia from its naval base at Sevastopol and its remaining positions in the Caucasus, and blockade the Russian enclave in Moldova.

There’s also an intense nationalistic feeling that you could hear continually intensifying in Putin’s statements: Ukrainians are a brotherly people who belong with Russia—though younger brothers, of course. There’s a depth of emotionality in the attitude to Ukraine that doesn’t apply to Georgia, Moldova, or the Baltic states. It’s this idea that Ukrainians are family, and Ukrainian behavior before the war was a betrayal within the family. Historically, large parts of Ukraine were conquered by Russia from the Turks, not by Ukraine. The feeling is, These areas naturally belong in Russia—and if Ukraine was going to turn against Russia, Russia was damn well going to take these areas back.

Mehrnaz Taghavishavazi

Bluhm: You mention the shared history between Russia and Ukraine going back more than 1,000 years. Putin discussed this history in detail, in a long essay about the two countries that he published last summer.  Where does Ukraine fit in Putin’s thinking about the history of Russia?

Lieven: It goes back to the fact that the origin of the Russian state was in Ukraine and then moved north after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. Ukraine is regarded by many Russians as inherently part of Russia.

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