Putin the Great
Is the Ukraine War an expression of the Russian leader's imperialist ambitions?
In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. At this stage, a MAP offer [an offer to Ukraine of a path to NATO membership via a “Membership Action Plan”] would be seen not as a technical step along a long road toward membership, but as throwing down the strategic gauntlet… It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
—William Burns, US Ambassador to Russia, in an email to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, February of 2008.
That warning from William Burns—as I noted in a post two weeks ago—proved unpersuasive. President Bush persisted in his campaign to convince NATO allies to offer Ukraine a Membership Action Plan.
Strictly speaking, Bush failed. Various European leaders shared Burns’s view that giving Ukraine a formal invitation to join the alliance was a bad idea. But, as a compromise, they agreed in April of 2008 to issue the rough rhetorical equivalent—a written pledge by NATO, in what became known as the Bucharest declaration, that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.”
Burns later wrote, in his book The Back Channel, that this outcome was in many ways “the worst of both worlds—indulging the Ukrainians and Georgians in hopes of NATO membership on which we were unlikely to deliver, while reinforcing Putin’s sense that we were determined to pursue a course he saw as an existential threat.”
In that post two weeks ago I looked at some of the analysis that went into Burns’s warning. In particular, I looked at how Burns employed cognitive empathy, sizing up the psychology and perspective of Vladimir Putin. I left for another day the question of how we can say with any confidence that Burns’s judgment has been vindicated—that encouraging Ukraine to pursue NATO membership was a mistake, a mistake that helped pave the way for war.
Today is that day. At least, today is the day when I’ll begin to make the argument that Burns has been vindicated. The whole argument is a two-post, maybe even three-post, affair.
As I noted two weeks ago, Burns’s warning about creating “fertile soil for Russian meddling” wasn’t a prediction that Russia would definitely intervene in Ukraine if the Bush administration encouraged Ukraine’s NATO membership bid. Creating fertile soil for an oak tree doesn’t mean you’re sure to wind up with an oak tree. It means you’ll wind up with an oak tree if other conditions apply—if there’s an acorn in the soil, if no animal digs up the acorn, if there’s enough rainfall and sunlight, and so on.
In other words: all you’re doing when you create “fertile soil” for something is increase the chances that it will come about. So the question before us, as we evaluate Burns’s success in applying cognitive empathy, is whether encouraging Ukraine’s NATO bid indeed made war more likely. I’ll argue that we can answer “yes” with a high degree of confidence.
There’s another implication of this “fertile soil” metaphor, and it may at first seem too obvious to bother spelling out. But spell it out I must, because its upshot seems to elude a number of people who claim that the NATO issue didn’t play a significant role in Putin’s decision to invade. So here goes:
If you wind up with an oak tree, it doesn’t make sense to point to the fact that there has been abundant sunshine during the tree’s growth and say, “So the fertile soil had nothing to do with it! Even if the soil had no nutrients, we’d still have an oak tree!”
See?—I told you it seems too obvious to bother with! And yet, our foreign policy discourse features lots of people who point to some non-NATO factor that seems to have contributed to Putin’s decision to invade and basically say, “See?—NATO had nothing to do with it!”
One of the most commonly invoked such factors is Putin’s expressed belief that Ukraine is “not a real country”—that it’s not organically cohesive and maybe isn’t even a legitimate nation. As Boris Johnson put it in a 2022 interview (right after dismissing as “hogwash” the idea that Putin’s concerns about NATO drove his decision to invade): “You want to know why Putin invaded Ukraine? Read his essay of July last year. He basically believes that Ukraine is not a real country."
That most people who emphasize this belief of Putin’s join Johnson in dismissing the NATO issue doesn’t mean they see this belief as the sole cause of the invasion. Many of them, including Johnson, see it as working in concert with a second factor: an imperialist ambition that is said to reside within Putin, a desire to reclaim some of the greatness of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. The idea seems to be that Putin can exercise this expansionist impulse without compunction so long as he thinks any nations he invades aren’t real nations to begin with—especially if, as with Ukraine, one reason he considers them not real is that their border interrupts a continuous expanse of Russian culture and ethnicity.
That Putin considers Ukraine “not a real country” is beyond doubt. He’s been saying that at least since 2008. But that raises a question: