What Does Putin Really Want? Foreign Policy Experts Break Down ‘Cold War II’

On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that he would launch a “special military operation” into Ukraine. Over the subsequent two months, the Russian invasion has sent economic shockwaves across the globe, induced a massive refugee crisis, and caused thousands of civilian deaths, as the Daily Wire has reported.

Yet many Americans remain perplexed as to why Putin would choose to invade Ukraine — a decision that triggered the first significant land war in Europe since World War II and fundamentally upended the global order

What does Putin want? The Daily Wire spoke to three foreign policy experts to find out.

‘Russian Elites Have Always Struggled With Identity’

The historical relationship between Ukraine and Russia is rooted in the latter’s quest for identity, explained Luke Coffey — the director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation and a former defense adviser for the British government.

“While in some cases Russia and Ukraine share a common recent history, Ukrainian language and culture are distant from Russia’s. One should not forget that Kyiv was founded around 1,500 years ago at a time when Moscow was still a forest,” Coffey described. “More often than not, the relationship was built on the reality that Russia was the colonizer and Ukraine the colonized.”

“Russian elites have always struggled with identity — basically whether or not Russia is a European country or an Asian one,” Coffey continued. “In the past two and a half centuries the prevalent school of thought among Russian leaders was that without control, or at least influence, over countries like Ukraine, Russia was merely an Asian power and not a European one.”

Peter Rough — a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who formerly served as associate director in the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives under President George W. Bush — likewise explained that Russia feels a “perpetual insecurity on its European flank.” Nevertheless, Putin also has his own “ultranationalist, revanchist views of historical Russia” and its relations with Ukraine. As Rough recently noted, Putin published an article last year entitled “On the Historical Unity of the Russian and Ukrainian Peoples” — in which he argued that Ukraine, in essence, is the true cradle of Russian civilization and essential to the nation’s security. 

Referring to the same essay, Cliff May — the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom — said that “Putin sees himself as a latter-day czar.”

“His mission is to restore, and, if possible, expand the Russian empire which was, for some decades, re-branded as the Soviet Union,” May argued. “He does not acknowledge Ukraine as a separate, sovereign, and independent country. He regards it as a rogue Russian province that must be brought back into the fold. He’s now attempting to do that with the use of the most brutal methods, including war crimes.”

‘Moscow’s Motivation Runs Much Deeper Than NATO’

Putin claimed that his country’s invasion is at least partially motivated by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — an intergovernmental collective security alliance among western and central European powers, as well as the United States and Canada — further expanding its influence eastward. Yet Coffey and Rough do not believe Putin’s claims are legitimate.

“NATO is at base a defensive alliance which contorted itself to meet Russian demands in the lead-up to the invasion,” Rough contended. “Even after the Russian annexation of Crimea eight years ago, for example, NATO held fast to the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, which prohibited certain deployments into the alliance’s new member states. For its part, Ukraine was effectively barred from admission into NATO owing to Russian sensitivities.”

The basic facts of this war are quite simple: Russia invaded Ukraine and not the other way around. Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is the victim,” Coffey added. “NATO enlargement is often used as an excuse for Russia, but Moscow’s motivation runs much deeper than NATO adding new members. Putin is an imperial leader and is trying to recreate imperial Russia — not the Soviet Union.”

“It is worth pointing out that while three former countries of the USSR joined NATO in 2004, in the past 17 years only four new members have been added to the alliance, with the nearest one to Russia located 900 miles away.”

Meanwhile, May acknowledges that former Soviet possessions desiring to join NATO makes Putin “furious” and “further motivates his imperialism and colonialism,” yet recognizes that Putin is “smart enough to know that NATO is purely a defensive alliance.”

‘Raising The Past To Rally The Public’

Putin has also argued that Ukraine is in the grip of Nazis. During his speech announcing the invasion of Ukraine, Putin said that his forces would “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians.”

Coffey explained that Putin’s assertions are by no means grounded in reality; rather, he is attempting to leverage nationalistic pride in support of his war effort.

“The heroism of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in World War II still resonates with your average Russian. In simple terms, this bogus ‘denazification’ narrative helps Putin convince his public that Russia faces an imminent threat from Ukraine,” Coffey said. “In reality, Ukraine has a Jewish president who lost three male relatives during the Holocaust and far right parties hold no seats in the Parliament. Claiming that it is run by Nazis is beyond ridiculous.”

Observing that the Soviet Union lost tens of millions of citizens during their “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany, Rough noted that American politicians sometimes use similar rhetorical tactics. “Just as after 9/11 President Bush spoke of an ‘Axis of Evil’ that conjured memories of the evil empire and the Axis powers, President Putin is raising the past to rally the public for the battles of today.”

May noted the “convenience” of labeling one’s enemies as Nazis. “What better boogieman?”

“Are there Nazis in Ukraine? Yes. There are Nazis in the U.S., too. And Russia’s Wagner Group, do we not think they’re neo-Nazis? But nothing justifies Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the war crimes he’s committing there.”

‘Weaken And Deter Russia’

To counter Russia while avoiding direct military intervention, Western nations — including the United States — have issued a round of sanctions aimed at cutting off Russian financial institutions, restricting debt and equity for Russian corporations, and targeting certain Russian elites. Yet Coffey, Rough, and May named other means by which the United States can increase pressure on Russia.

“Recent actions by the U.S. and its NATO allies are steps in the right direction, but they must do much more,” Coffey suggested. “The U.S. must prioritize the free and rapid flow of weapons and intelligence to Ukraine, extend economic sanctions to include all major Russian banks, apply the same sanctions to Belarus and any other country helping Russia, think strategically of how to engage with countries in Eurasia, help Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, and prepare for long-term training and equipping of Ukrainian fighters in NATO countries.”

Rough said that Putin “will not be persuaded” and therefore “must be checked” — necessitating “building up positions of strength across Europe and using our economic and military advantages to weaken and deter Russia.” 

He also recognized that Ukraine has “won the first month of the information war.”

“If the Iraq war was the war of the satellite dish and the Arab Spring a revolution of online organizing, the war in Ukraine is the social media war,” Rough said. “Nothing has done more to press reluctant Western governments into adopting larger economic sanctions and military aid packages than the flow of short clips from citizens across Ukraine. Because Putin must manufacture his lies in a strict hierarchy, his information operations are more cumbersome and limited.”

‘Russia Will Look To China’

Some intelligence officials believe that Moscow and Beijing coordinated on the timing of the Ukraine invasion — an allegation that Chinese officials have denied. In any case, the rise of China complicates the crisis in Ukraine.

Noting how “China gives political top cover to Russia” — for example, through its voting pattern on the United Nations Security Council — Coffey said that “Russia is also dependent on China for economic engagement in light of the immense international sanctions.”

“China is most likely giving limited material support to the Russian military in the form of spare parts, but they would never advertise this publicly,” he asserted. “However, the longer the war in Ukraine goes on, and the longer international sanctions remain, the more dependent Russia becomes on China. Russia is the junior partner in the relationship with China and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.”

May also noted that the roles once played by China and the Soviet Union have reversed themselves. “In the Cold War, Russia was the senior partner, and China was the junior partner. In the new Cold War — call it Cold War II — it’s the other way around. China is assisting Putin… we don’t yet know how far Xi Jinping will go.”

Rough added that countries “challenging the American-built international order” have a friend in China — meaning that the United States no longer presides over a “unipolar moment.”

“Russia will look to China to sidestep sanctions,” he explained. “To be sure, to land on the wrong side of the West is still damaging. The Russian economy has taken a beating… but unless the West is prepared to go all the way, it can no longer simply wave a wand and have its way.”

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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