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  • Alex Hughes

Putin, the West and Ukraine’s Decaying Orbit

Warnings of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine reached a fever pitch in the last fortnight, with the recent invasion being long imminent. Recent aggressions have constituted the first symmetrical military conflict between two major industrialised societies since 1945.

What’s driving Russian policy is a question that has been plaguing the academic discussion since its initial incursions in early 2014. In the fields of international relations and international security, there have essentially been two opposing views.

Russian Realism?

The first paints NATO and the European Union as having instigated the conflict. This view, promoted by leading realist theorists – and, of course, by the Russian government – was summarised most famously in a 2014 article by John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

In it, he argued that Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its covert actions in the Donbas and wider hybrid war against the Ukrainian state, are predictable and in fact inevitable responses to the eastward expansion of both NATO and European political structures after 1991. As he sees it, Putin’s response to the 2014 Euromaidan uprising ‘has been defensive, not offensive’ [1].

Shortly before Russia’s invasion of Georgian territory in 2008, he points out, a NATO communique stated that both Georgia and Ukraine, which at the time were led by essentially pro-Western governments, “will become members of NATO” [2]. This, he argues, was absolutely unacceptable to Moscow, for straightforward reasons of inter-state security competition.

Mearsheimer is one of the most influential international relations theorists of the 21st century. Realism, one of the two dominant schools of thought, uses a form of rational choice theory to try to interpret the behaviour of states. Here, they are conceptualised as ‘unitary actors’, akin to agents in traditional economic models. Because there is no power above that of sovereign states, they operate in an anarchic environment, one that history clearly shows to be extremely unforgiving.

Because other states pose a mortal threat – and their intentions cannot be reliably known – they will do whatever it takes to secure their core strategic interests (more on those in a moment).

In a widely cited essay, the UK’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace rejected the realist analysis of the situation in Ukraine, writing that ‘NATO is, to its core, defensive in nature . . . [and] former Soviet states have not been expanded ‘into’ by NATO, but joined at their own request. The Kremlin attempts to present NATO as a Western plot to encroach upon its territory, but in reality, the growth in Alliance membership is the natural response of those states to its own malign activities and threats . . . [and] the allegation that NATO is seeking to encircle the Russian Federation is without foundation’ [3].

Realists dismiss these sorts of claims as hopelessly naïve. ‘A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself,’ writes Mearsheimer, ‘Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia. No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine’ [4].

‘One also hears the claim’ he continues, ‘that Ukraine has the right to determine whom it wants to ally with and the Russians have no right to prevent Kiev from joining the West. This is a dangerous way for Ukraine to think about its foreign policy choices. The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play. Abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states’ [5].

As for viewing NATO as a defensive structure, Mearsheimer and other realists insist that ‘institutions have minimal influence on state behaviour, and thus hold little promise for promoting stability in the post-Cold War world’ [6]. Intergovernmental institutions like NATO and the UN, in other words, are veils, ones that retain a ‘defensive’ posture only so long as its most powerful members do.

Now, although he cautions that the Kremlin would ‘wreck Ukraine as a functioning state before [allowing] it to become a Western stronghold on Russia’s doorstep’, Mearsheimer doubted that Russia had the inclination, or really even the ability, to launch a successful full-scale invasion, unless Ukrainian membership of NATO forced its hand.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine last month, Stephen Walt, another prominent realist theorist and Mearsheimer’s frequent co-author, made an only slightly weaker version of the argument. ‘The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion’, says the subtitle, ‘is how easily it could have been avoided’, dubbing post-1991 NATO enlargement ‘a monumental failure of empathy with profound strategic consequences’ [7].

Over the years, many critics have dismissed realist theory altogether. Harvard political theorist Stanley Hoffman, for instance, called its application in a post-Cold War world ‘utter nonsense’ [8].

That, I would argue, is much too strong. By focusing on the basic underlying power dynamics, it’s a coherent starting point for analysing international politics. But it is just a starting point, and without major augmentation, it becomes seriously misleading.

To see if a particular scenario can be understood purely in terms of security competition, you need a plausibility test. Is it plausible that the Russian state feels militarily threatened by an expansion of NATO into Ukraine?

No. That’s because, though you’d never know it from reading Mearsheimer’s or Walt’s essay, the military relationship between NATO and Russia unambiguously remains that of mutually-assured destruction.

Russia’s strategic nuclear forces still possess hundreds of missiles and decoys, and these could easily overwhelm American and European missiles defence systems. What’s more, its latest ballistic missile type, the RS-28 Sarmat, can approach the US mainland from any direction – including the South Pole, bypassing the missile defence systems entirely – employing an attack mode known as fractional orbital bombardment, in which the missile ‘glides’ in a state of semi-orbit, before separating into fifteen independently targetable warheads, with a combined explosive force thousands of times greater than the bombs detonated over Japan at the end of World War Two.

We could talk about Russia’s ‘oceanic multipurpose system’, an underwater nuclear drone believed to be capable of generating a mega-tsunami, but the point should already be clear: Russia has a guaranteed ability to devastate – and thus to deter – any aggressor, including NATO. It is protected, in other words, from any state interested in self-preservation. And, in the realist model, survival is the primary goal of all states.

Mearsheimer, for his part, anticipates this sort of plausibility test, boldly asserting that ‘it is the Russians, not the West, who ultimately get to decide what counts as a threat to them’ [9]. This is obviously false. Could Russia ‘decide’, for instance, that Puerto Rico’s formal accession to the United States represents a fundamental threat, that therefore justifies a military incursion into the country? Mearsheimer’s logic would leave us no reason to object.

A Unique Past

The second view, held by many Western politicians, historians, liberal international relations theorists and Kremlinologists, places Russia as the main aggressor, and views its actions as driven by some combination of the ideology of Russia’s security elites, and their internal political concerns.

The case made here is sometimes vague – Putin ‘dislikes’ Western institutions or ‘yearns for the days of Soviet greatness. To properly understand it, some brief historical context is required.

Throughout modern history, Russia’s political economy has differed markedly from most of its western counterparts, with a more centralized, less constitutionally-restricted and altogether less accountable state.

Putin is of course correct that Russian civilization was born in Ukraine, whose name means ‘borderland’ in Slavic. In the late 9th century, a major sovereign trading hub linking Northern Europe’s economy to Byzantium and Central Asia had formed in modern-day Kiev [10].

When the Kievan Rus’ was sacked in the late 1230s by the Mongol general Subutai, on behalf of Genghis Khan’s son Ögedei, much of the population was enslaved or killed, their bones littering the surrounding countryside.

The Mongols were there to stay, and their 250-year dominion put the Russian peoples on a separate trajectory to those of Europe. ‘In contrast to the Christian princes of Europe’, notes Francis Fukuyama, ‘Mongol rulers saw themselves as pure predators whose avowed purpose was to extract resources from the populations they dominated. They were a tribal-level people who had no developed political institutions . . . [and] made no pretence that lordship existed for the sake of the ruled . . . [being] perfectly willing to execute the inhabitants of entire towns simply to make a point’ [11].

Dominion within the Mongol imperial sphere profoundly influenced early Russian political culture, and its society was essentially insulated from the political, intellectual and legal developments that spread through other European societies during the Renaissance.

When the Eastern hegemon eventually receded, the lands of modern-day Russia were left as a mosaic of microstates, controlled by princes whose bloodlines often traced back to pre-Mongol Kievan nobility. The centre of gravity, however, had shifted north eastward, to the Muscovy region. In the power vacuum, these minor princes – which had acted as the Mongol’s tax collectors, and had adopted the Mongol governing norms, or rather the lack thereof – were rapidly subordinated to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, a highly centralized autocratic state.

It managed to dominate the smaller states with relative ease because Russia’s proto-feudal system of land ownership – unlike the feudal systems in Western Europe – simply hadn’t had time to sufficiently cohere, as a class of cooperative nobles, in a way that would allow it to effectively counterbalance the power of the central monarchy. The monarchy drew its power from a service and warrior class that it employed directly, rather than delegating them out to individual noblemen, as its European counterparts tended to [12].

And so, up until the First World War, the rule of Russia’s monarchy was still effectively absolute. This structure was so engrained in Russia that the takeover by the Bolsheviks – ostensibly the radical antithesis of royalism – didn’t fundamentally change the shape of the power hierarchy, instead setting the stage for decades of brutal, disastrous rule by ‘Red Tsar’ monarchs.

After the Soviet state eventually splintered, a similar dynamic played out in fast-motion.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s break-up, the main plank of president Boris Yeltsin’s reform agenda was a clumsy, ill-conceived attempt to rapidly transform Russia into a capitalist democracy, through what was called ‘shock therapy’. In the economic chaos, a class of elite businessmen, known as the oligarchs, captured swathes of the shattered empire’s industrial capacity, through opaque and often thoroughly corrupt deals with senior officials.

This occurred against the backdrop of a sharp collapse in the country’s per-capita income. As public anger grew Yeltsin’s drunken rule became unsustainable, and his inner circle selected a former KGB lieutenant colonel and then-head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Vladimir Putin, to be his successor, and he was named acting prime minister.

This was a very risky move, because the Russian public had never heard of Putin, and this made his chances of victory in an election highly uncertain. For the governing clique around Yeltsin – known as the Family – to keep control of the country, something had to give: an event, one that could focus the public’s attention and rally its support around the chosen leader.

In 1999, night-time explosions destroyed apartment buildings in three Russian cities, claiming 307 lives. The attacks shook the country, and they were quickly blamed on terrorists from Chechnya, a former Soviet Republic in the North Caucuses that broke away in 1991. They provided the pretext for Russia's invasion of the country - a brutal affair that turned its capital, Grozny, into a 'wasteland littered with bodies' - and shifted public opinion sharply in favour of Putin’s government.

Plenty of evidence suggests that these attacks were carried out by, or at least in conjunction with, the FSB, with Putin’s full knowledge [13].

In the years that followed, Putin consolidated his administration’s control of the country’s economy, dealing with the oligarchs by seducing, threatening, imprisoning or effectively exiling them, most famously Mikhail Khordokovsky. By the mid-2000s, Putin’s grip on power had solidified, and him and his friends – mostly former KGB counterintelligence officers – set about systematically de-institutionalizing the country.

Strongmen, however, are rarely as strong as the image they work so hard to maintain. Putin is acutely aware that he has never won a fair democratic contest, and what happened in Kiev in the winter of 2013 represented everything he loathes and fears.

The Russian Regime

To get a sense of the scope of Putin’s power inside Russia today, as Anne Appelbaum writes, ‘Try to imagine an American president who controlled not only the executive branch—including the FBI, CIA, and NSA—but also Congress and the judiciary; The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, and all of the other newspapers; and all major businesses, including Exxon, Apple, Google, and General Motors’ [14].

In the twenty-first century, this kind of governance requires active and constant stabilization, because the population has so much to gain from its overthrow in a simple zero-sum sense, to say nothing of long-term development. The key reason Putin feels that he needs to crush Ukrainian democracy, in other words, is exactly the same reason he felt he needed to have Alexei Navalny poisoned, or Alexander Litvinenko irradiated, or Boris Nemtsov gunned down. Having never won a fair election, what he fears is a popular test – a repeat of 1989.

The gold-plated palace of Ukraine’s ousted pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, the images of which shocked many Ukrainians, almost certainly pales in comparison to Putin’s, given that, by some estimates, he is now the richest man in history. Much of that wealth has been moved out of Russia, precisely because Putin and his inner circle are paranoid about the sustainability of their entire governance project.

The constant attempts to dominate Russia’s neighbours with force, to destabilize the European democracies with informational and cyber warfare, and to push US politics into a degenerative and inward-looking state, go beyond what fear alone would call for.

As in all human affairs, more than a single motive is at work. Putin is a paranoid man, but he is also extremely ambitious. He is, after all, confronting structures as large as NATO, the EU, and Western democracy itself, while at the helm of a country whose GDP is equivalent to that of Holland and Belgium. He wants to not only dominate Russia, but to reshape much of the world in Russia’s image.

In 1989, Putin was stationed in East Germany, and watched in horror as the Soviet leadership failed to crush the popular uprising, and allowed it to unravel Moscow’s entire imperial system. This, he famously said, was the ‘greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century’. The Berlin protesters’ liberal idealism had destroyed the only world he’d ever known.

Analogies with Adolf Hitler are in most senses wrong, but both men’s basic restorationist impulse had a similar inception. In 1918, Hitler was in hospital in Germany when the once-mighty German empire surrendered.

Both thought that they were living through a tragedy of world-historic proportions, one that held timeless lessons, and one that had to be reversed. Putin’s imperial vision, though very different to Hitler’s, may now necessitate the decimation of Russia’s soldiers, not to mention those of Ukraine. Many have argued that this vision can be encapsulated in a single word: Eurasia.

‘What the use of the term does’, writes the geopolitical thinker Bruno Maçães, ‘is move the discussion to the level of . . . the great alternatives battling for universal recognition. If he speaks for Russia alone, Putin cannot aspire to issue a direct challenge to Western political principles . . . being able to speak in the name of a larger unit also means that one has been elevated to a higher level, where the relevant principles are, by definition, capable of being applied in different places and to different people . . . Eurasia was a political term invented as a direct challenge to Europe’ [15], a continent him and his circle see as thoroughly hollowed out by multiculturalism and American power.

Putin’s ‘Eurasianist neo-imperialism’, as Jeffrey Mankoff dubbed it in his 2009 textbook on Russian foreign policy, also carries the twin goal of positioning Russia as an invaluable partner – rather than a pliant subordinate – of China, as it becomes the continent’s most potent industrial and financial force [16]. The Kremlin has managed to wrestle control over much of Central Asia’s transport and energy infrastructure from the once confidently-independent former Soviet republics.

Ukraine is a crucial piece of this project, and not just because of its geographic position as a gateway into Europe. As Mankoff notes, ‘the very idea that Ukraine could turn its back on Russia, seeking integration with the European Union – and more importantly, NATO – reflected the degree to which Russian power had collapsed since 1991’ [17]. As soon as Putin’s government felt able, it was rigging Ukraine’s elections, and was almost certainly behind the poisoning of the successful pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko [18].

So, out of fear and ambition, Putin wants Ukraine firmly and permanently under his thumb. The invasion he has embarked on indicates that he thinks his window is closing, as an ever-larger share of Ukrainians demand that their country continues move westward.

For the different views on the invasion, one area of concurrence was it's timing. As the co-founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike Dmitri Alperovitch notes, Russia’s diplomatic leverage will rapidly decline once the build-up of forces is complete, because inaction will quickly make Western leaders suspect a bluff. Timing is also bracketed by weather conditions. In March, the frozen ground will begin to thaw, and once it does, the arduous mud could severely restrict the speed of mechanized units. It was now or never.

Currently writing this piece pre-invasion, I make the following predictions.

First, Russian forces arrayed along the border with Donbas are likely to move quickly through the separatist-held region and smash through Ukrainian lines, proceeding rapidly towards the Dnieper River. They will want to bypass most urban areas, in order to rapidly encircle and destroy the bulk of Ukraine’s forces, although the city of Kharkiv, a major rail hub, might prove indispensable, since the Russian army is heavily reliant on rail for its logistics.

Second, once the Allied Resolve exercises in Belarus conclude on February 20, the mechanized forces gathered there – which include Russia’s best armoured formations – are likely to swing south and burst through Ukraine’s border defences. This will mean major engagements north of Kiev, with perhaps the fiercest armoured combat since the World War Two.

The invasion is likely to begin with a series of staged provocations – already underway across Donbas at the time of writing.

In any case, achieving air superiority early on will be the top priority. Last week, the Russian government announced the deployment of a division of S400 surface-to-air missile systems. These weapons – which outmatch even their American counterpart, the MIM-104 Patriot – enable Russia to do two things: establish an umbrella over its ground forces, shielding them from attack by Ukrainian aircraft or ballistic missiles, and deter NATO forces from any last-minute effort to supply the Ukraine with additional weaponry.

Large numbers of air superiority and ground attack fighters have also been deployed near the borders in recent weeks, along with large numbers of attack helicopters. This is the area where the weight of Russian numbers is hardest to defend against. Moscow’s combat aircraft and its attack helicopters outnumber Kiev’s by more than fifteen to one.

The quality of Ukraine’s tanks is comparable, but they’re also heavily outnumbered. And although it is receiving some much-needed aid from NATO members, the sight of occasional US cargo planes touching down in Kiev has a rearranging-deckchairs quality to it.

Still, a full-scale invasion will be risky for the Kremlin, because a failure could mean a catastrophic loss of support for Putin at home. Though modernized, its military is still essentially untested in major combat operations. Its actions in Syria and Georgia were comparatively minor affairs.

The solidity of Russian morale is also questionable. The brutal hazing rituals that conscripts face at the hands of professional soldiers, known as ‘Dedovshchina’, leads to many murders and suicides every year. In the face of heavy casualties, serious cracks in Russia’s ranks might open up.

This makes the opening bombardment critical. This may well involve large-scale cyberattacks on Ukrainian government networks, but a high-impact cyberattack of the sort that’s often discussed, though possible, would have to be far more successful than all of Russia’s previous cyber operations in the country, and experts are split over whether this is feasible.

Instead, as in America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, ballistic missiles are likely to play the key role in crippling Ukraine’s ability to effectively respond, by attacking vital military installations and compromising the country’s electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. US and NATO satellites over Ukraine are providing visual intelligence to Kiev, and Russia may well try to ‘dazzle’ them using ground-based lasers.

How that invasion will eventually conclude is unknowable, but as Seth Jones writes, a successful invasion would mean ‘a significant change in international politics, creating a new “Iron Curtain” that begins along Russia’s borders with Finland and the Baltic states and moves south through Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and finally to East Asia along China’s southern flank . . . [and an] increase Russian manpower, industrial capacity, and natural resources to a level that could make it a global threat’ [19].


[1] John Mearsheimer, ‘Why Ukraine is the West’s Fault’, Foreign Affairs (2014), p. 9

[2] Ibid, p. 3

[3] Ben Wallace, ‘An article by the Defence Secretary on the situation in Ukraine’, Ministry of Defence (2022)

[4] John Mearsheimer, ‘Why Ukraine is the West’s Fault’, Foreign Affairs (2014), p. 5

[5] Ibid, p. 11

[6] John Mearsheimer, ‘The False Promise of International Institutions’, International Security (1994), p. 7

[7] Stephen Walt, ‘Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis’, Foreign Policy (2022)

[8] Ibid

[9] John Mearsheimer, ‘Why Ukraine is the West’s Fault’, Foreign Affairs (2014), p. 6

[10] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution’ (2011), p. 387

[11] Ibid, p. 388

[12] Ibid, p. 391

[13] Amy Knight, ‘Finally, We Know About the Moscow Bombings: Review of ‘The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule’, The New York Review of Books (2012)

[14] Anne Applebaum, ‘The Reason Putin Would Risk War’, The Atlantic (2022)

[15] Bruno Maçães, ‘The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order’, (2018)

[16] Jeffrey Mankoff, ‘Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics’ (2009), p. 242

[17] Ibid, p. 247

[18] Ibid, p. 248

[19] Seth Jones, ‘Russia’s Possible Invasion of Ukraine’, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (2022)


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