One of the problems that Western politicians have in dealing with Vladimir Putin is that they can’t decide what he wants or even why he wants them. They’re struggling because they keep misreading individual actions as being either nationalistic or ethnic, when they should really be described as “imperialistic”. Putin is trying to recreate the old USSR, but without the Communist Party running things — he’s trying to recreate Imperial Russia:
Americans have been grasping to find explanations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s serial aggressions in Europe. We keep searching for bumper stickers we can understand, so we gravitate to simple explanations like “geopolitics” or “nationalism,” not least because such notions promise solutions. (If it’s about geopolitics, cutting a deal with Putin will stop this; if it’s about nationalism, it’ll burn itself out when Putin has recaptured enough ethnic Russians around his borders.)
And, of course, there’s always “realism.” In this month’s Foreign Affairs, John Mearsheimer argues the Russo-Ukraine war is basically the West’s fault. (We expanded NATO, we supported the Maidan protesters, we were generally just mean to Russia, etc.) It’s a classic Mearsheimer piece: a beautifully-written, attention-seeking exercise that insists on the brilliance of realists while bucking the innate moral sense of most normal human beings. (Consider, for example, his 1993 Deep Thoughts about how maybe it would be good for Ukraine and Germany to develop active nuclear weapons programs.)
That doesn’t mean I disagree with the overall evaluation that America’s Russia policy since 1992 — insofar as we’ve had one — has been remarkably obtuse. (That pretty much describes most of our foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, but I will not digress here.) I, too, objected to expanding NATO, deplored the arrogance of people like Madeleine Albright, and lamented the repeated lost opportunities to bring Moscow closer to the Western family to which it belongs by both heritage and history.
Very little of what’s happened in the past 20 years, however, has much to do with what’s going on in Ukraine right now. And nothing excuses Russia’s war against a peaceful neighbor, especially not arid theories of realism or flawed historical analogies.
Putin is not a realist: very few national leaders are. Realism is much loved by political scientists, but actual nations almost never practice it. Nor is Putin a nationalist: indeed, he hardly seems to understand the concept, or he would not have embarked on his current path.