Putin’s Ukraine delusions threaten Russians

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More than 100,000 of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops still encircle Ukraine from three sides and could invade at any moment. Putin insists that this military buildup is meant to protect Russia from a Western military threat. But is Putin really trying to protect Russians? Or is he merely trying to protect himself? 

Paranoia drives Putin’s overreach, whether he’s issuing security ultimatums to the West or justifying media crackdowns at home. He frequently relies on rhetorical sleight of hand: He lumps the boogeyman of NATO expansion and independent news outlets together as “threats to the Russian Federation.” But neither Moscow’s supposed adversaries abroad nor its invented enemies within are threats to Russia or Russians. They are threats to Putin’s regime and his conception of his own power.

Putin rejects Ukraine’s sovereignty full stop. Central to his view of Russian power abroad is his steadfast but dubious contention that Ukraine is not a real country but an appendage of Russia led astray by the West. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory is a threat to his power. A free and prosperous Ukraine, firmly rooted in Europe, might inspire Russians to pursue a similar track for their country. That would be bad news for the autocratic kleptocracy Putin has meticulously built for himself and his cronies. 

So, twice this year, armed with tanks and an outdated view of Kyiv as a vassal of Moscow rather than a sovereign nation, Putin has attempted to claw back some influence in Ukraine. He has failed to win Ukrainian hearts and minds since Russia’s first incursion in 2014 and now may aim to take the country by force.

To justify the Kremlin’s manufactured military crisis in Ukraine, Putin has sought to portray NATO as an aggressor and Ukrainian membership in NATO an imminent threat to Russian national security. That’s nonsense. NATO by its nature is a “defensive” security alliance and Kyiv has repeatedly committed to resolving the conflict in Donbas through diplomatic channels. Ukrainian forces scrupulously defend their land in eastern Ukraine, refusing to be provoked by regular artillery fire from Russian-backed separatists, often at great personal cost. That is not the way a threatening state acts. 

But Ukraine’s independence from Kremlin influence does threaten Putin’s power — or at least his conception of it. Putin sees himself as the next standard-bearer in the centuries-old tradition of great Russian leaders, whose success is largely measured by longevity in power and territory taken. He has the longevity and may be looking for his next major land grab after Crimea. If Putin seeks to add to his “legacy” by escalating his invasion of Ukraine, he potentially will be putting tens of thousands of Russian lives in harm’s way to stroke his own ego. The real threat to Russians is not their Ukrainian neighbors but the whims of the autocrat sitting in the Kremlin. 

Yet Levada Center polling shows that two-thirds of Russians blame NATO, the U.S. and Ukraine for the current crisis. How is that possible?

Over the past year, the Kremlin and its allies in the Russian state duma have narrowed the independent information space in Russia at breakneck pace. Just as in their foreign policy rhetoric, Putin and his lackeys repeatedly justify their actions as necessary to stop forces threatening to take down Russian society. But those claims don’t hold water, either.

After poisoning and then jailing Alexei Navalny on trumped-up charges, Russian authorities banned Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as an “extremist organization,” on par with the Taliban. The group’s young leaders fled abroad. 

The Kremlin also added 91 independent media outlets and civil society organizations to its “foreign agents” list in 2021, allegedly for their ties to international organizations. In truth, most groups were labeled foreign agents for their willingness to criticize the Putin regime. But the Kremlin hasn’t stopped there. One of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations, the Memorial Human Rights Center, was liquidated this week for failing to label its materials as the work of a “foreign agent.”

Anti-corruption investigations and freedom of speech do not threaten Russians or the fabric of Russian society. They do, however, threaten the autocratic kleptocracy that Putin and his cronies have constructed for themselves. Putin has jailed dissenters and forced independent media out of Russia not because they make Russians less secure, but because they are some of the few remaining checks on his power.

A narrower media space and a barren civil society landscape also mean Kremlin-controlled propaganda outlets occupy a larger share of the Russian news environment. Putin may feel more emboldened to act against Ukraine, and Russians may be more likely to buy the lies he spews because state media are the only game left in town. A Kremlin-friendly news environment gives Putin the cover he needs to escalate an invasion in Ukraine. In that scenario, the consequences of Putin’s imagined threats would merge to become a very real danger to the individual security of Russians. Thousands of Russians could be killed in an invasion, and the international community would increase its diplomatic and economic ostracization of Russia.

The tragedy is that Putin has separated the interests of his regime from those of the Russian people to such a degree that they now oppose each other. A renewed war in Ukraine is not in the interests of everyday Russians, but Putin may see an escalation as a way to further his power. The Kremlin will continue to conjure up enemies from within and without as long as the costs of doing so are low. Putin’s paranoia is the true threat to the security and individual rights of Russians.

Andrew D’Anieri is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He writes about Ukraine and Russia and tweets @andrew_danieri.

Tags Politics of Russia Russia Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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