Why Putin wants to invade Ukraine
The Russian strongman is threatening the stability of an entire continent. Why? Sarah “XSoviet” Hurst explains.
A new week begins with the world on edge over Russia’s unprecedented military buildup along its border with Ukraine amid warnings from US officials that an invasion may be imminent.
President Biden recently said a Russian attack of Ukraine would “change the world” and be “the largest invasion since World War II.” He’s deployed about 5,000 troops to NATO ally Poland in recent weeks, but Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and the administration has signaled it has no plans to unilaterally involve US troops in fighting in Ukraine. Instead, US officials are hoping the threat of a combination of economic penalties, financial sanctions, and continued military aide to Ukraine will be enough to persuade Putin to deescalate.
It’s a complex situation, so to better help us understand what’s going on, I reached out to Sarah Hurst, a UK-based journalist who’s perhaps best know as “X Soviet” on Twitter and author of The Russia Report, an indispensable weekly newsletter for English speakers who want to understand Russian politics. It’s one of my very favorite on Substack and I strongly recommend subscribing if you haven’t already. (And if you’d like to learn more about the broader context of Russia’s descent into authoritarianism and what the US can learn from it, check out the lengthy Q&A I did with Hurst in November.)
I asked Hurst a number of big picture questions about what’s motivating Putin’s latest gambit, how the Biden administration is responding to it, and what Russian media is like these days. A transcript of our direct message exchange, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
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Sum up for those of us here in the US why Russia has mobilized to re-invade Ukraine, and why it’s happening now.
Objectively, invading Ukraine is a terrible idea that’s going to have disastrous consequences for Russia, so it doesn't seem to make any sense. But it is the culmination of decades of resentment in Putin's mind stemming from the US declaring victory in the Cold War and Russia losing its status as a superpower.
Putin has constantly worked to revive a new kind of Soviet Union and this is his next step, as perhaps his personal isolation from reality and megalomania have increased during the pandemic. He may have thought he could force NATO to make concessions, underestimating the alliance's commitment to its newer members.
Putin might have to go through with the invasion because he hates to look weak. He has often said that Ukraine doesn't really exist and that Ukraine and Russia are one country. He has claimed that Lenin created Ukraine. He is trying to fulfill some kind of historic destiny while proving that Russia is equal to the United States. He thinks that NATO bombing Belgrade to end the war in Yugoslavia is the same as Russia regaining its former colonies. And there may be factors we are unaware of, such as difficulties with the lawless occupied regions of Donbass, that have made Putin feel he needs to act. After securing his future in power and eliminating his domestic opponents this is one ambition he still has left.
President Biden just deployed 3,000 additional troops to Poland, but the administration has indicated it doesn’t plan to challenge force with force in Ukraine and will instead respond with economic sanctions and military aide. Do you think that’s a wise approach?
I don't think anyone really expects US troops to fight the Russians and risk a possible nuclear war.
A Russian legislator recently suggested nuking the Nevada desert to send the US a message. This is typical rhetoric in Russia and we don't know what they might be capable of doing.
[Chechen ruler] Ramzan Kadyrov is a ruthless murderer who abducts and tortures the relatives of his critics and hunts down his opponents abroad and this is approved by the Kremlin. That's how deranged Russian authorities are.
The two official opposition leaders, Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are a Communist and an ultranationalist, and both are warmongers. How, ultimately, do you stop a 21st-century, quasi-fascist, nuclear-armed dictatorship from invading a neighbor if it is hellbent on doing so? Also, Americans are not keen on a new war after just getting out of Afghanistan.
Biden has been pretty strong lately in his statements and actions on Russia, and I think on the whole he is doing what he should be doing. He is up against someone who is impervious to logic and has no regard for human life or the economic consequences of his actions. It's like trying to get the Taliban to change their behavior.
Putin and Trump obviously enjoyed a troublingly cozy relationship in a way he and Biden do not. Do you think Trump’s departure from office and replacement with a less obsequious president is a factor in why Putin seems to be considering a major escalation now?
Absolutely. It is quite possible that Putin sees Biden as weak and saw an opportunity to challenge him.
It’s somewhat ironic that Putin's liking for Trump may have been protective for Ukraine, as Putin had less incentive to undermine a president with whom he was aligned. Trump was causing chaos and division at home, which Putin enjoyed. Obama was president when Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014 and there were a lot of racist messages coming from Russia about him.
Harming a president Putin doesn't like is one of the Kremlin's goals.
What’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis like in Russian media, and how is the US’s support for Ukraine portrayed? I found it interesting to read late last week that Tucker Carlson’s apologia for Russia is getting heavy coverage on Russian state TV.
Russian state-controlled and pro-Kremlin media have been spewing bile about Ukraine, the US, the UK and NATO for years. They say that in 2014 neo-Nazis came to power in Ukraine as a result of a CIA-backed coup, and that Ukrainians are Nazis who are committing genocide against Russian speakers. [They say that] the West is plotting a false flag "provocation" to spark war and retake occupied regions of Donbass. NATO has encircled Russia.
Consuming this constantly, many Russians believe it. Any similar comments by Tucker Carlson are amplified with glee. But you also have Tulsi Gabbard on the left spouting the narrative as well as former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, because of their hatred of NATO. And European politicians who have become friendly with Putin such as former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. It's a big tent.
How realistic do you think it is that Putin deescalates without launching a new attack on Ukraine?
I believe the US government warnings because they obviously know things we don't, so I mainly go by them. I know they lied about WMDs in Iraq and can get things wrong, but this feels different with so much evidence of the Russian military buildup.
Putin usually goes forward and worsens things — it's hard to think of a time when he reversed what he was doing. But Putin’s meetings with Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu on Monday suggest he might be the one to blink first after all. Lavrov told him there is a chance to come to an agreement and Shoigu said exercises are ending and troops are returning to their home bases.
Isn't Poland about to provide Natural Gas to Europe? I assumed that the US was sending troops to Poland to protect those efforts. If it actually happens, this one move will eliminate a large income stream from Russia. And they need every penny they can get. Is this not true? Aaron, can you ask Sarah about this?