For Vladimir Putin the end of the Soviet empire was “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” This is probably the Russian leader’s best-known quote. It’s also the most misunderstood.
Does that mean that Putin really yearns to rebuild the U.S.S.R.? Seen from the point of view of Russia’s neighbors — all former subjects of Moscow with painful memories of centuries of Imperial rule – it certainly could look that way. In 2008 and 2014 Putin occupied and annexed parts of Georgia and Ukraine. Since last October he has massed 100,000 troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border, and last month he demanded that NATO provide formal guarantees that it will not expand any further eastward. Putin “shows a determination to carry out the scenario of rebuilding the Russian empire,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told his Parliament in November, “a scenario that we, all Poles, have to forcefully oppose.” Many Europeans, too, are convinced that Putin’s plans include territorial expansion. Nathalie Loiseau, head of the European Union Parliament’s security and defense subcommittee, called “the Russian threat as a very immediate threat for our continent.” And the Biden administration has been sounding alarm bells since late November apparently based on intelligence pointing to concrete Russian plans for a military incursion. On Jan. 2, the chair of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, warned that Russia is “very likely” to invade Ukraine.
But is Russia’s saber-rattling a signal that Putin truly intends to reimpose imperial control over parts of the post-Soviet space? Or is Putin’s nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. just an unhelpful distraction? When Putin talks of the Soviet Union in glowing terms, his nervous neighbors infer a yearning for restoring the empire by force. But could it be that Putin means something quite different – and that for him and his generation of Russians the U.S.S.R. is a shorthand for an era of lost stability and respect? Is Putin just tactless, or actually dangerous?
Understanding what Putin actually means when he talks about Russian-Ukrainian “brotherhood” or Russia’s “security interests” is crucial if the world isn’t to slide into an accidental war based on fundamental misreadings by both sides. And the key to understanding Putin, the Russia Putin has created, Russians’ continued support for Putin and Putin’s entire foreign policy rests on comprehending the toxic personal and political legacy of the fall of the U.S.S.R. The humiliation of 1991 and the 10 chaotic years that followed cast the foundation of modern Russia — the wellspring of all the aggression, resentment and paranoia that the world has to deal with today.
Russia in the early 1990s caught a viral dose of the century’s chaos. It was long incubating. But suddenly, almost without warning, the whole rotten edifice collapsed under the weight of its own hypocrisy and dysfunction. For Russians the shock of the implosion of the system that had sustained their every physical, spiritual and intellectual need was far more profound than anything the Soviet system had ever thrown at them — even Stalin’s purges, even the Second World War. Both those horrors, at least, had easy-to-understand narratives. But now they were hit by something entirely inexplicable – not an enemy, but a vacuum. They had nothing but their Russianness to fall back on, the intense experience of being Russian that pulled them together like straggling soldiers in a blizzard.
People reacted in different ways. Blinking like earthquake survivors, some quickly found their new god in money, nationalist fantasies, mysticism, charismatic religious sects. Others rediscovered the stern and ancient Orthodox God of All the Russias. Some, possessed by aimless frenzy, thrived on looting trinkets and scraps from the ruins. Others, who would soon become the country’s new masters, ignored the scraps and went for the treasures. And yet, with so many jeopardies inwardly stalking them, most Russians still lived their outward lives on spec, on spiritual credit. In other countries a trauma of this magnitude has ripped society apart and plunged it into decades of soul-searching. But in Russia the twin forces of fatalism and apathy meant that the country reacted with little more than a collective, resigned shrug and slogged on with the painful business of staying alive.
For millions of Russians the collapse of the U.S.S.R. marked the breakup of a great family of nations with whom many Soviet citizens had close emotional, familial and cultural ties that transcended the new borders. It marked an unconditional surrender to Western enemies without even the semblance of a fight. And closer to home, it marked the collapse of a moral order, the death of belief in the future, the end of dignity. Nuclear physicists had to grow their own potatoes in order to eat. Old ladies stood in lines outside Moscow’s Pharmacy No. 1, peddling their prescription cough medicine to young drug addicts to supplement their tiny pensions. Senior KGB officers were forced to moonlight as cab drivers to make ends meet. One of them, who shared his memories of that time in a recent Russian TV documentary to mark the anniversary, was Vladimir Putin. “Sometimes I had to earn extra money as a private driver,” Putin told the filmmakers. “It’s not pleasant to speak about honestly, but unfortunately that is what happened.”
Post-imperial nostalgia is common to all collapsed empires. Over the last half-century, Western Europeans have largely gotten over it — and today are much more likely to lament the evils of colonialism than rewatch 1980s Merchant-Ivory films about the lost glories of the British Raj. Putin’s Russia, however, went in the opposite direction, largely because of the personality, personal history and policies of Putin himself. Since his appointment as Boris Yeltsin’s successor in 1999, Putin has made it his mission to restore Russians’ pride in their country and reverse the humiliations of the 1990s.
Yeltsin’s Russia was a society adrift. During the 70 years of Soviet rule, Russians had lost much of their ancient religious culture and with it their God. But at least the Soviet state had compensated by filling the ideological vacuum with its own bold myths and strict codes. It fed people, taught and clothed them, ordered their lives from cradle to grave and, most important, thought for them. Communists had tried to create a new kind of man, emptying the people of their old beliefs and refilling them with civic duty, patriotism and docility. But when Communist ideology was stripped away, its quaint ’50s morality also disappeared into the black hole of discarded mythologies. People put their faith in television healers, Japanese apocalyptic cults, even in the jealous old God of Orthodoxy. But more profound than any of Russia’s other, newfound faiths was an absolute, bottomless nihilism. Suddenly there were no rules, no holds barred, and everything went to those bold and ruthless enough to go out and grab as much as they could.
There were plenty of ashes but few phoenixes. Mostly the “narod” (the people) retreated into themselves, continuing with their old routines, ignoring the seismic shocks that had shaken their world. Work, school, car, dacha, allotment, television, sausage and potatoes for dinner. Some weren’t even so fortunate to have these standards met. Many were reduced to survival, making ends meet while a select few became obscenely wealthy, seizing control over the country’s vast natural resources and acquiring a disconcerting level of political influence in the process. Russia after the Soviet fall was like a maze full of lab rats trapped in an abandoned experiment, still vainly nuzzling the sugar-water dispenser long after the scientists had switched off the lights and emigrated.
This Putin set out to reverse. A strong, united nation, sovereign and proud, became the centerpiece of Kremlin ideology, and Putin presented himself as the embodiment of this goal, playing on his youth, physique and straight-talking nature. The contrast between Putin and his predecessor was stark and plain to see. Immediately on coming to power Putin’s first move was to gather the Russian media under Kremlin control, a precursor to his later moves to crush all public dissent. The iconography and morality of Putin’s regime was strikingly Soviet, the collective identity based on common values, shared history and collective resistance to enemies, first to those from within, and then to those outside – namely, the West.
Today, homages to the glories of the U.S.S.R. are everywhere in popular culture. Small children dress up as World War II soldiers on May 9 Victory Day parades. State-run TV is filled with wistful soaps and patriotic films about the glories of the war, the Soviet space program and the Brezhnev era. A vast church complex on the outskirts of Moscow built to commemorate the Soviet victory in 1945 originally featured a large mosaic depicting both Stalin and Putin. According to the independent Levada Center, polls regularly see Stalin named as the most outstanding personality in history. And recent polling in Moscow shows that over half the city’s residents favor returning a statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky to its former pride of place in the center of Lubyanka Square.
Soviet-style control is central to Putin’s rule. But it does not necessarily mean that Soviet-style imperial expansion is part of the regime’s ideology. Take Putin’s famous quote about the collapse of the U.S.S.R. being a “geopolitical tragedy.” The less well-known part of that statement was its specific context — the fate of millions of ethnic Russians left stranded outside Russia’s borders, subject to hostility, discrimination and (in the case of Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine) punitive laws that excluded Russian speakers from jobs and education.
Historians may not find that clarification reassuring – after all, the goal to reunite the German people separated from their homeland by the Treaty of Versailles was Adolf Hitler’s justification for invading the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland in 1938 and 1939. It was also Putin’s excuse for annexing Crimea in 2014, justifying the land grab – as Hitler did in the Sudetenland and Austria – with a retrospective plebiscite that returned an overwhelming majority in favor of annexation.
But there is one key difference. Putin cast the Crimea as a defensive operation to prevent NATO taking over the Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol. Six years earlier, the occupation of the Georgian separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were also justified as a defensive response to then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s enthusiastically stated desire to join NATO — and to NATO’s ill-advised declaration that both Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members. In the current border crisis with Ukraine, Putin has repeatedly emphasized that his troop build-ups are also defensive. In a press conference last month Putin accused the West of “coming with its missiles to our doorstep” — and in a diplomatic maneuver that followed, Putin demanded that NATO cease basing offensive missiles near his borders and cease its military presence in Ukraine.
Is that defensive rhetoric just a cynical bluff, or does Putin really believe that Russia is being surrounded by an aggressive West?
Actually, the question is centuries old — as old as Western engagement with Russia. Did Catherine the Great swallow Poland and Ukraine to create buffer zones against Prussia and the Ottomans or because she wanted to create her own vast European empire? Did Stalin annex chunks of Europe, first in a 1939 pact with Hitler that allowed him to seize the Baltics and Eastern Poland and then again to a much greater extent after his victory over Germany, as an act of defense or aggression? In 1946 U.S. diplomat George Kennan advocated recognizing that “at the bottom of the Kremlin’s view of world affairs is a traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Kennan’s suggested solution, which became known as containment, was to urge the U.S and its allies to “contain” the Soviets in a “nonprovocative way.”
Only Putin himself, and the members of his very secretive inner circle, truly know how much of their rhetoric over NATO expansion is bluster and how much is true fear. But there is one, purely practical answer to the question of whether Putin intends to invade Ukraine — and it’s based on a factor that didn’t exist in Stalin’s time, or in Catherine the Great’s. Unlike his belligerent predecessors, Putin doesn’t have the military, economic or political strength to win. Even without committing troops on the ground in Ukraine, the U.S. and its European allies have the power to shut down Russia economically and reduce the country to 1990s levels of poverty. Moreover, unlike his Soviet predecessors Putin does not command a universally effective terror state. A recent poll by the Levada Center revealed that 66% of Russians ages 18 to 24 – the very conscripts that would have to fight a war on the ground — have a “positive” or “very positive” attitude toward Ukraine. That’s despite a backdrop of unceasing vitriol directed toward Ukraine on state television and the persistent, oft-repeated idea that it is external attacks that require Russia to take defensive measures.
So the question becomes: Why threaten a war Putin knows he cannot win and does not have the popular backing to fight? One answer is that Putin believes that he has more to gain by making threats than following through with them. They certainly have got the attention of Western leaders – bilateral talks with President Biden are forthcoming, as well as talks with NATO. Putin has also been careful to emphasize that all he wants is peace, framing his demands that NATO back down as “proposals” – a nonantagonistic formula intended to maintain a semblance of civility and measured diplomacy between the two parties.
Putin also appears to believe that over-asking is a good way to gain some small concessions, which were what he wanted all along. However misinformed about NATO Putin may be, he and his advisers must know that there is no way that NATO could ever agree to limit troop and missile deployments on their own territories. But by putting forward such excessive demands the Kremlin apparently figures that the West may actually cede to some perceived lesser ones – such as a dialback on the 2008 statement committing to Ukraine’s eventual membership. The evidence is strong that a change of direction by NATO, not all-out war in Ukraine, is Putin’s true goal.
Ukrainians, for their part, point to Putin’s recent statements that “Russia and Ukraine … [are] parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space” and that Kyiv’s attempts to assert its own sovereignty are part of a West-imposed “anti-Russia project” show that Putin has no respect for their statehood and intends to erase it if he can. But a more logical explanation lies in Putin’s and his generation’s trauma at the end of the empire. Putin and millions like him yearn to return their country to the power and respect that the U.S.S.R. commanded in their youth. Saber-rattling is a means to achieve that. Fighting an unwinnable war is not.
As Putin himself said, “anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.” The bottom line is that Putin cannot begin to restore the Soviet Union because to attempt to do so would destroy all the stability and public support he has built up over 20 years in power. Putin may be misinformed; he often makes mistakes. But he is not suicidal.