In the end, this war is the aging autocrat’s final attempt to rebuild the Russian Empire and correct the wrong turn history made in 1991. You might be tempted to ask why it matters to America. First, because America still stands for freedom and basic human rights. But more directly, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are part of historic Russia. They’re also NATO members and America is treaty-bound to defend them. If we don’t stop Putin indirectly in Ukraine, we might well have to face him on the battlefield.
What’s really happening in Ukraine?” This question has hit my inbox ever since Russia moved troops to the Ukrainian border. Friends look to me because much of my career has centered on Ukraine: I was a U.S. Army Russian linguist, spent four years as an Evangelical missionary in Ukraine, studied Ukrainian history in graduate school, and served in U.S. Embassy Kyiv for two years. I was there for the Orange Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity, and Russia’s 2014 invasion.
So what’s really happening? Putin is a throwback to a bloodier era in Europe when autocrats settled historical grievances by force. Except for Milosevic trying to build Greater Serbia via ethnic cleansing, such wars have been extinct since 1945.
Extinct, anyway, until Vladimir Putin came to power. There is no real mystery here. Putin explained his motivations in his famed 2005 annual address — the breakup of the Soviet Union was a “major geopolitical disaster.” In 2021, he went further, saying the independence of Ukraine and the other Soviet republics was the breakup of “historical Russia.” By historical Russia he means the Russian Empire, with “Great Russians” ruling over Belarusians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and a host of other nations. As with most Russian nationalists, Putin cannot be happy with a country; Russia can only be great as an empire.
The alternative theory, that Putin is afraid of having NATO and the EU on his border, simply doesn’t fit the data. NATO members Latvia and Estonia already border Russia. No serious person thinks Europe has a military interest in Russia — Germany, the largest country, could not muster 44 tanks for NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. It also fails to explain his aggression elsewhere on Russia’s borders.
He also weaponizes history, denying that Ukraine is a true nation. After Russia incorporated Ukrainian lands in the 17th century, it crafted an imperial ideology of three peoples in one — Great Russians, White Russians (Belarus), and condescendingly, Little Russians (Ukrainians). No one asked the “Little Russians” their opinion, and Putin is not interested in it now.
One of Putin’s talking points is that Ukrainian is just a dialect of Russian. In truth, it has the same overlap with Russian as Dutch does with English, so if you believe Putin, try reading an Amsterdam newspaper.
Ukrainians speak three languages — Ukrainian, Russian, and a mixture called Surzhyk. Many speak more than one. Putin tries a sleight of hand in which anyone who speaks Russian anywhere in the world is “Russian” and thus in need of his protection.