*This article has been featured in the State of the World publication, Issue No. 01, April 2023
Since Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the motives and calculations behind this decision have been debated worldwide among political, academic, and expert circles. Given the overwhelming role of the Russian President in Russian foreign policy decision-making, the personal views and beliefs of the Russian President came to the spotlight of this debate. What does President Putin think about Ukraine, what are his initial calculations as he adopted the decision to start the war, and what is his vision for the future? To correctly answer these questions, one should look into the overall picture of President Putin’s foreign policy and vision for Russia’s future.
The Formation of Putin’s Worldview
Putin assumed the role of President of Russia on December 31, 1999, after the surprised resignation of the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. The 1990s were tumultuous years in modern Russian history. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the "shock therapy of market reforms," rampant corruption, and active penetration of criminal elements into the state apparatus ushered in the era of instability, steep decline of living standards of the Russian population, and the emergence of the new class of extra wealthy persons often called oligarchs, who wielded not only economic but also significant political influence. The first Chechen war and the Russian defeat, as well as growing demands from other subjects of the Russian federation for greater autonomy, created a perception that Russia may follow the fate of the Soviet Union and soon break up into pieces.
In the 1990s, Russia faced significant setbacks also in foreign policy. Its views and positions were neglected in many issues, including the launch of the NATO enlargement process and the NATO decision to use force against Serbia in 1999. The domestic decline and the significantly decreased influence abroad created a sense of humiliation among large portions of Russian society. They contributed to the demand for the emergence of a strong leader who would restore Order and stability in Russia and bring back Russia to the forefront of international relations.
Early Years of Presidency
Coming into power in these circumstances, President Putin, with a personal background of decades-long work in Soviet special services, adopted a two-prong strategy – to restore stability in Russia and to bring back Russia its rightful place among the world’s great powers. Putin spent his first two Presidential terms (2000-2008) realizing these goals. He succeeded in stabilizing the political and economic situation in Russia, brought back Chechnya under Russian control as a result of the second Chechen war, and managed to raise the living standards of Russians significantly.
Meanwhile, from Putin’s perspective, the road towards restoring the Russian role as a great power lies through the reimposing of Russian influence in the Post – Soviet space. In October 2000, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan established the Eurasian economic community. (1) In 2002 Russia transformed the Collective security treaty into the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as a NATO-style military alliance comprised of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (2) A Treaty on a Single Economic Space by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine was signed in 2003 and ratified in 2004. The deepening of integration with Belarus and Ukraine was at the core of Russian efforts, based on the common Slavic history and culture.
Meanwhile, the Rose revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the orange revolution in Ukraine in 2004 brought to the power of pro-Western forces, with clear goals to join the EU and NATO. Russia perceived these events as a Western attempt to prevent the restoration of Russian influence in the post – soviet space and to create obstacles to Russia-led integration processes. The continuing NATO and EU enlargement process, which along Eastern European countries, brought Baltic Republics into NATO and the EU, only deepened Russian concerns.
President Putin viewed these events as a Western, and in particular, the US staged revolution with the explicit goal of containing Russia, denying its great power ambitions, and preserving the unipolar world with uncontested US primacy. President Putin publicly expressed his concerns and disagreements during his famous 2007 Munich security conference, articulating the Russian vision for the multipolar world, where Russia should have a sit at the negotiation table. (3)
As Putin assumed the role of Prime Minister in 2008 and Dmitry Medvedev was elected as Russian President, hopes emerged that Russia and the West may manage their disagreements. Even the 2008 Russia – Georgia war did not prevent the Obama administration from launching a "Russia reset policy" in the spring 2009. (4) However, growing Russia – West contradictions on issues such as Syria and Libya, as well as the role of Russia in the post-soviet space, prevented any meaningful dialogue.
A Growing Confrontation
The Russia – West confrontation in the Post – Soviet space peaked in late 2013 – early 2014 in Ukraine. Russia put pressure on Ukraine President Yanukovych to prevent the signature of the EU – Ukraine association agreement. Yanukovych’s decision to postpone the signature ushered in large-scale protests in Kyiv and other Ukraine cities, which turned violent and resulted in the forced removal of Yanukovych from power. (5) President Putin viewed these events as the second West orchestrated coup in Ukraine after the "Orange Revolution." As fears were growing in Russia that the new Ukraine leadership would accelerate the process of joining NATO and push the Russian Black Sea fleet from its base in Crimea, President Putin decided to incorporate Crimea into Russia by organizing the referendum in the peninsula.
Simultaneously, Russia backed rebels in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which declared their independence in May 2014. The following war in Eastern Ukraine ended with the signature of the Minsk agreements in February 2015, which effectively froze the conflict. (6) The collective West accused Russia of annexing Crimea, supporting rebels in Donbas, and put sanctions on Russia, albeit not very strict.
Putin’s View on the "Russian world"
The period between February 2015 – February 2022 saw the evolution of President Putin’s views on Ukraine. While being sure that the West organized the 2014 illegal coup to pull Ukraine back from Russia and transform Ukraine into a launchpad for anti-Russian activities, Putin started to circulate the idea of Ukrainians being the same as Russians. He rejected the notion of Ukrainians as a separate nation and argued that Ukraine itself was an artificial state created by the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin. President Putin elaborated on his vision in his lengthy article published in 2021. (7)
Another concept driving President Putin’s views on Ukraine is the "Russian world." According to this narrative, the Russian world is much bigger than the territory of the Russian Federation, and it encompasses the areas where ethnic Russians live. The term "compatriots" was coined in Russia, referring to ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking populations abroad, whose rights Russia should support and defend. The concept of the "Russian world" was formalized in September 2022, as President Vladimir Putin signed into law a decree on "a humanitarian policy of the Russian Federation abroad." (8) The document, which runs over 30 pages, outlines the principles of a policy for promoting Russian culture – broadly defined – abroad. Russian cultural policy abroad will continue to describe Russia as a separate civilization, distinct from other regions and countries. Western states are described as the main threat to Russian culture and, therefore, Russian statehood. According to the decree, the critical task is to promote and defend the foundations of Russian "traditional values", particularly Russian family values, deemed to be threatened by "neo-liberal governments."
The vision of Ukraine being an artificial state, and the Western strategy to transform Ukraine into anti-Russia, became the cornerstones of President Putin’s decision to launch a war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, preliminary recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. (9) Most probably, Putin hoped that Russian troops would quickly reach the capital Kyiv, and a change of government would take place in Ukraine. President Zelensky would resign or leave the capital, and the new, Russian-friendly government would be established. At the same time, most of the population of the Eastern, Southern, and Central parts of Ukraine will welcome the establishment of a pro-Russian government.
However, despite some successes in the southern parts of Ukraine (Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions), the Russian initial war plan failed primarily due to the wrong strategic calculations and flawed strategic intelligence. As Ukraine forces fought decisively against the Russian army approaching Kyiv, and advancement towards Kharkiv was stopped, Russia decided to withdraw from regions around Kyiv and concentrate its efforts on Donetsk and Lugansk regions. (10) In April – June 2022 Russian army achieved some successes, including the takeover of Mariupol and almost the entire Lugansk region.
However, the growing Western military supplies to Ukraine, as well as the lack of man power, effectively stopped Russian advancements. At the same time, in early September 2022, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive and pushed Russian troops from parts of the Kharkiv region. Facing the prospect of losing more territories in Ukraine, President Putin declared partial mobilization on September 21, 2022, (11) Furthermore, Russia organized referendums in four Ukrainian regions (Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia) on September 23-27 on the issue of joining Russia (12) and President Putin signed agreements with the leaders of these territories to declare them as parts of Russia on September 30. (13)
Russia believes that declaring these territories as part of Russia may change the narrative and transform the war into a defensive battle, where Russia protects its territorial integrity against Ukraine. Meanwhile, this narrative increases the possibility that Russia may use tactical nuclear bombs according to its military doctrine. The prospect of even limited nuclear war in Europe may force European countries to rethink the continuation of their military support to Ukraine, instead looking for some compromise with Russia. Probably, the Russian goal is to freeze the conflict within the current line of contact, albeit the fate of those territories in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, which Russia does not control, remains open.
(1) Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/glossary/21
(2) History of creation, fundamentals of activity, organizational structure, https://en.odkb-csto.org/25years/
(3) Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/copy/24034
(4) Clinton, Lavrov push wrong reset button on ties, https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN06402140
(5) Ukraine parliament removes Yanukovich, who flees Kiev in "coup", https://tinyurl.com/2p8vjm4h
(6) Factbox: What are the Minsk agreements on the Ukraine conflict?, https://tinyurl.com/2ykuepf2
(7) Article by Vladimir Putin "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181
(8) Putin approved Concept of Russian humanitarian policy abroad — decree, https://tass.com/politics/1503075
(9) Transcript: Vladimir Putin’s Televised Address on Ukraine, https://tinyurl.com/24dstwxh
(10) Pentagon: Russia has fully withdrawn from Kyiv, Chernihiv, https://tinyurl.com/2vjszust
(11) Executive Order on partial mobilization in the Russian Federation, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/page/2
(12) Ukraine ‘referendums’: Full results for annexation polls as Kremlin-backed authorities claim victory, https://tinyurl.com/2spbatdv
(13) Signing of treaties on accession of Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and Zaporozhye and Kherson regions to Russia, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69465