Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the Victory Day military parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II

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How Russia’s upside down, looking-glass worldview is driving the Ukrainian war

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Paranoia, rising authoritarianism and revitalised imperialism are combining with devastating effect in the Russian political realm. Putin's dangerous, alternative reality has led to atrocities in Ukraine - and it might not stop there.

Until Russian troops actually crossed the Ukrainian border on 24 February, most Western and Russian observers thought a Russian invasion of Ukraine was extremely unlikely. US intelligence called it right, but its track record meant too few were listening.

Since then, we have witnessed a brave Ukrainian fightback and Russian military defeat in the Kyiv region, but also barbaric war crimes in areas both held and vacated by Russian forces, with the threat of worse to come as Russia regroups for an all-out assault on Ukraine’s south-east. What caused this ‘surprise’ invasion, and what are the implications?

NATO in my backyard

There are, broadly, three competing explanations at play. The first, arguably the dominant, view of Russian conduct before the latest invasion, focusses on an international system of factors. In this telling, it is about Russia’s response to Western military and political encroachment on its historical sphere of influence (of which Ukraine is a key part).

NATO expansion (with membership offered to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008), was provocative and breached Russia’s red lines. From the Russian perspective, it would be as if it had included Mexico in an anti-US security pact. This argument is clear and superficially plausible, not least because even many Western analysts – myself included – criticised NATO expansion at the time, and because it forms a key part of the Russian argument that they were compelled to respond.

But there is much wrong with this view, most significantly because its denies any agency to Ukraine, reducing it to a mere buffer zone between great powers, and to Russia itself. If Putin’s decision to invade was inevitable, why did it surprise much of the Russian elite?

Police arrest protester in Russia
Russian authorities have been cracking down on protests for years. In January 2021, police detained people gathered at Pushkin Square, Moscow in support of Kremlin-critic Alexei Navalny after he was remanded to pre-trial detention for 30 days.

The second view, most clearly voiced by liberal critics of Putin, connects Russia’s increasing domestic authoritarianism with its foreign policy, which has increasingly focussed on subverting democracy and meddling in elections around the world. Arguably, Putin could not live with a democratic Ukraine, which he views as ‘anti-Russia’, on Russia’s doorstep.

One might object that Putin does not regard democracy per se as threatening. After all, Russia has close relations with democratic nations such as India and Israel. But a democratic neighbour is different. Russia’s authoritarianism is clearly relevant, not least because authoritarian decision-making enabled by corruption and a gaggle of ‘yes men’ may explain why Putin was apparently so ill-informed about Ukrainian and Russian military capabilities, with his planned ‘short, victorious war’ becoming a thing of fantasy.

Crush thy neighbour?

The third view focusses on identity issues among the Russian elite and Putin personally. The ex-KGB elite is institutionally paranoid, but of late Putin has become more isolated (especially during Covid), dictatorial, and focussed on his legacy as the gatherer of historical Russian lands.

The Russian elite has never really accepted Ukrainian sovereignty, and Putin has long held the theory that Ukraine is not just an artificial state, but that Ukrainian identity simply does not exist. As he recently articulated, Ukrainians are Russians deceived by Western and so-called Nazi influences which must be purified by returning Ukraine to the motherland.

This ideological and dogmatic shift in Russian politics is increasingly noticeable after the invasion. The country is now stalked by a chimera of Stalinism (minus the Marxism), a revitalised Russian imperialism, and a dose of Slavic brotherhood. Belarus, for example, has already become a de facto Russian dependency.

The streets of Bucha, 25 miles from Kiyv, Ukraine, are littered with Russian military vehicles following the retreat of the invading forces
The streets of Bucha, 25 miles from Kiyv, Ukraine, are littered with Russian military vehicles following the retreat of the invading forces

Aided by proclamations of key Russian figures, including Kirill, the Patriarch of the Orthodox church, this looking-glass doctrine argues that Russians are fighting a defensive war to save their brothers and cleanse Ukraine of ‘Nazi’ deviations. Despite initial misgivings and the sanctions regime, and undoubtedly helped by domestic repression and a blood-curdling media frenzy, enough of the Russian population passively or actively support these myths. The implications are deeply troubling.

If this war were just about NATO, a neutral status for Ukraine might largely resolve it, but what lasting peace is possible with a neighbour that fantasises about your extermination, and which now sees itself in a holy war with the West? Only Russia’s poor battlefield performance provides any restraint.

How to fight back

So what can we in the West do? For policy makers, the uncomfortable reality is the controversial but urgent need for more sanctions – specifically around energy – and/or sending more arms to Ukraine. Only defeating or lastingly frustrating Russia’s military aims is likely to dent the dominance of its new imperialist mythology, which ultimately threatens not Ukraine alone but promises a new iron curtain and the remilitarisation of Europe.

For wider publics, it is imperative to keep focussed on humanitarian assistance and to pressure the UK government to be far more generous with asylum policies, particularly if Ukraine gradually slides down the news agenda. For academics in particular, there is a need to challenge continually the still all-too pervasive Russian propaganda about the war (for example around ‘Nazi Ukraine’), but especially to foster further links with Ukrainian and Russian dissident academia.

Above all we need to decolonise the study of Ukraine – its language, history, culture and politics. We need to move it from its current, too frequent  position as an appendage of Russian or post-Soviet studies, to become a valued subject in its own right. We have a responsibility to build it up as a distinct, rich and rewarding discipline so that no attempts to ‘de-Ukrainianise’ can challenge it.

The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.

Picture credits: Red Square – Ramil Sitdikov – Host Photo Agency via Getty Images; protester – Getty; Bucha – Chris McGrath/Getty Images