The two main drivers of Russia’s initiation of its war in Ukraine are a deep sense of wounded national pride and deeply ingrained paranoia. The undignified collapse of the Soviet Union was a bitter humiliation for the men of Vladimir Putin’s generation. Putin expressed a view common in Russia when he said the fall of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Recovering the lost glory of the Soviet Union’s superpower status is a national obsession. And paranoia is deeply ingrained in Russian political culture, where conspiracies and plots are suspected around every corner.
I spent four years on Russian state television (2015-2019), appearing daily on two of Russia’s most popular political talk shows, Mesto Vstrechi (Meeting Place) and Vremya Pokazhet (Time Will Tell). I was the token American, anti-Kremlin, pro-liberal democracy, pro-Ukraine. My interlocutors were mostly members of the Duma and Federation Council, Kremlin officials, political analysts, and journalists, mostly pro-Putin and strident nationalists.
During these four years I spent hundreds of hours backstage speaking with these members of Russia’s political class. The main point they all stressed was that Russia is and must be America’s geopolitical equal. It mattered not that America’s economy is fifteen times larger than Russia’s, or that every one of them owned an iPhone. What mattered was that Russia has a huge nuclear arsenal and the ability to inflict total devastation on the United States.
Behind much of this profound sense of insecurity and inadequacy is the unexpected and inglorious collapse of the Soviet Union. Even though by the late 1980s the Soviet system was incapable of producing such simple basics as sausage and toilet paper, at least the Soviet Union was an undisputed superpower. For many Russians (particularly the men who serve at senior levels of government today) this provided some psychological comfort despite the material deprivations of Soviet life. And in a period of only two years, that system simply gave up the ghost, with no struggle to save itself.
The "wild 90s” of Yeltsin’s presidency were a new series of humiliations. The economy shrank by half, the ruble lost 99 percent of its value. Doctors and physics professors turned to driving taxis to eke out a living. Women turned to selling their bodies, I remember on Friday nights dozens of prostitutes soliciting clients right in front of the Russian parliament. And then there was the war in Chechnya, a tiny republic of a million people managed to defeat the Russian Army, successor to the army that defeated the mighty Nazi war machine.
Since those bleak days, the modern Kremlin has always envied and resented America’s global status as undisputed world superpower. America has unequaled military strength and an unparalleled ability to project power worldwide and unilaterally. It confounds them that America has diplomatic and military allies around the world.
That brings up a second important factor in Russia’s worldview: paranoia. For centuries, conspiracies and coups have been part and parcel of Russian power politics. Ivan the Terrible beat his own son Ivan Ivanovich to death. Tsar Paul I was stabbed to death by officers loyal to his son Alexander. Priest Rasputin was poisoned, stabbed, and shot by aristocratic officers in the Tsar’s court. Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family were executed by firing squad in a basement in Yekaterinburg. Most leading Bolsheviks perished in Stalin’s purges, along with another million victims. When Georgy Malenkov lost his power struggle to Nikita Khrushchev, he was astonished that he was merely demoted and not summarily shot.
This paranoia extends to foreign policy and national security. During the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union some 20 million Soviet citizens died and entire cities were destroyed. This history understandably left Russians with a permanent wariness about Germany and Western Europe.
For Russians, it’s always 1945. That’s also because victory in The Great Patriotic War is revered as Russia’s greatest accomplishment. Maybe the Americans landed a man on the moon, but Russians defeated Hitler. (In their view, single-handedly.) Fear of invasion from the west runs deep in the Russian psyche, rational or not.
For Russians, NATO is an existential threat. The Russian political figures I know are convinced that NATO and America in particular are intent on destroying the Russian state and stealing Russia’s natural resources. Many times, I tried in vain to explain that it is cheaper and easier just to buy Russian oil and natural gas at market prices than to invade and occupy Russia. But they see in America a gangster state in their own image.
The Kremlin establishment was also horrified by NATO enlargement. Russian political elites couldn’t understand that countries that had endured more than four decades of Russian occupation might wish to seek protection from future Russian aggression. Rather, in a classic example of projection, they saw NATO expansion as an act of aggressive intent directed at them.
Moscow saw the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 as yet another Western plot. Mass protests in Kyiv were met with shocking violence by the regime, and Yanukovych fled to Russia when his own security forces defected to the opposition. But in the paranoid imagination of the Kremlin this was just another anti-Moscow coup planned and executed by hostile powers, right in Moscow’s own backyard.
Now Russia is waging a ruthless war against Ukraine. Why? Ukraine was not going to join NATO anytime in the foreseeable future. The Kremlin fears a deeper working relationship between NATO and Ukraine. In their feverish nightmares, Ukraine would be a launching point for NATO tanks driving on Moscow. It matters not that nobody has any plans to invade and subjugate Russia.
And a conquest of Kyiv would show Washington and the rest of the world that Moscow is a power to be contended with, also capable of projecting power at will. A quick and easy defeat of Ukraine was meant to salve Russia’s wounded pride, to assure Putin and his minions that Russia matters on the world stage.
Things have not gone according to the Kremlin’s original plan. Defeat in Ukraine will not encourage introspection and humility. I fear that Russia will emerge even more dangerous than ever, having new grudges to nurse and even more prone to schizophrenic insecurities.