Putin Chooses a Forever War

His partition of Ukraine is an attack on global peace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Alexey Nikolsky / Sputnik / AFP

About the author: Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Peacefield.

Sign up for Tom’s newsletter, Peacefield, here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a long speech full of heavy sighs and dark grievances, made clear today that he has chosen war. He went to war against Ukraine in 2014; now he has declared war against the international order of the past 30 years.

Putin’s slumped posture and deadened affect led me to suspect that he is not as stable as we would hope. He had the presence not of a confident president, but of a surly adolescent caught in a misadventure, rolling his eyes at the stupid adults who do not understand how cruel the world has been to him. Teenagers, of course, do not have hundreds of thousands of troops and nuclear weapons.

Even discounting Putin’s delivery, the speech was, in many places, simply unhinged. Putin began with a history lesson about how and why Ukraine even exists. For all his Soviet nostalgia, the Russian president is right that his Soviet predecessors intentionally created a demographic nightmare when drawing the internal borders of the U.S.S.R., a subject I’ve explained at length here.

But Putin’s point wasn’t that the former subjects of the Soviet Union needed to iron out their differences. Rather, he was suggesting that none of the new states that emerged from the Soviet collapse—except for Russiawere real countries. “As a result of Bolshevik policy,” Putin intoned, “Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He is its author and architect.”

It is true that Soviet leaders created the 1991 borders. That is also true of what we now call the Russian Federation. Putin, however, went even further back in history: “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood.”

By that kind of historical reasoning, few nations in Europe, or anywhere else, are safe. Putin’s foray into history was nothing less than a demand that only Moscow—and only the Kremlin’s supreme leader—has the right to judge what is or is not a sovereign state (as I recently discussed here). Putin’s claims are hardly different from Saddam Hussein’s rewriting of Middle East history when Iraq tried to erase Kuwait from the map.

For most of the speech, Putin was drinking one shot after another straight from a bottle of pure Soviet-era moonshine. He accused Ukraine, for example, of developing nuclear weapons, a play right out of the old Soviet handbook, when Kremlin leaders would accuse the former West Germany of developing nuclear arms to serve their “revanchist” plans for war.

He even accused Bill Clinton of denigrating him personally when Putin asked, more than 20 years ago, about the possibility of including Russia in NATO. Among the Russian president’s various other quirks, the man knows how to hold a grudge.

Putin then suggested that international sanctions are “blackmail”—a word used almost daily in the old Soviet press about the West—and are aimed at weakening Russia and undermining its existence as a nation. “There is only one goal,” Putin said. “To restrain the development of Russia. And they will do it, as they did before. Even without any formal pretext at all.” This is nonsense, and either Putin knows it (which is likely) or he has become so detached from reality that he has come to believe it (which is not impossible).

Putin left no room for negotiation with the Biden administration. He is prepared for sanctions, which he says will come no matter what Russia does. He asserts that Western hostility is permanent (perhaps because it would be too painful to his ego to admit that most people in the West, if given the choice, would not think about Russia or its leaders at all).

In short, Putin is now embracing a Russian tradition of paranoia, an inferiority complex that sees Moscow as both a savior of other nations and a victim of great conspiracies, a drama in which Russia is both strong enough to be feared and weak enough to be threatened. The West, in this story, is motivated not to seek peace and security, but to undermine Russia, and Putin has cast himself as the beleaguered Russian prophet who must subvert the evil plans drawn against his people.

Back here on Earth, however, we have a more pressing problem. At the end of his speech, Putin recognized the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, the “people’s republics” of Lugansk and Donetsk, as independent entities. In so doing, Putin has effectively partitioned Ukraine. This specific form of meddling in sovereign nations, too, is a Soviet tradition, as the Poles and others would remind us. His claim to these areas—for they will be Russian satrapies, and not “independent” in any meaningful way—is a claim to be the ultimate arbiter of former Soviet borders, including those now within NATO.

Literally within minutes of completing his television address, Putin sent “peacekeepers” into eastern Ukraine. His likely next move will be to stage some sort of incident in which he claims (as he did in Georgia in his war there) that the Ukrainians are the aggressors, and that Russia is acting only in defense of ethnic Russians.

That “defense” could lead right into the streets of Kyiv. Putin demanded in his address, as he has before, that Ukraine “cease hostilities” in these areas—in other words, that the legitimate government of Ukraine stop trying to control its own territory—and he warned that “all responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine.”

This is the pretext for war.

Putin has now affirmed that he refuses to accept the outcome of the Cold War and that he will fight to dismantle the European system of peace and security constructed by the international community after its end. This is Vladimir Putin’s forever war, and Russia, cursed as it has been so many times in its history with a terrible leader, will be fighting it for as long as Putin remains the master of the Kremlin.