The Reason Putin Would Risk War

He is threatening to invade Ukraine because he wants democracy to fail—and not just in that country.

A photo illustration of rings of missiles radiating from a photo of Vladimir Putin
Adam Maida / The Atlantic ; Mikhail Svetlov / Getty

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

There are questions about troop numbers, questions about diplomacy. There are questions about the Ukrainian military, its weapons, and its soldiers. There are questions about Germany and France: How will they react? There are questions about America, and how it has come to be a central player in a conflict not of its making. But of all the questions that repeatedly arise about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the one that gets the least satisfactory answers is this one: Why?

Why would Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, attack a neighboring country that has not provoked him? Why would he risk the blood of his own soldiers? Why would he risk sanctions, and perhaps an economic crisis, as a result? And if he is not really willing to risk these things, then why is he playing this elaborate game?

To explain why requires some history, but not the semi-mythological, faux-medieval history Putin has used in the past to declare that Ukraine is not a country, or that its existence is an accident, or that its sense of nationhood is not real. Nor do we need to know that much about the more recent history of Ukraine or its 70 years as a Soviet republic—though it is true that the Soviet ties of the Russian president, most notably his years spent as a KGB officer, matter a great deal. Indeed, many of his tactics—the use of sham Russian-backed “separatists” to carry out his war in eastern Ukraine, the creation of a puppet government in Crimea—are old KGB tactics, familiar from the Soviet past. Fake political groupings played a role in the KGB’s domination of Central Europe after World War II; sham separatists played a role in the Bolshevik conquest of Ukraine itself in 1918.

Putin’s attachment to the old U.S.S.R. matters in another way as well. Although he is sometimes incorrectly described as a Russian nationalist, he is in fact an imperial nostalgist. The Soviet Union was a Russian-speaking empire, and he seems, at times, to dream of re-creating a smaller Russian-speaking empire within the old Soviet Union’s borders.

But the most significant influence on Putin’s worldview has nothing to do with either his KGB training or his desire to rebuild the U.S.S.R. Putin and the people around him have been far more profoundly shaped, rather, by their path to power. That story—which has been told several times, by the authors Fiona Hill, Karen Dawisha, and most recently Catherine Belton—begins in the 1980s. The later years of that decade were, for many Russians, a moment of optimism and excitement. The policy of glasnost—openness—meant that people were speaking the truth for the first time in decades. Many felt the real possibility of change, and they thought it could be change for the better.

Putin missed that moment of exhilaration. Instead, he was posted to the KGB office in Dresden, East Germany, where he endured the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a personal tragedy. As the world’s television screens blared out the news of the Cold War’s end, Putin and his KGB comrades in the doomed Soviet satellite state were frantically burning all of their files, making calls to Moscow that were never returned, fearing for their lives and their careers. For KGB operatives, this was not a time of rejoicing, but rather a lesson about the nature of street movements and the power of rhetoric: democratic rhetoric, antiauthoritarian rhetoric, anti-totalitarian rhetoric. Putin, like his role model Yuri Andropov, who was the Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 revolution there, concluded from that period that spontaneity is dangerous. Protest is dangerous. Talk of democracy and political change is dangerous. To keep them from spreading, Russia’s rulers must maintain careful control over the life of the nation. Markets cannot be genuinely open; elections cannot be unpredictable; dissent must be carefully “managed” through legal pressure, public propaganda, and, if necessary, targeted violence.

But although Putin missed the euphoria of the ’80s, he certainly took full part in the orgy of greed that gripped Russia in the ’90s. Having weathered the trauma of the Berlin Wall, Putin returned to the Soviet Union and joined his former colleagues in a massive looting of the Soviet state. With the assistance of Russian organized crime as well as the amoral international offshore-money-laundering industry, some of the former Soviet nomenklatura stole assets, took the money out of the country, hid it abroad, and then brought the cash back and used it to buy more assets. Wealth accumulated; a power struggle followed. Some of the original oligarchs landed in prison or exile. Eventually Putin wound up as the top billionaire among all the other billionaires—or at least the one who controls the secret police.

This position makes Putin simultaneously very strong and very weak, a paradox that many Americans and Europeans find hard to understand. He is strong, of course, because he controls so many levers of Russia’s society and economy. Try to imagine an American president who controlled not only the executive branch—including the FBI, CIA, and NSA—but also Congress and the judiciary; The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, and all of the other newspapers; and all major businesses, including Exxon, Apple, Google, and General Motors.

Putin’s control comes without legal limits. He and the people around him operate without checks and balances, without ethics rules, without transparency of any kind. They determine who can be a candidate in elections, and who is allowed to speak in public. They can make decisions from one day to the next—sending troops to the Ukrainian border, for example—after consulting no one and taking no advice. When Putin contemplates an invasion, he does not have to consider the interest of Russian businesses or consumers who might suffer from economic sanctions. He doesn’t have to take into account the families of Russian soldiers who might die in a conflict that they don’t want. They have no choice, and no voice.

And yet at the same time, Putin’s position is extremely precarious. Despite all of that power and all of that money, despite total control over the information space and total domination of the political space, Putin must know, at some level, that he is an illegitimate leader. He has never won a fair election, and he has never campaigned in a contest that he could lose. He knows that the political system he helped create is profoundly unfair, that his regime not only runs the country but owns it, making economic and foreign-policy decisions that are designed to benefit the companies from which he and his inner circle personally profit. He knows that the institutions of the state exist not to serve the Russian people, but to steal from them. He knows that this system works very well for a few rich people, but very badly for everyone else. He knows, in other words, that one day, prodemocracy activists of the kind he saw in Dresden might come for him too.

Putin’s awareness that his legitimacy is dubious has been on public display since 2011, soon after his rigged “reelection” to a constitutionally dubious third term. At that time, large crowds appeared not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but several dozen other cities as well, protesting electoral fraud and elite corruption. Protesters mocked the Kremlin as a regime of “crooks and thieves,” a slogan popularized by the democracy activist Alexei Navalny; later, Putin’s regime would poison Navalny, nearly killing him. The dissident is now in a Russian jail. But Putin wasn’t just angry at Navalny. He also blamed America, the West, foreigners trying to destroy Russia. The Obama administration had, he said, organized the demonstrators; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of all people, had “given the signal” to start the protests. He had won the election, he declared with great passion, tears seeming to well up in his eyes, despite the “political provocations that pursue the sole objective of undermining Russia's statehood and usurping power.”

In his mind, in other words, he wasn’t merely fighting Russian demonstrators; he was fighting the world’s democracies, in league with enemies of the state. Whether he really believed that crowds in Moscow were literally taking orders from Hillary Clinton is unimportant. He certainly understood the power of democratic language, of the ideas that made Russians want a fair political system, not a kleptocracy controlled by Putin and his gang, and he knew where they came from. Over the subsequent decade, he would take the fight against democracy to Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, where he would support extremist groups and movements in the hope of undermining European democracy. Russian state-controlled media would support the campaign for Brexit, on the grounds that it would weaken Western democratic solidarity, which it has. Russian oligarchs would invest in key industries across Europe and around the world with the aim of gaining political traction, especially in smaller countries like Hungary and Serbia. And, of course, Russian disinformation specialists would intervene in the 2016 American election.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining the extraordinary significance, to Putin, of Ukraine. Of course Ukraine matters as a symbol of the lost Soviet empire. Ukraine was the second-most-populous and second-richest Soviet republic, and the one with the deepest cultural links to Russia. But modern, post-Soviet Ukraine also matters because it has tried—struggled, really—to join the world of prosperous Western democracies. Ukraine has staged not one but two prodemocracy, anti-oligarchy, anti-corruption revolutions in the past two decades. The most recent, in 2014, was particularly terrifying for the Kremlin. Young Ukrainians were chanting anti-corruption slogans, just like the Russian opposition does, and waving European Union flags. These protesters were inspired by the same ideals that Putin hates at home and seeks to overturn abroad. After Ukraine’s profoundly corrupt, pro-Russian president fled the country in February 2014, Ukrainian television began showing pictures of his palace, complete with gold taps, fountains, and statues in the yard—exactly the kind of palace Putin inhabits in Russia. Indeed, we know he inhabits such a palace because one of the videos produced by Navalny has already shown us pictures of it, along with its private ice-hockey rink and its hookah bar.

Putin’s subsequent invasion of Crimea punished Ukrainians for trying to escape from the kleptocratic system that he wanted them to live in—and it showed Putin’s own subjects that they too would pay a high cost for democratic revolution. The invasion also violated both written and unwritten rules and treaties in Europe, demonstrating Putin’s scorn for the Western status quo. Following that “success,” Putin launched a much broader attack: a series of attempted coups d’état in Odessa, Kharkiv, and several other cities with a Russian-speaking majority. This time, the strategy failed, not least because Putin profoundly misunderstood Ukraine, imagining that Russian-speaking Ukrainians would share his Soviet imperial nostalgia. They did not. Only in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine where Putin was able to move in troops and heavy equipment from across the border, did a local coup succeed. But even there he did not create an attractive “alternative” Ukraine. Instead, the Donbas—the coal-mining region that surrounds Donetsk—remains a zone of chaos and lawlessness.

It’s a long way from the Donbas to France or the Netherlands, where far-right politicians hang around the European Parliament and take Russian money to go on “fact-finding missions” to Crimea. It’s a longer way still to the small American towns where, back in 2016, voters eagerly clicked on pro-Trump Facebook posts written in St. Petersburg. But they are all a part of the same story: They are the ideological answer to the trauma that Putin and his generation of KGB officers experienced in 1989. Instead of democracy, they promote autocracy; instead of unity, they try constantly to create division; instead of open societies, they promote xenophobia. Instead of letting people hope for something better, they promote nihilism and cynicism.

Putin is preparing to invade Ukraine again—or pretending he will invade Ukraine again—for the same reason. He wants to destabilize Ukraine, frighten Ukraine. He wants Ukrainian democracy to fail. He wants the Ukrainian economy to collapse. He wants foreign investors to flee. He wants his neighbors—in Belarus, Kazakhstan, even Poland and Hungary—to doubt whether democracy will ever be viable, in the longer term, in their countries too. Farther abroad, he wants to put so much strain on Western and democratic institutions, especially the European Union and NATO, that they break up. He wants to keep dictators in power wherever he can, in Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. He wants to undermine America, to shrink American influence, to remove the power of the democracy rhetoric that so many people in his part of the world still associate with America. He wants America itself to fail.

These are big goals, and they might not be achievable. But Putin’s beloved Soviet Union also had big, unachievable goals. Lenin, Stalin, and their successors wanted to create an international revolution, to subjugate the entire world to the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat. Ultimately, they failed—but they did a lot of damage while trying. Putin will also fail, but he too can do a lot of damage while trying. And not only in Ukraine.