Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Justice and War in Ukraine—Part II: What Putin Wants

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 24, 2022

Last week I reflected on the sober moral reasoning demanded by the just-war tradition, and the need to think dispassionately about the issues at stake in Ukraine. My analysis ended with three questions, which I want to address today:

  • What provoked Putin to launch this invasion?
  • What might prompt him to escalate?
  • What would convince him to withdraw?

The goal of American policy (since I am looking at the conflict from an American perspective) should be to persuade Putin that whatever he wants, if it is reasonable, can be achieved by non-military means; and if it is unreasonable, cannot be achieved without exorbitant costs to Russia. To put it differently, we want to give Russia incentives—using both carrot and stick, as needed—to end the offensive against Ukraine.

“Know your enemy,” the ancient adage teaches us, and the first step in that direction is to recognize that the enemy is not the Russian population. The ordinary people of Russia undoubtedly want peace, and may—if we can overcome the government’s propaganda machinery—exert pressure on Putin to end the war. Tawdry efforts to whip up animosity toward all things Russian—to close down Russian restaurants in American cities and scrub Tchaikovsky from orchestral programs—do nothing to advance the cause of peace.

Similarly unhelpful are the overheated claims that Vladimir Putin is a madman, with whom we cannot reason. Putin might be evil, but he is not insane. He rose through the ranks of the Kremlin by careful calculation. He has clear ideas about what is best, for himself and his country (in that order), and he has been consistent in pursuing his goals. He has always been ambitious, and after a very long tenure as Russia’s political leader, he probably wants a crowning achievement to cement his place in the nation’s history.

If it is dangerous to regard Putin as a lunatic, it is equally foolish to see him as a hero of Christianity, fighting against the encroachment of an increasingly godless West. Russia does indeed have good reasons to fear and resist the onslaught of secular materialism. But Putin is an unlikely champion of that cause. For years he was a committed official of the Communist regime, and he made his mark as a leader of the KGB, an institution not noted for piety or charity.

Since the collapse of the USSR and his own ascent to power, Putin has courted the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, and presented himself as a staunch believer. Has he experienced a religious conversion, or is he cynically exploiting the traditions of the Russian people, who see their national identity entwined with the Orthodox faith? We cannot judge his sincerity from afar. But it is prudent to observe that Mafia chieftains, too, often appear as pious churchgoers, and although they may contribute generously to local parishes, their outward display can cover shameless criminal behavior. (Remember the Baptism scene in The Godfather?)

The comparison with a Mafia don may be particularly apt in Putin’s case. He too has friends who have become fabulously rich through their association with him, earning their fortunes in ways that do not bear close scrutiny. He himself is reputed to be one of the world’s richest men, a financial success story that his government salary does not explain. Meanwhile his rivals have shown an unhappy tendency to die abruptly.

A longing for Russian revival

Still Putin is not a one-dimensional man. Like others who served in the Communist regime, he was humiliated by the collapse of the USSR. And like all patriotic Russians, he surely longs for a national revival, so that Russia can again be recognized as a great power. So we can safely assume that he hears the call of history, beckoning him to restore Russia’s status as a great power.

When Russians think of their nation’s history, Ukraine plays a central role. It was in Kiev, in 988 AD, that that “Baptism of the Rus’” took place, with Vladimir the Great leading his people into the Church. The Russian people see that historic event as the foundation of their national identity. For nearly a millennium, Russia saw itself as a religious nation—a Russian Orthodox nation, to be precise—with the Tsar playing a religious as well as political role. Consequently, Russians see Ukraine as an essential part of their nation.

During most of that millennium, Ukraine was ruled by other empires: Polish, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, as well as Russian. Although national sentiments were strong, Ukraine did not emerge as an independent country until 1917, and then it was quickly swallowed up by the Soviet Union. So from the Russian perspective, the existence of Ukraine as a separate nation is an accident of history: a temporary aberration that should be corrected.

Needless to say, the Ukrainian perspective is radically different. The people’s aspirations to independence grew much stronger during the decades of Soviet rule—as did resentments against Russia. In the 1930s, Stalin’s policies deliberately destroyed Ukraine’s thriving agricultural industry, creating a man-made famine that caused millions to die of starvation. It should not be surprising, then, that since winning their independence in 1991, Ukrainian leaders have been anxious to distance themselves from Moscow.

Nevertheless it is undeniably true that ethnic Russians living in what is now Ukraine—particularly in the eastern part of the country—do not always share the ambitions of their countrymen. Putin claims that these Russians have been targets of violence. That, he says, is the reason for Russia’s intervention. Maybe the sufferings of ethnic Russians in Donbas have been exaggerated—if not invented—by propaganda from Moscow. But it is significant that Metropolitan Hilarion, the chief ecumenical official of the Russian Orthodox Church, reports that priests of the Moscow patriarchate have been including prayers for peace in Ukraine as part of the Divine Liturgy for eight years now; evidently the Russian Orthodox believe the reports of continued violence.

Was Putin provoked?

The reports of violence against ethnic Russians, whether true or false, were used to explain Russia’s incursion into Crimea in 2014. But they are not enough to explain the full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year. Putin has other reasons, which are worth exploring.

For proud Russian leaders, still smarting over the disintegration of the Soviet empire, the independence of Ukraine is bad enough. But the notion that Ukraine might join NATO, in alliance against Russia, is intolerable; and after having pledged that NATO would not expand eastward toward Russia, American diplomats later strongly hinted that Ukraine should be free to join the alliance. The Ukrainian military, puny in comparison with Moscow’s might, is not a serious threat to Russia. But the emergence of a hostile nation on Russia’s doorstep—and, worse, a nation that Russians still see as part of their own historical heritage—is unacceptable.

Since Ukraine gained its independence, Russia has complained about American meddling on its border, and frankly those complaints are justified. Although the US has no formal alliance with Ukraine, Washington has been heavily involved in the country’s internal politics, supporting our own favorites, contesting the results of democratic elections, encouraging the politicians who poke the Russian bear. Until the Russian invasion forced Americans to choose sides, most observers were willing to concede that Ukraine’s political life was marred by corruption; remember that large sums of Ukrainian money found their way into the bank accounts of the Biden family. A corrupt government, given to tweaking the nose of a powerful neighbor, is not an ideal ally.

All these factors made Ukraine a neuralgic issue for Russian foreign policy, prompting Putin to think that some action was warranted. And at the same time, the US gave the Russian leader every reason to question our resolve. The precipitous and disorganized American withdrawal from Afghanistan raised questions about our staying power. The stiff restraints on domestic oil production, which increased the world’s reliance on Russian energy exports, greatly enhanced Moscow’s leverage in world affairs. The limp American response to domestic rioting again appeared a show of weakness. The rise of the “cancel culture,” and the preoccupation of the Biden administration with issues that Putin viewed as decadent, such as trangender rights, no doubt made the Russian leadership see America as a spent force in world affairs. When John Kerry suggested that the worst consequence of the war in Ukraine would be its impact on climate change, he surely confirmed Putin in that opinion—in the view that the US leadership need not be taken seriously.

None of the above justifies the Russian invasion of Ukraine; it cannot be justified. My point is, rather, that at each step, American foreign policy probably strengthened Putin’s temptation to use military force.

Years ago, at a dinner in Washington, DC, I heard an influential foreign-policy expert say: “The most dangerous thing on earth is a great power that refuses to act like a great power.” A strong country that vacillates in its foreign policy leaves allies and enemies alike unsure about what they can expect. That uncertainty causes tension, and increased the likelihood that someone will test the powerful nation’s resolve. That test is taking place in Ukraine today.

Next, in Part III: the forgotten religious dimension.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dianekortan5972 - Mar. 26, 2022 9:58 AM ET USA

    I don’t usually agree with your opinions—in fact, I follow the website to try to understand how the “other side” thinks. But this is the best analysis I’ve seen anywhere. Succinct and spot on!

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Mar. 25, 2022 6:43 PM ET USA

    One thing Putin is dead square on is that US leadership no longer need be taken seriously and that, indeed, he might have to contend with a corrupt and decadent nation which I don't imagine he is terribly concerned about especially when yet another brilliant kerryism is uttered.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 24, 2022 8:17 PM ET USA

    Much of what you wrote is verifiable. But how much of the rest comes by way of "fake news"? The popular view pushed by the fake-news media is that Putin remains 3 decades later an unrepentant KGB Communist operator whose main purpose in life is self aggrandizement, with a commitment to re-establish that most hated form of government--a constitutional monarchy. Never mind the multiple Christian reforms enacted by the Russian government during the last dozen years and reported in this very forum.