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Why did the war in Ukraine start on 24 February and what is going to be the outcome over there?

The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War
March 22, 2022, 1:00 a.m. ET
By Jane Burbank
Dr. Burbank is a professor of Russian history, recently retired from New York University.
President Vladimir Putin’s bloody assault on Ukraine, nearly a month in, still seems
inexplicable. Rockets raining down on apartment buildings and fleeing families are now
Russia’s face to the world. What could induce Russia to take such a fateful step,
effectively electing to become a pariah state?
Efforts to understand the invasion tend to fall into two broad schools of thought. The
first focuses on Mr. Putin himself — his state of mind, his understanding of history or
his K.G.B. past. The second invokes developments external to Russia, chiefly NATO’s
eastward expansion after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, as the underlying source of
the conflict.
But to understand the war in Ukraine, we must go beyond the political projects of
Western leaders and Mr. Putin’s psyche. The ardor and content of Mr. Putin’s
declarations are not new or unique to him. Since the 1990s, plans to reunite Ukraine
and other post-Soviet states into a transcontinental superpower have been brewing in
Russia. A revitalized theory of Eurasian empire informs Mr. Putin’s every move.
The end of the Soviet Union disoriented Russia’s elites, stripping away their special
status in a huge Communist empire. What was to be done? For some, the answer was
just to make money, the capitalist way. In the wild years after 1991, many were able to
amass enormous fortunes in cahoots with an indulgent regime. But for others who had
set their goals in Soviet conditions, wealth and a vibrant consumer economy were not
enough. Post-imperial egos felt the loss of Russia’s status and significance keenly.
As Communism lost its élan, intellectuals searched for a different principle on which the
Russian state could be organized. Their explorations took shape briefly in the formation
of political parties, including rabidly nationalist, antisemitic movements, and with more
lasting effect in the revival of religion as a foundation for collective life. But as the state
ran roughshod over democratic politics in the 1990s, new interpretations of Russia’s
essence took hold, offering solace and hope to people who strove to recover their
country’s prestige in the world.
One of the most alluring concepts was Eurasianism. Emerging from the collapse of the
Russian Empire in 1917, this idea posited Russia as a Eurasian polity formed by a deep
history of cultural exchanges among people of Turkic, Slavic, Mongol and other Asian
origins. In 1920, the linguist Nikolai Trubetzkoy — one of several Russian émigré
intellectuals who developed the concept — published “Europe and Humanity,” a
trenchant critique of Western colonialism and Eurocentrism. He called on Russian
intellectuals to free themselves from their fixation on Europe and to build on the “legacy
of Chinggis Khan” to create a great continent-spanning Russian-Eurasian state.
Trubetzkoy’s Eurasianism was a recipe for imperial recovery, without Communism — a
harmful Western import, in his view. Instead, Trubetzkoy emphasized the ability of a
reinvigorated Russian Orthodoxy to provide cohesion across Eurasia, with solicitous
care for believers in the many other faiths practiced in this enormous region.
Suppressed for decades in the Soviet Union, Eurasianism survived in the underground
and burst into public awareness during the perestroika period of the late 1980s. Lev
Gumilyov, an eccentric geographer who had spent 13 years in Soviet prisons and forcedlabor camps, emerged as an acclaimed guru of the Eurasian revival in the 1980s. Mr.
Gumilyov emphasized ethnic diversity as a driver of global history. According to his
concept of “ethnogenesis,” an ethnic group could, under the influence of a charismatic
leader, develop into a “super-ethnos” — a power spread over a huge geographical area
that would clash with other expanding ethnic units.
Mr. Gumilyov’s theories appealed to many people making their way through the chaotic
1990s. But Eurasianism was injected directly into the bloodstream of Russian power in a
variant developed by the self-styled philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. After unsuccessful
interventions in post-Soviet party politics, Mr. Dugin focused on developing his
influence where it counted — with the military and policymakers. With the publication
in 1997 of his 600-page textbook, loftily titled “The Foundations of Geopolitics: The
Geopolitical Future of Russia,” Eurasianism moved to the center of strategists’ political
imagination.
In Mr. Dugin’s adjustment of Eurasianism to present conditions, Russia had a new
opponent — no longer just Europe, but the whole of the “Atlantic” world led by the
United States. And his Eurasianism was not anti-imperial but the opposite: Russia had
always been an empire, Russian people were “imperial people,” and after the crippling
1990s sellout to the “eternal enemy,” Russia could revive in the next phase of global
combat and become a “world empire.” On the civilizational front, Mr. Dugin highlighted
the long-term connection between Eastern Orthodoxy and Russian empire. Orthodoxy’s
combat against Western Christianity and Western decadence could be harnessed to the
geopolitical war to come.
Eurasian geopolitics, Russian Orthodoxy and traditional values — these goals shaped
Russia’s self-image under Mr. Putin’s leadership. The themes of imperial glory and
Western victimization were propagated across the country; in 2017, they were drummed
home in the monumental exhibition “Russia, My History.” The expo’s flashy displays
featured Mr. Gumilyov’s Eurasian philosophy, the sacrificial martyrdom of the
Romanov family and the evils the West had inflicted on Russia.
Where did Ukraine figure in this imperial revival? As an obstacle, from the very
beginning. Trubetzkoy argued in his 1927 article “On the Ukrainian Problem” that
Ukrainian culture was an “individualization of all-Russian culture” and that Ukrainians
and Belarussians should bond with Russians around the organizing principle of their
shared Orthodox faith. Mr. Dugin made things more direct in his 1997 text: Ukrainian
sovereignty presented a “huge danger to all of Eurasia.” Total military and political
control of the whole north coast of the Black Sea was an “absolute imperative” of
Russian geopolitics. Ukraine had to become “a purely administrative sector of the
Russian centralized state.”
Mr. Putin has taken that message to heart. In 2013, he declared that Eurasia was
a major geopolitical zone where Russia’s “genetic code” and its many peoples would be
defended against “extreme Western-style liberalism.” In July last year he
announced that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people,” and in his furious rant on
the eve of invasion, he described Ukraine as a “colony with a puppet regime,” where the
Orthodox Church is under assault and NATO prepares for an attack on Russia.
This brew of attitudes — complaints about Western aggression, exaltation of traditional
values over the decadence of individual rights, assertions of Russia’s duty to unite
Eurasia and subordinate Ukraine — developed in the cauldron of post-imperial
resentment. Now they infuse Mr. Putin’s worldview and inspire his brutal war.
The goal, plainly, is empire. And the line will not be drawn at Ukraine.
The Economist Magazine
By Invitation | Russia and Ukraine
John Mearsheimer on why the West is
principally responsible for the Ukrainian
crisis
The political scientist believes the reckless expansion of
NATO provoked Russia
Mar 19th 2022
THE WAR in Ukraine is the most dangerous international conflict since the 1962 Cuban
missile crisis. Understanding its root causes is essential if we are to prevent it from getting
worse and, instead, to find a way to bring it to a close.
There is no question that Vladimir Putin started the war and is responsible for how it is
being waged. But why he did so is another matter. The mainstream view in the West is that
he is an irrational, out-of-touch aggressor bent on creating a greater Russia in the mould of
the former Soviet Union. Thus, he alone bears full responsibility for the Ukraine crisis.
But that story is wrong. The West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the
crisis which began in February 2014. It has now turned into a war that not only threatens
to destroy Ukraine, but also has the potential to escalate into a nuclear war between Russia
and NATO.
The trouble over Ukraine actually started at NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008, when
George W. Bush’s administration pushed the alliance to announce that Ukraine and Georgia
“will become members”. Russian leaders responded immediately with outrage,
characterising this decision as an existential threat to Russia and vowing to thwart it.
According to a respected Russian journalist, Mr Putin “flew into a rage” and warned that “if
Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall
apart.” America ignored Moscow’s red line, however, and pushed forward to make Ukraine
a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. That strategy included two other elements: bringing
Ukraine closer to the eu and making it a pro-American democracy.
These efforts eventually sparked hostilities in February 2014, after an uprising (which was
supported by America) caused Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee
the country. In response, Russia took Crimea from Ukraine and helped fuel a civil war that
broke out in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The next major confrontation came in December 2021 and led directly to the current war.
The main cause was that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO. The process
started in December 2017, when the Trump administration decided to sell Kyiv “defensive
weapons”. What counts as “defensive” is hardly clear-cut, however, and these weapons
certainly looked offensive to Moscow and its allies in the Donbas region. Other NATO
countries got in on the act, shipping weapons to Ukraine, training its armed forces and
allowing it to participate in joint air and naval exercises. In July 2021, Ukraine and America
co-hosted a major naval exercise in the Black Sea region involving navies from 32
countries. Operation Sea Breeze almost provoked Russia to fire at a British naval destroyer
that deliberately entered what Russia considers its territorial waters.
The links between Ukraine and America continued growing under the Biden
administration. This commitment is reflected throughout an important document—the
“US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership”—that was signed in November by Antony
Blinken, America’s secretary of state, and Dmytro Kuleba, his Ukrainian counterpart. The
aim was to “underscore … a commitment to Ukraine’s implementation of the deep and
comprehensive reforms necessary for full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic
institutions.” The document explicitly builds on “the commitments made to strengthen the
Ukraine-US strategic partnership by Presidents Zelensky and Biden,” and also emphasises
that the two countries will be guided by the “2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration.”
Unsurprisingly, Moscow found this evolving situation intolerable and began mobilising its
army on Ukraine’s border last spring to signal its resolve to Washington. But it had no
effect, as the Biden administration continued to move closer to Ukraine. This led Russia to
precipitate a full-blown diplomatic stand-off in December. As Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s
foreign minister, put it: “We reached our boiling point.” Russia demanded a written
guarantee that Ukraine would never become a part of NATO and that the alliance remove
the military assets it had deployed in eastern Europe since 1997. The subsequent
negotiations failed, as Mr Blinken made clear: “There is no change. There will be no
change.” A month later Mr Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine to eliminate the threat he
saw from NATO.
This interpretation of events is at odds with the prevailing mantra in the West, which
portrays NATO expansion as irrelevant to the Ukraine crisis, blaming instead Mr Putin’s
expansionist goals. According to a recent NATO document sent to Russian leaders, “NATO is
a defensive Alliance and poses no threat to Russia.” The available evidence contradicts
these claims. For starters, the issue at hand is not what Western leaders say NATO’s
purpose or intentions are; it is how Moscow sees NATO’s actions.
Mr Putin surely knows that the costs of conquering and occupying large amounts of
territory in eastern Europe would be prohibitive for Russia. As he once put it, “Whoever
does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.” His
beliefs about the tight bonds between Russia and Ukraine notwithstanding, trying to take
back all of Ukraine would be like trying to swallow a porcupine. Furthermore, Russian
policymakers—including Mr Putin—have said hardly anything about conquering new
territory to recreate the Soviet Union or build a greater Russia. Rather, since the 2008
Bucharest summit Russian leaders have repeatedly said that they view Ukraine joining
NATO as an existential threat that must be prevented. As Mr Lavrov noted in January, “the
key to everything is the guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward.”
Tellingly, Western leaders rarely described Russia as a military threat to Europe before
2014. As America’s former ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul notes, Mr Putin’s
seizure of Crimea was not planned for long; it was an impulsive move in response to the
coup that overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader. In fact, until then, NATO expansion was
aimed at turning all of Europe into a giant zone of peace, not containing a dangerous Russia.
Once the crisis started, however, American and European policymakers could not admit
they had provoked it by trying to integrate Ukraine into the West. They declared the real
source of the problem was Russia’s revanchism and its desire to dominate if not conquer
Ukraine.
My story about the conflict’s causes should not be controversial, given that many
prominent American foreign-policy experts have warned against NATO expansion since the
late 1990s. America’s secretary of defence at the time of the Bucharest summit, Robert
Gates, recognised that “trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly
overreaching”. Indeed, at that summit, both the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the
French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, were opposed to moving forward on NATO membership
for Ukraine because they feared it would infuriate Russia.
The upshot of my interpretation is that we are in an extremely dangerous situation, and
Western policy is exacerbating these risks. For Russia’s leaders, what happens in Ukraine
has little to do with their imperial ambitions being thwarted; it is about dealing with what
they regard as a direct threat to Russia’s future. Mr Putin may have misjudged Russia’s
military capabilities, the effectiveness of the Ukrainian resistance and the scope and speed
of the Western response, but one should never underestimate how ruthless great powers
can be when they believe they are in dire straits. America and its allies, however, are
doubling down, hoping to inflict a humiliating defeat on Mr Putin and to maybe even trigger
his removal. They are increasing aid to Ukraine while using economic sanctions to inflict
massive punishment on Russia, a step that Putin now sees as “akin to a declaration of war”.
America and its allies may be able to prevent a Russian victory in Ukraine, but the country
will be gravely damaged, if not dismembered. Moreover, there is a serious threat of
escalation beyond Ukraine, not to mention the danger of nuclear war. If the West not only
thwarts Moscow on Ukraine’s battlefields, but also does serious, lasting damage to Russia’s
economy, it is in effect pushing a great power to the brink. Mr Putin might then turn to
nuclear weapons.
At this point it is impossible to know the terms on which this conflict will be settled. But, if
we do not understand its deep cause, we will be unable to end it before Ukraine is wrecked
and NATO ends up in a war with Russia.
John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political
Science at the University of Chicago.
Our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here.
This article appeared in the By Invitation section of the print edition under the headline
“John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis”
Russia Will Remake Itself. But It Has
to Crumble First.
March 20, 2022
By Varia Bortsova
Ms. Bortsova is the founder of Soviet Visuals, an online archive of images from across the former
U.S.S.R.
When the first McDonald’s restaurant appeared in the Soviet Union in 1990, my parents
bundled my 9-month-old sister up and waited in line for hours in the brisk Russian
winter so that they could get their first taste of a Big Mac and those famed French fries.
The line snaked all around Moscow’s iconic Pushkin Square: Reports say that 30,000
people showed up on opening day alone.
It was a very exciting moment, my parents tell me: the first taste of liberty, a glimpse of
what eating out could be like beyond the Iron Curtain, a symbol of bigger change to
come.
Less than two years later, the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, opening the door to all kinds of
democratic freedoms. The Russia I grew up in came with dubbed Disney cartoons and
Argentine soap operas. Everyone suddenly had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio. My
mom’s new eye-shadow palette encompassed every shade of neon. I went to concerts,
bought posters and cassette tapes and, unlike my parents, did not have to wear a fivepointed-star badge with a portrait of Vladimir Lenin on my chest every day at school.
Of course, there was an insidious side. With new freedoms came new challenges: a deep
economic crisis, a sharp rise in inequality and an explosion of organized crime. After
decades in which the state dictated nearly every decision for its subjects, from housing
to place of work to taste in movies and music, the new era also brought with it
uncertainty and chaos.
Still, I felt lucky to grow up in a vibrant, thriving society; I certainly didn’t want to go
back to Soviet times. The stories my family told me were bleak.
They spoke about prohibited literature (anything perceived to go against Soviet values
or written by émigré writers who had fled Soviet Russia), the difficulties of travel
(impossible without the party committee’s blessings), the incessant shortages of food
and consumer goods. I’m too young to remember, but my parents would line up for
hours for the rare furniture supply that appeared at shops every few months. In 1990,
when consumer items were still only sporadically available, my mom bought us a pair of
tights sized for every age up to 16 because she assumed they would no longer be in
supply as we grew older. Films were censored, foreign radio stations jammed.
I was fascinated by these stories but also relieved I never had to experience them. I was
eager to unearth the trivial elements of Soviet people’s day-to-day existence, the ones
that did not make it into the history books: a long-forgotten home music video, an
awkward wedding photo, a leaflet, a questionable fashion choice. I started collecting
remnants of the Soviet era, rummaging through old VHS tapes, friends’ photo albums,
magazine cutouts and obscure flea markets to gather visual artifacts from a country that
was no more.
In 2016, while living in Singapore, I created a Twitter account, @sovietvisuals, to share
my makeshift Soviet archive with the world. Others started contributing their own
photographs, videos and personal stories, and the project became a repository for our
shared past. It also provided an opportunity to reflect critically on the social and cultural
norms of the time while acknowledging the brutalities of the U.S.S.R.’s ideological
constructs and oppressive practices. I never imagined how prescient it would be.
Vladimir Putin’s cynically named “special military operation” on Ukraine has thrust my
country into pariah status — rightly, given the atrocities, human rights violations and
brazen disregard for sovereignty that he has unleashed on Ukraine. Impossibly, in the
past few weeks it’s felt as if we’d been yanked back to the Soviet era, except this time it’s
even more horrifying, more repressive than we could have imagined. Russia is not just
losing the comforts that Western capitalism offered, owing to severe sanctions, but Mr.
Putin is also doubling down on closing off any expression of dissent.
For Ukrainians, the war has meant hell on earth. Countless lives shattered. I watch in
horror as my friends there hide out in bomb shelters. Schools, hospitals, residential
buildings destroyed by bombs, innocent people reportedly shot dead in the street as they
attempt to escape to safety. It is immeasurably cruel, unfair and devastating.
For Russians, there is the fear and disgust at watching Mr. Putin’s ruthless campaign,
which will inevitably raise the civilian death toll. There’s also the feeling of helplessness
of not having been able to stop it and the shame of being from the country of the
aggressor.
And unsurprisingly, Russia has been catapulted into a dark hole. Many foreign
companies — clothing and credit card brands, car manufacturers and tech corporations,
fast food and retail chains — have suspended operations, affecting every corner of the
economy. The West’s sanctions have mostly cut Russian civilians off from the global
economy.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has ensured that Russians who express opposition to the invasion
face persecution: A new law punishes anyone spreading anything it deems “false
information” about the war with up to 15 years in prison. This crackdown on freedom is
not new to Russians, but it has reached a peak of absurdity: Standing in the street with
a flower or a blank sign now gets you loaded into a police van.
Between arrests for speaking out, censorship, rumors of martial law and relentless
propaganda, it’s as though we had landed straight in the Stalin era.
The Russia I knew has been erased. What’s coming next is dark. The U.S.S.R. gives us
some clues of what it might be like — but even then, there were some flickers of hope.
As my parents’ stories and my archive show, many Soviet citizens found ways to thrive
in what was essentially a giant social experiment. Yes, they had to deal with bread lines,
news (and propaganda) supplied by the state-controlled, Orwellian-named Pravda
(Truth) newspaper and a persistent fear of nuclear war. But they continued to create art,
make scientific discoveries and build families and architectural masterpieces. There was
a great deal of humor, beauty and creativity behind the Iron Curtain.
When l learned that McDonald’s had joined the long list of international
companies suspending operations in Russia, I couldn’t help but think about my family’s
first visit to the burger joint. Could any of the people lining up for their first
cheeseburger in 1990 have imagined that modern Russia would find itself sliding all the
way back to where it started?
We will remake Russia, of course, slowly and patiently, just like the generation before
us. But not before this one crumbles first.
Varia Bortsova (@variainayurt) is the founder of Soviet Visuals, an online archive of images
from across the former U.S.S.R. She was born in Moscow a year before the fall of the Soviet
Union.

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