As NATO met in Madrid last week, conspiracy theories about its role in Ukraine spread fast in Russian media. More respected theorists such as John Mearsheimer, meanwhile, still reiterate their claim that in making war, Russia was merely reacting to the West. Similar arguments have been put forth by other prominent thinkers, including Noam Chomsky.
There’s just one problem with this theory. At an event in June, leaning back casually in his chair, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that in Ukraine, he is fighting a war of imperialist conquest—not defending himself against NATO, as his apologists have repeatedly claimed.
“It is also our lot to return and strengthen,” Putin stated, referring to past Russian conquests, as he compared his legacy to that of Peter the Great.
The Russian president had already said before the invasion that he did not believe Ukraine was a real country, claiming that Ukrainians were part of Russia’s “own history, culture, and spiritual space.”
Since that was ignored by his apologists, Putin has now explicitly stated that he identifies with Peter—even if his Great Northern War against the Swedes did last 21 years, a not-so-subtle signal that Putin believes he can dig in with regard to Ukraine—and is inspired to “take back” what he believes to be rightfully Russia’s.
In this conception of regional history, Ukraine doesn’t even exist. It’s simply a province occupied by uppity serfs who need to be subdued for their own good.
Experts who should know better often frame Putin as a noble savage, not a savvy political actor. He is portrayed as strong and terrifying but also not responsible for his own actions. Instead, per the “realists,” as they call themselves, these actions are the inevitable outcomes of Russia’s so-called security concerns.
At the root of this is a deeply patronizing attitude toward Russia and Russians themselves. Only Americans, in this framing, make choices; everyone else merely responds or acts in accordance with the machinery of immutable state rules.
In order to hold someone responsible for their actions, you must first grant them agency. Mearsheimer, Chomsky, and German politicians who have dragged their feet on supplying heavy arms to Ukraine are refusing to do a very simple thing: recognize that Russia, all on its own, chose to invade a sovereign country and butcher its citizens. [Continue reading…]