The Hill

The recent arrest of a senior German intelligence officer accused of spying for Russia is a timely reminder of the degree to which the Russian secret services may have penetrated Western institutions and of how much they know about Western capabilities and intentions.

Carsten L., the German officer with “access to a trove of top-secret information about the war in Ukraine, as well as knowledge of how it was collected by the U.S. and its allies,” is only the most recent entry on a long list of alleged Russian spies. In October 2021, a few months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expelled eight members of Russia’s NATO mission for allegedly serving as spies. In May 2016, it was the turn of Frederico Carvalhão Gil, also a senior intelligence official, but this time from Portugal, who reportedly “had access to a wide array of NATO secrets.” Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials openly acknowledge that Russian intelligence agents have infiltrated Ukraine’s security-related institutions.

The extent of Russian penetration of NATO and its affiliated organizations means that the Kremlin is adept at exploiting Western openness for its own ends. But, more importantly, it also means that Vladimir Putin and his comrades have knowledge of NATO military capabilities and intentions. The condition, quantity and quality of NATO member states’ armies are an open book, and it’s possible the Kremlin doesn’t believe devious Western data. But it surely must believe its own spies, especially if their information corroborates open sources.

This matters because it long has been argued — by the Russians and by some Western analysts and policymakers — that Russia had good reason to fear NATO, its potential enlargement into Ukraine, and the possibility of Western missiles being placed on Ukraine’s eastern borders. Putin made these points explicitly in his infamous justification of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, he and his minions repeatedly have stated that they had no choice but to attack, in order to forestall “Western aggression” against Russia.

But, as NATO statements reveal, the alliance had no intention of admitting Ukraine anytime soon, if at all. And, obviously, it could have no intention of placing tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of a non-member state. Russian “fears” of Ukraine’s imminent membership could only have been playacting by the Kremlin. Putin could not have failed to know from his intelligence network that Ukraine wasn’t going to be a NATO member for at least two decades, that NATO had no intention of initiating an aggression against Russia, and that Russia’s security was guaranteed by its own military capabilities — which at that time seemed enormous — and also guaranteed by NATO member states’ underfunded, undertrained, under-equipped and undermanned armies.

It’s possible, of course, that Putin and his comrades didn’t believe their own intelligence services, but then the cause of the war must shift from something that NATO and Ukraine may or may not have done to the Kremlin’s — and especially Putin’s — complete alienation from reality, both with respect to the West and NATO and with respect to Ukraine and its relations with Russia.

The fact is that, just as the West had no aggressive intentions vis-à-vis Russia, so too Ukraine — and especially President Volodymyr Zelensky — was perfectly content with good neighborly relations with its northern neighbor. Putin may have believed otherwise but, if so, that belief had to have been the product of his own irrationality and paranoia. And when irrational and paranoid leaders start wars, the blame is never their victim’s.

Unsurprisingly, Finland’s and Sweden’s pending membership in NATO has not provoked cries of anger from the Kremlin. That’s because the problem was never NATO and Russia. The problem was always, and still is, Russia and Ukraine. Ending the war requires a Ukrainian victory, because anything short of a decisive Russian defeat and Putin’s subsequent departure will do nothing to address the root cause of the genocidal aggression: Russia and Putin’s determination to destroy the Ukrainian state and nation — not because Ukraine threatens Russia objectively, but because Russian culture and ideology have, like Nazi culture and ideology did with respect to Jews, demonized and dehumanized Ukraine.

Russia’s aggressive intentions, therefore, will end only when its culture and ideology undergoes a seismic shift and comes to accept Ukrainians as human beings and neighbors. Alas, that kind of shift will take time, unless a major defeat produces a crisis in the Russian mindset and accelerates Russia’s extirpation of Putinism and its ideological and cultural roots in the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”