BY ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
We can now say with near certainty that Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine had nothing to do with NATO enlargement and the possibility of Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance.
According to an in-depth investigative piece by the highly respected Russian journalist Ilya Zhegulev (a former special correspondent for SmartMoney, Forbes, Reuters and Meduza), the Russian strongman decided to attack Ukraine in February-March 2021, a full year before the actual invasion and many months before the Kremlin confronted NATO with a list of unacceptable demands, including a written promise never to enlarge eastwards.
In short, the Kremlin’s insistence that it feared NATO and Ukraine’s membership was a smokescreen intended to confuse sober Western policymakers and deflect their attention from Putin’s real goal – regime change in Kyiv – while providing fodder for their delusional counterparts who claimed, and still claim, that Russia was justified in defending itself against NATO’s supposedly aggressive designs.
The Kremlin’s mendacity should not be surprising. As top Russian policymakers and propagandists have made amply clear during the last 14 months, their statements, comments and observations are at best fully divorced from reality and at worst intentional attempts to pull the wool over the world’s eyes.
Western willingness to be fooled is also unsurprising, having long roots in the interwar period, when scores of American and European intellectuals were more willing to believe Stalinist claims of an emergent proletarian paradise in Russia than their own eyes, ears and intellects.
Equally unsurprising is the unwillingness of such intellectuals to change their views, even when confronted with persuasive evidence to the contrary — whether the Ukrainian genocide-famine of 1932-1933, the 1930s’ show trials of Old Bolsheviks, the horror of the Gulag or the viciousness of the Putin regime.
Does anyone seriously expect former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson or the guru of realist scholars John Mearsheimer to read Zhegulev and be convinced? True believers change their minds rarely, and then only when confronted with personal existential traumas.
In any case, people with open minds would be well advised to take Zhegulev’s investigative reporting seriously, if only because he is reputable, his research was based on interviews with former and present top Russian and Ukrainian policymakers and the publisher of his work is the independent Russian website Verstka.
Moreover, the story he tells makes sense. Thus, spurred on by the 2014 Maidan Revolution and the humiliating flight of his man in Kyiv, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin hoped to bring about regime change within Ukraine by means of the notorious Ukrainian millionaire and pro-Russian political wheeler-dealer and behind-the-scenes string-puller Viktor Medvedchuk, who also happened to be his daughter’s godfather. Since Ukraine’s independence, Medvedchuk manipulated Ukrainian media, strongarmed political opponents, doled out bribes, disseminated fake news and tarnished reputations, and organized opposition parties in his ceaseless efforts to turn Ukraine into Moscow’s vassal.
According to Zhegulev, “In February 2021, a special operation was carried out [in Ukraine], the purpose of which was to neutralize Medvedchuk.” Several television channels owned by a Medvedchuk ally were banned from broadcasting, because, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted, “the TV channels carried out anti-Ukrainian propaganda and interfered with the process of the country’s integration into the European Union.” At the same time, the Ukrainian secret service began investigating Medvedchuk.
These two actions proved to be “the last straw in Putin’s decision to prepare for a military operation. The Kremlin decided not to resort to the tools of ‘soft power’ anymore.” Moreover, Putin took the Ukrainian measures “as a personal attack.” His decision to resort to hard power and invade “was also influenced by Medvedchuk himself, who regularly told the Russian president about the great support for him personally and for pro-Russian sentiments in Ukraine.”
Despite the patent absurdity of these views, “The Kremlin did not question Medvedchuk’s words.” Instead, “Putin seriously counted on the support of the population throughout the country.” In addition, his close friend and confidant Yuri Kovalchuk persuaded Putin that “Europe is divided by contradictions and now is the best time for a quick operation.”
The result was, in the words of one of Zhegulev’s interviewees, “the most catastrophic scenario.” The remainder of the year was spent preparing for war and bamboozling the West.
Now that we know that NATO was irrelevant to Putin’s decisionmaking process, it makes perfect sense that he should have viewed the Ukrainian problem through his own lens and those of two of his buddies. Tyrants are solipsistic by nature. Putin spent decades promoting himself as the embodiment of Russia and its savior. Ukraine’s unwillingness to be Russia’s vassal was equivalent to a slap in his face. Such insubordination could not go unpunished, especially as Putin surely believed that Russia’s armed forces were, like everything else in his country, magnificent.
How could he lose? And why take a step back and consider alternative sources of information? He was Russia, as one of his acolytes said some time ago, and Russia was never wrong.
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.”