How we got russia wrong


Churchill's 1939 observation of Russia remains relevant today, as Russia remains a mystery to the West. The country's actions, including executing civilians, using weapons like thermobaric and phosphorous bombs, and advocating indiscriminate killing in the name of God, are difficult to understand. The West has struggled to formulate effective policies towards Russia, vacillating between giving too much leeway and being dismissive. This reflects an inability to understand Russia's unique mindset, molded at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, leading to misguided policies such as the Europeans' reliance on Russia for energy security.
The events of February 24, 2022, shook the West and underscored the need for a new approach to Russia. Western leaders must take a pragmatic approach, based on Russian realities, to minimize the impact of propaganda and prevent the unnecessary prolonging of the war. The most sensible policy is to arm Ukraine to the fullest extent possible to liberate all of its territories to the borders established in 1991. By doing so, the West can leave Putin's fate in the hands of his cronies and regional presidents, who have no interest in continuing the war. Putin's defeat in Ukraine could bring his hold on power into question and give rise to a post-war Ukraine with functioning institutions and reduced corruption. The West must not be cowed into premature negotiations that would force an unjust peace on Ukraine, but instead, focus on saving lives and laying the groundwork for a better future.
The events of February 24, 2022, have forced the West to reevaluate its approach to Russia. Putin's willingness to threaten nuclear war has caught Western politicians off guard and created a need for a new approach to Russia based on reality rather than perception. It is important to minimize the impact of Russian propaganda on decision making, as unnecessary prolongation of the conflict could draw in more countries. Providing Ukraine with the military resources it needs to regain its territories is the most sensible policy for Western security. The defeat of Russia in Ukraine would leave Putin's fate in the hands of his cronies, potentially leading to his removal from power. Ending the war quickly will take Russia off the table as a credible adversary, as it will be too preoccupied with internal strife among the various clans to meddle in foreign affairs. Achieving Ukrainian victory this year will allow the West to focus on the next strategic challenges. This war is different from previous conflicts and supporting Ukraine is critical for our collective soul, as it reminds us of our belief in justice and fundamental human decency.

Russian illusion, Western delusion

Russia has made significant contributions to science, art, literature, music, sport, and ballet, but these achievements have not translated into effective self-governance. Despite Russia's vast territory, nuclear arsenal, rich history, and exceptional cultural contributions, the country has consistently underperformed on the global stage. Its military victories were achieved only through partnerships with more powerful nations, and its immense natural and human resources have not led to economic growth or fundamental civil rights. Russia's cultural heritage has become a façade for the country's institutional weaknesses, including in its judiciary, legislative, and military. A better understanding of Russia's underlying factors will enable the West to develop a more effective strategy to end the war and protect its interests.

How we got into this mess

The lack of a modernizing vision has left Russia with a legacy of internal weaknesses, including a judiciary and legislative system rife with corruption, and a military apparatus that is technologically lagging and unable to function without a massive supply of conscripts. While Russia’s cultural contributions have been immense, its economic and political achievements have been underwhelming given its vast natural resources and population. The current conflict in Ukraine is a tragic reminder of the fallacies in Putin’s imperial ambitions and the need for the West to take a realistic and pragmatic approach to Russia, based on a realistic understanding of its people, history, and leadership. The best policy for Western security is to provide Ukraine with the military resources it needs to liberate all its territories to the borders established in 1991, thereby forcing Putin’s cronies to question his leadership and allowing the processes Putin started 22 years ago to run their natural course. Achieving a Ukrainian victory this year will minimize the impact of Russian propaganda and threats, as well as prevent the war from dragging on, threatening to pull more participants into its vortex. Supporting Ukraine is critical to defending fundamental human decency and justice, reminding the world that it still believes in these principles and is willing to defend them.
Being a poor, underdeveloped nation, Russia had nothing to offer the people it conquered except brutal repression and stagnation, for which it and its people were utterly despised by the vast majority of the states it once ruled. The situation for the populace improved somewhat under the Soviet Union as universal education and healthcare became accessible to everyone. One caveat was that the magnitude of brutality was overtly unimaginable, with millions dying in GULAGs, manufactured famines, and forced resettlement. With the death of Stalin, mass killings ceased. Still, the empire entered thirty years of stagnation and decline, falling ever further behind the West, culminating in the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
Eighty-four years after Churchill uttered his famous words, the collective West still struggles to understand Russia, which impacts its ability to formulate appropriate policy to reprimand inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, all efforts at comprehension stem from a strictly Western perspective, with little regard or appreciation for the unique Russian mindset forged in the cauldron of the Mongol invasion and tempered between Europe and Asia. This approach ascribes too much to the rational and not enough to the esoteric, which plays a more significant role in determining Russian behavior. The Russian mentality is beautifully captured in the laconic poem by Fedor Tyutchev, who captures the essence of Russia in just four lines:
It is impossible to understand Russia with the mind,
Or measure it with a common yardstick:
It has a unique character,
One can only believe in Russia.
Fedor Ivanovich Tyutchev
28 November 1866
This poem is quoted and savored by the vast majority of the population for its eloquence encapsulating Russians’ contradictory view of themselves and their country. On the one hand, an illogical entity that defies comprehension and rationality; on the other, a country that manages to survive, if not prosper, despite its deficiencies and shortcomings. Appreciation for the inexplicable in Russia is desperately missing in Western attempts to find a sensible approach to dealing with it, especially in the current environment.

NATO expansion is a manufactured pretext, not the cause

The idea that NATO expansion has caused Russia's war against Ukraine is propagated by Russian propaganda, which distorts facts to justify aggression. Some Western academics, politicians, business people, journalists, and analysts have bought into this narrative for various reasons. They argue that NATO expansion has led to a more assertive and aggressive Russian foreign policy. However, there is not a single signed agreement between Russia or any NATO member promising not to expand the alliance, and there is not a single instance of NATO expanding proactively. The fact of the matter is that NATO expansion was driven by the deep historical memory of Russia’s ruthless domination of the region. Finally, before Russia invaded Ukraine, NATO spurned numerous Ukrainian petitions to join the alliance to appease Russian interests and concerns.

Seeking strategy where none exists

Geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan argues in his book "The Accidental Superpower" that Putin's war with Ukraine was motivated by his desire to secure seven vulnerable entry points into Russia, which include the Baltic, Black, and Caspian Seas, the Arctic, the Caucasus Mountains, the Central Asian steppe, and the West Siberian Plain. According to Zeihan, Russia's long history of invasions makes Putin keenly aware of the need to protect these vulnerable points, and he sees Ukraine as a critical piece of that puzzle.
However, this argument overlooks several historical facts and logical inconsistencies. For example, Russia has only been invaded twice since 1800, and both invasions had disastrous consequences. Additionally, no significant power has successfully invaded Russia via the Black or Caspian Seas, and it is unlikely that an invasion through the Siberian Steppe would be a rational undertaking due to the region's inhospitable terrain.
The focus of Russia's gas exports on Europe and the potential tension with China over border disputes further challenges the argument that Putin launched the war with Ukraine purely for strategic reasons. While Zeihan's argument suggests that Putin's actions were motivated by a desire to secure Russia's vulnerable entry points, it is difficult to reconcile this with Russia's gas export strategy, which appears to prioritize Europe. Moreover, China's status as Russia's neighbor and the potential for territorial disputes suggest that Russia's geopolitical motivations may not be entirely rational or strategically oriented.
China's claims to much of Siberia, based on historical annexations by Russia, highlight a potential threat to Russia's territorial integrity, which may not have been fully considered in Zeihan's argument. As the quote from Shan Renping suggests, China's rise and growing military and economic strength may lead to a more assertive attitude, which could further challenge Russia's control over its territories.
Overall, while Zeihan's argument may offer some insight into Russia's geopolitical motivations, it is not a complete basis for understanding them. The focus on vulnerable entry points overlooks other factors that may be driving Russian behavior, such as historical disputes with neighboring countries or economic considerations.
The argument presented suggests that Putin's motivations in invading Ukraine were not primarily strategic, as some have claimed. Instead, the author argues that Putin's true motivations are rooted in a desire to promote an ultranationalist doctrine called "русский мир" or the Russian world, which seeks to expand Russia's borders and impose Russian language, culture, and fear on neighboring territories. While there are certainly strategic considerations at play in Russia's geopolitical calculations, the author argues that Putin's main concern is less about securing vulnerable entry points into Russia and more about promoting this expansionist ideology.
The author cites evidence that Putin's invasion of Ukraine was poorly planned and executed, with ill-equipped troops and a lack of proper preparation leading to extreme bloodletting and a fierce resistance from the Ukrainian people. The author also notes that Russia's gas export strategy is primarily focused on Europe, despite its purported fear of invasion from Europe, which raises questions about the credibility of arguments that Putin launched the war with Ukraine purely for strategic reasons.
Finally, the author argues that fear of a potential nuclear war with Russia should not drive our strategy in dealing with the Ukraine conflict. Instead, the author suggests that a rational, calculated assessment of the situation is needed to determine the best course of action. The fear of nuclear war may lead to bad decisions and encourage Putin to act ever more recklessly, demanding more concessions from the West. Ultimately, the author argues that appeasement is not a viable strategy in dealing with Putin and that a more proactive approach is needed to force a peace deal on Ukraine.

Miscalculating Putin

Arendt expected Eichmann to be an evil genius, but he was a grey, unimpressive man. Similarly, Putin is not a strategic thinker and has no vision for Russia's future beyond his own interests. He views the Russian people as disposable and seeks power for his own gain, using bullying tactics to silence opponents. Khodorkovsky's criticism of Putin and funding of opposition parties were seen as a threat, resulting in harsh punishment and the dismantling of his financial company.

The rise of the “Color Revolutions” and the fall of democracy

The argument put forth is that Putin's aggressive actions towards Ukraine were motivated by a desire to prevent a democratic and independent state from emerging on Russia's border, particularly after the series of "color revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan from 2003 to 2005. These popular uprisings were seen as a direct threat to Putin's own interests and those of his allies, and a challenge to his leadership in the region.
Furthermore, Putin's desire to maintain control and prevent the erosion of his power was evident in his hardened rhetoric at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, where he listed every grievance Russia had against the West and advocated for a multi-polar world, giving him tacit approval for a free hand in dealing with Russia's neighbors. Despite a brief period of more conciliatory policies under Dmitry Medvedev, Putin was laying the groundwork for his return to the presidency in 2012, with policies to strengthen ties with China, expand Russia's presence in the Middle East and Africa, and take a more confrontational position towards the US and its allies.
In this context, Ukraine became a particular target for Putin, as its move towards democracy and open markets posed a threat to his regime. Crimea, which housed Russia's Black Sea Fleet, was seen as Ukraine's soft underbelly and presented no resistance to annexation. The Donbas and Luhansk proved more difficult, leading to a festering sore over the next eight years. The Minsk Accords were seen as a diversionary tactic allowing Russia to prepare the groundwork for the complete annexation of Ukraine, and it was always about the money and keeping a hold on power, rather than any historical precedents or strategic justifications.
In the end, Putin's aggressive actions towards Ukraine were the culmination of the ethos of greed and corruption cultivated within his administration, with military budgets plundered and money designated to feed dissent in Ukraine diverted to personal bank accounts. Putin's overestimation of his military and popularity in Ukraine and underestimation of the Ukrainians led to disaster, and he became the sole architect of his own demise.

What are we afraid of?

The article argues that Russia's image as a military and geopolitical superpower is overblown and based on propaganda narratives rather than actual achievement. While Russia's recent performance in the war in Ukraine has dispelled some illusions about its military prowess, there is still enough concern to justify calls for a forced peace settlement. However, taking an honest look at Russian military history reveals that Russia's military reputation is much ado about nothing. Russia's only significant victory in World War II was achieved through massive military aid from the United States and a willingness to sacrifice millions of lives. Otherwise, Russia's performance as a military power has been shaky at best, with recurrent illnesses of corruption, mismanagement, and social and technological archaism. The article provides examples such as the Crimean War and the war with Japan in 1905, both of which were unmitigated disasters. Corruption, graft, laziness, and obtuseness have repeatedly left the country unprepared for the wars it actively sought for dubious reasons, and Russia has often failed to win the wars it started. Despite this, the Russian government actively promotes a national inferiority complex and relies on brief moments of historic glory to cover present failures and an uncertain future.

Russia - myth and reality

In conclusion, the author argues that Western attempts to understand Russia's behavior and its leaders' actions have been flawed. The Western paradigm used to analyze Russia has failed to account for the deep inferiority complex that underlies the country's leaders and people's behavior. Russia's leaders' primary concern has been self-enrichment, and their rhetoric about developing Russia into a 21st-century power has been nothing more than a diversionary narrative to hide decades of massive graft. The performance of the Russian military during the conflict in Ukraine has exposed the stark reality and unprecedented extent of Putin's corruption. The author suggests that the world needs to take a more honest and critical look at Russia to understand its true nature and avoid the mistakes of the past, such as attempting to placate and appease Putin's ambitions, which only enable his corruption and destabilize global security.
The result of this dynamic has been the erosion of trust between Russia and the West. Putin’s actions in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere have made it abundantly clear that Russia is not a reliable partner, and that it will pursue its goals with little regard for international norms or the well-being of others. The West has responded with sanctions, but these have had little effect in changing Russia’s behavior. If anything, they have reinforced Putin’s image as a strongman, fighting against the hostile forces of the West.
The situation is further complicated by the rise of nationalist and populist movements in the West, which share some of Putin’s anti-globalist and anti-liberal rhetoric. These movements often look to Russia as an ally in their struggle against the “globalists” and “elites” that they see as threatening their way of life. This has given Putin a degree of influence and leverage in the West that he would not otherwise have had.
In the end, the West’s failure to understand the realities of Russia has contributed to the current state of affairs. The West’s belief in the possibility of a democratic and liberal Russia, and its willingness to overlook the corruption and abuses of the Putin regime in pursuit of economic gain, has allowed Putin to undermine the foundations of Western democracy and sow division and distrust among Western nations. It is time for the West to reassess its approach to Russia, and to recognize that the current regime is not a partner, but a threat.
The situation in Ukraine has led to a shift in the stance of some Western countries towards Russia. The fact that Ukraine fought back against the Russian incursion, and with the support of other countries, turned the tide of the war, made it impossible for the EU to continue to support Putin through inaction. This forced other countries, such as Germany and France, to take a tougher stance against Russia.
However, there is now a growing inclination to pump the brakes on the level of military aid supplied to Ukraine, with some citing the increased risk of nuclear war and more casualties in a conflict that may drag on for years. The argument of nuclear weapons resonates with the West, but it may not be an honest or sensible argument. Russia has historically been at war with its population, and its ruling classes have continued to steal while persecuting its citizens. This has resulted in millions of Russians emigrating, with only India and Mexico having larger emigrant groups.
The unchecked corruption, economic instability, and declining population base have created a bleak future for Russia. The ruling class, however, seems to be more concerned with their own personal gain and hedonistic lifestyles, as evidenced by their extravagant spending and lack of engagement in the country's affairs. The lack of investment in the country's infrastructure, economy, and people has left Russia ill-prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead. The elite's lack of concern for the common citizen and their lack of engagement in Ukraine's conflict demonstrate the deep-rooted problems that Russia faces as a nation.

Calling Dr. Freud

The portrayal of Russia as an enigma to the West is criticized in this passage, with the argument being made that it is not the country and its people that are mysterious but rather the West's inability to understand and comprehend them. The author suggests that Western paradigms and methods of analysis are insufficient for understanding the complex issues facing Russia, and that a psychiatric perspective may offer more insights into the country's behavior.
The author highlights the deep inferiority complex that pervades Russian society, which stems from the country's past and its current inability to compete with leading international players. The author suggests that this complex affects all Russians, regardless of their background or socio-economic status, and contributes to the aggressive and defensive posture that many take when discussing Russian culpability and its future prospects.
Furthermore, the author suggests that the view that Russia has a chance to become a prosperous and democratic country after Putin's passing is unfounded, as history has shown that the country has repeatedly chosen stability and authoritarianism over democracy. The passage portrays Russia as an insane asylum, ready for the scrap heap of history.


This war opened painful wounds, both physical and spiritual, for Russians and Ukrainians alike, with the difference being that Ukrainians are paying with their lives for the right to chart their path forward without Russia. Deep-seated animosity festering for centuries between the Ukrainians and Russians has come to the fore in a war reminiscent of World War II in its brutality and malevolence. The clearer it becomes that Russia cannot and will not win this war, the more savage its tactics are. Russian hatred is fueled by the realization that the Ukrainians are not the “brotherly” people the Russians imagined them to be, ungrateful for the literature, music, and culture Russia “gifted.” The Ukrainians have a future for which they are willing to die, and the Russians only have a past from which they cannot escape.
Whether or not the West expands its military support for Ukraine remains to be seen. However, the decision to do so or not must be based on a more realistic understanding of Russia and its people. Prognostications of a conflict drawn out over many years are disingenuous and fail to recognize that Russians don’t do well in protracted wars, don’t fight well on foreign soil, have a failing economy, and an exhausted and demoralized population drowning in alcoholism and refusing to procreate. The most humane decision, and more strategically prudent for the West, would be to give the Ukrainians the weapons they need to bring this bloody mess to an end as soon as possible to prevent further civilian suffering mercilessly inflicted by Russia on Ukraine. The death of an empire is inevitable and irreversible, and we will benefit from recognizing that fact as soon as possible. That is precisely what every self-respecting oligarch is doing now. They are actively assembling private armies, and they are not sending them to the front to fight, instead biding their time for the aftermath of an ill-fated war started by an out-of-touch tyrant who, with the words of “long live Russia,” has done more than anyone to assure its death.

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