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Vladimir Putin’s deepest fear is the freedom of Russia’s neighbours

The author is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and served as US ambassador to Nato from 2009 to 2013

After a full week of diplomacy with Russia, and with rumblings of war in Ukraine, the central question of the crisis remains: what does President Vladimir Putin really want? Even Russian diplomats who met US, Nato and European officials in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna last week suggested they didn’t know Putin’s bottom line. But they all had the same talking points: accept our demands or face “catastrophic consequences”.

To be sure, Moscow’s demands are clear. It wants to end Nato’s eastern enlargement, above all to Ukraine. It wants to ban offensive weapons near Russia’s borders — again, especially in Ukraine. And it wants Nato to withdraw all military forces and infrastructure it deployed to the 14 new members that have joined since 1999.

The problem with these demands is that Moscow knows they are non-starters for Nato. The possibility of adding new members is foreseen in Nato’s founding treaty and is a practice that dates to 1952. And the decision on how to provide security for all its members is Nato’s, not Russia’s.

At the same time, attacking Ukraine is hardly the best way to achieve Moscow’s demands. It would strengthen Ukrainian public support to align with the west, as when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. It would lead to more material support for Ukraine to defend itself. It would increase the US and Nato military presence on Russia’s borders.

For all Russia’s focus on Nato and its past actions, the answer to what Putin wants doesn’t lie in Brussels or Washington. It lies in Moscow. While Putin surely would have preferred it if Nato had not expanded, his real issue is with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, which he once described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. This “catastrophe” left Russia surrounded by independent countries, each able to chart its own future.

Russia remains the most powerful post-Soviet state. It has a seat on the UN Security Council, the strongest military and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Even so, what Putin fears most is the independence of Russia’s neighbours — not because they pose a military threat to the country’s security, but because they pose a political threat to his rule.

Putin worries that if any of these states becomes a successful and prosperous democracy, let alone fully integrates with the west, the Russian people will demand the same. To forestall that, Putin has tried to ensure the neighbouring states are run by strongmen dependent on Russia to stay in power.

Putin was spooked by the so-called colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in the early 2000s. He reacted fiercely to popular discontent at home in 2011-2012 by ordering a crackdown on widespread public protests.

In 2014, when the Maidan protests caused Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed president, to flee Ukraine, Putin annexed Crimea and sponsored an insurgency in the Donbas region that continues to this day. In 2020, Putin backed Alexander Lukashenko’s suppression of peaceful demonstrators protesting against fraudulent elections in Belarus. This month, the Russian president sent troops into Kazakhstan to halt another uprising.

As he propped up strongmen abroad, Putin sought to strengthen himself at home by changing the constitution to let him stay in power until at least 2036, assassinating and jailing his opponents, closing independent media outlets and branding those in civil society “foreign agents”. Putin has justified these actions as necessary to defend Russia from a hostile west — exemplified, in his view, by foreigners instigating colour revolutions in its neighbours and Nato moving closer to its borders.

The latest crisis must be viewed from this larger perspective. Ukraine isn’t threatening Russia, and neither is Nato, which has so far deployed only a few battalions east that are no match for the Russian forces amassed around Ukraine. Rather, Putin has manufactured this crisis to retake control of Ukraine — either directly, or indirectly by destabilising the government through sabotage, cyber attacks and other forms of hybrid warfare.

Putin must not succeed. Ukraine’s independence and its commitment to democracy, however precarious at times, are what stand between security and stability in Europe and the revival of Russian expansionism.

Promising an end to Nato enlargement or withdrawing forces from the east will not stop Putin. Only full support of Ukraine can do that, which is why the US and Nato must supply Kyiv with all the weapons and capabilities it needs to defend itself.

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