NATO is frequently brought up in the discussion of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Some pundits suggest it is a cause, even to some a justification. I would suggest NATO has little to do with it except as an excuse for Putin’s imperialism.
Putin was a child of the Soviet Union. He found his identity as a member of the KGB, the Praetorian Guard of the Party, defenders of the Revolution. One can easily imagine his bitterness when the empire crumbled around his ears, dying with barely a whimper. It died from its own dead weight, stagnant, repressive, corrupt, offering its people nothing more than dogged survival.
But to Russians like Putin the cause of its demise was the iniquitous West, particularly the United States, a nation he hates and envies in equal measure.
Now Putin is on a mission to restore the empire, but not the Soviet version. His idol is Peter the Great, Russia’s first emperor, and perhaps its greatest empire builder. Putin keeps a bronze statue of his hero in his office.
In a recent meeting with young Russian entrepreneurs, Putin commented on Peter’s conquest of the Baltic coast, describing the conquered land as rightfully Russian. “He was returning it and strengthening it,” he said, “Well, apparently, it has also fallen to us to return and to strengthen.”
The conquest of Baltic lands is of particular interest to Putin. St. Petersburg was built on these lands and St. Petersburg is his home town and the place where he started his political career.
Some believe that if we could only get rid of Putin all would be well. Not likely. Putin has broad support in Russia, particularly among the older generation. Many share his bitterness over the loss of power and influence with the collapse of the Soviet Union and share his nostalgia for imperial Russia.
After all, Putin didn’t invent these imperial dreams. They were entertained by Russian elites as far back as the 19th century.
And his supporters enthusiastically support his war as they do his vision. The governor of St. Petersburg recently said he feels the same pride for today’s Russian soldiers in Ukraine “as we take pride in the memory of Peter’s warriors.” Business tycoon Konstantin Malofeyev boasted, “The longer this war lasts, the more Russian society is cleansing itself from liberalism and the Western poison,” echoing Putin’s views, and adding that anything short of victory complete with a parade in Kyiv would not be enough to complete the cleansing.
There are many willing to step into Putin’s shoes if he should leave the scene. And they are not lacking in enthusiasm for terrorizing the neighbours.
And there are more all the time. Russians are being indoctrinated in a militaristic imperialism from grade school up. In the view of Aleksandr Daniel, Russian human rights activist, “A new system of values has been built, brutal and archaic public values.” Sergei Chernyshov, head of a private school, says, “Society in general has gone off the rails. They’ve flipped the ideas of good and evil.”
With this emerging Russia, it is difficult to see how Putin or his successors can be contained by anything less than the knowledge that expanding the empire will be worse for their interests than staying home and behaving themselves. As President Biden said in his speech earlier this week, “Autocrats only understand one word: no.”
And what does all this have to do with NATO? Nothing of course. It’s about imperialism, and it’s about bitterness, envy and a distaste for Western values. It’s about the dark side of Russia.