Vladimir Putin’s stated concern about NATO is obviously a pretext while his admission that he sees Ukraine as part of Russia and has a desire to reunite all the ex-Soviet states is entirely honest.
This much is clear to pretty much everyone. Or at least everyone outside of Russia.
Which raises one of the big questions that will determine the course of the coming weeks and months: Do the Russian people understand this, too?
Putin’s control of the Russian government is firm, but his hold over the Russian population is somewhat tenuous. There have been waves of protests over the years and Russians aren’t getting the life they feel they deserve or were promised. Putin has been squeezing the media tighter and tighter around his claims of Western aggression but the popularity of figures such as Aleksei Navalny proves that Putin’s not far from having the Russian people turn against him.
Now hold that thought for a second.
Ukrainians really are “Russian” in every sense of the word. I’m not implying that Ukrainians don’t have a sovereign nation—they absolutely do. But culturally, and ethnically, and in any other way that matters—they’re the same people. They tell their children the same fairy tales, they listen to the same musicians. Heck, I’m Russian but until the Soviet Union broke up I never even considered that my best friend was “Ukrainian” (he’s from Kyiv) or even that my father’s parents were both from Ukraine. So maybe this makes me half Ukrainian? It’s hard to say. My family were Jews on a long slog from Spain by they time they made it to that part of the world. And today I live in Canada.
The point is: Until the Maidan, Ukraine existed in the same bucket of excrement in which Russia has lived since the revolution. They’ve had one strongman after another robbing the nation blind and subjugating the people.
But then a small miracle happened: The young people of Ukraine had enough. And they managed to overthrow Putin’s puppet and elect someone with eyes squarely on the West.
Now Putin can’t have this.
Not because he’s jealous or because he’s worried about his borders. He can’t have it because until recently when Russians looked to, say, Belgium, or France, or Germany, and asked, “Why can’t we have what they have?”—the answer was always “Because they’re different! We’re Russian. We operate differently.”
And Russians bought this explanation because there’s a grain of truth in it.
But what happens to that sangfroid if Ukraine turns into Belgium? (And they’re well on their way to doing that.)
Then Putin would be left standing naked in his garden of lies. The Russians can’t be sold on the excuse that “they’re different” when it comes to the Ukrainians because everyone in Russia knows they’re not different. And if the Ukrainians can turn their nation into a prosperous, liberal, capitalist state then the blame for Russia not being capable of the same falls squarely at Putin’s feet.
All of which leads me to believe that Putin didn’t miscalculate on Ukraine. Maybe he didn’t judge the relative strength of the armed forces properly or have a good plan of attack. But on the basic question: To subjugate or not subjugate? Here, Putin had no choice. He had to take back because Ukraine was making massive strides to becoming a democratic success story.