Why Putin Went to War

Interview with Historian Geoffrey Roberts

For this week’s ‘Free Thought’, I have spoken with the British historian Geoffrey Roberts about an article he recently published in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies under the title “Now or Never: The Immediate Origins of Putin’s Preventive War on Ukraine”.i We also talked about the historical craft, how the war in Ukraine will be viewed in 50 years, and what secret documents Roberts would like to see if he could get access to the Russian archives.

Geoffrey Roberts has researched and written about the history of diplomacy for many decades. In particular, he has dealt with the processes leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War and to the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, which involved the division of Eastern Europe into spheres of interest between Germany and the Soviet Union. He is the author a voluminous work entitled Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War 1939–1953, which was based on his studies in the Russian archives. Roberts is also co-author of a book on the wartime relationship between Churchill and Stalin and has written a biography of Georgy Zhukov, Stalin’s most important general during World War II. Most recently, Roberts has written a book entitled Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books.

Reasons for War

Why did Vladimir Putin decide in February 2022 to invade Ukraine and start the biggest land war in Europe since World War II? And when did he make that fateful decision?

There are many opinions about that. It is one of those events that historians will write thousands of articles and books about for decades to come.

Some believe that Putin is driven by the ambition to restore the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire. Others point out that Putin is motivated by the desire to gain control of what is called “the Russian world”, which includes regions where the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian language and culture dominate.

Still others point to Putin launching the war to consolidate his power at home and save his regime from internal threats and opposition.

A fourth claim is that the decision to go to war was the work of an isolated, maniacal dictator. A dictator surrounded by puppets who was convinced the Russian army would be welcomed by a majority of the Ukrainian population.

A fifth explanation says that Putin feared a democratic Ukraine with a political order alternative to his authoritarian regime in Russia, which could lead disaffected Russians to rebel against the Kremlin.

Geoffrey Roberts rejects all these explanations. He believes that Putin went to war to prevent Ukraine from developing into an increasingly strong and threatening military bridgehead for NATO on the border with Russia.

According to Roberts, for Putin the decision to invade Ukraine was not only about the immediate situation; it was about a future in which he feared Russia would face an existential threat from the West. In that context, Roberts states, it is not decisive whether Putin is morbidly paranoid or whether his fantasies have no root in the real world. The key is what Putin actually thought and on what basis he made the decision to go to war; for Roberts as a historian, it is about uncovering the logic and inner dynamics of Putin’s reasoning that preceded the war.

Roberts does this by reviewing Putin’s public comments and statements from spring 2021 until the invasion in February 2022, comparing them with what he has said since.

His method is empirical, meaning that he reconstructs the story based on what Putin says and does. Roberts identifies a common thread of elements and talking points that recur all the way through the narrative – the fear of NATO expansion, concern about NATO missile defense in Poland and Romania, the transformation of Ukraine into an anti-Russia and a NATO armed outpost on the border with Russia, criticism of Ukraine for discrimination against pro-Russians and not implementing the so-called Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, which were an attempt to regulate the conflict between the Ukrainian central government and the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

According to Roberts, throughout the run up to the February 2022 invasion, Putin maintained that the Minsk agreements were the only mechanism available to deal with the dispute between Kiev and the Donbass rebels. Roberts also cites Putin’s ‘infamous’ summer 2021 essay on the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine, in which he laments alleged discrimination against Russians in Ukraine, declaring:

“We will never allow our historic lands and people close to us to be used against Russia.”

In autumn 2021, the rhetoric sharpened, and on November 18, i.e. a month before Moscow submitted its formal security demands to NATO, Putin proposed legally binding security guarantees from NATO in relation to Ukraine. When his demands were published, they went even further and were not only about Ukraine, but also about the infrastructure NATO had built in its new member states.

Russia’s demands were rejected by the West at the end of January 2022. A few days later, Putin said at a press conference in the Kremlin:

“It is stated in Ukraine’s doctrines that they will take Crimea back, if necessary by force. It’s not just something Ukrainian representatives say publicly, it’s written down in their documents. Imagine then that Ukraine becomes a member of NATO. It is being loaded with weapons and more offensive weapons will be deployed on its territory, just like in Poland and Romania – who is going to stop it? Imagine Ukraine launching an operation against Crimea or Donbass. Crimea is Russian territory. We see that case as settled. Imagine that Ukraine is a member of NATO and begins a military operation. So what should we do? Fight against NATO? Has anyone even thought about that? Apparently not.”

Roberts hypothesizes that it was the fear of a nuclear-armed Ukraine that prompted Putin to attack at the last minute. The historian refers to Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech at the security conference in Munich five days before the invasion, in which the Ukrainian president aired the idea that Ukraine should acquire tactical nuclear weapons in order to defend itself. None of the Western leaders present objected, according to Roberts, even though such an initiative would have been a violation of the international agreement on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Three days later, Putin was asked whether he considered Zelensky’s words to be bluster or a real statement of intent.

Putin replied:

“We reckon that his words were primarily directed at us. I would like to say that we have heard them. Ever since Soviet times, Ukraine has had broad nuclear capabilities. They have several nuclear power plants and a nuclear industry which is quite developed and they have a school to educate people. They have everything to be able to solve that problem much faster than the countries that are starting from scratch.”

He added:

“The only thing they lack is systems for enriching uranium. It’s just a matter of technology. It is not an insurmountable task for Ukraine. It can be done quite easily, and the presence of tactical nukes in Ukraine and missiles with a range of 300–500 kilometres means they can hit Moscow. It is a strategic threat to us and that is how we perceive it. We have to and will take it extremely seriously.”

Roberts summarizes:

“On the eve of the invasion, many astute and well-informed commentators convinced themselves that the supposedly realistic and pragmatic Putin would not risk such an attack. What they missed was the crystallization of Putin’s apocalyptic vision of a future, nuclear-armed Ukraine embedded in NATO and intent on provoking a Russian-Western war. Arguably, it was that long-term nuclear threat that finally prompted Putin to go to war.”

Putin’s Preventative War

According to Roberts, from Putin’s point of view it was a preventive war, which sounds completely crazy from the perspective of the West, but which nevertheless drove the Russian president. Putin’s Russia is not the first, and will hardly be the last, country to go to war on such a basis.

German Emperor Wilhelm II was motivated by a similar logic when, in July 1914, he urged Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia before its nationalism became too threatening to the Hapsburg empire.

Adolf Hitler saw his attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 as an attempt to eliminate an emerging strategic and ideological threat from the “Jewish-Bolshevik” regime in the east.

In the same vein, Great Britain and France proclaimed Egypt’s leader Gamel Abdel Nasser a new expansionist and totalitarian threat in the Middle East, and in 1956 they put preventive obstacles in his way by taking control of the Suez Canal, while US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had otherwise vowed not to enter the civil war in Vietnam, was so obsessed with the so-called domino theory – meaning that if one country fell to the communists in Southeast Asia, others would follow – that he chose to get involved in the war as a preventive measure to stop the red peril from spreading.

A more recent example of a preventive war is US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was justified by the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime had to be liquidated before the dictator in Baghdad got his hands on weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to launch them with.

Roberts comments:

“Pre-emptive action to avoid an even bloodier conflict in the future is a standard justification for aggressive war, one that is often accompanied by illusions of a quick and easy victory. To say that Putin believed he had been backed into a corner by Ukraine and the West is not to endorse his perceptions and assessment of the situation.”

The Interview

The all-out attack came as a shock. Did the war catch you out?

“I wasn’t that surprised, but I was shocked. When Putin in December 2021 presented his proposal for a security agreement with the West that included legally binding guarantees for Russia, I thought to myself he had backed himself into a corner, because if the West did not give him anything in the way of serious negotiations, he would have to respond with military means. Hence I was not surprised as such by the military action, more by its scope and size. I had been expecting a limited operation in eastern Ukraine, so the all-out attack came out of left field.”

In response to the widespread perception in the West that Putin is full of lies and what he says cannot be trusted, Roberts stresses that, yes, politicians do lie and pretend, and Putin is no exception, but what politicians say in public often reflects a core of their real beliefs.

Roberts elaborates:

“Politicians lie to their own populations, but less so to each other on the international stage. Here they usually try to communicate something to the other party. When you as a head of state have to make critical decisions about war and peace, it is crucial that your position is understood by the other party. Therefore, I believe that you can take Putin at his word in this context.”

How will posterity view the war? How do you think historians will look at the war in Ukraine 50 years from now? Which narratives will dominate?

“I believe that as in the discussions about the causes of the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War, there will be a debate between, on the one hand, those who politicize and allow ideological considerations to guide their understanding of the causes of the conflict, and, on the other, those who see history as a past that you try to bring to life by studying the documents of that time without a predetermined political or ideological agenda.”

Roberts adds:

“But unlike the current debate about the causes of the war in Ukraine, I think those who stick to history without politicizing it too much will stand stronger as time goes on, because in a few decades there will, hopefully, be much more documentation to substantiate one or other interpretation of the causes of the war. Historical documents that confirm or deny things that are claimed – without evidence – in public today.”

If you could see a classified document that could shed light on why and how Putin decided to go to war, which document would you most like to see?

“I would like to see the Russian General Staff’s operational plan for the invasion because it would shed light on Moscow’s strategic goals, military preparations and calculations.”

Anything else?

“I would also like to see minutes of Putin’s meetings with his inner circle to see if a future nuclear threat from Ukraine was considered in the confidential decisionmaking process. I’m by no means certain, but my impression is that the nuclear factor, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t the only factor, but that’s the way I read the evidence of Putin’s public comments.”

You are a historian and you usually write about the past, spending your time digging in archives and reading confidential documents. What is it like to be a historian writing about current events?

“You lack perspective. Over time, some aspects of an historical event will appear more important than when it occurred. Some believe that makes all history relative to present-day standpoints but I disagree with that. I find that relativity – changing perspectives on the past as time marches on – helps to enrich our understanding. Equally, as a historian you can put yourself beyond your own contemporaneity and look at the past from the perspective of people in the past, with an historical awareness in the deepest sense of the term.”

Roberts continues:

“The second challenge of writing about contemporary events as a historian is that you lack the documentation and the evidence that you can later find in the archives, and which were once secret or confidential. One is forced to rely on what is available in the public space. In Putin’s case, it is what he says and does. It is undoubtedly a limitation.”

Despite these limitations, and knowing that posterity will uncover new evidence and documents, Roberts feels on fairly safe ground when it comes to Putin’s officially stated motivations for going to war.

He says:

“It is often the case that the secret and confidential documents end up confirming the motives articulated publicly by decision-makers while an event was taking place. I could have reconstructed the Soviet side of the story of the Hitler-Stalin Pact based on the Soviet newspapers of the time and Stalin’s statements. Despite countless contemporaneous claims to contrary, the Russian archives reveal that when Stalin said something in public, he usually meant it. I feel pretty confident that my review of Putin’s thinking and motivations based on public sources will be broadly confirmed once we get access to classified documents. This does not mean that Putin was right, but that is how he saw what was going on, and those are the considerations and calculations that informed his decision for war.”

Ukraine and Finland

One of the perspectives on the war that Roberts believes will change over time concerns the view of Ukraine’s situation and future if the country ends up losing Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

He says:

“If the war stops and there are negotiations and a peace agreement, it will – as it looks now – probably mean that Ukraine will lose land in the east, but in return will receive guarantees for its sovereignty and independence as a state. Many will say ‘oh no, that’s terrible. It shows that aggression pays,’ but I think that in the long run Ukraine’s loss of land will prove less important when the history of the war is written.”

What do you mean?

“I think that the focus will eventually shift from the losses Ukraine has suffered to what Ukraine has managed to preserve; namely its existence as a sovereign state that will hopefully recover after the war and will continue to be economically supported by the West. It will have security guarantees and maybe become a member of the EU”.

It sounds a bit like the history of Finland after the Finnish-Soviet war of 1939–40, which Finland lost, but over time it is the story of Finland’s survival and success as a sovereign state that counts the most.

“Yes, that’s a good comparison. I think the narrative will shift from a focus on what Ukraine has lost to what Ukraine has won and achieved. I hope so, but if the war continues for much longer, I am worried that Ukraine will collapse as a state.”

The most avoidable war in history

Geoffrey Roberts sees the war in Ukraine as one of those wars that could have been avoided. He calls it perhaps the most avoidable war in history.

He says:

“If Putin had calculated the situation differently and understood the costs, I am not sure he would have gone to war. Or if the West had concluded an agreement with Russia on European security, or if Ukraine had implemented the Minsk agreements on regulating the conflict in Donbass, or if NATO had not expanded in the way it ended up doing.”

What do you mean by the last one?

“Originally, I supported the expansion of NATO, because I saw it as part of the establishment of a European security system that would include everyone – including Russia. The expansion of NATO wasn’t a problem as such, it was that the process ended up isolating Russia. Russia should have been part of NATO in some form. I only became an opponent of NATO expansion when the alliance turned against Russia.”

When does that happen?

“The major turning point occurred in 2008 with the war in Georgia and NATO’s decision to include Ukraine and Georgia as members at some point in the future. The process probably became irreversible in 2010, when Russia under President Medvedev proposed a new, inclusive security order in Europe, which was rejected by the West. And then followed the crises in Libya and Syria and the Arab Spring, and in 2014 came Ukraine, which burned all bridges between Russia and the West.”

What makes you think that Putin only made the decision to go to war at the last minute?

“We cannot be sure; further documentation is needed, but I base my assessment on two indicators. Firstly; the meeting of Putin’s Security Council on February 21st, a few days before the invasion. It was about the recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent republics and the negotiations with the West. When you listen to the comments of those present, you get the impression that no decision had been made to go to war; and if it had been made, there are several in Putin’s inner circle who knew nothing about it. Of course, it may well be that Putin had made the decision long before, but just didn’t tell anyone about it.”

And what is the other indicator?

“This is Putin’s speech to the nation after the Security Council meeting. It is an emotional speech in which there are several spontaneous elements. That, I think, indicates that this is a decision he has just made rather than the presentation of something he had resolved to do been several days – if not weeks – before.”