Russia’s war against Ukraine makes sense if one recognizes that Vladimir Putin sees himself as a modern czar, obligated to restore the Russian empire. So Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C. think tank, told participants in a Jewish Policy Center webinar January 26.
Putin in 2005 lamented the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geo-political catastrophe” of the 20th century, one that he claimed “left tens of millions” of Russian citizens beyond the country’s borders. But neither the U.S.S.R. nor czarist Russia was a nation-state, May said. Instead, it was result of centuries of forcible imperial incorporation of non-Russian peoples.
The USSR, May contended, was essentially the old Russian empire under communist rule. To reassemble it, Putin intended to begin with Ukraine, then go on first to other “low-hanging fruit” like Moldova, followed by Belarus, perhaps Kazakhstan, then an attack on a NATO member, Lithuania, to secure at least a land bridge to the Kaliningrad enclave, port to Moscow’s Baltic Sea fleet if not the entire country.
May said Putin had been encouraged by Western acceptance of Russia’s grabbing of parts of Georgia in 2008 and seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, then hearing U.S. President Joe Biden say Washington might not resist a “minor incursion” into additional Ukrainian territory. With Russia in demographic and economic decline, Putin—described by May as “an old man in a hurry”—gambled on taking the whole country.
Surprised by Ukrainian resistance, support for Kyiv by the U.S.-led NATO coalition, and Russian military failures, Putin intensified the onslaught. May said the West should not pressure Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s government to make concessions now. Washington makes that mistake with Israel, according to May, urging it to offer inducements to Palestinian
Don’t Show Your Cards
“Zelensky’s goals”—driving Russia from every bit of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea and Donbas—“might not be our goals.” Doing so might require not just American weapons but also American troops. However, Western backing of Ukraine might make a diplomatic settlement possible. Meanwhile, May said, “we don’t want to negotiate with ourselves first.”
“Putin is hoping we go wobbly before he does.” While there may be domestic unhappiness with the war, or criticism of its unexpectedly high costs, “Putin has had 20 years to wipe out alternative sources of power,” May observed. If the Russian president is ousted, he’s likely to be succeeded by “other nasty characters.”
May, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, holds a certificate in Russian language and literature from Soviet-era Leningrad University and served on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. He is the weekly “Foreign Desk” columnist for The Washington Times.
“Putin is an avowed enemy of the United States and law-based international order,” May said. The Russian president also is “a close ally with [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping.” He added that the Kremlin is a “junior member” to Beijing in an “axis of tyranny” that also includes Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un. Supporting members include Venezuela under Nicholas Maduro, Cuba and Nicaragua, May stressed. All the participants are committed “to pushing America out and back.”
That hostile alignment makes it important that Putin doesn’t win in Ukraine, May said. Many Americans—including some members of the foreign policy establishment—have difficulty understanding this, he added, because their default view is “the rather naïve notion that peace is the natural state of mankind.” Instead, May said he holds to the “Reaganite” view of “peace through strength, being strong enough to deter an adversary from committing aggression, not proclaiming your side will impose punishments like sanctions or go to war after aggression has been launched.
The problem for the United States, in deterring Chinese assault against Taiwan, for example, is a shrunken defense industrial base. Supplying Ukraine with weapons like anti-tank missiles and long-distance artillery has exposed the U.S. military’s limited ability to re-stock its own arsenal, May noted. “If we’re in a second Cold War … led by China, which is stronger and richer than the Soviet Union ever was,” Congress must address America’s industrial and defense shortages, he said.