From Defensive Action to Imperial Expansion: Unraveling Putin’s Motives in Ukraine

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As the world observed the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale Ukraine attack, a chorus of international executives voiced their resolve to continue standing with Ukraine, it is now clear that Russia maintains the upper hand as the conflict develops into a grinding war of decay. Indeed, with the destiny of US military aid in suspicion, the mood among Ukraine’s supporters is visibly dimming as thoughts turn to the catastrophic consequences of a potential Russian victory.

In recent weeks, more and more Western leaders have started publicly warning that their nations may soon become targets of Russian attack. The latest leader to sound the alarm was French President Emmanuel Macron, who commented on February 26 that Russia could attack NATO member states “in the next few years.” Macron also flashed a heated debate by declining to rule out sending Western troops to Ukraine.

Not everyone considers a victorious Putin would inevitably move further. Many remain unconvinced and claim the Russian oppressor is only interested in Ukraine. Others point to the Russian army’s well-documented hardships during the current invasion as proof that any Russian aggression on the NATO coalition would amount to military suicide. These statements reflect a fundamental disappointment among many in the West to hold the true explanations behind Russia’s invasion and the essence of the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s imperial aims.

When Putin first undertook the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he initially aspired to portray it as a defensive action against “Ukrainian Nazis” and NATO growth. However, as the conflict has evolved, it has become increasingly obvious that the Kremlin is waging an old-fashioned colonial warfare of imperial expansion.

Any action against the NATO alliance would allow Moscow to manipulate the lack of resolve and fear of escalation revealed by Western leaders over the past two years in Ukraine. Would the current generation of US, German, or French leaders be organized to involve their countries in a war with Russia over an unclear“pro-Russian” uprising in an Estonian border town? If not, the scarcity of a decisive response could fatally damage NATO’s core commitment to collective defense. The alliance might formally endure such a blow, but the loss of credibility would be disastrous. It would not be long before separate NATO member countries began forming separate security performances of their own and began showing concessions to the Kremlin.

Even if Putin determines not to push NATO directly, a Russian victory in Ukraine would alter the international security environment and dramatically raise the risk of a truly global war. European countries would be compelled to rapidly rearm, with defense allocations soon ballooning to levels that far exceed the current costs of helping the Ukrainian war effort. Those who envy today’s spending on Ukraine would discover themselves confronted with security expenditures five or ten times higher.

Putin himself has furnished ample evidence that his plans extend far beyond the reconquest of Ukraine. He makes no mystery of his dedication to reclaiming what he considers as historically Russian lands and acknowledges he is fully justified in employing military force to do so. Putin’s revisionist plan is inextricably connected to his other great passion, namely the resurrection of Russia’s great power position as part of a post-Western world overwhelmed by a handful of regional behemoths. These imperial ambitions led straight to the invasion of Ukraine and made further escalations almost inevitable unless Russia was defeated.

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