During his address to the plenary session of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his audience of scholars and diplomats that “The Ukraine crisis is not a territorial conflict, and I want to make that clear…[W]e have no interest in conquering additional territory.” He insisted, “This is not a territorial conflict and not an attempt to establish regional geopolitical balance. The issue is much broader and more fundamental and is about the principles underlying the new international order.”
On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said that Putin “has much larger ambitions than Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, reestablish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.” The same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Putin has “made clear that he’d like to reconstitute the Soviet empire.” US officials and US media have repeated that claim every day since.
But Putin’s actions don’t match America’s words. If Putin’s goal is to reconstitute the Russian empire, he has, several times, missed his chance.
In the 1990’s, Georgia went through a period of extreme nationalism that led to civil war and the declaration of independence by the ethnic Russian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin warned the US that “if [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili uses force in South Ossetia . . .. If Georgia causes bloodshed in Ossetia, I will have no alternative to recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia and responding with force.”
At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, NATO promised that it “welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO.”
Putin warned that if Georgia joins NATO, its “sovereignty will be limited, and Georgia, too, will be a threat to Russia.” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West that Russia would do “everything possible” to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from becoming NATO members.
Despite Putin’s warning against the use of force in South Ossetia, Saakashvili, bloated with misplaced confidence that he now had US and NATO backing, attacked. The US had sent very mixed messages of support. A senior US official said that “it’s possible that Georgians may have confused the cheerleading from Washington with something else.”
The Russian invasion of Georgia is often the first event admitted into evidence in the case against Putin for reconstituting the Soviet empire. Georgia claimed that Ossetia, and not Georgia, had started the shelling. But that was not true.
In August 2008, as was not uncommon, skirmishes broke out between Georgia and South Ossetia. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers reported Georgian military units and GRAD rocket launchers heading toward the border.
On August 7 at 6:40 in the afternoon, Georgia declared a unilateral ceasefire, allegedly to prevent further escalation. But then, just five hours later, Georgia launched an attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. The attack took Russia by surprise. It included rockets and artillery attacks, including attacks on residential areas, followed by an invasion by 1,500 troops.
Georgia claimed that Ossetia had been shelling Georgian villages. OSCE observers on the ground said that claim was false.
New York Times reporting in November of 2008 says that Saakashvili ordered the massive shelling of Tskhinvali long before any Russian incursion. OSCE officials called the attack “an indiscriminate attack on the town.” The European Union Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia found that “None of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification of the attack” were legitimate. The report said “there was no Russian military invasion under way, which had to be stopped by Georgian military forces.”
Upon cross examination, the first piece of evidence that Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet empire does not stand up. Contrary to the version still frequently told in the political West, the Georgian war was not a Russian invasion. It was a Russian response to a Georgian invasion.
Furthermore, it was not until the Georgian attack on the ethnic Russian provinces that Putin recognized their independence. And, even then, Putin did not annex the provinces but only recognized their autonomy. He did not reabsorb them into a new Russian empire. Nor did he – as he could have – continue the march of Russian troops all the way to the capitol of Tbilisi and reclaim all of Georgia. Though Georgia had been receiving political, economic and military support from the US, the Russian army dwarfed it in size and capability. Putin could have finished the job, continued on to Tbilisi and reincorporated Georgia into the Russian empire.
Six years later, events in Ukraine would lead to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the second piece of evidence admitted against Putin.
But prior to the US backed coup that removed the democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych and pulled Ukraine into the Western sphere, there had never been the suggestion of a move by Putin to reclaim Crimea for Russia. The annexation was a reaction to aggressive Western encroachment, not an action to reconstitute a Russian empire.
When Russia did annex Crimea it was answering the call of a population that identifies primarily as ethnic Russian and was facing challenges to its language, culture, rights, property and lives brought about by a violent, undemocratic reversal of the will of the Ukrainian people.
Of thirty polls and referendums taken in Crimea between 1994 and 2016, twenty-five show pro-Russian results of 72.9% or higher. The remaining five were between 25.6% and 55%. United Nations polling between 2009 and 2011 reveal that the majority of Crimeans were in favor of reunification with Russia. Nicolai Petro reports that leading Crimean sociologist Natalia Kiselyova says that, from 1991-2014, the percentage of Crimeans who “yearned for Russia” was always greater than 50%.
Following the 2014 coup, with a voter turnout of 83% on March 16, 97% of Crimeans voted for joining Russia. The political West has cast aspersions on the integrity of the referendum. But Pew polling the next month found that 91% of Crimeans thought the referendum was free and fair and a June 2014 Gallup poll found that nearly 83% of Crimeans though it reflected the view of the people. In 2017, 79% of Crimeans said they would vote the same way. Polls taken between 2014 and 2019 that continue to show “that the decision to join Russia remains popular among all ethnic groups in Crimea.”
The manner in which Putin annexed Crimea belies the claim of empire building. Dmitry Trenin, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, points out that when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin was acting “on a mandate from the Russian parliament to use military force ‘in Ukraine’ not just in Crimea.” Had Putin wanted to reconstitute the Russian empire, he, at this moment, had the opportunity and the means. But Putin resisted pressure from Russian nationalists to annex the Donbas and instead remained committed the Minsk Accord’s plan to keep the Donbas a part of Ukraine. For the next seven years, Russia did not annex the Donbas. When the Donbas tried to follow Crimea to Russia, Putin tried to prevent their referendums. Instead of reconstituting empire, Putin consistently spurned the Donbas’ requests to join Russia. When the people of the Donbas finally did vote, Putin “respected” the results but refused to accept or be bound by them.
It was only after NATO refused to close its doors to Ukraine, bloated Ukraine with weapons and Ukraine militarily threatened the Donbas that Putin accepted them into Russia. 60,000 elite Ukrainian troops, accompanied by drones, massed on the western border of the Donbas. There was “genuine alarm,” Richard Sakwa says, that that Ukraine was about to escalate the seven year old civil war and invade the largely ethnic Russian Donbas region.” In February of 2022, that alarm was heightened by dramatically increased Ukrainian artillery shelling into the Donbas that was observed by the Border Observer Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Even still, Putin remained committed to the Minks agreements and keeping the Donbas in Ukraine right up to the eve of the war. On February 12 and 13, just two weeks before invading Ukraine, Putin was still pressing Emmanuel Macron of France and Olaf Scholz of Germany to pressure Ukraine to sign the agreements, which would have allowed them to hold on to the Donbas.
Whatever Putin’s reason for invading Ukraine, the case against him that it is out of an obsession to reconstitute the Soviet empire does not stand up to the historical record.
“Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart,” Putin once famously said, before less famously adding that “Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.”
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.