Professor Alexander Motyl, of Rutgers University–Newark’s Department of Political Science, specializes in Soviet and post-Soviet-politics, Ukraine, comparative politics, nationalism, revolutions, theory and empires. He is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980). He’s also the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012), and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages and magazines.
We sat down with him to discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Let’s start with some big-picture questions before addressing the Ukraine invasion. What primary historical factors led us to this point, and what responsibility, if any, does the U.S., Europe and NATO bear?
The key "deep" historical factor relates to Russian political culture, which has traditionally been authoritarian and hostile to a Ukrainian identity. Putin embodies both qualities. The second factor is Putin's transformation of Russia from an imperfectly democratic state in the 1990s to a fascist state today: Fascist rulers generally promise greatness to their nations, and Putin, like Mussolini, is no exception. Finally, the more immediate historical factor is NATO enlargement: It extended protection to countries that were under no threat (Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary), it extended protection to countries that were indefensible (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), it annoyed the Russians, and, most important, it left Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova in a security no-man's land, trapped between an indifferent Europe and a neo-imperialist Russia.
Putin has been playing a long game to destabilize Western democracies and NATO, using asymmetrical warfare and operating on many fronts. What are his ultimate goals?
His most immediate long-term goal is to transform Ukraine into a vassal of Russia. That would immediately undermine Ukrainian democracy, civil society and Western orientation; demonstrate to the other post-Soviet states that democracy has no future, that subservience to Russia is their only option; and at the same time show that the West (especially the EU and NATO) is unwilling to match its high-sounding words, regarding democracy and human rights, with the appropriate deeds. Putin's ultimate goal is to establish a greater Russian empire that would incorporate all the territories held by Soviet and imperial Russia. Ukraine is the jewel in that crown.
The invasion not only potentially destroys the Ukrainian state and nation, but, no less important, it signals to his [Putin's] neighbors that he is willing and able to invade if they step out of line.
Putin may be fairly well-insulated—at least in the short term—from U.S. and European sanctions. How can the West counter this?
Theoretically, it's quite easy: Crack down on dirty money being used [by Russian oligarchs] to acquire real estate, etc., abroad in markets like London and New York, especially as many of the "biznes" people doing the investment are shady characters who acquired their wealth at best semi-legally. But the West has looked the other way because even dirty money is a good source of investments. Energy dependence is a different issue. The Europeans knew that buying energy from the Russians placed them in a position of dependence. But they ignored the implications of that, just as they ignored the implications of NATO enlargement for Ukraine.
Do you think creating another migrant crisis—like the one he spurred in Syria—is one of Putin’s goals with this invasion, to pressure neighboring former Soviet republics back into his sphere?
I think Putin would want his Ukrainian political opponents to go abroad (it would save him the trouble of killing them), but there would be little benefit to him if the country is completely destroyed and the majority of the people flee. The invasion not only potentially destroys the Ukrainian state and nation, but, no less important, it signals to his neighbors that he is willing and able to invade if they step out of line. It also signals that, if they do step out of line, no one will help them.
Turning to the invasion, what are the next steps? How would sanctions work to slow down Putin’s ambush, and what kind of sanctions would be we impose?
Sanctions will have no immediate impact on Putin, unless the war drags on for years. But they will make life immediately harder for Russian economic elites and for the population, whose incomes will likely decline. That could, together with already existing signs of Russian popular opposition to the war, eventually spark a more serious display of opposition—à la the Belarusians or the Kazakhs. And there is nothing that Putin fears more than a "colored" revolution.
Should we have imposed stricter sanctions sooner to avoid lives being lost?
Since the U.S. was certain that war was imminent—and it proved to be right—it made little sense to impose sanctions after the imminent war breaks out. Instead, imposing them before the war broke out could have possibly made some difference, signaling the immediate pain that Russia would feel. Of course, the most painful sanction would have been to exclude Russia from the SWIFT system of payments-, but four European states, including Germany and Italy, oppose that for financial reasons.
Would strict sanctions have an impact on our way of life and economy in the U.S.?
Probably. But the question is: What's more important, the lives of innocent people or daily lattes from Starbucks? There's also another question: What will cost more in the long run--sanctions now or dealing with a warmongering Putin in the heart of Europe later?
Is it likely that Russia will continue its front into other former Soviet nations?
It's already seized Belarus. Taking over Moldova might be a possibility: Who in the West would protest? If Putin were devilishly clever, he'd seize northeastern Estonia or northern Kazakhstan (which is where Russian speakers mostly live) and thereby expose the U.S. and Europe as paper tigers.
Thank you for sitting down with us.
For Further Reading
The following Washington Post op-Eds expand on two key issues discussed above: Putin’s relative insulation from Western sanctions and the long geopolitical game that Putin and China’s president, Xi Jinping, are playing to establish a new world order in the 21st century.