What is Putin afraid of on Ukraine?

About a hundred thousand Russian troops are amassed along Russia’s border with Ukraine, ready to invade the country on Vladimir Putin’s command. Whether this actually happens is problematic and it may amount to a lot of saber rattling.

Since 2014, when Ukraine peacefully elected a democratic leader and legislature, it has petitioned to join NATO. It’s choice of democracy was worrisome; but its desire for NATO membership is what Putin is really worried about. Over the decades, Russia’s formerly closely-aligned states on its west have mostly aligned themselves with the West and joined NATO.

His worry about Ukraine joining NATO is not too hard to figure out, as there is more than a millennium of history that shows Russians and other empires can and will invade Eastern Europe and leave behind a lot of death, misery and carnage. Borders in this area of the world are quite fungible. Countries like Prussia and empires like the Holy Roman Empire controlled large swaths of these countries in the past. They are gone, but instead of Mongrel hordes, it’s now mostly Russia which is the threat. Russia likes satellite states on its west to act as a buffer between it and the republics of Europe.

You may have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Back then the United States was acting a lot like Russia is now. When a foreign threat got too close to our shores, it became unacceptable. The Soviets then wisely withdrew after a tense standoff, and Cuba went back to being officially communist but not a real threat to our national security. Short range nuclear missiles in Cuba though were a real threat for which there was almost no time to react.

Subsequent U.S. presidents have remained exceptionally paranoid. Ronald Reagan’s CIA replaced freely elected governments in Central America with mostly despotic banana republics that we controlled. Reagan eventually sent in the Marines to occupy Grenada in the far West Indies because its citizens had some socialist leanings. Grenada is about 1500 miles from the United States mainland.

From Russia’s perspective, the West is encroaching on it. Since 2004, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia have joined the European Union. All these countries are on or near Russia’s borders. Most of these countries also now belong to NATO. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are no longer Russian buffer states. Basically Belarus and Ukraine are the only ones left for Russia. Imagine if Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda and most of the Caribbean were socialist or communist states. We’d be just as alarmed as Russia, if not more.

Ukraine though is culturally and ethnically very tied to Russia; much the way Canada feels tied to the United States because we (mostly) share the same language and dominant ethnicities. If Canada became a communist state, we’d probably feel what Putin is feeling now. We’d be deeply alarmed. Eastern European states want to belong to both the European Union and NATO because they want protection from Russia, which has a history of invading or controlling them. They also like the taste of freedom that comes from being democratic states.

So it’s not surprising in the least that Putin is very alarmed. He wants assurances that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. If it is, there’s no reason short range missiles can’t be placed there, able to lob missiles at Russia before it can do much in the way of responding to them. He’s feeling cramped in.

Here in the West we wonder what all the fuss is about. I doubt very much that Joe Biden wants to change Russia’s system of government, which is a de-facto autocracy with the illusion of free and open elections. He wouldn’t mind if it happened, but Russia is too big an entity to invade. If it happens, it will happen from within. The United States though is in favor of stable and democratic governments, well, at least some of us are. The Republican Party is of course working hard to subvert democratic government here because demographics are turning against them. Republicans are now completely comfortable with autocracy, providing they are in charge, and many don’t want to lift a finger to help Ukraine.

Putin doesn’t want real democracy in Russia. They tried, sort of, after the end of the Cold War, but communists were quickly replaced with oligarchs. It’s no wonder our Republican party seems so friendly to Russia as it is effectively a party captured by oligarchs. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump wanted to align the United States with Russia, as he felt much more comfortable with autocrats and oligarchs. The whole idea of representative democracy has never agreed with him and, increasingly, with the bulk of his party.

Putin’s interest is likely mostly self-serving. He’s an oligarch worth at least tens of billions, but if Russia were to become truly democratic, it’s likely his wealth and status as an oligarch would go as well. But he likely does read Russia correctly, in that it’s a generally deeply conservative country. Democracy is not likely to fit it well, or at all.

As for what Russia will do, my betting is that no troops will invade Ukraine. But I do expect we’ll see some low level cyber warfare instead, which can probably be attributed to Russia but will mysteriously be missing the electronic footprints to prove it. The United States and its allies are likely to respond in kind.

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