On Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desk sits a bronze statue of Peter the Great, the tsar who spent his four decades in power waging war on neighbors to establish his country as a great power in Europe. Peter would have understood the nature of the current conflict in Eastern Europe because his legacy is at stake. Russian influence in Europe is now at its lowest level since Peter first transformed Russia from a medium-sized player on Europe’s eastern borderlands to a great power towering over its neighbors. Today, Russia’s leaders sense an opportunity to reverse this decline—and they fear that if they don’t act now, their position will deteriorate further. As in the days of Tsar Peter, who won his most important victory at Poltava in 1709, today’s battleground is in Ukraine.
Listening to the officials jetting between negotiations from Geneva to Moscow to Berlin, it is easy to think the crisis stems from technical military or diplomatic disputes. Treaties are referenced, missiles are counted, illegal militias are condemned, and the various parties trade accusations of violating solemn agreements. However, the core disagreement between Russia and the West cuts far deeper—and is therefore far more difficult to resolve. At stake is Russia’s self-conception as a great power, which Russia’s leaders define as having the unquestioned right to dominate their neighbors.
What is Vladimir Putin trying to get out of the current crisis? The restoration of Russian status on the world stage, and a return to the days when Russia had a powerful voice in European affairs. Putin wants Russia to be treated like one of the world’s three great powers, alongside the United States and China, which most Russian leaders believe is their country’s rightful position. The current crisis is a test of whether the West is willing to treat Russia as a great power—and if not, whether Russia has the military power to force them to.
You won’t find the term “great power” referenced in any of documents under negotiation between Russia and the West. Nor are there any references to the tsars who commonly associated with Russia’s imperial glory. According to the draft treaty that Russia has demanded that the US sign, the Kremlin wants to negotiate about NATO’s military bases, the prospect of additional countries’ joining NATO in the future, the areas where NATO bombers can fly, and where missiles can be stationed.
Listening to the speeches of Russia’s diplomats, one might think that “security guarantees,” not great power status, are the questions at hand. It’s true that Russia’s primary demand is to halt—and ideally to reverse—the advance of the North Atlantic Alliance. Russian officials regularly complain of being surrounded by NATO military bases or facing NATO forces encroaching on their borders. “You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly,” Putin asserted several months ago, echoing a complaint Russian leaders have made for years.
There is, of course, some evidence to bolster Putin’s case. Throughout the 1990s, Western leaders made a variety of pledges and promises about the potential scope of NATO enlargement. Some of these were simply broken, others were informal pledges made by leaders who lost power, while others still were made irrelevant by changing events. If you measure “threat to Russia” by the number of countries that have joined NATO, then the threat to Russia has certainly increased.
However, this is an absurd way of measuring threat. The most significant military powers to join NATO after the Cold War—Eastern Germany and Poland—did so in the 1990s, when relations between Russia and the West were relatively cordial. Russia’s anger about NATO expansion grew just as such fearsome military powers as Latvia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia joined the alliance. What of the NATO bases the Kremlin accuses of encircling Russia? For a long time, there weren’t many NATO facilities in these new member states, except for missile defense facilities in Poland and Romania, and a couple thousand troops scattered across Eastern Europe. These latter forces were deployed, moreover, only after Russia annexed Crimea and ripped up the post-Cold War settlement in 2014, in direct response to Russia’s revisionism.
The argument that Russia’s military position weakened over the 2000s and early 2010s is exactly backward. Russia’s military became far stronger during those years, as the US drew down forces from Europe and focused its resources on counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Counting the number of NATO members is a poor guide to the military balance in Europe. In fact, it has shifted significantly in Russia’s favor.
Several decades ago, at the point of Russia’s peak military weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow had genuine reason to worry about the military balance. Amid the Soviet collapse, defense spending was slashed, procurement of new systems was halted, and maintenance was deferred. Russia may actually have been vulnerable to a US first strike. Even though no US leader would have launched such a strike, the fact of Russia’s vulnerability weakened its bargaining position at times of crisis. Moscow’s concerns were certainly taken less seriously in the 1990s than they are today. Yet after over a decade of impressive modernization efforts, Russia’s military is the strongest at any point during the post-Cold War era.
Today, Russia has one of the world’s two most fearsome nuclear arsenals, fresh out of a recent modernization program. Its combination of air, sea, and land-launched missiles make its nuclear forces more survivable than any country’s except the United States. The fact that Russia is the first country to deploy nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles doesn’t suggest weakness. Nor does the fact that, unlike the United States, Russia has decisively won several of its most recent wars, such as in Georgia in 2008 or Syria after 2015.
Defense experts are paid to worry, of course, so it is possible to find analysts in Moscow who are concerned about certain trends. Putin has repeatedly cited the risk that the US will put intermediate range missiles in Ukraine, shortening the flight time if such missiles were launched toward Moscow. The West has similar concerns, though, about missiles Russia has deployed along the West’s border, including missiles like the 9M729 that Western powers say was developed in violation of Russia’s treaty obligations. A deal about missiles could be hammered out quickly. Biden has offered such a deal to resolve the current crisis, but Russian leaders have repeatedly stated that they see the status of Ukraine, not missile placements, as the key issue.
The fact that Russia is demanding “security guarantees” after a decade and a half of highly successful military modernization suggests the current crisis isn’t primarily about Russia’s security. It’s about Eastern Europe’s insecurity. The problem, from the Kremlin’s perspective, is that Ukraine—the region’s most populous country and the linchpin of Russian efforts to solidify its standing—is taking steps to provide for its own security by building up its military and trying to join NATO.
In addition to making demands on the United States and NATO, Russia is also making demands on Ukraine. These demands are even more useful for understanding what is at stake: controlling Kyiv, not securing Russia. The Kremlin insists that Ukraine implement the Minsk Accords, by which it means that the Russian-controlled regions in Eastern Ukraine should be reinjected into Ukraine’s political system while still under de facto Russian control. The Russian backed thugs who currently govern the Russian-controlled chunks of Eastern Ukraine would become influential political forces in Kyiv. The Kremlin thereby hopes to acquire a Trojan Horse that gives it a permanent veto over politics inside Ukraine. The Ukrainian people understandably think that such a deal would make them a puppet state. Russia thinks this is the point.
For seven years, Russia has demanded that Kyiv take these steps. The vast majority of Ukrainians reject them. Now, Russia has new complaints. It is unhappier still that Ukraine is trying to build military capabilities that, Kyiv hopes, might stop Russia from bullying it in the future. For example, Ukraine is developing intermediate range missiles that could strike major Russian cities. It is buying weapons from the West and from Turkey to increase its fighting power. Its soldiers are being trained by NATO.
Of course, even the most nervous Russian defense analysts don’t lose sleep at night about Ukraine trying to seize Russian provinces like Rostov or Voronezh. But the simple fact that Ukraine might develop the military power to defend against Russian incursions is something that many in Moscow find grating. The “security guarantee” actually under negotiation is Ukraine’s potential future ability to guarantee its own security. Russia sees this as an affront to its status as the region’s greatest power.
The fact that the crisis stems not from Russia’s need for security guarantees, but from its refusal to let Ukraine guarantee its own security, is quietly admitted even by those who blame the West for the crisis. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer, one of the most prominent critics of the West’s approach, has stated that the West’s most threatening behaviors include having “sought to promote democracy in the countries of eastern Europe, increase economic interdependence among them, and embed them in international institutions”—all actions that bolster these countries’ sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia. The problem isn’t that NATO’s deepening partnership with countries like Ukraine will enable the Atlantic Alliance to march on Russia. The problem is that the West has made it more costly for Russia to march on its neighbors.
The real “threat” Russia faces today, in other words, is the threat of decisively losing its empire. NATO enlargement, and Western policy more generally, has taken the sovereignty of countries in Eastern Europe as an unabashed goal. Today’s diplomatic haggling over missile placements, troop limits, nuclear postures, and security guarantees have made little progress because there’s no agreement on the fundamental issue. At stake is whether Russia has the right to be surrounded by a belt of countries that it can bully.
Last summer, Putin published a high-profile article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The first sentence of the piece reiterated Putin’s view that Russians and Ukrainians were “a single whole.” The conclusion of the article warns “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” At stake today is whether the Kremlin will impose militarily the regime of partial sovereignty on its neighbors that Russian leaders have pursued since the day of Tsar Peter. Alternatively, the Kremlin could accept its territorial limits and agree to the security guarantees that it says it wants. The country most in need of a credible security guarantee isn’t Russia. It's Ukraine.