Understanding the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Russia's invasion of Ukraine must be condemned, but we must also understand the Russian perspective if we are going to work for peace.

During the 2008 Republican presidential primary debates candidates Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani had an infamous exchange. While Giuliani was proclaiming the standard neoconservative bellicose view of foreign affairs, Paul argued that the actions of the United States in the years before 9/11 helped lead to those attacks. Needless to say, Giuliani and the other GOP candidates quickly pounced on Dr. Paul’s remarks, condemning him for apparently justifying Osama bin Laden’s actions. 

Of course Paul was not justifying the attacks, he was explaining them. Instead of painting the usual “bin Laden bad, U.S. good” caricature, he sought to understand what led to bin Laden’s popularity among many young Muslim men in the Middle East. After all, bin Laden was only able to pull off the attacks because he had a strong network of support. Why were his arguments persuasive?

We need to have the same perspective toward today’s invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The invasion must be condemned, period. But we must understand what led to this horrific act by Russia, not to justify it, but with the goal of deescalating today’s conflict and preventing future ones. 

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Unfortunately too many of our American foreign policy makers act like it’s perpetually 1939 and every foreign leader who isn’t an ally is Adolf Hitler. Just listen to Lyndsey Graham on any given day. Any attempt to comprehend another country’s perspective is Chamberlain-esque “appeasement.” Yet these simplistic caricatures do little to help resolve today’s situation.

As with bin Laden, we should explain the reasons for Putin’s popularity in Russia. We’d be wrong to say young Muslim men supported bin Laden simply because they are inherently evil; just so, it’s both wrong and unhelpful to castigate the Russian people as villains. This is not a Catholic perspective, nor one that strives for peace.

Russia is a proud nation with a rich history. We here in the West are horrified when we hear many Russians today (including Putin) look back fondly on the Soviet Union, what we call the “evil empire.” However, their nostalgia is not an attempt to resurrect the evil of communism, but instead to bring back their position as a successful world power. Russia had influence and was respected (in fear) by other nations. Before the October Revolution, Tsarist Russia was a backward, medieval nation that had fallen far behind Western countries. To many Russians, the Soviet Union was the imperfect means that led to their emergence as a world power.

Needless to say, then, the fall of the Soviet Union was both welcomed and lamented in Russia. The 1990’s was a decade-long identity crisis for the Russian people—how would they move forward in this new world order in which they were no longer a true superpower? 

Unfortunately it was during this critical time that the West, led by the United States, did not reach out to them to build them up as an ally, but instead treated them as a defeated foe that could be trampled upon. We promised no expansion of NATO east of Germany, but soon broke that promise, eventually extending NATO’s borders all the way to the Russian border. The West felt it could just dictate—and later change—terms as it saw fit.

It was into this situation that Putin rose to power. He understood—because he shared—the Russian desire to be great again, to be treated as an equal at the table with the United States again. Because he embraced this outlook, his people embraced him. In many ways, this is similar to the popularity of Donald Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again.” The danger, of course, is the possibility of the devolution of legitimate patriotism into crass nationalism. 

When a pro-Russian presidential candidate was democratically elected in Ukraine in 2010, the US backed a coup to overthrow him in 2014. To the average Russian, this was a clear and dangerous anti-Russian move by the West. It was the US working on the very borders of Russia to oppose his nation. Imagine how the average American would feel if Russia acted in a similar way in Mexico or Canada?

The situation in Ukraine is far more complex than we want to acknowledge. It’s not simply a case of one foreign nation randomly invading another, or Russia just trying to expand its borders. There are deep ties between the two countries, with significant numbers of Russian-speaking and ethnically Russian people living in Ukrainian borders.

Of course, this allows Putin to use half-truths to gain support for his actions—he’s just defending the rights of Russians in Ukraine, he claims. The fact that Russians in Ukraine have had their rights at times violated—with Western support—gives the Russian president enough room to convince many of his people of the rightness of his actions.

Again, none of this is to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has no legitimate justification. Yet if we simply condemn Putin as the next Hitler who just wants to expand Russia in his megalomania, we do nothing to deescalate the conflict (and in fact inflame it). To work for peace we must be willing to understand the Russian perspective.

No matter the reasons behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one thing is clear: America cannot commit any military forces to this conflict. If the past thirty years have taught us anything, it’s that when America engages in military interventions overseas, we make things worse rather than better. And now we are talking about engaging a nuclear power. Making things worse could make the world very worse indeed. Do we really think a President Biden can be a successful Commander-in-Chief in a time of war? The question alone should keep us up at night. 

Already some are claiming that if we let Putin have Ukraine, he’ll move on Poland next. First, such a view falls into the “Putin is Hitler” trap, and it also misunderstands the significance of Ukraine in the Russian mind. Further, Poland is already a NATO nation, which means we have an existing treaty to defend them if such an invasion occurs (and Putin knows we have that treaty). Our military treaty obligations are already expansive enough without creating pseudo-treaties with any country under threat.

It’s very easy in a time of war or potential war to demonize those we perceive as our enemy. As Catholics we must instead work for peace which includes understanding how our own actions have contributed to our current situation. This does not mean refusing to recognize the evil of Putin’s actions, but instead seeing why those actions have such widespread support in his country. Only then we can work to resolve things as peaceably as possible.

[Photo Credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images]

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