The Ukraine War: Debunking Putin’s Propaganda and the Realist Rationale

Thursday, April 21, 2022

As Russia continues its war on Ukraine, 2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow Sebastián Contín Trillo-Figueroa considers attempts to “understand” and even justify Vladimir Putin’s actions. The Russian president will go down in history as the figure of this era who has done the most harm and caused so much tragedy, he argues.

The Ukraine War: Debunking Putin’s Propaganda and the Realist Rationale

No justification: President Putin at a concert on March 18 marking the anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Credit: Ramil Sitdikov/RIA Novosti)

On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin started a war on Ukraine that, for many, is inexplicable. The pretexts for the invasion – the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Russia’s doorstep and allegations that the Ukrainian government has been mistreating and even engaging in the ethnic cleansing of Russians in the eastern parts of the country – hardly justify his actions. By the end of March, the conflict had resulted in the killing of some 25,000 Ukrainian civilians and military and security forces and up to 15,000 Russians soldiers. Shelling has reduced cities such as Mariupol and Melitopol to ruins. More than 4 million Ukrainians have fled their country (as of April 2022), taking refuge in neighboring nations and beyond. A slew of sanctions imposed on Moscow by the US, Europe and other countries are squeezing the Russian economy.

The question is: Why?

For Russia, Ukraine is not another country. Putin claims that it belongs under the Russian sphere of influence, that it should again be a satellite under Moscow’s control. The Russian president essentially refuses to recognize Ukraine’s independence, which it gained in July 1990. For this reason, he has had to snuff out Ukraine’s legitimate aspiration of joining the European Union (EU) and NATO. Putin justifies his stance by appealing to emotional and ideological concepts rather than rational ones and historical facts.

Of course, Ukraine’s sovereignty is buttressed under international law by the United Nations Charter, which stipulates that all members refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Besides, in 1994, Kyiv handed over its nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for assurances of Ukraine’s territorial security.

Is NATO a real threat to Russia?

Western intellectuals have paved the way for Putin to pursue his claims. The most influential has been University of Chicago scholar, John Mearsheimer, who in a much-watched (over one million viewers) webinar video offered an explanation, even a justification, for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mearsheimer is a realist whose analysis is based on the alleged assertiveness of the US and NATO in expanding to the Russian border, intimidating Moscow. 

Yet, the chances of further enlargement of the transatlantic alliance to include Russia’s Eastern European neighbors are slim. NATO has not recruited any new member right next to or across the Black Sea from Russia since 2004. Recent countries to join: Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020 – none with either a land or maritime border with Russia. Mearsheimer acknowledges that no one today is talking about Ukraine becoming a NATO member. Ironically, though, the Ukraine war has now prompted Finland and Sweden, which both border Russia and have traditionally tried to maintain neutrality, to consider joining the alliance

Mearsheimer’s argument fails to understand that, for many states once in the Soviet orbit, NATO is a valuable deterrent to re-annexation by Russia. The Cold War had a winner – the West – and a loser – the USSR. When the Soviet empire collapsed, several countries that had been part of the Warsaw Treaty Organization entered NATO to protect themselves. They chose freedom, democracy, the rule of law, security and opportunity, rejecting communism and domination by Moscow. They want to avoid what happened to Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, when people in those countries stood up and sought to challenge their puppet governments. 

Aspiring member: Ukraine President Zelensky (left) hands over to European Union delegation head Matti Maasikas Kyiv's replies to the EU application questionnaire, April 18 (Credit: President of Ukraine)

Aspiring member: Ukraine President Zelensky (left) hands over to European Union delegation head Matti Maasikas Kyiv's replies to the EU application questionnaire, April 18 (Credit: President of Ukraine)

While some other nations such as Belarus have remained in Russia’s thrall, those who broke free have the right to make their own decisions about their future, unencumbered by real or perceived historical or cultural links. Georgia and Ukraine have been so constrained, unable to join the West (as they wish) and under pressure from Russia, which occupied part of their territories in 2008 and 2014, respectively. 

Even USSR/Russia has asked to join NATO – at least four times, under Nikita Khruschev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. In 1994, Russia joined the Partnership for Peace, a NATO program aimed at building trust with other states. At the time, US president Bill Clinton characterized the initiative as a “track that will lead to NATO membership” and “does not draw another line dividing Europe a few hundred miles to the east.” In 2000, when Clinton visited Moscow at the end of his term, Putin asked the US leader how Americans would react to Russia joining NATO. 

In any case, NATO has neither established permanent bases nor based nuclear weapons in the European countries that joined the alliance after May 1997. And Putin, through his war on Ukraine, has resurrected an organization that had appeared to be cracking. US President Joe Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump was no fan of NATO and is said to have planned to withdraw from the organization if he had won a second term. In 2019, Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to be re-elected as president of France, a nuclear power that once practically withdrew from the alliance, asserted that NATO was experiencing “brain death”. Putin misconstrued NATO cohesion, especially when its members are confronted by the biggest challenge to European stability and security since World War II.

What of Putin’s claims about Ukraine?

There is no need to examine in any depth the other pretexts for Putin’s invasion, including the allegations that Moscow had to intervene to “de-nazify” Ukraine, which it accused of the genocide of Russian speakers in the eastern Donbas region, or that the US has been funding biological weapon labs in the country. No one outside of Russia believes this propaganda and disinformation, just as it is improbably that any NATO members could credibly threaten or bully Russia.  

Why does Putin demand security, if no one has threatened him? That is the key question. Putin is his best publicist, confusing his own people. Some may believe his narrative of being a crusader for traditional values of the family or Christianity, without appreciating the obvious contradiction posed by his belligerence. How can his war be a fight against American imperialism? While the US may not be without geopolitical sin, lodging accusations about its involvement in Ukraine to justify invasion is an unjustifiable leap. 

The reality is that this is not a US-Russia proxy war – it is an attack of an autocracy against an albeit flawed democratic sovereign state. No one is forcing Russia to kill civilians in Ukraine. And even if there were any grain of truth to Putin’s allegations about the Ukraine and the US, there is international law to consider – nations are equal and their sovereignty protected. Aggression and conflict are not solutions to grievances and historical claims between states.

The reaction of international actors

If Putin’s objective was to divide the West or take advantage of divisions among Western allies and partners, he has failed. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Russian invasion: Only five countries voted against, while China and India abstained. The US and European Union, together with Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom, have applied the toughest punitive measures and sanctions on Russia on top of those imposed on Moscow after it annexed Crimea in 2014. Putin has united the West and its allies, even though most of the world has not joined the sanctions program. 

To be sure, the interdictions have increased the cost of war. Putin was likely surprised by the unity of the West’s actions and the severity of the punishments. The geopolitical message is loud and clear to whoever might intend to invade another territory: Isolation can be swift and harsh.

The US and NATO have resisted from imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would essentially neutralize Russian air power in the conflict. Such an action would go beyond the military assistance and equipment they are supplying Kyiv and could potentially drive NATO and Russia into a de facto hot war. 

Europe’s cohesion has been a welcome surprise, especially considering the EU convention of requiring unanimity when deciding policy. In 2014, in the wake of Russia’s Crimea grab, EU member states were divided, given their varying dependence on Russian energy and raw materials. This time, EU members have reacted rapidly, robustly and effectively, even though the sanctions will have boomerang impact on their economies, causing real pain for citizens. In this case, asserting the values of peace and security superseded the costs and hardships caused by the war. Taboos have been broken – perhaps most glaring is the decision to impose heavy sanctions on Russia, while at the same time continuing to rely on the country for vital energy supplies. The approval of two one-billion-euro packages from the European Peace Facility for military equipment and weapons for Ukraine was another unexpected move. 

European countries have also overcome past national opposition to opening up their borders to refugees. Instead, countries to varying numbers have welcomed Ukrainian refugees, offering them not just shelter but residency rights, access to the labor market and housing, medical assistance and education for their children, even as the host countries are still reeling after the public-health and economic crises of the pandemic. 

Europe has finally had to face its own weaknesses in defense and energy policies. Since 1991, European countries had been reducing general defense spending but have been reversing course. Germany has decided to raise its military budget to 2 percent of GDP, with other countries following. EU members are now taking steps to reduce their dependence on Russian gas, oil and coal imports, diversifying energy sources. Political integration is deepening, and the EU is implementing its NextGeneration EU recovery plan in earnest. 

Could they go further? Without doubt. There are still measures to be taken that could help to end the war, including a total ban of petrol imports from Russia. A hardheaded Putin may yet oblige. 

Holding together: US President Joe Biden meets with allies and partners to discuss Russia's war in Ukraine, April 19 (Credit: @POTUS on Twitter/The White House)

Holding together: US President Joe Biden meets with allies and partners to discuss Russia's war in Ukraine, April 19 (Credit: @POTUS on Twitter/The White House)

And what about China? Chinese leader Xi Jinping is trying to maintain an impossible balance between the “limitless friendship” declared to Putin on February 4 and Beijing’s eternal commitment to the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. China could be said to be acting selfishly because it may have means and influence to get Russia to stop the war, a move that it would be in the Chinese interest because the Russian intention to transform the international relations system collides with China’s own ambitions and global development plans. China does have influence over Russia, a strategic partner that even before it invaded Ukraine was becoming weaker economy with a damaged and deteriorating international reputation. It will be difficult if not impossible for Xi to find the right equilibrium. Europe can help him do so.

Putin’s plunder and blunder

Putin’s war is a mere continuation of an ultranationalist and ethnic policy. Consequently, the appeasement proffered by various world leaders is astonishing. History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister on the eve of World War II, defined Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland as a “quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing.” Winston Churchill condemned his predecessor: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” Even Putin wrote an essay in 2020 about “the Munich Betrayal”, a “trigger” of the Second World War. 

The lesson is that detachment and apathy if not neutrality do not work. In a chips-are-down moment such as this, everyone has a responsibility to act. Putin’s playing the nuclear card has meant that for the first time a nuclear power has threatened to use its arsenal. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every power had cast its nuclear capabilities as weapons for deterrence. 

All the powers have to state their positions unequivocally. Trying to understand or even acknowledge Putin’s claims leads to justification of war when the unambiguous principle should be that all means must be exhausted for peace. China has decided that it can finesse its position but the ambiguity could isolate it more, given that is already in contention with democracies that are going to be more united than before the war. Beijing has the capacity to convince Putin to reverse course. This is an opportunity to lead as a moral world power. Complicity with Russia will only do more reputational damage. 

Ukraine has declared that it will certainly not join NATO so it has already indicated the path forward: its own “Finlandization”. President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested that Ukraine join the EU and has submitted its initial application materials. Will the Kremlin be satisfied?

It is now up to one man. Putin suffers from "lost empire syndrome”, using his war in Ukraine as a weapon to fight the West, denying the outcome of the Cold War and the logical consequences of the failure of the Soviet Union. Putin is among those national populists around the world whose excesses, whether in policy or prose, particular during the pandemic, have been leading to their own diminishment, however gradual – Trump, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”) of Mexico, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

The disruptive war in Ukraine will most likely disrupt Russia. According to Spanish legend, Cid Campeador, the knight known as “El Cid”, won his last battle while he was already dead, having been mounted on a horse by his troops to instill fear in his enemies, who fled at the sight of him. Putin will be able to win this war on the battlefield and he may justify his actions to his people by taking control of certain Ukrainian territories. 

But when he finally stops with his unjustifiable war, he will realize that he has ruined his own country and left it with a shattered, less competitive economy, close to if not already defaulting on its debt, beholden to China, and even more polarized than before. Russia’s internal politics will be less docile and the risk of a coup d'état will keep him awake. As with his predecessors, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin of the 20th century, Putin will go down in history as the autocrat of this era who caused so much unnecessary carnage and tragedy. For this, he can never be understood or justified.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Sebastián Contín Trillo-Figueroa

Sebastián Contín Trillo-Figueroa

2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong

Sebastián Contín Trillo-Figueroa is a 2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow. He is a lecturer and lawyer, specializing in European law and institutions. Born in Spain, he began his professional career in the private sector, moving into public service in 2007, when he was elected to political office. During his 13 years as a city and regional politician, he was known for fighting against corruption, denouncing the misuse of public funds, and promoting the need for good governance and higher ethical standards in politics. Contín earned his law degree in Spain (completing his final year in Italy) and started doctoral studies, obtaining a diploma of advanced studies in commercial law. He holds a master’s degree in European law (LLM) from the College of Europe in Belgium. He participated in the IESE Business School’s leadership program for public management. He is fluent in Spanish, English, French and Italian.

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