Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine two months ago, Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, have sought to exclusively blame Vladimir Putin while absolving the Russian people. Such claims may be politically convenient, but they are also dangerously misleading. Far from dragging his reluctant compatriots into war, Putin is himself a symptom of the unapologetic imperialist outlook that shapes modern Russia’s relationship with the outside world and fuels the country’s insatiable appetite for external aggression.
An understanding of Russia’s imperial instincts is essential for anyone seeking to make sense of the seemingly senseless war crimes currently taking place in Ukraine. After all, it was not Putin who committed mass rape, torture and murder in the towns and villages of Ukraine. Putin did not fly the jets or fire the artillery that reduced entire Ukrainian cities to rubble. Likewise, he did not personally produce the endless stream of Russian propaganda films, TV shows, bogus news bulletins and social media posts dehumanizing Ukrainians and demonizing the West. These crimes were only possible because of the millions of Russians who voluntarily participated in the process or offered their enthusiastic support for many years.
While Western politicians and commentators continue to promote the comforting idea that Russians are themselves victims of Putin’s regime, virtually all available evidence points to strong Russian public support for the war in Ukraine. A recent survey by Russia’s only independent polling institute, the Levada Center, found that 81% of Russians support the invasion of Ukraine and only 14% oppose it. Another recent poll by the Levada Center identified a 12% increase in Vladimir Putin’s approval rating since the start of the war. These results have been reflected in many other polls and surveys.
Meanwhile, the anti-war movement inside Russia remains disappointing. There were a few public demonstrations in major Russian cities, but these rallies failed to attract significant numbers and were easily contained by the authorities. Rather than engaging in anti-war activism, most Russians who claim to oppose the regime have either remained silent or chosen exile and voluntarily left the country.
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Positive Russian attitudes toward the war are rooted in the longstanding perception of Ukraine as part of Russia’s imperial heartland. Despite the passage of three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians have never fully accepted the idea of an independent Ukraine and continue to view the country as an indivisible part of the historic Russia that was artificially separated from the homeland.
Putin did not invent such feelings, but he was very good at exploiting them. In his many speeches and essays on the Ukraine issue, he consistently appealed to Russia’s imperial aspirations while playing on widespread resentment at the country’s post-Soviet humiliations and loss of superpower status. When Putin laments the fall of the USSR as the “disappearance of historic Russia”, ordinary Russians understand that it is mainly Ukraine that he is thinking about.
The Russian leader’s refusal to recognize Ukrainian statehood is not just a rejection of the post-1991 settlement. It is entirely in line with traditional Russian thinking and echoes key tenets of Tsarist imperial doctrine dating back many centuries. Putin regularly denies Ukraine’s right to exist and has frequently accused modern Ukraine of occupying historically Russian lands while dismissing Ukraine’s entire centuries-old struggle for the state as a Western ploy to destabilize the Russia. On the eve of the invasion, he called Ukraine “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space”.
Putin is particularly fond of declaring that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” This insistence that Ukrainians and Russians are part of the same whole has long been a central theme of Russian imperial propaganda towards Ukraine and provides the ideological basis for the current war. By positioning Ukraine as legitimately Russian, it reframes the unprovoked invasion of a peaceful neighbor as a justified response to a grave historical injustice.
In recent months, the Russian leader has gone even further. He called modern Ukraine “anti-Russian” which can no longer be tolerated while claiming the country has been taken over by the West. This resonates deeply with the Russian public, which has traditionally associated any manifestation of the Ukrainian state with betrayal and extremism.
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We are currently witnessing the criminal consequences of these imperial delusions. Russian soldiers who were encouraged to dismiss Ukrainians as traitors and view Ukraine itself as an anti-Russian invention are now engaging in war crimes that are entirely in line with the genocidal tone adopted by Putin and other Kremlin officials. As Voltaire once warned, “Those who can make you believe nonsense can make you commit atrocities.”
On the home front, the Kremlin-controlled mainstream media openly discuss the need to destroy Ukraine. For example, an article published by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on April 3 made it clear that Putin’s talk of “denazification” is in fact code for the “desukrainization” of Ukraine. This chilling text laid out a detailed plan for the elimination of the Ukrainian nation and has been called a “genocide manual” by Yale historian Timothy Snyder.
If Russian imperialism is not confronted and defeated in Ukraine, other countries will soon face similar threats. While Ukraine seems to be a particular obsession for Putin and the Russian general public, the list of other potential victims is long. The Baltic states and Moldova are among the most likely to become targets of Russian imperial aggression, while the nations of Central Asia are clearly under threat. It should also be noted that Poland and Finland were once part of the Russian Empire that Putin aspires to resurrect.
For nearly three decades, Western leaders have approached successive acts of Russian imperial aggression as isolated incidents and sought to downplay their significance while focusing on the economic benefits of continuing to do business with Moscow. This only served to encourage the Kremlin. The Chechen wars of the early post-Soviet years were followed by the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the capture of Crimea in 2014. The current war is the latest milestone in this grim streak, but it won’t be the last. . The resurgence of Russian imperialism now clearly poses the greatest challenge to global security. The fight against this threat must be the top priority of the international community.
Volodymyr Vakhitov is a researcher at the Kyiv School of Economics. Natalia Zaika is a researcher at the Kyiv School of Economics.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
the Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.