Delusions about Moscow’s “little brother” are common and dangerous.
As Russian forces mass on the border with Ukraine, U.S. analysts and politicians are arguing about what exactly Moscow’s intentions are. When the U.S. secretary of defense talks about “the Soviet Union” potentially invading “the Ukraine,” the mistakes are excusable, but the optics betray a general sense of confusion.
In one crucial way, the Russian approach is equally confused—and dangerously so. Arguments against the possibility of invasion argue that it simply wouldn’t be rational, that Russian President Vladimir Putin must be cognizant of the dangers of a long and bloody war, one in which the West might well get involved.
Yet many in Russia believe the war would be swift and easy—because the Ukrainians themselves would join them. For years now, Russian state propaganda has churned out stories of how nightmarish the lives of Ukrainians are. Ukrainians—who recently elected a Jewish president—are portrayed as having their lives controlled by Nazis, agents of George Soros (a regular target of anti-Semitism), and other evil-doers. These stories are further buffeted by long-standing Russian stereotypes of Ukrainians as their little brothers who are living in an “artificial state”—with the nation portrayed as a byproduct of Soviet bureaucracy, not an organic nation like Russia itself. Ukrainians are Russia’s “fraternal brothers” and the two countries are “one people.”
When the evil Ukrainian elite—often imagined as Jewish, or as Jewish-Nazi, or some other bizarre combination—is driven away, the thinking goes, the ordinary Ukrainian, with his stately mustache, a black-browed Ukrainian beauty at his side, will fall to his knees before his Russian “liberators” and weep tears of happiness. This is an exaggeration—but not by much.
Talk to any typical, conservative Russian and you’ll hear all about how “Ukrainians have lost their way,” how “they don’t really have their own culture and language,” and, in many creepy instances, how Ukrainian women are hot, promiscuous, and ripe for the taking. A certain Russian official told me as much when he slid into my DMs in 2014, just as the Russians were brutalizing Ukrainians in Ilovaisk while fervently denying they were even there.
“We will be greeted as liberators” is a dangerous myth, but it is also an attractive one. Every society wants to feel good about itself. In reality, of course, Ukrainians do not want to be ruled by Russia, and Russian delusions that the two countries are the same have little currency in Kyiv. The Holodomor, when millions of Ukrainians were starved to death, is bitterly remembered as a crime of Russian imperialism in Ukraine even as it is ignored or portrayed as a purely Soviet crime in Russia. The invasion of Crimea and Donbass have only hardened Ukrainian resolve, with 64 percent of the public now wanting accession to NATO—far up from previous numbers.
Russians sustain the idea that Ukrainian resistance is only fueled by foreign forces by creating their own myths of victimization. In these myths, Russia, in classic fascist fashion, is portrayed simultaneously as a victim of powerful countries such as the United States and as a mighty state that will inevitably triumph over a smaller Ukraine. These myths are circulating with renewed ferocity.
Already, Russia is acting threatened. When a political decision is made, Russian propaganda will do its best to portray Moscow as the aggrieved side, forced to invade against its best wishes. Social media will be flooded with reports of “Ukrainian aggression” and perhaps even “Ukrainian atrocities.” Russians will swallow the bait, but some foreigners will too.
It might be tempting to think that these myths are just for ordinary Russians, and that the leadership is more rational. But Putin has his own set of grudges. While he obviously sees Ukraine as an appendage to modern Russia, unfairly cut off due to evil foreign influence, the country is also a staging place for his many specific grievances with NATO and the United States in particular.
After seven years of a bloody war in parts of the Ukrainian east, a now-older Putin clearly sees himself as running out of time to punish his neighbor for its NATO aspirations. Barack Obama left office, Donald Trump occupied it for a while, now Joe Biden is U.S. president—but Putin has been in charge this whole time, and his desire for a Russian sphere of influence has not evolved; it has calcified.
The crisis in Belarus, now set to be virtually absorbed into Russia again, has heightened Putin’s belief that this is Moscow’s moment. Yes, there will be bloodshed and sanctions, but they will not affect Putin or his inner circle directly. Others will bear the burden, which is perfectly fine in a top-down, “managed democracy” like Russia. In the oddly prescient words of Lord Maximus Farquaad—another comically short, aggrieved autocrat—“Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”
I am not a neutral observer of events in Ukraine. I was born in Kyiv. Many of my loved ones still live in that city, the birthplace of the great medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus.
My beloved father’s grave is in Ukraine. My father fought with the Soviets in Afghanistan, and today is buried next to his great-grandfather, a Red Army officer who sustained heavy wounds while fighting Nazis. I come from generations of men who faithfully served the Soviet empire. Today, though, people like me just want to raise our families, without having to worry about the revanchist fantasies of an aggressive eastern neighbor.
My mind may be clouded by sadness and fear, but I am fairly confident what will happen should the worst-case scenario of a full-scale invasion come true: Ukrainians will fight desperately. Many, many people will die, civilians among them. And if we think we have a refugee crisis now, we haven’t seen anything yet.
It is not too late to avert what feels like an almost inevitable tragedy. But it will require Washington to signal the catastrophic consequences of invasion strongly and precisely to Moscow—not express vague “concerns” when an independent European nation is under threat.