Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

By , associate professor of Scandinavian history and politics at University College London.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov, Russian chief of the Russian Ground Forces, salutes to soldiers as he is driven along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Much of the West’s commentary on Russia’s war against Ukraine has fallen victim to critical blind spots or inherent biases—an approach often claimed as “realism” but which has little to do with academic international relations theories. As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion continues, it’s time to consider what a better approach to punditry on Russia’s war against Ukraine would look like.

To be sure, I am not a neutral observer—in fact, I couldn’t possibly be more pro-Ukraine. My view is shaped by being an Eastern European academic working at an elite Western university. But as a researcher who specializes in how people make sense of ongoing conflicts, I believe pointing out some of these biases and blind spots can help us make better sense of the war.

The biggest blind spot of all is the Ukrainians themselves. More than two months into the invasion, it is striking how little agency Ukrainians are habitually given in analyzing unfolding events. The realist (in reality, colonialist) understanding of Ukraine as a passive periphery, the fate of which must be inevitably decided by Russia and the West, has led to underestimations of the role of the Ukrainian armed forces, civil society, national and local governments, and, most of all, Ukraine’s strong will to resist.

Much of the West’s commentary on Russia’s war against Ukraine has fallen victim to critical blind spots or inherent biases—an approach often claimed as “realism” but which has little to do with academic international relations theories. As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion continues, it’s time to consider what a better approach to punditry on Russia’s war against Ukraine would look like.

To be sure, I am not a neutral observer—in fact, I couldn’t possibly be more pro-Ukraine. My view is shaped by being an Eastern European academic working at an elite Western university. But as a researcher who specializes in how people make sense of ongoing conflicts, I believe pointing out some of these biases and blind spots can help us make better sense of the war.

The biggest blind spot of all is the Ukrainians themselves. More than two months into the invasion, it is striking how little agency Ukrainians are habitually given in analyzing unfolding events. The realist (in reality, colonialist) understanding of Ukraine as a passive periphery, the fate of which must be inevitably decided by Russia and the West, has led to underestimations of the role of the Ukrainian armed forces, civil society, national and local governments, and, most of all, Ukraine’s strong will to resist.

Russian aggression is not impersonal, Western assistance is not automatic, and T-72 Russian battle tanks don’t pop off their turrets by accident. This is Ukraine’s new war of independence, a nation-shaping conflict that will define the country’s sense of identity for generations, and Ukrainians have the central role in it.

The best way to mitigate for this is to follow and read Ukrainian journalists, politicians, academics, and others commenting on the war as well as amplify their voices and contributions. Don’t assume that Ukrainians are untrustworthy because they must be biased or are producing and repeating their own forms of propaganda because they are one of the parties to the conflict.

In fact, Ukrainians often know what is going on best exactly because they are there on the ground in the thick of it. Ukrainian reporters, analysts, and commentators have constantly been more accurate and insightful than almost any Western ones, both in 2014 with Russia’s invasion of Crimea and now. The early casualty numbers that were widely treated as Ukrainian propaganda have in fact been largely borne out. So too have early reports of the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva, denied by Russia, proved to be accurate.

Ukrainians aren’t passive victims of Putin’s aggression who are looking for Western pity and handouts. They are, in fact, looking for recognition that they share a common cause with the West and that the West needs to do its part, not simply free ride on Ukrainian efforts (and, effectively, their lives).

Then there’s the blind spots around Russia itself. Putin’s Russia believes itself to be a major economic and military power, feared and respected around the globe. It is also obsessed with its glorious history, especially with the Great Patriotic War, as it calls World War II, and is convinced that it can somehow never be defeated on the battlefield. These ideas get regularly repeated by Western commentators, especially on the far left. Some more egregious examples include Greek politician Yanis Varoufakis claiming that “Ukraine cannot win this war” and that the West has a “moral duty to give Putin a way out” as well as American political activist Noam Chomsky pointing out that former U.S. President Donald Trump was the “one Western statesman” with a “sensible” plan to limit NATO expansion and establish a security accommodation with Russia.

But this is all Russian propaganda, and you should approach it as such.

Actual data about Russia’s economy is available, and anyone can look it up. Anyone can read the history of World War II, including the story of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which allied the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany and divided up Eastern Europe between the two alliance partners. Throughout its history, Russia has been defeated in multiple wars, from the Crimean War and Russo-Japanese War to the Soviet-Afghan War and the First Chechen War, and there is nothing to make its defeat unthinkable in the current one.

But propaganda works in subtle ways, and Russian talking points are often repeated even by people who are pro-Ukraine and against the war. When you come across claims like “Russia will win in the end,” “this war will drag on for years,” “China will come to Russia’s help,” or “Russia will use weapons X and Y,” approach them critically. The overestimation of Russia’s military and economic strength (and underestimation of Ukraine’s) is a major reason why the West was hesitant before the invasion and did not provide Ukraine with the weapons that would have helped save many lives. Persistently overestimating Russia’s capabilities continues even after its failings have been brutally exposed on the battlefield.

Then there’s fearmongering over Russia’s nuclear weapons and the idea that they could be used at any moment. Yes, people claim Russia will use maybe not its full nuclear barrage but some form of a “tactical nuclear weapon” in the battlefield. The argument, implicit or explicit, is that Putin is a madman and will press the red button regardless of the danger of Western retaliation! As put by lawyer and military historian John Storey: “I fear [Putin] will use nuclear weapons, but not against the West. If Russia’s conventional forces continue to struggle in Ukraine, the use of tactical nuclear weapons in that country seems more plausible.”

This sort of talk comes close to scaremongering. Firstly, there are no tactical nuclear weapons in this war because there are no suitable tactical targets like tank columns or aircraft carriers that Russia might conceivably want to attack in this way. As Geneva-based Russian nuclear forces analyst Pavel Podvig pointed out, “the only way nuclear weapons could be used in this war is to kill a lot of people or to show resolve to do so,” such as in the same way they were used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. This will constitute strategic use and elicit a Western response in kind. Secondly, if Putin is a madman, then his madness is oddly rational. It only kicks in under certain circumstances. In fact, his behavior and pronouncements—including the absence of any further escalatory rhetoric in his Victory Day speech—strongly suggests that Putin is not a madman but an aging dictator, very afraid of COVID-19, who dearly cares about the survival of his regime and himself. Whatever danger a military defeat in Ukraine would entail for Putin, this danger would be easier to weather than a Western nuclear response.

Finally, there’s the question of the role of the collective West: the international pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian coalition of Western actions that are constantly being portrayed as risking the line of peace with Russia or as provocative. NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe—almost two decades ago and very much part of the initiative of Eastern European states themselves—is constantly being called out for having provoked Russia’s invasion, and the decisions to supply Ukraine with heavy weapons were in most cases taken only after much prevarication.

But the West isn’t a neutral party here—and for good reason. Russia has waged a criminal war of aggression, and the West has a clear interest in defeating it. It also abides by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which very clearly asserts “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

Western states are not neutral. Instead, the West is, at least for the time being, properly characterized as a nonbelligerent. This term was in use during World War II to designate countries that did not participate in the fighting but openly supported and favored one of the belligerent sides. The United States before Pearl Harbor was probably the best example of nonbelligerency; it had already imposed an oil embargo on Japan for its aggression in China and was vigorously supporting the United Kingdom and Soviet war effort. As the U.S. case demonstrates, a nonbelligerent can turn into a belligerent when circumstances demand it.

Everyone needs to exercise their critical and moral faculties when thinking and talking about Russia’s war against Ukraine—including about claims like the ones I’ve made in this article. Exercise source criticism, and trust the voices that have made accurate predictions in the past. But most of all, listen to the people affected by and fighting against this invasion: Ukrainians.

Mart Kuldkepp is associate professor of Scandinavian history and politics at University College London.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.