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What Does Putin Really Want?

If we are not willing to put U.S. boots on Ukrainian soil, then sanctions are a start in terms of trying to punish the Kremlin and increasing the cost of continuing the war. Beyond ratcheting up sanctions and adding export controls, we can likely expect cyberattacks from the U.S. on Russia, but we must be prepared to absorb counter attacks on U.S. infrastructure in response. There will be little that we can do to stop Putin in his tracks, however. As President Biden said Thursday, “America stands up for freedom,” but Putin is hell bent on standing up for authoritarianism. Make no mistake, this is a war on Ukraine’s democracy and has nothing to do with Russian fears of it one day joining NATO. For Putin, the example of a free, independent Ukraine on Russia’s border is too inspiring a model for his own people who might eventually demand something similar at home, and that would mean his ouster. So for him, Ukrainian independence and democracy is an existential threat to his personalistic autocracy. The Kremlin’s endgame, beyond ensuring the survival of Putin’s regime, is to create a multipolar world where autocratic Russia and rising China challenge Western liberal hegemony; the goal is nothing short of the establishment of a new global order where might is right, and state sovereignty, individual rights and freedoms, and human rights are wrong.


Rajiv Sikri was a career diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service, including most recently as secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and earlier as head of the Soviet and East European Department and political counselor in Moscow.

Putin is determined to go to any lengths to protect what it considers its core national interests, just as JFK blockaded Cuba in 1962 when the Soviet Union put its missiles in Cuba. After the U.S. thought it had won the Cold War, it relegated Russia to the status of a strategically irrelevant country whose interests could be ignored. Putin has jolted the West to take a reality check. Putin doesn’t want to occupy Ukraine — that would be a bloody quagmire, much worse than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. I think he will try to achieve Russia’s military objectives as quickly as possible and then withdraw. The operation in Kazakhstan last month is probably the template he would follow. He would probably want to have a pro-Russian, or at least not a hostile, government in Kyiv, and for Ukraine to be a neutral state like Finland, Sweden or Austria. But Putin is not going to let go of Crimea, and Luhansk and Donetsk will become puppet states, independent in name but effectively part of Russia like South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They will be the bases for further encroachments on territory in Ukraine that they claim. Putin’s interest in Ukraine is limited to the eastern, Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, not Western Ukraine which has dominated Ukrainian politics since the Maidan revolution of 2014. Of course, his calculations could go wrong, and Russia could pay a heavy price, but I think that Ukraine will be destroyed and there will be heavy costs on Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world too.


Terrell Jermaine Starr, currently living in Kyiv, is the founder and host of the Black Diplomats Podcast and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

The issue with Putin is that none of what we are seeing has anything to do with geopolitics. It has nothing to do with NATO. This is about Putin subjugating Ukrainians into a sphere of Russianness. He is doing this because Ukrainians are not real people to him. That’s how he views Ukraine. Ukrainians are supposed to be subjects of the Russian state. This is about Russian supremacy. He’s acting like Southern Republican governors and lawmakers who are making up lies about Critical Race Theory and turning it into a boogeyman. This is Putin’s Critical Ukraine Theory. He’s taking Ukraine and making it a boogeyman. He’s manufacturing lies about Ukraine. He has essentially racialized Ukrainians. If he can do that, he can justify to his own people that this is a country that shouldn’t exist anyway. He hates these people. He does not want them to exist.

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