Deep-rooted Russian fear of the West fueled Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

PHOTO: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office [CC BY 4.0 (]

If Russia were a human being, she would have an almost pathological fear of threats against her person. As is often the case with fear, it has a core grounded in reality, but it has become completely out of proportion under President Vladimir Putin.

Few people, including me, consider these fears sufficient justification for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The West has not even posed an abstract military threat to Russia since the end of the Cold War.

There is no doubt, however, that the eastward expansion of Western influence through NATO and the European Union presents some sort of existential threat to Putin’s notion of Russia.

Russia’s relationship with the West has a checkered history. For much of its existence, Russia has feared military threats from the West – a fear that has gone hand in hand with distrust of Western norms and ideas such as liberal democracy.

Russia repelled Napoleon

Russia defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion in 1812 even though Napoleon’s forces reached Moscow. In 1814, Russian troops were in Paris, an important part of the coalition against Napoleon. Russia under Tsar Alexander I was at the height of its power and influence.

If Napoleon’s defeat brought Russia a certain military security, it did not bring psychological security to the tsars. Russian soldiers had seen some of the rest of Europe, and Russian conservatives believed they were bringing back dangerous Western ideas that could undermine the status quo in Russia.

Indeed, an uprising in 1825 against the new Tsar, Nicholas I, by the so-called Decembrists was considered to have been influenced by Western ideas that had been brought back from the war against Napoleon.

For much of the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian tsars fought to preserve a Russian way of life they believed to be threatened by foreign ideas.

Sometimes the foreign threat was military again, as in the Crimean War of 1854-1855. Before long, repressive measures against previously satisfied national minorities within the Russian empire, such as the Finns, exacerbated internal problems.

bolshevik revolution

All of this culminated in many ways with the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 – made possible by Russian weaknesses during World War I. The Russian economy was simply not ready for modern industrial warfare, and the Tsarist regime had succeeded in alienating almost every major segment of the Russian population.

The Bolsheviks, however, soon came face to face with – and became obsessed with – the foreign threat. During the Russian Civil War which lasted until 1921, the Western powers – mainly Britain, the United States, France and Canada – united against the new Bolshevik regime and sent troops into Russia.

Although the Bolsheviks were able to consolidate their power in 1921 and form the Soviet Union by the end of the following year, there remained an obsession with the threat of being surrounded by hostile foreign powers.

Soviet fears of Western military strength and other threats lasted for most of the Soviet Union’s history. The ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Nazi Germany in June 1941 took place at a time when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were meant to be allies, and German aggression deepened Russian distrust of the foreign promises.

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