Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights via a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, December 9, 2021. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

You can almost picture Vladimir Putin, perpetual president of Russia, hunched over a chessboard the shape of Europe, divining strategies many steps ahead of his fractious, ambivalent opponents. A gas pipeline here, troops and tanks there, propaganda everywhere to set the stage for the 21st century’s Great Russian Expansion.

He is a skillful player. He reads the other side, detects its weaknesses, studies its patterns of resolve and hesitation. He appears coldly rational. Yet some who watch him closely see something beyond careful calculation. That is especially so when the issue is Ukraine, now in his military’s cross hairs.

“Putin’s attachment to Ukraine often takes on emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical overtones,” write Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Alongside his tangible geopolitical concerns, they believe, he is driven by the personal compulsions of historical fabulation and ethereal bonds to a land that he denies constitutes a country. Its capital, Kyiv, was the center of the Slavic state Rus a millennium ago. Its size places it second only to Russia in Europe. Its historic kinship with Russia is exaggerated by the Russian leader to justify making it the target of a sacred claim.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 countries along the lines of its 15 republics, including Ukraine. Imagine the trauma—as if the United States fragmented into 50 independent nations, with a searing loss of dignity and global standing. Putin called the Soviet breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Rumer and Weiss see him impelled to retake the prize of Ukraine to burnish his legacy.

“No part of the Russian and Soviet empires has played a bigger and more important role in Russian strategy toward Europe than the crown jewel, Ukraine,” they note in their essay. “The country is essential to Russian security for many reasons: its size and population; its position between Russia and other major European powers; its role as the centerpiece of the imperial Russian and Soviet economies; and its deep cultural, religious, and linguistic ties to Russia, particularly Kyiv’s history as the cradle of Russian statehood.”

Washington policy makers gave no hint of understanding any of that when they moved to fill the power vacuum left by the Soviet collapse. Unlike Putin, they did not read the other side. As the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact disintegrated, its eastern European members eagerly courted membership in the opposing military alliance—the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And NATO, pledged to defend any member subjected to attack, gladly picked them up one by one, trophies of the West’s supposed victory in the Cold War.

Every one of the Soviet “satellites” joined the Atlantic alliance, plus Albania; the separate countries of the former Yugoslavia; and three former Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Two other former Soviet republics were given a promise of eventual membership that was vague—but threatening, in Russia’s view. They were Georgia and Ukraine. So a shrunken Russia found itself confronted by an adverse military alignment right on its borders.

Americans are relatively ahistorical compared with other nationalities. Despite current jockeying over how American history is taught in schools, the country is still young enough to be mostly tone-deaf to echoes from the past that resonate elsewhere. But tuning in is required to understand Russia and, therefore, Putin.

History has shaped Moscow’s fixation on a territorial obsession that might seem anachronistic in an age of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The fear of encirclement and invasion has deep roots, and the virtue of geography, of “strategic depth,” has animated policy since Napoleon’s failed invasion in the 19th century and Hitler’s in the 20th. Hence, the buffer against NATO that the Soviet Union treasured in its dominance over Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

Since NATO’s expansion eliminated that strategic depth along much of Russia’s western border, Moscow’s alarm was hardly astonishing.

Indeed, in 2008, when President George W. Bush pressed to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, the proposal was blocked by wiser allies and the U.S. intelligence community, according to Fiona Hill, a former American intelligence officer. The compromise: Promise Ukraine and Georgia eventual NATO membership but not immediately. Putin “has been trying to shut that door ever since,” Hill told The New York Times.

Doing so must look increasingly urgent to the Kremlin. Ukraine is not a member, but it is considered a partner, now receiving the fourth-largest American military aid package in the world, after Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Nevertheless, arming Ukraine is a paradox, for it is not enough to deter, only to inflame.

So Putin plays as if he does not anticipate a war with the West, even if he invades with the tens of thousands of troops he has amassed on Ukraine’s border. He is surely correct. He might also reasonably wonder whether NATO would even go to war to protect one of its small members, such as Estonia. That lack of credibility has been one price of the NATO expansion.

How Putin regards President Biden’s threat of economic sanctions is a question. Russia weathered earlier sanctions for seizing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and for sending irregulars to take eastern parts of the country. Perhaps mistakenly, Putin also tolerated the backlash from inside Ukraine as the national sentiment swerved sharply toward the West. The Russian leader knows better how to bludgeon than to woo.

His game might reach beyond Ukrainian territory. Clearly, he seeks to demonstrate that Russia is to be taken seriously, not marginalized on the world stage. He might want to exacerbate Biden’s appearance of weakness—weak in the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan, weak in his own Democratic Party, weak in his inability to guide his polarized country toward domestic policies concerning health, climate, and social welfare.

As Putin thinks beyond his next move, he is turning a defensive posture into an offense. He brandishes his military threat to cow Washington into relinquishing any design on Ukraine as a NATO asset. As he guesses at his opponent’s response, he appears willing to lose a few pawns or a bishop and rook for the ultimate gain.

Chess is an imperfect metaphor, because emotion doesn’t usually figure into the game. Pride, dignity, humiliation, and the wages of history ought not influence the hand that moves the pieces. Hubris or anxiety can lead to miscalculation.

Yet the likely outcome can be found in the language. The Russian word for chess is shachmaty, derived from the Persian shah(king) and mat (helpless). In English, we say “checkmate.” Putin appears positioned to inflict helplessness.

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David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer; Pulitzer Prize–winning author of seven books, including Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; and former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report and cohosts the podcast Two Reporters. Follow David on Twitter @DavidShipler.