Russia invaded Ukraine out of deep-seated envy of Ukraine’s success and a need to reestablish Russian Orthodoxy—it was not over land, energy, or NATO

Russia did not invade Ukraine for energy, opposition to NATO membership, or control of the Black Sea.  It invaded because Ukraine was doing too well for Russia’s own good—the Prigozhin affair will only strengthen Russian resolve. Peace talks that try to focus on some deal over land, energy, or NATO membership will completely miss the mark.  The only solution is for the US and EU to massively step-up military assistance and help Ukraine expel Russia from all parts of Ukraine.

There is a sad Russian saying I learned while living in the Soviet Union and Russia for more than a decade. “In America, the definition of a poor man is one who looks at a rich man and says, ‘I will work as hard as I can so one day I am as rich as him.’ In Russia, a poor man looks at a rich man and says, ‘I will work as hard as I can so one day he is as poor as I am.’”

This, I am afraid, is the primary reason for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and will characterize Russia’s actions to the bitter end of the conflict. There are other explanations for Russia’s war on Ukraine—one is Russia’s desire to control most Ukraine’s energy sources, and to again control the Black Sea and Sea of Azov ports, so it can wrap Ukraine’s valuable energy base into its own supply chain (See David Knight Legg “Putin’s Ukraine Is About Energy and Natural Resources.” WSJ April 5, 2022).

While this is interesting, it is not the deep visceral reason for Russia’s envy and anger. Consider that Russia has, for over a century, controlled energy sources that have made it an energy giant. In 1980, it became the largest producer of oil in the world and the second largest exporter. It became the largest supplier of natural gas to Europe in the 1990’s and has always maintained a focus on energy dominance. Yet despite this, and despite the accumulation of more supplies and more markets, Russia has continued to lag at an increasing pace the rest of the developed world. No matter how much more energy supply Russia accumulates, it falls subject to the resource curse. And it never seems to learn.

Another less but still compelling reason for the invasion is John Mearsheimer’s “On Why the West is Principally Responsible for the Ukraine Crisis” (The Economist March 18, 2022). He claims the Bucharest Conference in 2008, when G.W. Bush opened the real possibility of Ukraine NATO membership, started the war. Putin had been clear on his opposition to these statements of NATO inclusion as far back as 2001. Others disagree with this and hotly contest it. All of them in my view are incorrect.

Let us say Ukraine is set free of Russia by a peace agreement: Russia keeps the lands east of the Dnieper, Crimea, and the other ports at Mariupol, while Ukraine gets its nation back in reduced territory, and is forced to commit to no NATO membership and limited EU membership access over 20 years. But it is an independent, albeit reduced, territory where it can pursue its own course. Without the reliance on its energy base, Ukraine will become better off, not worse. It will double down on its main resource—human capital and innovation. It will move more into services and IT. This will cause its GDP to rise rapidly, especially its services portion of net exports and productivity enhancements in privatizing state-owned enterprises. If Ukraine (and it is a big “if”) can negotiate a settlement that has the “down-side” of losing territory that has lots of energy but negotiates a neutral Finlandization type status—it can flourish. And herein lies the rub.

Russia did not invade to take the energy rich resources of eastern Ukraine. The Russians no doubt see it as a benefit of their war; but they invaded because Ukraine—that “indelible part of the Russia soul”— was becoming wealthy, freer, and its people stronger after the Orange Revolution. From 2016 to 2020 Ukraine had an almost 14% increase in GDP per capita—even after its loss of Crimea, Russia had a per capita GDP growth of barely 4.6% in the same period. Zelensky magnified that substantially by being a new young charismatic Ukrainian president. Also consider that Ukraine in the energy sector became independent of Russia and threw off Russian influence. Until 2014, most of the energy consumed in Ukraine came from Russia. Since 2020, Ukraine has been 100% independent of Russian imported energy. Nearly all the energy consumed in Ukraine is produced domestically. This is an amazing turnaround. Putin was more concerned with taking away Ukraine’s energy independence than amassing more energy reserves.

More remarkable was Ukraine’s assault on Russian corruption. Ukraine’s National Oil & Gas Enterprise (Naftogaz) was the largest recipient of government subsidies in Ukraine in 2014. Since reducing the corruptive influences of Russian and domestic oligarchs, Naftogaz has transformed into a profitable business and is the largest taxpayer in the country, receiving no government subsidies. Naftogaz even won a $3 billion settlement against Gazprom in the Stockholm arbitration courts in 2019, reflective of Gazprom’s predatory business practices and an ugly embarrassment for Russia.

To Putin and the apparatchiks who control Russia it is fine for Estonia and Latvia, even Kazakhstan, to become wealthier at a faster pace than Russians (Russians never considered them Slavs). But for Ukraine to outpace Russia and Russians was intolerable. Doing so under a system of government that was not controlled by Russian leaders in Moscow was an “existential” threat to Russian leadership. Putin had an obligation as a Russian leader to make the rich man as poor as the rest of Russia. His intention was to break Ukraine, not take its energy or kill its NATO/EU chances—these are mere spoils of the invasion. Ukraine, as part of greater Russia and as part of Russia’s “destiny” could not be doing better than Russia or it would be disastrous to Putin’s own rule. Sadly then, if Ukraine is offered a chance to flourish even without its energy rich East or NATO membership in the distant future—and it will flourish—Russia and its leaders will always work to bring it down, their own political stability depends on it.

Which brings me to the Prigozhin affair this last summer.  I look with dismay on those who see the Prigozhin revolt as a weakness in Russian resolve, or a sign of imminent collapse of Russian forces in Ukraine.  The exact opposite has occurred as we can see over the Autumn months. Russia has been through violent upheaval in its military high command before nearly every major military challenge it has faced—and always emerged stronger.  The most significant was the military command reshuffle under Stalin prior to the German invasion in 1941.  Stalin’s 1937 purge of the military had decapitated the Red Army. The Red Army’s commander in chief, Marshal Tukhachevsky, was arrested, and 34,000 officers were purged, many of whom were shot or died in prison. Then came the near failure of the Soviet-Finnish war where Stalin’s forces were humiliated by a much smaller Finish force.  So weak and depleted had the high command become under the Stalin purges that foreign observers predicted the rapid fall of the Soviet Union with the Nazi advances in the first year of the war.  But Russia, under such duress regrouped.  Stalin appointed Marshal Zhukov as supreme commander and aligned a completely new offensive, but more importantly, defensive strategy—despite military rank depletion of leadership in a brutal purge.

Thus, it is simply ahistorical to draw conclusions of weakness from Russian military high command turmoil.  What I predict will happen is Putin and the Russian commanders will now regroup and realize they cannot rely on mercenary forces, and those who are not fighting for a Russian cause.  He will revive with fervor the idea that Ukraine despite its current government is an indelible part of the Russian soul, the seat of Russian Orthodoxy, the land blessed by the Apostle Saint Andrew, the baptismal seat of Prince Vladimir himself, the land of Catherine the Great.  Thus, he will re-double Russian military efforts.  Afterall, it is not about energy, NATO, Black Sea Ports, or Crimea.  It is about the very survival of Russia and the seat of Orthodoxy,and in more practical terms: its oligarchic structure.  The Prigozhin affair will trigger a familiar response of military resolve that will increase, not decrease Russian efforts in Ukraine.

All of this should inform how peace talks will eventually unfold.  The US should not be looking for some realpolitik solution to this war via a peace deal.  It will not end with a peace settlement over land, promises of energy security, Ukraine neutrality, or some complicated NATO membership deal. Trump claiming, he can “end the war in 24 hours” is complete folly—he is appealing to the false concepts of land for peace—he is wrong. Biden rearming Ukraine in a stop-start weapons deployment is similarly misinformed and unhelpful—he needs to dig deep and remember why we fought the Cold War to begin with.  Congressional Republicans especially in the House who see Ukraine as a corrupt country whose victory means nothing in the face of Russian aggression are similarly incorrect and have understood this battle completely out of historical context—each of these narratives/solutions only serve Russia’s long-term goals of attrition, fatigue, and victory.

Russia may engage in all false narratives of land for peace, energy bartering, and big-power NATO timelines, but they will not mean what they say and will view none of them as central to conflict resolution. Their only goal is the complete subjugation of Ukraine. Anyone in the US who believes the Prigozhin revolt has revealed a crack or weakness in Putin’s war effort are wrong—if anything it is a warning sign that Russian will redouble its efforts. Anyone who thinks we can offer up border or energy deals is wrong. Instead, the US (and EU) must help Ukraine defeat Russia entirely, expelling them from the territory of Ukraine—including Crimea.  This will only happen if the US (and the EU) massively increase its war support to Ukraine—cut through export controls, pentagon red-tape, and political niceties. Further, the EU must start to realize that its economic might and donor contributions are but half the necessary effort.  Ukraine to the EU must be an awakening of their military might—which can be considerable—if they realize they are more than a donor or investment engine in Ukraine’s reconstruction.  Europe needs to join America in a Cold War military revival to stop Russia. The entire nation of Russia—especially after the Prigozhin affair—is focused not on petty energy or territorial gains in Ukraine—rather they are focused on fighting for the very soul of Russia and we in the West must realize that it is envy that drives their aggression.