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Did the U.S. push Putin into a corner, forcing him to invade Ukraine?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

News of Russian military action came in a video address from Russian President Vladimir Putin early Thursday. And it came as the U.N. Security Council was once again holding an emergency meeting. And here's what the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.N., Sergiy Kyslytsya, said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGIY KYSLYTSYA: It's too late, my dear colleagues, to speak about de-escalation - too late. The Russian president declared the war on the record.

MARTINEZ: Charles Maynes is in the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia near the Ukrainian border, and he joins us now. Charles, so Vladimir Putin announced the attack on Ukraine in a national address. Tell us more about what he said.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, so he went on television just before 6 a.m. here local time. He said, essentially, what the West had been predicting for weeks, that a Russian military campaign against Ukraine had begun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin is saying he ordered a special military operation to protect the people in the Donbas, who he argued were being subjected to genocide by the government in Kyiv. And he went on to say that the additional goal of the mission was demilitarization and eventual denazification of Ukraine. Now, Putin's reference to Nazis is part of a wider argument he's made in the past that Ukraine's 2014 revolution, in which protesters overthrew a Moscow-backed government in favor of a pro-European vision for the country, that that instead brought a fascist junta to power intent on cleansing Ukraine of its Russian-speaking population.

Now, you know, there's really no evidence of that. But Putin called on Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their weapons voluntarily and return home rather than fight to protect fascists in the government. And that's in Putin's words. And he would claim that Russia had no intention of occupying the country. But Putin's language certainly suggests that he has designs on regime change in Kyiv. And I should add that he also warned outside countries from getting involved. He's suggesting that they would face a ferocious Russian response if they did.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned his call for denazification. Can you explore more on how he rationalized this military action?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, he seemed to go out of his way to justify the legal basis for this. He said Russia was coming to the defense of these Donbas statelets that the Kremlin formally recognized earlier this week, and to which Moscow has promised security guarantees. And again, in all this talk of fascists, you know, Putin is drawing comparisons between Nazi Germany's invasion of the USSR in World War II and NATO's expansion to Russia's borders. You know, he railed at NATO's triumphalism after the Cold War. He accused the U.S. of trying to destroy Russia from within. And he said it was Ukraine's ambitions now to join the NATO alliance that had brought the threat to Russia's doorstep.

MARTINEZ: All right. So clearly, we're in the early hours of this military action, and then there's the fog of war and propaganda. But, Charles, what are you hearing about the Russian side on the military campaign so far?

MAYNES: Yeah, we heard from Russia's Defense Ministry in a statement. They claim to have taken out Ukraine's key military infrastructure, including air defense capabilities, and they said they targeted military airfields with precision airstrikes. And it's - they've also said that they're not targeting Ukraine's civilian population, although there are certainly reports to the contrary. You know, also online footage seems to show Russian ground forces crossing into Ukraine from all directions, the north from Belarus and the south and annexed Crimea and also in the east closer to where I am. So I think put it another way, this is basically the scenario the U.S. predicted, a Russian invasion force massed around Ukraine in order to move in. And U.S. warnings that Russia always dismissed as hysteria have all proven true.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes. Charles, thanks.

MAYNES: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: All right, to understand more about Putin's decision-making, we've called an expert on the Russian president. Nina Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School in New York. Professor, first off, what was your reaction to the news this morning?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, thank you. First, it was a shock and also shock because I was, unfortunately, the one who was saying that the Biden administration is a bit hysterical about Putin's intentions. So that proved me wrong tremendously. So I'm quite embarrassed by that. But on the other hand, I'm thinking that - you know, what I was thinking, that indeed sort of American loud information about the possible invasion must have pushed Putin over the top. Because he must have felt that being so kind of insulted on air continuously that he has this horrible intentions in mind, he had to do something, otherwise he would look like a weakling. So the next step...

MARTINEZ: So you think he was pushed to this is what you're saying.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, pushed to this because it was - the way it was presented and the way it appeared, there would be - there was an information war, so he's being accused of military invasion and he was not responding and his military people were saying, well, we're being insulted by the West. Look at this. They're maligning our reputation, so we have to show strength, otherwise we look like weaklings. So then then...

MARTINEZ: Is it almost one of those things, Nina, where it's like, if you're accusing me of this, why don't I just go ahead and do it?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Exactly. If you are accusing me of this - right. If you're basically telling me - don't tell me what I can't or cannot do. So then he recognizes Donetsk and Luhansk, and I thought that that would be as - it can be called a proportional response. Just recognize and say, you know what? Now we have to deal with this reality.

But clearly, that was entirely wrong because that actually suggested that there's some rationale and some political thinking on Putin's mind. But it does seem that what is happening now is that he is almost living that Pan-Slavic dream that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, his former friend and mentor, suggested, that all three Slavic countries - Belarus, Russia and Ukraine - should be united as one land. And it seems to be...

MARTINEZ: And I want to ask you about that.

KHRUSHCHEVA: ...That that's how Putin wants to be in history.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, and that's exactly what I was going to ask you about because in that orchestrated TV appearance on Monday, Putin gave his version of Russian history going back to Lenin, Stalin and then mentioning how in 1954, your great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, gave Crimea away from Russia and gave it to Ukraine. Putin obviously annexed Crimea in 2014 and now has invaded Ukraine. So how much, Nina, do you think this is about legacy for Vladimir Putin, how future Russian leaders may look back on him someday?

KHRUSHCHEVA: I think that's exactly what it is. I mean, it is a madmen reality, and clearly just completely madman. It's like Karl Marx writes the "Kapital" as the philosophical work, and then the Russian Revolution decides that - Lenin decides that we're going to put it on Earth rather than on paper. But it is - I think he thinks that all this things that happened right now, the blood, the horror, the shame, would be forgotten and he will be left in history after 50, 100, how many years, as that uniter of the Russian land, as Solzhenitsyn, the great philosopher of Russia, predicted.

MARTINEZ: Righting perceived wrongs, so to speak. Nina Khrushcheva, author and professor of international affairs at The New School. Thank you very much, Nina, for your insights.

MARTINEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.