Fiona Hill and Angela Stent are experienced foreign policymakers. They published an astute analysis of Putin’s shifting reasons for invading Ukraine and of the West’s failure to explain its policy goals in Ukraine with clarity. Their article was published by the prestigious journal Foreign Policy, which usually is behind a paywall but made this article available online. I am posting the second half of the article. To read it in full, open the link.

The Kremlin is shameless in its rhetoric, and no one in Putin’s circle cares about narrative coherence. This brazenness is matched by domestic ruthlessness. Putin and his colleagues are willing to sacrifice Russian lives, not just Ukrainians’. They have no qualms about the methods Russia uses to enforce participation in the war, from murdering deserters with sledgehammers (and then releasing video footage of the killings) to assassinating recalcitrant businessmen who do not support the invasion. Putin is perfectly fine with imprisoning opposition figures while sweeping through prisons and the most impoverished Russian regions to collect people to use as cannon fodder on the frontlines.

Only 34 countries have imposed sanctions on Russia since the war started.

The domestic ruthlessness is in turn exceeded by the brutality against Ukraine. Russia has declared total war on the country and its citizens, young and old. For a year, it has deliberately shelled Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and killed people in their kitchens, bedrooms, hospitals, schools, and shops. Russian forces have tortured, raped, and pillaged in the Ukrainian regions under their control. Putin and the Kremlin still believe they can pummel the country into submission while they wait out the United States and Europe.

The Kremlin is convinced that the West will eventually grow tired of supporting Ukraine. Putin believes, for example, that there will be political changes in the West that could be advantageous for Moscow. He hopes for the return of populists to power in these states who will back away from their countries’ support for Ukraine. Putin also remains confident that he can eventually restore Russia’s prewar relationship with Europe and that Russia can and will be part of Europe’s economic, energy, political, and security structures again if he holds out long enough (as Bashar al-Assad has in the Middle East by staying in power in Syria). This is why Russia is seemingly restrained in some policy arenas. For instance, it has vested interests in working with Norway and other Arctic countries in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and the Barents Sea, where Moscow has been careful to comply with international agreements and bilateral treaties. Russia does not want its misadventure in Ukraine to embroil and spoil its entire foreign policy.

Putin is convinced that he can compartmentalize Moscow’s interests because Russia is not isolated internationally, despite the West’s best efforts. Only 34 countries have imposed sanctions on Russia since the war started. Russia still has leverage in its immediate neighborhood with many of the states that were once part of the Soviet Union, even though these countries want to keep their distance from Moscow and the war. Russia continues to build ties in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. China, along with India and other key states in the global South, have abstained on votes in favor of Ukraine at the United Nations even as their leaders have expressed occasional consternation and displeasure with Moscow’s behavior. Trade between Russia and these countries has increased—in some cases quite dramatically—since the beginning of the conflict. Similarly, 87 countries still offer Russian citizens visa-free entry, including Argentina, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela. Russian narratives about the war have gained traction in the global South, where Putin often seems to have more influence than the West has—and certainly more than Ukraine has.


One reason the West has had limited success in countering Russia’s messaging and influence operations outside Europe is that it has yet to formulate its own coherent narrative about the war—and about why the West is supporting Kyiv. American and European policymakers talk frequently of the risks of stepping over Russia’s redlines and provoking Putin, but Russia itself not only overturned the post–Cold War settlement in Europe but also stepped over the world’s post-1945 redlines when it invaded Ukraine and annexed territory, attempting to forcibly change global borders. The West failed to state this clearly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The tepid political response and the limited application of sanctions after that first Russian invasion convinced Moscow that its actions were not, in fact, a serious breach of post–World War II international norms. It made the Kremlin believe it could likely go further in taking Ukrainian territory. Western debates about the need to weaken Russia, the importance of overthrowing Putin to achieve peace, whether democracies should line up against autocracies, and whether other countries must choose sides have muddied what should be a clear message: Russia has violated the territorial integrity of an independent state that has been recognized by the entire international community, including Moscow, for more than 30 years. Russia has also violated the UN Charter and fundamental principles of international law. If it were to succeed in this invasion, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states, be they in the West or the global South, will be imperiled.

Yet the Western debate about the war has shifted little in a year. U.S. and European views still tend to be defined by how individual commentators see the United States and its global role rather than by Russian actions. Antiwar perspectives often reflect cynicism about the United States’ motivation and deep skepticism about Ukraine’s sovereign rights rather than a clear understanding or objective assessment of Russian actions toward Ukraine and what Putin wants in the neighboring region. When Russia was recognized as the only successor state to the Soviet Union after 1991, other former Soviet republics such as Belarus and Ukraine were left in a gray zone.

Some analysts posit that Russia’s security interests trump everyone else’s because of its size and historical status. They have argued that Moscow has a right to a recognized sphere of influence, just as the Soviet Union did after 1945. Using this framing, some commentators have suggested that NATO’s post–Cold War expansion and Ukraine’s reluctance to implement the Minsk agreements—accords brokered with Moscow after it annexed Crimea in 2014 that would have limited Ukraine’s sovereignty—are the war’s casus belli. They think that Ukraine is ultimately a former Russian region that should be forced to accept the loss of its territory.

Kyiv is fighting to protect other countries.

In fact, the preoccupation of Russian leaders with bringing Ukraine back into the fold dates to the beginning of the 1990s, when Ukraine started to pull away from the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (a loose regional institution that had succeeded the Soviet Union). At that juncture, NATO’s enlargement was not even on the table for eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s affiliation with the European Union was an even more remote prospect. Since then, Europe has moved beyond the post-1945 concept of spheres of influence for East and West. Indeed, for most Europeans, Ukraine is clearly an independent state, one that is fighting a war for its survival after an unprovoked attack on its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The war is about more than Ukraine. Kyiv is also fighting to protect other countries. Indeed, for states such as Finland, which was attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939 after securing its independence from the Russian empire 20 years earlier, this invasion seems like a rerun of history. (In the so-called Winter War of 1939–40, Finland fought the Soviets without external support and lost nine percent of its territory.) The Ukrainians and countries supporting them understand that if Russia were to prevail in this bloody conflict, Putin’s appetite for expansion would not stop at the Ukrainian border. The Baltic states, Finland, Poland, and many other countries that were once part of Russia’s empire could be at risk of attack or subversion. Others could see challenges to their sovereignty in the future.

Western governments need to hone this narrative to counter the Kremlin’s. They must focus on bolstering Europe’s and NATO’s resilience alongside Ukraine’s to limit Putin’s coercive power. They must step up the West’s international diplomatic efforts, including at the UN, to dissuade Putin from taking specific actions such as the use of nuclear weapons, attacks on convoys to Ukraine, continued escalation on the battlefield to seize more territory, or a renewed assault on Kyiv. The West needs to make clear that Russia’s relations with Europe will soon be irreparable. There will be no return to prior relations if Putin presses ahead. The world cannot always contain Putin, but clear communications and stronger diplomatic measures may help push him to curtail some of his aggression and eventually agree to negotiations.

The events of the last year should also steer everyone away from making big predictions. Few people outside Ukraine, for example, expected the war or believed that Russia would perform so poorly in its invasion. No one knows exactly what 2023 has in store.

That includes Putin. He appears to be in control for now, but the Kremlin could be in for a surprise. Events often unfold in a dramatic fashion. As the war in Ukraine has shown, many things don’t go according to plan.