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Is Putin Bent on Conquering Europe?

It is important to not merely accept axiomatically that Putin, like all autocrats, is bent on aggression and expansion.

Credit: Asatur Yesayants

NATO countries must “help Ukraine push Russia out of its territory and end this unprovoked aggression,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith said on April 2, “because if they do not succeed, of course, the concern is that Russia will feel compelled to keep going.”

Smith is not the first to warn that Ukraine is the dam that is holding back a Russian conquest of Europe. U.S. President Joe Biden told Congress on December 6 that “If Putin takes Ukraine, he won’t stop there.... He’s going to keep going. He’s made that pretty clear.” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned that “Putin will not stop at Ukraine.” And Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that Putin has “made clear that he’d like to reconstitute the Soviet empire.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says that, “if Putin wins in Ukraine, there is real risk that his aggression will not end there.” On March 28, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, insisted that “this aggression, and Putin’s army, can come to Europe.” He said that “at the moment, it’s us, then Kazakhstan, then Baltic states, then Poland, then Germany. At least half of Germany.” 


“If Ukraine loses the war,” he said on April 7, “other countries will be attacked. This is a fact.”

Aside from the value these warnings have in convincing the public—and the U.S. Congress—to continue sending money and weapons to Ukraine, the insistence that Putin’s ambitions are not limited to Ukraine but have their sights on Europe is based on two historical myths. 

The first is that autocrats by their nature desire conquest and the expansion of their empires. “We have also seen many times in history,” the U.S. ambassador to NATO said, “where if a dictator is not stopped, or an authoritarian leader, they keep going.”

Inconveniently, this axiom is not borne out by history. Nor does the U.S. apply it to several of its contemporary friends; Washington does not assume that the autocratic rulers of Saudi Arabia or Egypt are bent on conquering the Middle East or Africa.

The historical record shows that, in his over two decades in power, Putin has not “kept going.” When Russian forces have been deployed, they have been limited to specific objectives when they could have easily kept going, as in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, when military conquest could have been accomplished with ease.


The second is that Putin has said as much. Putin is often quoted as saying that “people in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart.” The second part of his statement is quoted less often: “And those that do regret it have no brain.”

The same selective use of quotations is applied to Putin’s comment that “we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster.” Though quoted as proof of Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union and his desire to reestablish it, the strategy requires lifting the quotation from a context that makes it clear that the disaster Putin is referring to is not the absence of the Soviet Union but, primarily, the economic hardship that followed in the wake of its break up. He bemoaned that “individual savings were depreciated” and oligarchs “served exclusively their own corporate interests.” He remembered that “mass poverty began to be seen as the norm.”

There are at least three points that need to be factored into Western calculations of Putin’s ambitions that should temper the confidence of the forecast that he is bent on conquering Europe and on war with NATO.

The first is that there is no evidence for it. After her warning that Russia will “keep going,” Smith admitted that “we do not have indicators or warnings right now that a Russian war is imminent on NATO territory, and I really want to be clear about that.”

The Baltic countries complain that their warnings of the expansionist threat posed by Russia have been dismissed by the West. “For years,” Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski says, the West was “patronizing us about our attitude: ‘Oh, you know, you over-nervous, over-sensitive Central Europeans are prejudiced against Russia.’” Estonia’s former President Hendrik Ilves complained that the West does “Russia policy without consulting people who know far more about Russia.”

Smith responded, “I don’t want to give our friends in the Baltic states the impression that somehow war is coming to NATO territory overnight. We take it seriously, but we do not see this to be an imminent threat.”

The second point is that the Western statements of Putin’s ambitions are not consistent with the historical record of Putin’s statements of his ambitions.

Putin has said that “the Ukraine crisis is not a territorial conflict, and I want to make that clear.... The issue is much broader and more fundamental and is about the principles underlying the new international order.”

Those fundamental principles have consistently included a guarantee that Ukraine will remain neutral and not join NATO, a guarantee that NATO won’t turn Ukraine into an armed anti-Russian bridgehead on its border, and assurances of protection of the rights of Russophile Ukrainians. 

There is nothing on the historical record to suggest that conquering Europe or confronting NATO have ever been among the stated goals of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

This point has been conceded by Ukraine and by NATO. Davyd Arakhamia, who led the Ukrainian negotiating team at the Istanbul talks, says that Russia was “prepared to end the war if we agreed to, as Finland once did, neutrality, and committed that we would not join NATO.” He says that a guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO was the “key point” for Russia. Most importantly, Zelensky has said that the promise not to join NATO “was the first fundamental point for the Russian Federation” and that “as far as I remember, they started a war because of this.” 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently conceded that a “promise [of] no more NATO enlargement…was a precondition for not invading Ukraine.” When NATO refused to discuss such a promise, Putin “went to war to prevent NATO—more NATO—close to his borders.” Stoltenberg concluded that “Putin invaded a European country to prevent more NATO.”

The third point is that the historical record suggests that Putin went to war in Ukraine, not as a step toward war with NATO, but to prevent a war with NATO. 

“Listen attentively to what I am saying,” Putin said just three weeks before the invasion. “It is written into Ukraine’s doctrines that it wants to take Crimea back, by force if necessary.... Suppose Ukraine is a NATO member.... Suppose it starts operations in Crimea, not to mention Donbass for now. This is sovereign Russian territory. We consider this matter settled. Imagine that Ukraine is a NATO country and starts these military operations. What are we supposed to do? Fight against the NATO bloc? Has anyone given at least some thought to this? Apparently not.”

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine “to prevent NATO...close to his borders” may have been motivated by concern that a Ukraine in NATO that attacked Donbas or Crimea would draw Russia into a war with NATO.

Just three days before launching the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin said that “the reality we live in” is that if Ukraine is “accepted into...NATO, the threat against our country will increase because of Article 5” since “there is a real threat that they will try to take back the territory they believe is theirs using military force. And they do say this in their documents, obviously. Then the entire North Atlantic Alliance will have to get involved.”

If Putin went to war in Ukraine to prevent a war with NATO, then it makes little sense that he would use the war in Ukraine as a means to start a war with NATO. 

Since the claim that, if Russia wins in Ukraine, Putin will keep going and bring war to Europe and NATO, is wielded to justify continuing the fight instead of encouraging a diplomatic solution, it is important to not merely accept axiomatically that Putin, like all autocrats, is bent on aggression and expansion. The frequently made warning rests uncertainly on myths and misreading of the historical record that, when examined, recommend a less confident forecast of Putin’s intentions.