Dave Anderson | Special to WJW
The late British historian A.J.P. Taylor argued controversially that Adolf Hitler was not a madman, but a traditional politician who used rational strategies to take advantage of the opportunities before him. He was driven to punish the West for what he believed were the unfair reparations after World War I and give Germany a strong sense of national identity again.
The debates surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin are similar, only the war in question today and the previous military efforts in Ukraine in 2014 and Chechnya and Georgia were not world wars, although the current war might lead to one.
There are two major themes animating Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but the West only focuses on one of them.
First, there is Russia’s need, as Putin perceives it, to recover its empire. Putin has said that the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” In various writings and speeches, he has said that Russia needs to recover from its loss and regain its territory.
Putin has suffered great personal loss, and the psychologists and psychiatrists can determine how much this sense of personal loss affects his behavior and how.
Second, there are Russia’s security fears. These fears are given lip service in the United States, but they are real. Hitler invaded Russia and devastated over 70,000 towns and villages in addition to major cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad, and the war there lasted close to four years.
In World War II, the United States suffered 400,000 deaths; Russia suffered 25 million, 15 million of whom were civilians. Even the White House website says that the fighting and bravery of the Red Army on the Eastern Front was unmatched.
The Red Army, according to Sir Max Hastings, author of “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945,” experienced “95 percent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance.” The Red Army “did most of the fighting necessary to defeat Nazism.” By most estimates the Red Army killed 70 to 80 percent of Hitler’s armies.
For 75 years, the United States has created the misleading impression that the Western allies were primarily responsible for defeating the German army and D-Day was the turning point in the war. To the Russians, they won “The Great Patriotic War.”
Although Russia is the aggressor in their war with Ukraine — indeed, they recognized the two Ukraine southern regions as independent states and they invaded Ukraine — the people of Russia (and Putin) still have security fears that cannot be denied. Part of Putin’s public rationale for invading Ukraine is to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, which has moved increasingly eastward since 1991.
The challenge from here is more complicated than Ukraine negotiating a ceasefire and a peace plan with Russia. Ukraine wants their sovereignty, and they want Russian troops out of their country. Russia, which Churchill famously said “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” wants different things at different levels.
The United States needs to play a role in the negotiations and not only in the war, where we are providing military hardware and financial sanctions. We need to limit Russian aggression in Ukraine and other former satellite states and simultaneously reduce Russian insecurity.
That is a tall order. But we should not dismiss the significance of the security fears just because Russia is very much in the wrong in this war.
A starting point is to ask whether we need nuclear weapons in five NATO countries: Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. These nuclear bombs provide real and symbolic power to NATO against Russia. We can launch nuclear bombs from planes and submarines, but having them on the ground is especially threatening.
The Russian media knows they are there, and Russian citizens know they are there. Their physical presence is threatening.
If we removed them, this might enable Putin to save face since the war effort in Ukraine is not going as planned. Getting Putin out of Ukraine and backing off Eastern Europe might involve removing the weapons.
Getting nuclear missiles out of Cuba, it became public 25 years after the fact, required that JFK agree to remove our nuclear bombs from Turkey.
Ironically, if we removed the nuclear weapons even as Putin is threatening nuclear war he might be motivated to pull out of Ukraine, especially if he got some new territory. He could then declare victory at home.
The West may not be able to do better.
Dave Anderson has taught political philosophy at five universities and is editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework.”