Two Years In, Why I’m Not Optimistic About Putin’s War on Ukraine

COMMENTARY: The situation remains grave. Pope Francis certainly understands that.

Catholic priests hold a funeral service of Myroslava Sadova and Anastasia Seniv, killed by a Russian missile strike, at the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in western Ukrainian city of Lviv on July 8, 2023, two days after the strike. Saturday marks the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Catholic priests hold a funeral service of Myroslava Sadova and Anastasia Seniv, killed by a Russian missile strike, at the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in western Ukrainian city of Lviv on July 8, 2023, two days after the strike. Saturday marks the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. (photo: Yuriy Dyachyshyn / Getty )

On Feb. 24, 2022, I was awakened by dinging text messages and phone calls from an old friend, an expert on Russia, the Cold War and communism.

He doesn’t usually call, or even text. He prefers email. He was clearly agitated. His first message explained why: “The Russians have invaded Kiev!”

It was a shock. Sure, we knew what Vladimir Putin is like. The ex-KGB lieutenant colonel is a thuggish dictator. I say that as someone who, like many in the West, was initially optimistic about Putin when he first came to power in January 2000 after Boris Yeltsin’s surprising New Year’s Eve announcement informing fellow Russians and the world that he was resigning as president of post-Cold War, post-communist, free Russia. Yeltsin noted in that speech that he and many Russians of all sides felt they had in the young Putin (Yeltsin’s prime minister) an energetic, likeable leader to steer the country into the new millennium.

How far into that millennium is now a revealing issue. According to the terms of the Russian Constitution, fought for by Yeltsin and those who built a post-Soviet Russia, Putin at best could serve two four-year terms. In March 2000 and March 2004, he was elected overwhelmingly. According to the constitution, he would exit by March 2008, thereby establishing an impressive event that had never happened before in the very long history of Russia, namely: a peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected president, Boris Yeltsin, to another, Vladimir Putin, and then to another.

But that changed drastically, as did any optimism over Putin, as he proceeded to crush those term limits by finding a way to ensconce himself in power way beyond eight years. Through a complex series of schemes, maneuvering and pure realpolitik, he got himself back in power and jettisoned constitutional limits that had been intended to check an authoritarian like himself. Indeed, here we are, in 2024, and Putin remains in power. Technically, if he lives long enough, he’s assured to remain in power until at least 2030. And one can be certain that once 2030 hits, he’ll craft a scheme to stay yet longer. He’s making himself a dictator for life.

Along the way, Putin also crushed any remaining optimism by rolling his army’s tanks into the Crimea in 2014. That was another wake-up call to the world. But even then, there was a sense of some limits to his power grab. Sure, we knew that he wanted to seize part of Ukraine, incorporating it into what he expansively refers to as the “Fatherland,” but we didn’t think the man would ever goose-step his troops all the way to Kyiv. No way!

Well, eight years later, on Feb. 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin proceeded to do just that.

In retrospect, the best signal of those intentions was a speech that Putin gave in April 2005. It wasn’t just any speech. This was his annual “State of the Nation” address to the Russian Parliament, broadcast live on Russia television. Putin declared: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

That bombshell was dropped without any elaboration. “Putin deplores collapse of the USSR,” reported the BBC. Those of us who study Russia and the Cold War scratched our heads. What to make of that alarming declaration, especially given that Putin, in April 2005, was not yet the vicious, notorious Putin we now know?

As a professor, I had my students at Grove City College read that speech in our “Comparative Politics” course, where we do a deep dive on modern Russia. We pondered what Putin’s statement really meant. I was asked about it many times — in class, in media interviews. I had always said that we should not interpret it as a sign that Putin is seeking to reconstitute the old USSR. The Soviet Union consisted of Russia and 15 “republics,” all of which by December 1991 had declared independence, including Ukraine. In no way does Putin want to try to pull together the whole bloody behemoth that was the USSR.

He couldn’t give a rip about Tajikistan. But Putin does care very much, obviously, about Ukraine.

How much? Well, we knew by 2014 that he wanted the Crimea, but how much more of a chunk did this Russian nationalist-authoritarian — this admirer of the czars — want to bite off?

Again, we got our answer on Feb. 24, 2022. Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine so badly that he resorted to a curious combination of Hitlerian and KGB tactics. Hitler-like, he concocted “Big Lies” about ethnic Russians being targeted for “genocide” by the Ukrainian government. That was what the Führer in Nazi Germany charged against countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The Russian authoritarian dusted off his old KGB dezinformatsiya (i.e., disinformation) manual. Among his most shocking claims justifying his invasion was that he and his Russian Army were seeking a “de-Nazification of Ukraine.” His surreal assertion angered and bewildered observers throughout the West. But for those of us familiar with Soviet history — and the KGB — we weren’t surprised.

The reality is that the Kremlin after World War II labeled pretty much every enemy a “Nazi sympathizer.” It was standard operating procedure. In fact, Catholics will be interested (if not appalled) to hear that the Kremlin labeled everyone from Pope Pius XII to Cardinal József Mindszenty to Pope John Paul II “Nazi sympathizers.” That old smear is on Page One of the disinformation playbook, listed under “Character Assassination.”

So, now we know. Vladimir Putin wants as much of Ukraine as he can get — and as much as the people of Ukraine and the world are willing to permit. But unfortunately for Putin, the effort hasn’t gone well because the world has rallied against him. It has gone very badly.

Two months ago, The Wall Street Journal, citing a U.S. intelligence estimate shared with Congress, reported that Putin’s war on Ukraine “has devastated Russia’s preinvasion military machine,” with nearly 90% of its prewar army lost to death or injury and thousands of battle tanks (nearly two-thirds) destroyed. The figures are shocking: The report claims that 315,000 Russian personnel have been killed or injured since the February 2022 invasion.

Stunning as those numbers are, I’m not surprised. I noted as early as March 2022, the start of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, that Russians always get clobbered in battle, and would again this time, especially facing a committed foe backed by massive supplies of Western/U.S. military aid. Russia’s history with death is extraordinary.

Tragically, the Russian people for more than a century have been mired in a perpetual culture of death at the hands of leaders who have no regard for the dignity of life.

And yet, Vladimir Putin remains defiant. He gave a sobering speech at the start of this year, 2024. It was his customary new year address. What he said should give us pause.

Interestingly, the speech was considerably shorter than usual, running just under four minutes. Also quite curious, some media sources noted that Putin “made little mention” of Ukraine, at least by name. But he didn’t need to. It was clear what he was talking about.

Putin vowed that Russia would “never back down.” In some translations (including the report by Reuters), Putin stated that his country “will never retreat.” He pledged that Russians “are united … in toil and in battle.” He added: “What united us and unites us is the fate of the Fatherland, a deep understanding of the highest significance of the historical stage through which Russia is passing.”

And what is that historical stage? Putin sees himself as a grandiose figure in Russian history. He has long wanted to unite the “Fatherland.” Taking Ukraine is critical to that. In his eyes, this historical stage in that glorious mission cannot fail.

For that, Putin praised his troops: “You are our heroes. … We are proud of you.” And yet, it was telling that when Putin gave this annual speech last year, he was flanked by soldiers. This year, there were no soldiers behind him. Their absence is appropriate, given how many Putin has sent into the meat grinder.

So, how can Putin remain so defiant, so dedicated to a 2024 goal of never backing down, of not retreating? Well, that’s a thought that should frighten us all. I’ve written repeatedly that the one option in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin has yet to resort to is a nuclear option. He and his cronies have talked about nukes off and on publicly and steadily since April 2022, with rhetoric escalating and then fizzling, but all along quite disconcerting. I’ve feared all along that when this man’s back is against the wall, with a decimated military no longer at his disposal to “never retreat,” he could very well push that button.

Again, I see no reason for optimism with Vladimir Putin. There is so much more that I could say in that regard, but I’ll close with some thoughts about another country mired in this mess, one of particular interest to Catholics.

Putin has been increasingly talking about Poland, engaging in renewed demonization of that historical enemy of him and his “Fatherland.” In his recent two-hour-plus conversation with Tucker Carlson, Putin several times leveled an outrageous charge that it was Poland that worked with Hitler to somehow launch World War II, asserting: “In 1939, after Poland cooperated with Hitler — it did collaborate with Hitler, you know — Hitler offered Poland peace and a treaty of friendship and alliance; we have all the relevant documents in the archives.”

Putin claimed that Poles had even “pushed Hitler to start World War II.” Of course, in truth, World War II was launched by Hitler collaborating with Josef Stalin via the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact on Aug. 24, 1939. That pact called for a mutual invasion of Poland, which promptly commenced just a week later, on Sept. 1, 1939, starting World War II.

From the outset of Putin’s war on Ukraine, I’ve warned people to keep their eyes on Poland. If this ongoing battle between Russia and Ukraine spills over into Poland, then all hell could break loose. Poland, unlike Ukraine, is a NATO member. By treaty, the United States of America is committed to protecting Poland. If Putin’s Russia strikes Poland, well, hold on to your seats.

So, in sum, here we are, at the two-year anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and what do we have? Plenty of talk from Putin about Russia never backing down or retreating, despite enormous battlefield losses; menacing words from Putin about our close NATO ally and his mortal enemy Poland; occasional words from Putin and his cronies about nukes; and more.

The situation remains grave. Pope Francis certainly understands that. He continues to strive to find a way to get to Moscow to talk to Putin and the Russian leadership. Quite appallingly, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has advocated and even given his blessing to the war on Ukraine. We can be sure that in 2024 Francis will continue to try to intervene on behalf of peace.

Two years since Putin’s shocking invasion, there remains no reason to be optimistic about him and his war on Ukraine. As Catholics, we must pray for peace, but Vladimir Putin doesn’t give us optimism.