Putin sees himself as engaged in an existential war with the West

The most important strategic decision a wartime leader must make is determining the nature of the war they are fighting. With Putin’s most recent announcement, it looks ever more as though Moscow sees the conflict in Ukraine as part of an existential struggle against the West.

Russian troops.
Russian troops. Credit: Asar Studios / Alamy Stock Photo.

On 21st September, President Putin announced a partial mobilisation of those conscripts with relevant experience and specialties, and additional measures for the state defence order to increase the number of weapons and military equipment and ‘deploying additional production capacities’. Although Putin continued to use the term ‘Special Military Operation’, his reference to attacks on Russian territory, the role of the ‘Collective West’ and Russia’s nuclear capacity seem to signal a substantial escalation in the war.

What does this new stage mean? Clausewitz reminds us that the most important judgment – indeed, the first of all strategic questions – that leaders must address is to establish the kind of war being embarked upon, not mistaking it for something alien to its nature. Moscow may have launched its (renewed) invasion of Ukraine six months ago, but this remains sound advice for leaders and observers in the Euro-Atlantic community as they consider the questions of possible escalation (even whether Moscow might resort to using nuclear weapons), and the economic resilience of all parties, let alone the possibility of what any kind of negotiation, victory or defeat might look like.

For many, this may seem so obvious as to not need further consideration: Moscow’s thinking can be found in Putin’s own words in his June 2021 article about Ukraine. Thus, in February 2022 Moscow launched a war of choice against Ukraine’s statehood, an illegal war of neo-imperial aggression to enlarge Russia’s territory, eradicate Ukraine as a viable state to correct historical errors and assert Russian domination over a sphere of control in the former Soviet space. It is a war shaped by Putin’s version of the past.

If it is broadly framed as a battle between democracy and autocracy, it is largely examined as a regional war with some important global effects. Russia is bombarding Ukraine and weaponising energy exports to Europe as part of an effort to redraw the European security architecture, and the consequences of its blockade of Ukraine have rippled out further, especially in terms of creating a wider international food crisis.

Even so, there are grounds for returning to Clausewitz’s point about judging the kind of war that is underway as far as Moscow is concerned. Indeed, it is worth emphasising just how different Moscow’s view of the scale of current events really is. This is not (primarily) because of the Russian leadership’s assertions that it was a ‘pre-emptive’ operation, intended to ‘de-militarise’ and ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine, all of which sound incredible, not to say absurd to many Western observers.

It is because Moscow sees not only the chronology but the scale of the current situation in completely different terms. In terms of the chronology, Putin was explicit: the war began in 2014, not 2022, though in many ways the origins can be traced back to the ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004 and even earlier. But more broadly, the Russian leadership has long pointed to longer-term strategic shifts underway in international affairs, asserting the shift of power from West to East, from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, for instance, causing the emergence of a ‘post West’ world, and the rise of other regions. For Moscow, the current fighting in Ukraine is part of a much bigger picture both in terms of regional and global events, and a struggle that has been underway already for nearly twenty years and is likely to continue.

Moreover, for the Russian leadership this shift is underpinned by geo-economic competition over access to commodities, transit routes and markets, a competition which many officials and observers anticipated would intensify into and then through the 2020s, even resulting in war. In a speech in 2014, for instance, Putin stated that history teaches that ‘changes in the world order — and what we are seeing today are events on this scale — have usually been accompanied by if not global war and conflict, then by chains of intensive local-level conflicts’.

This broader global picture continues to feature prominently in official speeches today. Speaking in August at the Moscow International Security Conference, for instance, Putin again emphasised the emergence of a multipolar world order which he called an ‘objective process’. And again, he pointed to what he described as a global contest, underway not only in Europe, but in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He particularly pointed to the establishment of AUKUS and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as ‘sowing chaos’ and ‘planned’ provocations.

The way that this is phrased by Moscow — the West’s ‘need for’ and ‘fomenting of conflicts to retain its hegemonic domination’, and the suggestion that Russia is acting to defend an emerging multipolar world will again sound misguided to Western ears. But this is how Moscow sees the context of the scale and duration of the current war in Ukraine — as a global competition that will take shape through this decade, culminating in a very different world order. Indeed, what emerges from numerous Russian official speeches — and equally in official strategic planning documents — is that Moscow does not see this primarily as a ‘regional war with some global consequences’. Instead, the Russian leadership sees a ‘global geo-economic contest with warfare underway in Ukraine‘.

This shift in perspective reminds us that the vociferous debate underway in the Euro-Atlantic community about whether NATO enlargement was the key cause of the war or not addresses only part of the question. It also is the basis for a shift in thinking as a contest about the future: while it is often said that Putin is looking back to the past, or seeking to rebuild the Russian or soviet empire, in reality the Russian leadership has a strategic horizon of 2030 or 2035.

So, while Putin’s June 2021 article is an important piece of the picture for interpreting Moscow’s activity, it should be seen alongside Russian strategic planning documents and Moscow’s strategic forecasting. Here, the Strategic Forecast of the Russian Federation to 2035 gives important context for interpreting Russian activity: many of Putin’s speeches about the war in Ukraine and Western activity align with the scenarios the Forecast sets out. These scenarios include the movement to a polycentric world, a continuation of the US to impose hegemonic domination, the emergence of a bipolar world model, and a strengthening of the process of regionalisation.

That the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia in many ways see the future in very different terms can hardly come as a surprise. But for Moscow this is a contest for the future, for Russia’s place in a changing world order. In his not only about Russia’s territorial integrity, but also ‘independence and freedom’, ‘dismemberment and enslavement of our Motherland’, and his statements about Russia’s ‘historical tradition’ and ‘destiny’ to stop those who strive for world domination, it looks ever more like Moscow sees this fighting in Ukraine as part of a necessary, if not existential wider struggle. This is the essential picture for Western deterrence, defence and strategic planning — it should be global in nature, with a horizon to 2030, with dynamic, creative scenarios thinking about what competition through the decade might look like and why.


Andrew Monaghan