The Risk of Misreading Russia’s Intent

Paul R. Pillar

Much of the discourse over the past year about responding to Russian moves in Ukraine has been couched in terms of the need to stop aggressive expansionism in its tracks. Hillary Clinton has even invoked the old familiar analogy to Nazi expansionism in likening some of the Russian actions to what Germany was doing in the 1930s.

With or without the Nazi analogy, a commonly expressed concept is that not acting firmly enough to stop Russian expansionism in Ukraine would invite still further expansion.

Underlying such arguments are certain assumptions about wider Russian intentions. If Vladimir Putin and anyone else advising him on policy toward Ukraine see their moves there as steps in a larger expansionist strategy, then the concept of stopping the expansion in its tracks is probably valid. But if Russian objectives are instead focused on narrower goals and especially concerns more specific to Ukraine, the concept can be more damaging than useful.

As long as historical comparisons are being invoked, one possibly instructive comparison is with an earlier episode involving application of military force by Russia or the Soviet Union along its periphery. This episode provides a closer correspondence than pre-war Nazi maneuvers, but it is still distant enough to provide some perspective and a sense of the consequences. It is the Soviet armed intervention in Afghanistan, which occurred 35 years ago as of this December.

Once Soviet forces entered Afghanistan, a key question for policy-makers in Jimmy Carter’s administration was the Soviets’ purpose in undertaking the operation. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance would later summarize in his memoirs two competing answers to that question. One view was that Moscow’s motives were primarily local and, insofar as they extended beyond Afghanistan, focused on worries about possible unrest among Muslims in the Central Asian republics of the USSR.

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