Debate: Why Heilbrunn Gets Ukraine and Putin All Wrong

Debate: Why Heilbrunn Gets Ukraine and Putin All Wrong

In a recent op-ed, TNI editor Jacob Heilbrunn fundamentally misrepresented the Ukraine conflict, ignoring Russian president Vladimir Putin’s determination to retain Crimea and willingness to deploy nuclear weapons.


In an op-ed retweeted and hailed by the Atlantic Council, National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn emphasized that Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine will help crush Russia. He underscored several points that led him to the conclusion that Russian president Vladimir Putin has signed his death warrant by invading Ukraine. His assessment was eloquent, sweeping—and wrong.

Heilbrunn is on his strongest ground in arguing that the Western alliance, in contradistinction to what Putin had expected, has cast its die not only to outlast him in Ukraine but also to crush Russian aspirations for hegemony in Europe once and for all. He contended that whereas Berlin’s decision has symbolically freed Germany from the strictures that it operated under after World War II, it has practically liberated countries such as Poland and Finland to transfer German-made tanks to aid a forthcoming Ukrainian offensive this spring. Next he stressed that Putin was time and again wrong in his miscalculation that he would swiftly sweep over Ukraine and break up the Western alliance. Fundamentally, Heilbrunn argued that Putin—by rejuvenating the Western alliance, inadvertently arousing America from its post-Cold War torpor and unifying Ukrainians against him—has faced a “fight to the finish” which he cannot win.


I fully agree with Heilbrunn that Putin has miscalculated. Indeed, he committed a strategic blunder by invading. Moscow has already lost the war for Kyiv. But the story does not end there even if Heilbrunn is too blind to recognize it. The cold, hard truth is that Putin will never concede defeat and will stand his ground in the Crimea and Donbas, which he will fight for until the “finish” using nuclear warheads should the need arise to secure his survival there.

I also fault Heilbrunn for contextualizing the Ukraine crisis within a Western political mindset incognizant of both the weight of history and geography on Russia’s collective consciousness and the ramifications of the crisis for the international order in general and American global power in particular. The notion that Russia aspires for hegemony in Europe is bogus. Whatever policies and actions Moscow has pursued towards Europe have been essentially directed to foil any Western attempt to choke Russia into indefensible borders that would deprive it of a global role. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the heir of imperial Russia, has transformed a once ambitious and assertive empire into a state striving to conceal its insecurities. Although Russia posed no threat to the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has relentlessly expanded to the doorstep of Russia. NATO towered over the historical capital of Peter the Great, and Washington planned to bring Kyiv and Tbilisi into the orbit of NATO, effectively completing the encirclement of Russia. In 2008, the year that President George W. Bush called for extending NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, President Dmitry Medvedev addressed Euro-Atlantic security and Russia’s security concerns in Evian, emphasizing:

The real issue is that NATO is bringing its military infrastructure right up to our borders and is drawing new dividing lines in Europe, this time along our western and southern frontiers. No matter what we are told, it is only natural that we should see this as action directed against us.

This expansion of NATO, in the aftermath of the unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq, compounded by NATO’s key role in ousting Muammar Qaddhafi’s regime in Libya, reified Russian perception of NATO’s leader United States as a global hegemon cavalierly indifferent to Russia’s true national security concerns.

It follows from this that Heilbrunn’s contention that Berlin’s decision to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine to help it battle Russia and to symbolically free Germany from the strictures that it operated under after World War II is imprudent. From the Russian standpoint, this decision conjures up Russian images of German tanks leading the Nazi blitzkrieg into Russia, which was only reversed at a staggering human cost. In fact, this decision flouts the historical ideational foundation that Russia has played a key role in shaping our geopolitical role, which clearly has not yet ended. It is incontrovertible that Moscow’s bloody battles against both Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812 and Adolf Hitler in 1941 paved the way for the success of the Waterloo and Normandy landings, both of which shaped our contemporary geopolitical world.

These feats colored in spilled Russian blood are ingrained in the country’s collective consciousness and psyche that the West tends to forget to the chagrin of Moscow. Freeing up Germany, Poland, and Finland to send German tanks to aid a Ukrainian spring offensive to cross Kherson into the Donbas and Crimea is tantamount to jangling Moscow’s sensitive historical, political, and cultural nerves. Herein lay the Western alliance and Heilbrunn’s misguided view of Russia’s eventual indetermination to hold onto these territories. In other words, the Western alliance is waging a war ignorant of Russia’s red lines and how it may unfold. It is ignoring Russia’s historical, cultural, and political bonds to these territories, and more specifically discounts Russia’s possible wide-ranging responses to defend these territories.

The Donbas has been integral to the formation of Russia and thereafter the Soviet Union since Moscow’s defeat of the Mongols in the fifteenth century. Significantly, Crimea and its vicinity in eastern-southern Russia figured prominently in Moscow’s drive to expand, protect, and project the power of the Tsarist Empire. Early on, Peter the Great set his sights on the Sea of Azov and Crimea. He seized the Azov fortress from the Ottomans, formerly known as Azak fortress, overlooking the port of Azov, and in September 1698, he founded the first Russian Navy base, Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov. Catherine the Great continued his imperial project and seized Crimea and its vicinity in 1774, whereupon Moscow established its strategic naval base at Sevastopol, which has served as the main base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Moscow not only established a strategic foothold on the Black Sea but also projected its power over the restive Caucuses. From Moscow’s past to the present, Crimea and Donbas have constituted a center of geopolitical gravity and prestige for Moscow as a big power.

Putin has not only underscored their historical, strategic, and cultural importance but also made them a testament to his legitimacy as the leader who reconstituted Russia as a big power. In his address to the Duma in March 2014, for example, Putin stressed:

Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.  

He then added:

It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered… Now, many years later, I heard residents of Crimea say that back in 1991 they were handed over like a sack of potatoes. This is hard to disagree with. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation. This country was going through such hard times then that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests. However, the people could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice.

Putin’s speech underscored the humility with which Moscow had to deal with in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But more importantly, Putin stressed the notion that Crimea is an inseparable part of Russia and a cornerstone of its emergence as a civilization and an empire. Keeping Crimea is an act of righting an egregious historical injustice committed against Moscow. Crimea and Donbas are Russia’s red lines.

Indeed, as Heilbrunn rightly postulates, Putin has revivified the Western alliance, aroused America from its post-Cold War torpor, and unified Ukrainians. But what he, along with the Western alliance and mainstream media, fails to realize is that Putin may have lost Kyiv but he will not lose Crimea. Medvedev recently emphasized that “the defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war." Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said in a sermon: "We pray to the Lord that he bring the madmen to reason and help them understand that any desire to destroy Russia will mean the end of the world."

One may assume that these statements reflect Russia’s recognition that it may lose on the battlefield. But these statements are illustrative of how Russia perceives itself as a proud nation with a unique history and culture that has paid a staggering price to help shape our geopolitical world. It would behoove the Western alliance to realize that to overplay its hand is to flirt with playing with nuclear fire. The notion that someone armed with a nationalist history and the largest inventory of nuclear warheads—whose use in conventional warfare is official military doctrine—will go quietly into the night is far-fetched.

Contrary to Heilbrunn’s optimistic predictions, I foresee something far darker—a broken world bedeviled by nuclear anarchy and perilous insecurity. I see a Western alliance waging a war of conscience whose cost will be prohibitive to humanity. Why Heilbrunn, normally an astute observer of international affairs, cannot discern these palpably obvious perils is baffling to me.