Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has led many in the West to conclude that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to regain control over territories lost in the dissolution of the USSR, a collapse Putin dubbed the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. For NATO and co, it seems that we are, once again, struggling against an Evil Empire, that the last 20 years have been a brief interlude in the Cold War and that Putin is indeed getting the band back together.

Putin himself has even raised the spectre of nuclear war, a modern horror that, ironically, hasn’t been considered a realistic threat from Russia for over a generation. This is not just some of the tried and true sabre rattling seen from other nuclear powers. Putin’s aggression in this matter is clear. From warning the West off with nuclear weapons, to threatening to capture Kiev “in two weeks”, Putin has not minced his words. A former security adviser to President Jimmy Carter declared Putin to be “on the march to create a Eurasian Union.” Which he described as “nothing but a new name for the former Soviet Union”.

Unlike the Cold War, there is no obvious ideological struggle here. Although many countries have voiced opposition to Putin’s invasion the West has not committed military support. The best possible support for Ukraine has come from NATO which intends to send a force of 4000 troops, although NATO has already made it clear that they do not, in fact, intend to become involved in any conflict in Ukraine. The West is unwilling to engage directly with Russia because they are unable to understand Putin’s motives. Without knowing the intentions of the Russian President, who could say what his reaction to Western troops would be? Instead the West has turned to sanctions to make their point.

The West’s sanctions usually impose enough damage on countries to deter them from action, or at least make them reconsider. Sanctions are not enough to stop Putin. Russia is big enough to absorb any damage done to it by the sanctions in place so far. More importantly, the West’s dependence on sanctions highlights a lack of understanding. Putin and the West are not on the same page. If economic gain were Putin’s aim then sanctions might nullify any benefit made by invading Ukraine. Likewise Putin’s ideological motivations seem entirely different to the Soviets who wished to spread communism across the globe. How is the West to understand Putin? Are we really witnessing the resurgence of the Soviet foe or is modern Russia reading from a much older play book?

Back in 2008, after Russia’s other recent incursion into a neighbour’s sovereign territory, Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, was quick to dismiss parallels to the USSR claiming that:

today’s Russia is still very different from the former Soviet Union. Putin has been called a modern-day czar, which is far closer to the mark than misguided comparisons to Stalin … Czarist Russia was a great power with limited ambitions that became an integrated member of the European state system of the 18th and 19th centuries even as it crushed the weak states on its borders and deprived its own people of liberties. It is in this direction that I expect post-Putin Russia will evolve.

In a prophetic 2008 essay geopolitical analyst Spengler observed that the Czars effectively linked the identity of the Russian Empire to Russian ethnicity, helping to unify a vast and diverse territory.  The ethnic policies of Russia’s Czars, and the “Russification” of the territories, have a firm influence on Putin’s motivation. Political commentator, and noted Russia-watcher, Miriam Elder has likewise pointed out that the Russian President is an admirer of the famed Russian author and former Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s concept of a “Russian Union” which ties the essence of Russia as a country to its people and their ethnic identity. The key to Russia’s future success, argues Solzhenitsyn in his essay “Rebuilding Russia”, lies in uniting her scattered people in a “Slavic state built on Russian Orthodoxy”. Solzhenitsyn asserts that not only are the people of Ukraine, and most countries bordering Russia, “little Russians” they also, in fact, belong in union with Russia itself. A concrete example of this has been the language used by Russian state media in describing the annexed region of Ukraine:

No longer do Russians hear about the Donetsk People’s Republic, the term favoured by the rebels, and their Kremlin masters, since the conflict began. Suddenly, we’re talking about “Novorossiya,” which translates as “New Russia.” It’s a czarist-era delineation that encompassed several southern Russian regions and parts of Ukraine (including Donetsk and Lugansk, among others).

Putin has proven that he is determined to plough ahead and it is his belief in an ethnic Russian Union, not in short term popularity or economic success, or soviet era ideology that motivates him.

The West cannot treat Russia as though it is an errant nation state greedy for more wealth. Neither is it a communist dictatorship. The 20th Century, and the ideological conflict that marked it, has passed. Russia is marching forward into the 19th Century. This conflict in Ukraine marks a new direction in geopolitics which may lead to Russia expanding into other countries such as Kazakhstan and Estonia in the years to come. The world is dealing with a Czar-like leader, with considerable public support and military power, who wishes to rebuild an ethnic based empire and unite his people. Is the West capable of meeting this new challenge?

Josh Alstin writes from South Australia.