Geoffrey Roberts – Why Putin Went to War

Interview with Historian Geoffrey Roberts by Flemming Rose, Editorinchief of Frihedsbrevet 

Originally posted in Danish at Frihedsbrevet

The English version is cross-posted fron Geoffrey Roberts* website


For this week’s Free Thought, I have spoken with the British historian Geoffrey
Roberts about an article he recently published in the Journal of Military and Strategic
Studies under the title “Now or Never: The Immediate Origins of Putin’s Preventive
War on Ukraine”.i We also talked about the historical craft, how the war in Ukraine
will be viewed in 50 years, and what secret documents Roberts would like to see if he
could get access to the Russian archives.

Geoffrey Roberts has researched and written about the history of diplomacy for
many decades. In particular, he has dealt with the processes leading up to the
outbreak of the Second World War and to the HitlerStalin Pact of 1939, which
involved the division of Eastern Europe into spheres of interest between Germany
and the Soviet Union. He is the author a voluminous work entitled Stalin’s Wars:
From World War to Cold War 19391953, which was based on his studies in the
Russian archives. Roberts is also coauthor of a book on the wartime relationship
between Churchill and Stalin and has written a biography of Georgy Zhukov, Stalin’s
most important general during World War II. Most recently, Roberts has written a
book entitled Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books.

Reasons for War

Frihedsbrevet: Why did Vladimir Putin decide in February 2022 to invade Ukraine and start the
biggest land war in Europe since World War II? And when did he make that fateful

Geoffrey Roberts: There are many opinions about that. It is one of those events that historians will
write thousands of articles and books about for decades to come.

Some believe that Putin is driven by the ambition to restore the Soviet Union or the
Russian Empire.

Others point out that Putin is motivated by the desire to gain control
of what is called “the Russian world”, which includes regions where the Russian
Orthodox Church and Russian language and culture dominate.

Still others point to Putin launching the war to consolidate his power at home and
save his regime from internal threats and opposition.

A fourth claim is that the decision to go to war was the work of an isolated, maniacal
dictator. A dictator surrounded by puppets who was convinced the Russian army
would be welcomed by a majority of the Ukrainian population.

A fifth explanation says that Putin feared a democratic Ukraine with a political order alternative to his authoritarian regime in Russia, which could lead disaffected Russians to rebel against the Kremlin.

Geoffrey Roberts rejects all these explanations. He believes that Putin went to war to
prevent Ukraine from developing into an increasingly strong and threatening military
bridgehead for NATO on the border with Russia.

According to Roberts, for Putin the decision to invade Ukraine was not only about
the immediate situation; it was about a future in which he feared Russia would face
an existential threat from the West. In that context, Roberts states, it is not decisive
whether Putin is morbidly paranoid or whether his fantasies have no root in the real
world. The key is what Putin actually thought and on what basis he made the
decision to go to war; for Roberts as a historian, it is about uncovering the logic and
inner dynamics of Putin’s reasoning that preceded the war.

Roberts does this by reviewing Putin’s public comments and statements from spring
2021 until the invasion in February 2022, comparing them with what he has said

His method is empirical, meaning that he reconstructs the story based on what Putin
says and does. Roberts identifies a common thread of elements and talking points
that recur all the way through the narrative the fear of NATO expansion, concern
about NATO missile defense in Poland and Romania, the transformation of Ukraine
into an antiRussia and a NATO armed outpost on the border with Russia, criticism of
Ukraine for discrimination against proRussians and not implementing the socalled Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, which were an attempt to regulate the conflict
between the Ukrainian central government and the Russian-backed separatists in
eastern Ukraine.

According to Roberts, throughout the run up to the February 2022 invasion, Putin
maintained that the Minsk agreements were the only mechanism available to deal
with the dispute between Kiev and the Donbass rebels. Roberts also cites Putin’s
‘infamous’ summer 2021 essay on the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine, in which
he laments alleged discrimination against Russians in Ukraine, declaring:

“We will never allow our historic lands and people close to us to be used
against Russia.”

In autumn 2021, the rhetoric sharpened, and on November 18, i.e. a month before
Moscow submitted its formal security demands to NATO, Putin proposed legally
binding security guarantees from NATO in relation to Ukraine. When his demands
were published, they went even further and were not only about Ukraine, but also
about the infrastructure NATO had built in its new member states.

Russia’s demands were rejected by the West at the end of January 2022. A few days
later, Putin said at a press conference in the Kremlin:

“It is stated in Ukraine’s doctrines that they will take Crimea back, if necessary
by force. It’s not just something Ukrainian representatives say publicly, it’s
written down in their documents. Imagine then that Ukraine becomes a
member of NATO. It is being loaded with weapons and more offensive
weapons will be deployed on its territory, just like in Poland and Romania –
who is going to stop it? Imagine Ukraine launching an operation against
Crimea or Donbass. Crimea is Russian territory. We see that case as settled.
Imagine that Ukraine is a member of NATO and begins a military operation. So
what should we do? Fight against NATO? Has anyone even thought about
that? Apparently not.”

Roberts hypothesizes that it was the fear of a nuclear-armed Ukraine that prompted
Putin to attack at the last minute. The historian refers to Volodymyr Zelensky’s
speech at the security conference in Munich five days before the invasion, in which
the Ukrainian president aired the idea that Ukraine should acquire tactical nuclear
weapons in order to defend itself. None of the Western leaders present objected,
according to Roberts, even though such an initiative would have been a violation of the international agreement on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Three days later, Putin was asked whether he considered Zelensky’s words to be
bluster or a real statement of intent.

Putin replied:

“We reckon that his words were primarily directed at us. I would like to say
that we have heard them. Ever since Soviet times, Ukraine has had broad
nuclear capabilities. They have several nuclear power plants and a nuclear
industry which is quite developed and they have a school to educate people.
They have everything to be able to solve that problem much faster than the
countries that are starting from scratch.”

He added:

“The only thing they lack is systems for enriching uranium. It’s just a matter of
technology. It is not an insurmountable task for Ukraine. It can be done quite
easily, and the presence of tactical nukes in Ukraine and missiles with a range
of 300–500 kilometres means they can hit Moscow. It is a strategic threat to
us and that is how we perceive it. We have to and will take it extremely

Roberts summarizes:

“On the eve of the invasion, many astute and well-informed commentators
convinced themselves that the supposedly realistic and pragmatic Putin would
not risk such an attack. What they missed was the crystallization of Putin’s
apocalyptic vision of a future, nuclear-armed Ukraine embedded in NATO and
intent on provoking a Russian-Western war. Arguably, it was that long-term
nuclear threat that finally prompted Putin to go to war.

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