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Politics & Security

Why Putin Isn't the Main Reason for the Ukraine War

The Russian majority has favored imperialist parties even during relatively democratic times, suggesting that imperialism will continue beyond Putin's tenure.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 28, 2023. (Provided by the Russian Presidential Office, TASS via Kyodo)

With its invasion of Ukraine, Russia laid bare its violent savagery and expansionist ambitions, silencing most Western and Japanese skeptics. Many still believe that the main reason for the war is the dictatorship of President Vladimir Putin. However, this is not true. 

Of course, Putin undoubtedly has imperialistic ambitions and constantly seeks to expand his territory and hegemony. But we are misjudging Russia in assuming that the Putin regime is solely responsible for the war. In discussing Russia, one should not ignore how imperialism is configured in the consciousness of the general population.

We need look no further than the trend of Putin's approval rating in Russia to understand why. Although his approval rating has always been high, there have been times when it skyrocketed. 

The first occasion was after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The second was after it launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. What this means is that even those Russians who do not typically endorse Putin support territorial expansion.

Smoke rises in the sky over the city after a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine September 21, 2023. (©REUTERS/Vladyslav Sodel)

Imperialist Trends

As Russia is a dictatorship, some may naturally question the reliability of its public opinion polls. However, similar public sentiment was evident even in the relatively democratic 1990s. This was a period of relatively fair elections, with lower house elections held in 1993, 1995, and 1999. Despite this, each time, the Russian majority consistently favored imperialist, old communist, and territorial expansionist parties. Parties that supported freedom and democracy were always in the minority. 

In the 1993 parliamentary elections, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) won the most seats. At the time, the LDPR was led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, known for his views that were far more radical than Putin's. In the 1995 and 1999 elections, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) became the leading party. The CPRF is the successor party to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. 

Also, in the 1996 presidential election, then-President Boris Yeltsin barely defeated the CPRF candidate in a run-off. At that point, Yeltsin had already started several wars in the former Soviet bloc, including the First Chechen War.

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The Future of Russian Imperialism

As these trends demonstrate, Russia's territorial expansion is not solely due to the personality of its leaders. On the contrary, it reflects the desires of the Russian people. Given Russia's history of expansionism, it will likely remain a defining national characteristic for the foreseeable future. 

Even if Putin leaves power, Russian imperialism will continue under the next leader. That is why we must continually prepare for future threats from Russia rather than hoping that it will change one day. To prevent the recurrence of another disastrous war, we must remain vigilant against Russia and be ready to defend ourselves.

International political scientist Andrii Gurenko, the author of this article, at The Sankei Shimbun Osaka Head Office on February 2, 2023. (©Sankei by Mizue Torikoshi)

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Andrii Gurenko

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