What Putin Really Wants
Daniel Davis /
Military aggression is no surprise coming from Russia—it’s what Russia’s been doing for generations. But Americans might be surprised to learn the motivations behind that aggression. What’s going through Putin’s mind when he invades Crimea and wages war in eastern Ukraine?
Today, we address those questions and more with Nolan Peterson, who is The Daily Signal’s foreign correspondent. Peterson is based in Ukraine and has covered Russia’s aggression in that country for several years.
We also cover the following stories:
- President Donald Trump continues to rail on Baltimore as “corrupt.”
- Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. women’s soccer team actually earned more than the men’s team.
- America’s approval of tech companies has plummeted.
The Daily Signal podcast is available on Ricochet, iTunes, SoundCloud, Google Play, and Stitcher. All of our podcasts can be found at DailySignal.com/podcasts. If you like what you hear, please leave a review. You can also leave us a message at 202-608-6205 or write us at [email protected]. Enjoy the show!
Daniel Davis: I’m joined now by Nolan Peterson. He is The Daily Signal’s foreign correspondent.
If you’ve read some long-form Daily Signal stories from either Europe or the Middle East, or some other exotic place in the world, usually with lots of pictures with his name on them, you’ve probably read a piece by Nolan.
So thanks for joining us in-studio, Nolan.
Nolan Peterson: It’s great to be back.
Davis: So you’re here in the U.S. just as the Russia-Trump investigation is coming to a climax, or maybe a low-max, we might call it, given the flat and disappointing Mueller hearing from the Democrats’ perspective.
For two and a half years, we’ve heard Russia, Russia, Russia, collusion, collusion. You’ve actually been in Eastern Europe, and you’ve seen a lot more of Russia and Russians than most Americans or U.S. politicians ever have, or ever will.
How do you think they are thinking about what’s unfolding here in America with the Russia investigation?
Peterson: Well, I think that, you know, one thing we should understand about the Russian government is that they fundamentally see their country in a conflict with ours.
And because of that, one of their overarching objectives is to both destabilize our country from within and sort of discredit the American brand around the world.
They really want to diminish America’s standing and presence internationally. So, I think when they look at the political chaos going on around the Trump “collusion” story, I think they just sit back and smile and say that for a few hundred thousand dollars in investments in Facebook, they’ve created this firestorm of controversy. And that’s exactly what they wanted to achieve.
I’d say they had less intent to actually influence the election than they did to just destabilize our country and to create chaos, and to undermine the faith of Americans in their own country, as well as the faith in people around the world.
The American democracy is the benchmark for these sort of lives they want to aspire to.
Davis: Yeah, on that count, they’ve certainly been successful. When you think of the Russian media as well—I mean, you’re exposed to a lot of Russian media. How are they portraying all of this?
Peterson: I think they see it as somewhat of a comedy act. I think, initially, the Russian media was quite receptive to the notion of a Trump presidency, mainly because Hillary Clinton was not very widely liked in Russia.
But now they look at this political chaos in our country, they think it’s funny that America has stooped to these low levels. And I think it reinforces a lot of political narratives that have been long running in Russia, which is that America’s democracy is inherently unfair, unjust, and unstable.
Davis: So, I want to get at that. You talked about how they think of the United States, our system, is unjust and unstable. Why?
We clearly have the other opinion. We see ourselves as a beacon of freedom and liberty and justice. And Russia, during the Cold War, was the Evil Empire, and now [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is asserting his aggression and trying to cobble back together that empire.
Why do they see their system as morally superior and better?
Peterson: I don’t know if they rationally do.
I think that most Russians who travel abroad would agree that life in America is overwhelmingly better than life in Russia.
But I think that when you look at it from sort of the higher level of the Russian authorities, the leadership, I think they need to make the case to the Russian people that the American model of democracy is not better, because they don’t want the Russians wanting democracy like the Ukrainians did.
I think, pivoting to Ukraine with that notion, I think that the Russian leadership has to show that if you choose a democratic future, a pro-European, a pro-NATO future, then you’re destined for war and chaos.
And so, I think when the Russians look to our country, they want to prove to the Russian people that the American dream is not worth aspiring to.
Moreover, I think that the Russian leadership is also, they see themselves in a long war with America. And I don’t think they’re not trying to supplant us as, you know, the world’s superpower by any stretch.
But I think they are trying to sort of reassert their power in their region of the world. And I think because of that, they need to make the case to post-Soviet countries that trying to emulate America is not their best path forward.
Certainly, I think that, as Americans, I think it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of all the political debates, the fact that the world is always watching us. I think, you know, the world is not France, Germany, United Kingdom.
And there’s a lot of countries in the world that are kind of hovering on that tipping point, that threshold of whether or not they’re fully going to commit to a democratic future or not. And for those countries, we really have to prove to them, through our example, that democracy truly is the best way forward.
So, as an American who’s lived abroad now for five years, sometimes it’s a bit embarrassing when these stories of political chaos percolate out of America and seemed to dominate the news cycles.
America does a lot of great things and I think that should be the dominant headline, and the dominant storyline about our country—and not this constant political bickering. In fact, I think we’re sort of self-sabotaging our democratic reputation around the world.
Davis: How do Russians think about President Trump? I mean, if there was any candidate in the 2016 race that was at least depicted in the media as being pro-Russia, it was him. And his rhetoric has been more friendly to Russia than past administrations.
How do they feel? Do they see him as more friendly to Russia than past presidents, or has that changed?
Peterson: I think, initially, they had high expectations that Trump would be a much more pro-Russian president.
I think that, you know, a lot of his rhetoric has certainly sort of extended an olive branch to Russia. But when you look at his policies, he’s actually drawn a pretty hardline against Russia, particularly in Ukraine.
The Trump administration approved the deliveries of lethal weapon systems to Ukraine—the Javelin missiles as well as sniper systems. And America’s presence in Eastern Europe has steadily increased under Trump’s watch.
So, I think from a policy perspective, Trump has actually not been seen as a very positive force for Russia, because he has dug in America’s heels in Eastern Europe and is saying that, no, Russia’s aggression in that region won’t be tolerated, and that if countries want to choose a democratic future, they have every right to do so as sovereign nations.
I think that as the years have gone by, whatever high expectations, or glee, that Russians might have had for the Trump presidency has been supplanted by a disappointment.
And I think now, they tried to belittle Trump. They tried to undermine his image, at least in the media, portraying him like a comic figure. They make fun of him, portraying him as, you know, like he doesn’t—they try to just basically make fun of his personality in the media to belittle his stature among the Russian people.
Davis: Well, it’s been several years now—I guess, five years—since Russia invaded Crimea, or annexed Crimea.
Davis: How are the Ukrainians feeling now about the Trump administration and their alliance with the U.S. in light of the aggression that they’ve constantly felt from Russia?
Peterson: Yeah, I think, to start off answering that question, I think it’s important to remember that there is an ongoing trench war in Ukraine, that Russia invaded Ukraine. They sent in troops, tanks, artillery.
It’s a land war. It’s a limited land war. It’s basically quarantined to an entrenched front line about 250-miles-long in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas region.
The war has killed about 13,000 Ukrainians so far, and every day, by ones and twos, more soldiers are dying and civilians, too. Which is, I mean, I think we would all agree, it’s pretty bizarre to contemplate the fact that there’s a trench war going on in Ukraine that is getting hardly any media attention whatsoever.
I think when Trump was first elected, a lot of Ukrainians were a bit concerned about some of the rhetoric that was perceived to be pro-Russian.
But as I said, Trump’s policies have actually been much more supportive to Ukraine than [former President Barack] Obama’s were. And so, I think that, you know, particularly when you talk about the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine, I have to say that Ukrainians feel more at ease and more comfortable with the notion of American support than they did under Obama.
They were deeply, deeply disappointed by the fact that Obama never followed through in delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine. And Ukraine is one of the world’s top weapons-exporting nations. So, they don’t necessarily need the weapons, but it definitely sends a loud and clear message to Moscow that we have Ukraine’s back if we’re willing to deliver weapons to them.
So, I think that right now in Ukraine, there is a sense that, you know, they can maybe look past some of the rhetoric that might be worrisome, and they look at the policies. It’s certainly clear that America is on Ukraine’s side, and we’re there to stay.
Davis: Have those weapons been helping the Ukrainian army? And what’s the outlook at this point for the war?
Peterson: Well, actually, those weapons are under lock and key. They’re not allowed near the front lines. Without a doubt, they are a symbolic gesture. They’re not actually being used in the war whatsoever.
If there was a large-scale tank invasion, I think the weapons, they would be lethal, but they wouldn’t be enough to turn the tide of a war with Russia in Ukraine’s favor.
But America has done a lot more than just the Javelins, though. I mean, we’ve delivered decommissioned Coast Guard cutters to help bolster Ukraine’s naval power in the Sea of Azov, where there’s been a lot of tension in the last year or so between Russia and Ukraine.
We’re helping to train their military. We had a very large-scale combat airpower exercise in Ukraine recently, which is the largest since the Cold War, which is organized by the United States.
So, America has a very prominent role in developing Ukraine’s military, and also their economy, which I think is one of the most important aspects of all this, is that if the Ukrainians are successful, if after having overthrown a pro-Russian president in 2014, and making clear that they want their country’s future in Europe, and they want a pro-democratic future, they want to be part of NATO one day.
If Ukraine is able to turn itself around and have a prosperous, bright future, that sends a really clear message to Russians—that if they want to lift themselves up by the bootstraps; if they want a better future; if they want to enjoy the perks of democracy like the Ukrainians now have, then they should think about perhaps changing the arc of their political future.
Davis: Ukraine recently elected a new president, a comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Davis: It kind of makes me think of Jon Stewart running for president, a comedian getting elected. Is he taken seriously by Putin? Does he know what he’s doing as president?
Peterson: Well, I think Zelenskyy had zero political experience. I’m sure that the—this is just my extrapolation, but I would think that within the Kremlin, they thought that they had a political neophyte on their hands who could be manipulated.
But I have to say that the image that Zelenskyy projects is a damaging one to Putin. And when you look at Zelenskyy, you know, on the day of his inauguration, he was out walking through crowds of Ukrainians clapping hands like he was running onto, like an NFL player running onto a football field.
And he’s very dynamic, and he’s exciting. He knows how to use social media. He knows how to use his image on TV spots. And so, he’s really engaging, particularly among young Ukrainians.
And when you compare that image with Putin’s sort of famous gunslinger walk, and his very reserved sort of demeanor. And I think he just …
Davis: Shirtless riding of horses.
Peterson: Exactly. It’s kind of this antiquated, like, tough Soviet man image that doesn’t really play well to the millennial generation in Russia. …
But I think, you know, young people in Russia, when they look at Zelenskyy, I imagine that there is a bit of a notion that they want that kind of optimistic dynamism in their country, too.
And so, I think, in a way, although I’m sure Putin is not particularly intimidated by Zelenskyy’s resume of political accomplishments, I think he might, and this is all, of course, just my opinion, speculation.
But I think there may be some concern that this positive image, this uplifting image that Zelenskyy is portraying could spark some sort of yearning among young Russians for something similar in their own country.
Davis: Well, a lot of young Russians never knew the Soviet Union. I mean, I never knew it. And you, I guess, I assume you never knew it. It really collapsed when you were either really little or …
Davis: I mean, we’re kind of past that now. So, Putin does evoke a bygone era. Are the young people still buying into that at all, or they’re just past it?
Peterson: Now? From what I’ve anecdotally observed through social media, I’d have to say that most or many young Russians are at the very least deeply skeptical of the propaganda, sort of inundation, they’ve been subjected to, particularly since 2014 when the war in Ukraine began.
I think a lot of young Russians are, they’re very technologically savvy. They’re all on the internet. They’re on social media. Many of them have traveled at some point in their lives. And so, they understand that America is not this cesspool of humanity that it’s been portrayed as in Russian media.
A majority of Ukrainians have family in Russia. And so, those Russians who have family in Ukraine, vice versa, through their communications, they have to know that Ukraine is not being controlled by a CIA-installed neo-Nazi government, as Russian media suggest.
So, young Russians are in touch with reality, and I think they are skeptical of the propaganda they receive. However, I think they are also deeply fearful of speaking out, because there is a pretty tight security crackdown in Russia, particularly against speaking out against the Kremlin online.
So, many people, I think, at this point are probably too afraid to voice their skepticism about the government or the propaganda that they receive.
Davis: The image of Putin that we have is a very strong, aggressive image. But do you think that’s overstated? Do you think he feels more backed into a corner culturally then we might think?
Peterson: Yeah, I think that there’s that old saying, right, that Russia plays chess while we play checkers.
I think Russia does look farther down the road than some of our strategists may. But I also think that much of what Russia has done recently is from a position of weakness—particularly, I think, that the powers that be in Russia want to stay in power, and that when things like Ukraine’s 2014 revolution occur, they understand that, that brush-fire revolution could very easily blow over into Russia.
And so, I think that, in my opinion, Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine had a lot to do with proving to Russians that a pro-democratic revolution will result in nothing but war, violence, and economic misery.
But Russia is facing a pretty bleak future right now, particularly demographically. The average Russian male barely makes it into his 60s. Alcoholism is killing them at a pretty prolific and expeditious rate.
So, I think that Russia, looking forward, knows that if it wants to survive as a globally significant country, it has to do something about its demographic crisis.
And so, perhaps, in some ways, that is motivating President Putin and the powers in the Kremlin to be more aggressive, and to try to maybe bring back some of these post-Soviet Slavic states into Russia’s fold to bolster Russia’s power and influence.
But I think, you know, you have to look at that, that there’s not some Russian plan to become another superpower to conquer the world.
I think it’s more just to preserve Russia’s stature as a country, and they know that they have to do something now, because in the next 50 years, or certainly the next century, Russia may simply just die off into insignificance.
Davis: So, you live in Ukraine. You actually recently married a Ukrainian, which you wrote a piece about, which was wonderful.
Peterson: Thank you.
Davis: So, you spend a lot of time also in eastern Ukraine in these battle zones, hanging out with soldiers who are fighting the Russians. What’s it like to be a journalist in a place where there is not a long-standing tradition of free press?
Peterson: That’s a great question.
I think I’ve observed initially that most soldiers, most Ukrainian soldiers, are very reluctant to have journalists in their midst.
I think the Soviet legacy, even for people who don’t remember the Soviet Union firsthand, but the people who grew up in a post-Soviet country, there is certainly a distrust of foreign media.
And I think also it’s important to understand that when the war began, Ukraine was just facing this propaganda tsunami from Russia, portraying the war in eastern Ukraine as a legitimate uprising against an illegitimate government in Kyiv, which was not the case.
But I think because of that, the Ukrainian authorities were really just kind of caught unawares about how to react to this. And their initial reaction was just to not let foreign journalists out there, because they couldn’t control what those foreign journalists were going to write.
But I have to hand it to the Ukrainian government. In 2015, they started allowing foreign journalists to embed with their military in combat. And I was selected to be among the first who were to embed with the Ukrainian regular army in combat.
And I think that they discovered through my reporting, and the reporting of other journalists, that there is a value to allowing foreign journalists to be out there to tell the truth—the fact that it is a war, that the cease-fire is a complete failure, but there’s fighting ongoing every day.
And the very notion that when I was out there, you know, a steady drumbeat of artillery, pretty much around the clock, that Ukrainians’ adversaries were using drones to spot tank fire.
There is electronic warfare going on. Just very sophisticated modern war, which you know, from my perspective, particularly as a former special operations pilot in the U.S. Air Force, I understood that that level of combat, that level of combat proficiency is not something that can be picked up by a disgruntled factory-worker tractor driver who wants to stand up against the Ukrainian government.
Russia’s regular military presence had a decisive and very influential role in that war. So, I think as time has gone on, the Ukrainian government has been more receptive to having foreign journalists out there, principally just to help tell the truth about what’s happening among Ukrainian soldiers.
I think, at first, if I introduce myself as a journalist, they kind of roll their eyes like, “All right, we’ll show you around.” But when they know that I’m an American; moreover, that I’m a combat veteran of Afghanistan, and many of these soldiers’ fathers fought in Afghanistan as Soviet soldiers, well, there’s an instant camaraderie. There’s an instant trust.
And I think more than anything, they simply feel grateful that an American would go so far and undertake such great risks to tell their story. And I think that they feel a sort of a common cause, a common purpose.
They feel an affection for our country. And I think that I’ve learned one thing over my years of being a war correspondent, which I never understood as a member of the military, which is that our country represents what they’re fighting for.
We are their beacon of hope. Yeah. We represent a force for good in their eyes. And our country really means something to them. And we should be proud of that. And like I said earlier, we need to make sure that we uphold that reputation and live up to our promise here at home.
Davis: Well, this is a sobering reminder of what America is. Nolan, we appreciate your work so much on the ground, and your excellent reporting. Thanks for being on the podcast.
Peterson: Thank you so much for having me.