Stephen Kotkin on Ukraine and Russia

Stephen Kotkin, professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, has devoted his career to studying Russia and the Soviet Union and is considered the foremost Western authority on the Soviet archives which were declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He is author of the planned three volume biography of Stalin, the first two volumes of which, Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 and Stalin, Vol. II, Waiting for Hitler, 1928–1941 have been published to date (links are to my reviews).

Here, he sits down for an hour long conversation with Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what may have motivated Vladimir Putin to embark on such a risky course, the reaction of the West, the perils such a confrontation pose for all parties, and potential consequences for other potential conflicts such as China vs. Taiwan.


I watched it to the end – but not sure that was a good use of a Friday evening.

Prof. Kotkin may be a great historian, but he seemed far too confident about the strength of the West – and far too casual about Russia and China. He talked about our strength in investing in human capital and technology – when it is obvious to a blind dog on a dark night that we are falling far behind in those areas. He talked about our strength in democracy and freedom – when people who tried to petition our government languish in jail essentially as political prisoners. He acknowledged that the Ukraine was a poor, badly run, highly corrupt country – but now we are supposed to see it as something we should be prepared to take giant risks to defend.

For a historian, he seemed to be oddly unaware of how recent the boundaries of the Ukraine are. Nor did he properly address the question of why NATO continued to expand after the collapse of the USSR – just a few token words about “freedom” again. He praised Western intelligence services for predicting that Russia would invade the Ukraine. Some prediction! Russia had been screaming from the rooftops that if the West continued to ignore its concerns about NATO expansion into the Ukraine, it was going to pursue military action. The real question is why the West failed to take Russia’s concerns seriously and thereby avoid the war? But Prof. Kotkin skipped past that.

To be fair, Prof. Kotkin did point out that Russia could react to Western sanctions in a variety of ways. They have the technology to cut subsea internet cables and cripple the West. Well, at least it would not be nuclear war!

Disappointed! I had hoped for more insights from Prof. Kotkin.


I found the discussion of what Russia’s goals might be in launching such a wide-scale assault against Ukraine interesting. As Kotkin points out, it is difficult to imagine a country of 145 million successfully occupying and assimilating a country of 45 million, almost as large as Texas, 78% of whose population are ethnically Ukranian, not Russian. Splitting off the eastern, majority Russian, provinces and obtaining a land bridge to the Crimea would be achievable and sustainable objectives, but that could almost certainly be accomplished without an assault on the capital and other cities.

Perhaps this is a classic case of an autocratic leader disconnected from reality and without input from advisors who better understand it, just as Kotkin diagnoses Stalin’s backing North Korea’s invasion of the South after concluding the South’s allies would not defend it.

Or, perhaps, as “Theodore Dalrymple” (Anthony Daniels) suggests, it’s steroids.


He asserts:

Denazification, indeed! Had he failed to appreciate that Ukraine, not noted throughout its history for its philo-Semitism, had elected a Jewish president, and that by a large majority, thereby suggesting a major cultural shift in the country?

But note the actual election results:

Zelenskyy drew the greatest support in the Russian-dominated regions.

His lack of support in the west was more significant in the first round:

The Neo-Nazi assertions do have a foundation:


There has been some speculation – probably as uninformed as everything else in the Twitter war over the Ukraine – that both Putin and Zelensky are trying to do a very difficult balancing job with respect to their own hard-liners. There have been rumors that Zelensky and his family would become martyrs in a “Russian” attack if he dared to try to negotiate a peace agreement with Russia.

That rumor about Zelensky seemed to be laughable. But reportedly one of the Ukrainian negotiation team was just taken out & shot by his fellow Ukrainians for “treason”. Really, we in the West should be asking our “leaders” to explain whether the Ukraine is a hill worth dying on?


After the Soviet breakup, why wasn’t NATO disbanded over time, and individual nations such as Germany, France, Italy, UK, etc, tasked with providing their own defense? Could it be because that would give less power to the U.S. deep state? Could it be the greed of nations not having to pay for their own defense? Do those nations shirking defense obligations bear much of the responsibility?

Nahh, lets all emotionally wave a two colored flag because three colors is too much for the majority of the world populous to try and remember for more than fifteen minutes.

Also, are western nations, democratic nations that listen, or oligarchs that dictate?

I hope Kotkin’s happy talk toward West regarding this war is true, but I have grave misgivings this crisis is expanding – I wonder if this is a global oligarch pivot from COVID-2019 - 2021 era…

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Kotkin stated at approximate 54 minute mark,

We need diplomatic process, somehow, which does not compromise Ukraine, but allow us to get out of a mutual maximalist escalation. We need stability more than Putin needs stability.

And goes on how Putin cannot occupy the entire country, like the U.S. could not occupy Iraq. Putin can break Ukraine and keep the best parts of it, and give back the rest to the Ukraine government.

I agree, and my opinioun is that is the likely outcome.

However, the monkey’s in charge of U.S. foreign policy could lead to a mutual maximalist escalation … stay tuned.

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