The conflict between Russia and Ukraine stems from the convergence of different causes that range from the historical ties that bind the two countries and the internal conflicts in the Ukrainian social and political realms to the strategic importance of Ukraine and other Ukrainian territories such as Crimea and the geopolitical interest of Russia.
Note that the Russian Armed Forces began crossing the Ukraine border in February 2022. This marked the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The United States and the European Union noted that this development was tantamount to military aggression. Both political actors and several other countries subsequently imposed a series of sanctions targeting the Russian economy and several Russian oligarchs.
Ukraine mobilized its Armed Forces and encouraged citizens to participate in the armed struggle. Several parties of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization such as Germany and other European countries such as Poland sent out military aid in the form of military hardware and logistical support to supplement the Ukrainian military.
Nevertheless, as the most powerful figure in Russia and one of the most influential political actors in the international community, it is interesting to understand the motivation behind the decision of Vladimir Putin to attack Ukraine. What does he intend to achieve? Why would he risk getting the ire of other Western superpowers? What does he really want in Ukraine?
Understanding the Motivation of Vladimir Putin Behind His Invasion of Ukraine
Preventing the Expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe
The relationship between NATO and Ukraine began in 1992. There were several attempts from the Ukrainian government to become a party of the biggest collective defense organization in the world. For example, in 2008, it introduced the Membership Action Plan. But the plan to be a NATO member was shelved when pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was elected the new president of Ukraine in the 2010 national election.
Following the Russian-Ukraine conflict that started in 2014 and the subsequent annexation of Crimea in the same year, the Membership Action plan was revived. The Constitution of Ukraine was also amended in 2019 to include specific provisions that made membership in NATO and the European Union a norm and part of the strategic national agenda.
Russia strongly opposed the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe. On 12 February 2008, Putin warned that his country might resort to targeting Ukraine if it joints the Western collective defense alliance and allowed the United States to deploy missile defense shields and establish military bases on its soil. Then-Ukrainian President Yanukovych assured Russia and Putin that his foreign policy remained non-aligned.
But the Euromaidan or Maidan Uprising broke out across Ukraine beginning in the latter part of 2013 that eventually culminated with the removal of Yanukovych from office. The majority of the Ukrainian population was not pleased with the decision of their then-president to scrap off the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement.
The unrest in Ukraine also included a series of armed conflicts with pro-Russian separatist factions. Several Ukrainian territories became breakaway states after declaring their independence and aligning themselves with Russia in 2014. These include the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. There were allegations that the Russian Armed Forces extended military support to these separatist factions.
Note that the tension between Ukraine and Russia worsened at this point. Nevertheless, beginning 2021, there were several reports that Russia was positioning troops near the Ukrainian border. Western international actors such as the U.S. government and the European Union warned of an impending invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces.
Putin finally presented to the United States a list of demands he argued must be satisfied to prevent a large-scale armed conflict with Ukraine. These include the formal cessation of the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe and a permanent freeze in the expansion of the military infrastructure of the collective defense organization in former Soviet territories. It also asked NATO to stop providing Ukraine with military assistance.
Insisting Ukraine as Historically and Culturally Tied to Russia
American scholar Jeffrey Gedmin wrote in 2014 that Putin has justified the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 as the will of the Crimean residents. A status referendum held on 16 March 2014 resulted in 97 percent of the local population voting to become a subject of the Russian Federation. Note that the voter turnout was at 83 percent.
Russia claimed further that the referendum was conducted in full compliance with established and accepted democratic procedures and international norms. However, Gedmin reiterated that the process was flawed. Ukraine refused to recognize the referendum, maintaining that it violated its national laws. Several Western actors have argued that the procedure violated international law and the sovereignty of Ukraine.
However, regardless of the reactions from Ukraine and other Western countries and supranational organizations, Vladimir Putin has built a narrative around the existence of sizeable pro-Russian citizens in Ukraine who have long clamored for being part of the Russian Federation and the Eurasian Economic Union.
Writing for The Atlantic, Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University fellow Anne Applebaum mentioned that Putin has declared in the past that Ukraine is not a country, that its existence is an accident, and that its sense of nationhood is not real. The Russian president has disseminated this narrative through his public pronouncements and state-sponsored propaganda. Applebaum explained further that Putin is not a Russian nationalist but an imperialist.
Putin penned a lengthy essay and published it in July 2021 via the official website of the Russian Federation. He described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people,” while suggesting further that the West has corrupted the people of Ukraine and forced them out of their Russian heritage to create a manufactured identity that serves the interest of Western powers.
He recognized that the conflict between the two countries is the consequence of their own mistakes made at different periods but asserted further it is also a result of efforts made by the West to undermine their unity. He was essentially laming the United States and the European Union while also alleging that their attempt to separate Ukraine from Russia is part of the “divide and rule” strategy that has been used by the West in the past.
The essay included some historical backgrounder The Russian president mentioned that the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus and historically and culturally bound by the Old Russian language and economic cooperation. He further claimed that Orthodoxy determines the present affinity of these people.
Putin also explained the etymological origin of the word “Ukraine,” explaining that it came from the Old Russian word “okraina,” which means periphery. Documents from the 12th century also described “Ukrainians” as a collective term that represented the frontier guards who protected the external borders of what he deems and asserts as a united territory of people who share similar language origins and cultural heritage.
Alternative Explanations Behind the Motivation of Putin for Invading Ukraine
Foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall wrote in The Guardian that there are numerous theories explaining what Putin wants in Ukraine. One of these is an attempt to revive the sphere of influence of Russia in Eastern Europe, which is similar to the influence held by the former Soviet Union. Another is to demonstrate Russia as a superpower.
The status of Russia as a global superpower is unquestionable. After all, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation remains one of the largest and strongest in the world in terms of size and capabilities. A display of military strength advances not only the global political agenda of Russia and its standing in the international community but also the personal image of Putin as the most powerful figure in Russian society.
Furthermore, another theory is the strategic importance of Ukraine. Note that the Crimean peninsula has economic and military significance for Russia. Controlling the territory means controlling the Black Sea region and a portion of Eastern Europe. Putin does not want Ukraine to fall under the influence of the European Union and NATO.
It is also interesting to note that some analysts have theorized that Putin has considered democracy in Ukraine as a threat to his leadership. Ukrainians have enjoyed free speech and unrestricted media while also the freedom to elect their leaders. As an autocrat with uncontested political authority, the Russian president fears that Ukraine might inspire the Russians to clamor for democracy—something that would put him out of power.
The unexpected invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has also been perceived as an attempt by Putin to exploit the current developments in global affairs. Some commentators have posited that the Russian president has sensed weakness in Western power—with the United States having war fatigue and directing its attention toward China.
Nevertheless, the exact reason behind the motivation of Putin for invading Ukraine remains unclear. What is more definite is that he has used a revisionist take on the history between the Russians and Ukrainians to rationalize and substantiate his attempt to prevent Ukraine from aligning itself with the West. Joining the European Union will make the country economically aligned with Europe while joining NATO will provide it with entitlements that come from being a member of the biggest collective defense military alliance.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Applebaum, A. 2022. “The Reason Putin Would Risk War.” The Atlantic. Available online
- Gedmin, J. 2014. “Beyond Crimea: What Vladimir Putin Really Wants.” World Affairs. 177(2): 8-16. JSTOR: 43556196
- Putin, V. 2021. On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Russian Federation. Available online
- Tisdall, S. 2022. “The Edge of War: What Exactly Does Putin Want in Ukraine.” The Guardian. Available online