Why Russia is invading Ukraine, Explained

by Linus Höller, undergraduate political science researcher at Northwestern University

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was by no stretch of the imagination inevitable, but the factors that culminated in Putin eventually giving his troops the “go” were a long time in the making and include old territorial grievances, more recent Russian concerns about NATO and a healthy dose of authoritarianism. Let’s break down some key facts underlying the invasion. 

WHY is Russia invading Ukraine?

The short answer is: Because Putin said so. He has ruled Russia since the year 2000, has established a firm grip over its state apparatus and particularly its security forces, which he originated from. In his 22 years in power, he has hollowed out Russia’s once-promising, western-style democracy and transformed the country back into a dictatorship. Even if people may have disagreed – and many certainly do and did – if Putin really set his mind to it, they wouldn’t be able to stop him short of a revolution or a coup. 

Putin is (usually) a cool, calculated geopolitician, albeit one who is also driven by emotional and ideological goals. He sees it as his personal mission to re-establish Russia as a formidable power, having called the collapse of the USSR the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia plunged into a deep crisis with sky-high inflation and a very weak state. Putin turned things around for good, but Russia to this day is hardly a superpower to rival the U.S.’ global reach and might and its vulnerability to sanctions proves that. Putin has played his hand well, using Russia’s strengths – for instance, energy exports – to gain leverage and influence abroad. He has also forayed into foreign military adventures, sending his military to Syria and gaining leverage with a number of African governments. Showing that Russia is capable of invading Europe’s largest country certainly helps the image as a formidable power for audiences at home and abroad, and reminding the West that he has nuclear weapons to match theirs – another of the few areas where Russia remains a superpower – does its part, too. 

Russia believes it has the historical right to dominate its neighborhood. An infamous Kremlin doctrine describes the former Soviet republics of the USSR – so most of central Asia, the Caucasus, Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine – as Russia’s “near abroad,” the modern equivalent of spheres of influences that great powers had in the 19th century. Russia expects other powers not to meddle in its near abroad and reserves the right to intervene if there are political developments it doesn’t like. Certainly, all of these countries’ stories are tightly linked with Russia’s – some more amicably, some less. But at the latest after the collapse of the USSR, they had the right, under international law, to choose their own path – including ones that Russia doesn’t like. This generally accepted understanding of sovereignty in the 21st century clashes with Russia’s perceptions. 

Putin especially doesn’t like seeing democracies in countries similar to his. Ukraine and Belarus might be the most Russia-like of the former Soviet republics, which helps explain why Russia was so keen to prop up Belarusian dictator Lukashenko when popular protests almost ousted him in 2020. The success of a democratic leader in a former part of the USSR, Putin fears, might show the Russian people at home that there are, in fact, alternatives to Putin’s authoritarian style of rule. This is why the series of color revolutions spooked him so much. Two of them took place in countries Russia would later invade: Georgia, which had a revolution in 2003 and was invaded five years later, and Ukraine, which had a revolution in 2004 and was invaded in 2014 – after another revolution, the Euromaidan. This latest revolution was particularly irksome to the Kremlin because not just did it yet again display the power of the people in a former Soviet republic, it also ousted a pro-Russian leader and replaced him with much more Euro-friendly and pro-NATO governments. 

This was bad for Russia because Ukraine is crucial to Russian ambitions. Russia is intrinsically handicapped by its geography. It might be the largest country in the world, but a lot of it is arctic tundra and almost all of it is empty. But it results in a huge border to defend. Russia’s navy also has a problem: Most of its ports are blocked off by ice for large parts of the year. Russia’s most important warm-water port is located in Sevastopol, on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which became part of an independent Ukraine. A lot of Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe, which are essential for Russia’s economy and so to Putin’s rule, transit through Ukraine (although Russia has worked hard to build up alternative routes, including through the Baltic Sea directly to Germany via Nord Stream 2, a project that has now been halted by Germany’s government). Even worse for Russia: In the early 2010s, Ukraine discovered large amounts of gas in its own territorial waters, threatening Russia’s energy monopoly over Europe. 

Russia has long advocated for a pro-Moscow or at least neutral Ukraine, also because Moscow feels threatened by the West. There are too many points of friction and grievances between these two sides to list here, but suffice to say that even after the Cold War ended, there remained a substantial level of mistrust even as on the surface, relations thawed and even seemed amicable. Western missteps and Russian unease combined to make it increasingly unlikely that Russia was going to become an active member of the western world. Putin’s application to NATO, for instance, was never taken seriously. In the mid-2000s, relations markedly cooled off between the two sides again. By then, NATO had considerably expanded eastward, including former communist-block countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania and the former Soviet republics in the Baltic states, among others. While NATO and the West maintained that this was not intended as getting a leg up on Russia, it sure felt that way to the Kremlin, who perceived NATO’s primary purpose as still being countering Russia. While “encirclement” by the Western military forces might be a bit of an exaggeration, Russia certainly felt uneasy with NATO troops up against its border near its vital city of St. Petersburg and close also to its capital Moscow. Both Georgia and Ukraine toyed with the idea of NATO membership – a freedom that Russia did not wish to afford any countries in its near abroad. The fear of invasion sits deep in Moscow from Napoleon and Hitler and many others like them, who used European Russia’s flatness to their own advantage and caused unspeakable suffering. Putin feels like the West is out to get him and his country again – and its reactions to the 2008 Georgian war and in particular the 2014 Ukrainian war served to strengthen this feeling. 

HOW is Putin justifying the invasion?

Under Putin’s rule, Russia has worked to create a sharply anti-Western and rather militarized society. 

A complex combination of factors played a role in why Ukraine and Russia have been locked in conflict for the last eight years and these grievances and concerns are difficult to fix. But a full-scale land invasion, something the world hasn’t seen since America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Europe hasn’t seen since the end of World War II, was not inevitable. According to leaks from inside the Russian administration, it increasingly appears to have been the extraordinarily misguided decision of one lone dictator: Vladimir Putin.

In a pre-recorded speech that sounded more like the ramblings of a deranged history buff than of a world leader, Putin described his reasons for invasion. He said Ukraine was a fake country that owed its entire existence to the Russian communists. Ukraine, in his view, was hijacked by the West against the will of its people and was led by a band of drug-using neo-Nazis. He also accused Ukraine of wanting to develop nuclear weapons. 

None of this is true. Ukraine has existed in various forms for hundreds of years. It had two successful recent revolutions, the more recent of which resulted in the creation of a flawed but nonetheless distinctly democratic system, which has resulted in free elections and governments that aligned the country with the West. A fringe group of fascist militants grabbed media attention after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and emergence of separatists in the east, and this neo-Nazi militia was formally incorporated into the country’s army, something that sparked criticism – but by no means do neo-Nazis call the shots (no pun intended) in Ukraine. In the last election, their party received 2% of the vote and 0 seats in parliament. And Ukraine was one of just four countries that have voluntarily given up their nuclear weapons (Ukraine inherited a massive stockpile from the USSR) – in exchange for guarantees that it would never be invaded – a deal signed, among others, by Russia. 

The immediate reasons for war were obviously contrived. But even so, it is important to try to understand some of the more long-term causes of Russia’s actions if one hopes to get a glimpse into Putin’s mind. In the end, however, one fact is unquestionably true: This senseless, avoidable war was Vladimir Putin’s choice.

Cover image: Yan Boechat/VOA

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