Russia’s war in Ukraine has shocked the world. Why did President Vladimir Putin order this invasion of Ukraine?
The Russian government has offered several explanations for its decision to use force. Russia’s main justification for the war concerns national security. Following the end of the Cold War, many countries in Eastern Europe that had previously been communist and under Soviet control joined NATO. Putin has long complained that this eastward expansion of NATO is a threat to Russia. He has also stated specifically that if Ukraine joined NATO this would present an unacceptable risk to Russia’s national security. These arguments, however, make little sense. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and while Ukraine wishes to join it is understood that it will be many years before it is able to do so. NATO, furthermore, is a defensive alliance that has never threatened Russia militarily. Indeed, before Russia invaded Ukraine, US President Joe Biden (and other western leaders) stated explicitly that NATO would not send forces to fight in Ukraine if war broke out. Then, once the war had begun, NATO refused to create a no-fly zone in Ukraine on the grounds that this would bring NATO and Russian forces into direct conflict. NATO, in other words, wants to avoid conflict with Russia. It is clear, then, whatever concerns Russians may have, that neither Ukraine nor NATO was a threat to Russia at the time Putin decided to invade.
Moscow has also claimed that military action was necessary to protect ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine from ‘genocide’. There is, though, and never has been, any evidence of genocide in Ukraine and these allegations are simply fabrications. Putin’s claim, thus, that a ‘special military operation’ (as the Russia government called the invasion) was needed to protect millions of people from genocide was widely viewed, outside Russia, as spurious. The related claim made by Putin, that it was necessary to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine was also absurd, given that Ukraine is far more democratic than Russia (where one man has held power for 22 years) and that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is a Jew.
Another possible explanation lies in Putin’s attitude towards Ukraine. Putin has made clear, over a period of years, that he does not recognize Ukrainian statehood or nationhood. He believes, rather, that Ukraine is an artificial state and that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. (Putin’s view, in other words, is that Ukrainians are really Russians). This view, shared by many Russians, is based on the fact that Russia and Ukraine spent most of their history in the same state, most recently the Soviet Union and before that the Russian Empire.
Putin’s Russia, moreover, has long sought to exert influence over Ukraine. In 2004, Russia interfered in Ukraine’s presidential election in an attempt to secure victory for a pro-Russia candidate. In 2014 a series of mass protests in Kyiv forced the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who was friendly towards Russia, out of office. Putin responded to this loss of influence in Kyiv by occupying and then annexing Crimea. Russia also instigated and supported an uprising against the Ukrainian government in the Donbas in the east of Ukraine, an area where many ethnic Russians live. As a result, parts of this region have been under the control of Russians since 2014.
The view of the Ukrainian people, however, is very different. In 1991, when the Soviet Union was breaking up, a referendum was held in Ukraine asking the people whether they supported the creation of an independent Ukraine. Some 92% voted for independence and Ukraine duly became an independent, sovereign state. It is also obvious from the Ukrainians’ fierce resistance to the Russian invasion that they consider themselves Ukrainian (not Russian) and do not wish to live under Russian control.
The Russian decision to invade, then, seems to have been driven by Putin’s imperialistic desire to control Ukraine. Putin’s other arguments about national security and the need to protect Russians in Ukraine are not believable and have generally not been accepted internationally. Indeed, Russia’s attack has been widely condemned as an unjustified act of aggression and the country is now subject to very strong economic sanctions. At present, the outcome of the war and its consequences remain unknown. Putin’s attempt to dominate Ukraine, though, seems unlikely to succeed because it is clear that this is something that the West and, more importantly, the Ukrainians themselves, are not prepared to accept.
Kenneth Wilson firstname.lastname@example.org
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