Russia in Ukraine: An Examination of Russian Motivations for Invasion
Matthew M. Ployhart
In 862, Vikings under the command of Oleg of Novgorod founded the Slavic state of Kievan Rus, which was situated in modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. From then on, from the state of Muscovy to the rule of Ivan (IV) the Terrible, from the Crimean War to the Bolshevik Revolution, to the Soviet Union, Russia has constantly been expanding or at least attempting to do so. Geographically speaking, Russia is the largest country in the world. Centuries of expansion have fostered this. Today, Russia has once again made its claim to power under Vladimir Putin: by invading its Western neighbor, Ukraine.
Since the Soviet Union (USSR) collapsed in 1991, tensions have remained high between Russia and Ukraine. These tensions have been expressed in various Russo-Ukrainian confrontations. In 1992, there was a dispute over which country had control over the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, a city Russia has a long history with, having lost it to the British and French in a gory siege in 1855 during the Crimean War, and was again a site of conflict during the Second World War. Despite tensions over the Black Sea Fleet's control, Ukraine ceded most of the fleet in exchange for Russian debt forgiveness. More recently, in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea – a peninsula jetting out from Ukraine into the Black sea – which “had its roots in a long history between the two former Soviet states.” Even more recently, fighting has occurred in the Donbas region of Ukraine between the Ukrainian federal forces and separatist fighters. The history between the two countries elucidates why they behave the way they do now, including the recent and ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia had been building up a military presence on its border with Ukraine for months, beginning in November 2021. Recently, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, continued to refer to Europe's largest war since 1945 a “special military operation.” Ukraine was not slow to respond.
Since the invasion began, millions of Ukrainians have evacuated the country. However, many remain fighting—on the ground, in the air, and even over the internet in cyber warfare as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy urges the country to fight on. “Ukrainian troops are mounting a stiffer-than-expected resistance to Russian forces…fighting with a resourcefulness and creativity that U.S. analysts said could trip up Russian troops for weeks or months to come,” The New York Times reported. Other nations are also collectively supporting Ukraine, positioning the war in a global context. According to Business Insider, “for the first time in its history, the European Union financed and purchased weapons for a country outside its borders.” During the initial week of the conflict, over one billion dollars of weapons and supplies were sent to Ukraine by just twenty-seven countries. All the while, countries such as Moldova, Finland, and Poland continue to gaze at Russia with nervous eyes. The war has pushed Finland and Sweden to apply for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Russia is not entirely without allies, either. Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that there were “no limits” to their friendship. However, while China has criticized Western sanctions imposed against Russia, they have not officially lent any help to Russia in any economic or military manner. Furthermore, Peterson Institute for International Economics published an article in early 2022 titled “China is too tied to the global economy to risk helping Russia”, in which they state that “China is not acting to undermine the economic and financial sanctions on Russia and indeed has moved to support the drive to isolate Russia economically.” Georgia State University professor Maria Repnikova even went as far as to state that “the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is a bit more symbolic than practical.”
Regardless, there is a war occurring in Ukraine: tens of thousands of deaths have occurred; cities such as Mariupol have been decimated; and many countries are sending aid and weaponry to Ukraine, with some others remaining neutral, as millions of people across the world contribute to relief efforts and activities in the country. Despite the heavy casualties on the battlefield, it is believed that Russia has had more of its soldiers killed than Ukraine. With all that considered, the question surfaces: why does Russia care so much about Ukraine, anyway?
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned the war could stretch on for years, as Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to control the whole of Ukraine. Stoltenberg also stressed the likelihood that Russian forces would refuel and resupply over the next few weeks and then presumably launch a new offensive in the country's Donbas (South-East) region (which is what indeed occurred, only twelve days after his suspicion went public). Clearly, Russia has maintained an interest in Ukraine.
Initially, Putin pushed claims of Nazis and genocide in Ukraine to justify the forcible Russian occupation of the country, in an effort to “demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine.” However, these excuses are entirely unfounded. Russia also cited security concerns before their invasion; interestingly, this may hold some truth (at least to Russia). One of Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine and establishing a new (likely pro-Russian) government was to prevent Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Some have speculated that Putin wishes to maintain a sort of “buffer” nation between Russia and the NATO countries.
However, it is now apparent that Russia’s goals have transformed into a desire to completely conquer the country rather than simply install a pro-Russian government, like that of neighboring Belarus. This is even more evident when one considers that, should Russia succeed in their capture of Ukraine, they would be extending their border all the way to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania – meaning that they would have NATO member states as their neighbors (which would be contrary to the goal of maintaining a buffer state between Russia and NATO members). Tatiana Stanovaya, from the analysis firm R.Politik and the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues simply: “Putin wants to end Ukraine as a current state.”
Vladimir Putin “has claimed Russians and Ukrainians are one people, denying Ukraine its long history and seeing today's independent state merely as an ‘anti-Russia project.’” While the Kremlin may be simply refusing to announce their true motives for invasion, this claim cannot be entirely discounted. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) states that Putin, to some degree – taking into account the Eastern Slavs of “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, who all trace their origins to the medieval Kyivan Rus commonwealth” – expresses the desire that “the modern states of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus should share a political destiny both today and in the future.” Thus, through this lens, Putin’s quest is one to dissolve unique Ukrainian and Belarusian identities. Putin has argued that foreign, Western nations attempting to bolster and respect such identities are advances against Russia.
Putin is very historically-minded, advocating for the unity of a people (particularly a “Slavic, Orthodox core”) into a “Russian empire,” much as the previous Soviet and Tsarist governments had sought to achieve. The CSIS notes that this is a prime example of what “historian Timothy Snyder calls the ‘politics of eternity,’ the belief in an unchanging historical essence.” This suggests that Putin’s ambitions extend beyond combating the threat of NATO to Russia militarily.
Many have speculated that Putin’s judgment is simply askew in his decision to invade Ukraine; such individuals claim that his health appears to be poor, he has remained in relative isolation for years, and, as The Atlantic points out, he has surrounded himself with “yes-men” and advisors who are too afraid to dispute his decisions, even if they believe them to be miscalculated or damaging. Regardless of the cause, however, Russia’s presence in Ukraine appears to have a long future and looms very large as it plays out in the disruption of global trade and the issuing of sanctions on Russia from around the world.
However, while the situation is extremely dire, there may be a silver lining. Although countries such as Moldova (which borders Ukraine to the West) have already come under threat by Russia, Putin “has triggered the opposite effect of what he wanted. He wanted to weaken NATO, but NATO is now much stronger.