Early Thursday morning, Feb 2022, Ukrainian citizens awakened to the sounds of bombs while thousands of Russian troops and tanks moved into the country on three fronts.
Soon after, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was launching a “special military operation” in Ukraine. This special operation includes sending in over 100,000 troops in a full scale invasion of the country that has resulted in dozens of Ukrainians having already been killed.
So how and why is this happening? This situation is incredibly complex but there are three main reasons.
1) Putin wants to restore the Russian Empire to its former glory
2) Russia wants to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and protect its border with Western Europe
3) Russian is protecting its economic interests
1. Restore Former Glory
To understand why Russia would invade its neighbor, you first have to understand the history behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the USSR ended in 1991, one of the world’s powerful nations split into 15 countries, Ukraine being one of them. Relations between Russia and its former satellite states have been tenuously fragile ever since. During the waning years of the Soviet Union, Western nations verbally promised former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev that they would respect Russia’s sphere of influence and not expand NATO onto its borders. This promise was short-lived as many former Soviet countries, such as Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO after 1997. Although there was never a written agreement, Putin is under the impression that NATO willingly deceived Gorbachev and has fostered mistrust for the West ever since.
In his most recent speech announcing the invasion, Putin listed all of the grievances Russia has suffered since the end of the USSR. He claimed that Russia has been habitually humiliated and wouldn’t take it any longer.
Putin was born during the height of the Cold War, started his career as a KGB agent, led its successor the FSB and became the country’s leader. He is a man of extreme nationalistic and patriotic pride who believes the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe”. He believes that these former Soviet state’s sovereignty is a mistake and their newfound alliance with the West/NATO to be an embarrassing humiliation. In previous speeches, such as in July 2021, he argued that Ukrainians and Russians are one people and hinted at his ultimate goal being the reunification of Ancient Rus. Now, it seems that Putin is trying to make this idealized goal into reality and Ukraine is paying the price.
2. NATO/Border Protection
Diplomatic relations between the two nations was actually cordial for years until 2014, when Ukraine authoritarian leader Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after he rejected a Ukrainian-EU trade treaty in favor of improving relations with Russia. Yanukovych had previously expressed tepid interest in joining NATO only to back away from the idea in 2010. Once he was removed from office, Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO was reignited. While that wasn’t going to happen for least several years, the idea that Ukraine, which borders Russia, would join a Western alliance was a frightening prospect for Russia. Ukraine would be one of many former Soviet states that moved away from Russia and positioned itself with Western Europe instead.
The United States has the Monroe Doctrine and Russia has the Putrin Doctrine. If Eastern Europe falls under Russian domain, then Western interference in Ukraine is an attack on Russian sovereignty.
In 2008, this belief was put into action when Russia invaded Georgia. Russian separatists had been fighting Georgian troops in the disputed region of of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Putin, under the guise of a peacekeeping mission to protect Russian citizens, invaded Georgia. While the war was over within weeks, Russia successfully amnexed the disputed regions, expelled ethnic Georgians and established permanent military bases. Putin has made it very clear that he is willing to use Russia’s military to protect Russian’s geopolitical influence in its neighboring states.
In 2014, Russia used the same playbook when they invaded Crimea, a disputed region in Ukraine where Russian separatists had been fighting Ukrainian troops in a shadow war for years. Once again, Russia invaded Crimea only to then quickly pull back their military a few weeks later, but not until illegally annexing the region.
In December 2021, after the invasions of Georgia and Crimea, Russia demanded that the U.S. prevent further eastward expansion of NATO, prevent any military bases from being established in former Soviet territories and disallow former Soviet states to join the alliance. This was an impossible demand. The US and it’s fellow NATO nations were never going to agree to prevent Ukraine or any other nation from joining their alliance. Even if such an agreement were to be accepted, how could either nation trust one another to uphold the agreement? For all of the mistrust that Russia has towards the West, it’s not like Putin is entirely trustworthy either. Putin has lied, misled and repeatedly went back on his word when it comes to diplomacy with the West. He has ordered cyberattacks on other nation’s infrastructure and their elections. In 2004, Ukraine agreed to dismantle 5000 nuclear warheads in exchange for security guarantees from the US and Russia. Clearly, Putin has shown little regard for previously agreed upon treaties.
Now, in February 2022, Russia once again declared two more disputed regions (Donetsk and Luhansk) as Russian territory where, wouldn’t you know it, Russian separatists had been fighting Ukrainian troops. This new invasion of Ukraine is itself a violation of the Minsk Agreement, signed after Crimea in 2015. That agreement promised to end the 10 months of fighting in the Donbas region of Ukraine, the region Putin claimed was now Russian. Putin has also said the Minsk Agreement is null and void.
3. Economic Interests
In addition to Putin’s personal motivations to restore Russia’s former glory and prevent NATO from establishing itself on its borders, there are also economical reasons why Russia would invade Ukraine.
While not a petrol state in the sense of Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern nations, Russian gas exports account for 60% of Russia’s GDP. Russia’s economy would greatly suffer if they could not export their natural gas. However, the countries Russia exports oil to to includes Ukraine and much of Europe, which means the stoppage of oil would also cause economic problems for those countries as well. Russia is the second biggest exporter of crude oil and the world’s largest natural gas exporter. The EU is dependent on Russia for about 35% of its natural gas supply. Much of Europe would be economically damaged if Russian oil stopped flowing and vice versa.
As of now, Russia exports their gas to the EU through two major pipeline. One major pipeline (Northern Druzhba) is through Belarus, a Russian ally who has facilitated and aided the Russian invasion of Ukraine from its own borders and the second (Southern Druzhba) goes through Ukraine. Russia sends 40% of its gas through the Ukrainian pipeline. Without this pipeline, it would be incredibly difficult to export their oil into the rest of Europe. That is why there have been several legal and economical disputes between Gazprom (Russia’s Oil producer) and Ukraine. In 2019, Gazprom paid a $1.9 billion settlement to Ukraine to transport gas for 5 more years. Germany is particularly vulnerable as it has shut down nearly all of its nuclear power stations and aims to eliminate coal by 2030. It’s why Germany and Russia agreed to a newly proposed pipeline called the Nordic 2 which would bypass Ukraine. Russia would no longer have to pay Ukraine’s high transit fees to distribute their oil and weaken Ukraine’s diplomatic leverage with Russia. The world has become a tangled global web of economical interdependency. The EU would face gas shortages and economical panic if Russian gas exports were to stop or sharply decline.
Russia is a Kleptocracy. While there is economic freedom in Russia, most of the money is concentrated in the hands of powerful businessmen who rapidly accumulated wealth during the era of Russian privatization in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and who Putin is reliant on to stay in power. They have formed a partnership in which Putin allows them to concentrate wealth as long as they stay out of politics. That relationship is a delicate situation, one that Putin has formidably controlled for decades.
So how and what should Biden and NATO do in response?
For the last several weeks, the Biden administration has openly broadcasted Russia’s intentions to invade. He has combated Russia’s misinformation campaign by directly confronting Putin’s lies and laying the blame of this incursion solely on his feet.
In terms of retaliation, the US and EU have a few avenues they could explore to punish Russia. One option that is off the table though, is direct military intervention. Biden already said he won’t be sending US troops into Ukraine. There is also a complete lack of will by NATO and the US to be dragged into another war. War fatigue, pandemic fatigue and a global economical recession has rendered a US military intervention a non starter. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself has said that he does not want US troops on Ukrainian soil. Instead, the US and NATO have agreed to provide military equipment and intelligence in order to support Ukraine on the ground. This equipment has been slow getting into the country and may arrive too late to help Ukrainian troops. *It should be noted that the withholding of $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was the reason behind Trump’s Impeachment. Trump threatened to withhold the aid unless PM Zelenskyy “did him a favor” by finding dirt on Biden before the 2020 election.
The US and the EU have also agreed to a new round of economic sanctions against Russia. The particular aspects of these sanctions is still unclear. Here’s the deal though, as Biden likes to say, sanctions only work when everyone follows them. The US can freeze Russian bank accounts, levy fines on Russian imports and ban Russian individuals from conducting business in certain areas, but that only works if everyone adheres to the law. Past sanctions levied against Russia have been effective but many other sanctions have been relatively toothless. It depends on how far the EU/US is willing to go.
This time around though, with a full on invasion taking place, there does seem to be the political will to actually impose severe sanctions, the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite a while. There are currently discussions being held that could ban Russia from using SWIFT. Swift global messaging system for financial transactions that connects more than 11,000 banks and other organizations in more than 200 countries and territories. It’s a critical part of the infrastructure needed to conduct business between international banks. This would be a major, historical step against Russia. It would also result in economic damage for the US and Europe.
Sanctions could be levied at specific Russian citizens. Biden’s team have talked openly about confiscating Russian oligarch’s US properties and any other assets they own outside of Russia. They could, theoretically, make it nearly impossible for any Russian to conduct business with the EU or US by freezing their bank accounts and blacklisting them. By putting pressure on the Russian elite, they would start to put pressure on Putin to end the war, or so the theory goes. Putin however, has shown an incredibly resiliency and in the past, has refused to capitulate to the complaints of the Russian elites.
America and Europe could also ban imports of Russian oil, but again, that would have repercussions for not just Russia. Germany however, in a major win for NATO, has put the Nordic 2 pipeline on hold. The EU will most likely adhere to a ban on other Russian exports such as wheat, but China has already said they would allow wheat imports from Russia which will ease the blow.
So how will this end?
Honestly, I don’t know and anyone telling you otherwise is just guessing. Putin is a rational person but he is only rational based on his internal beliefs. These beliefs happen to be that Ukraine is actually Russian territory.
Putin decided this course of action as soon as his ally in Ukraine was deposed, possibly earlier. Crimea was clearly just a test run. He also backed himself into a corner. By amassing troops and preparing for war for months, only for Russia to withdrawal now, it would be a humiliating defeat, as he would’ve conceded to NATO without taking any tangible action. Russia has already secured a win by severely weakening Ukraine. Ukrainians are leaving in droves and a prolonged war will cause citizens to pour into Poland and other NATO states, possibly causing another refugee crisis. It has also, in theory, helped Putin’s position in securing a written agreement that Ukraine won’t join NATO. If that is truly his goal, which seems doubtful, he will most likely claim that a signed agreement would result in the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and he will have gotten what he originally wanted in the first place.
On the flip side, this invasion is incredibly unpopular within Russia. Already we are seeing mass protests in Russia, something that doesn’t often happen. If Russia is planning on occupying Ukraine, they will face a unyielding insurgency by Ukrainian nationalists. They will also, as previously stated, face devastating and crippling sanctions, nothing like they’ve seen before.
Previous sanctions and overall antagonism between Russia and Europe have pushed Putin to look east. Russia and China have formed a quasi-partnership between their respective authoritarian states, but China is a geopolitical rival. Putin has in turn, isolated Russia from the rest of the world and made it dependent on China. By focusing on a delusional notion of rebuilding the Russia empire, Putin has enfeebled Russia’s international standing and turned any remaining international public support against him.
There is still a chance that this is all just a repeat of the last two invasions, which included a rapid military incursion, a quick annexation of disputed territory, negotiations and then a partial withdrawal. Putin would spin this as a victory by claiming that he has freed Russians from the tyranny of Ukraine and demonstrated that Russia will not back down from NATO. If the goal is to make Russia seem like a premier superpower once again, this symbolic victory could placate Putin, for now.
At this present time though, it certainly seems this is more than just a quick attack. It appears Russia is trying to occupy and annex all of Ukraine.
Putin is an aging tyrant with fantasizes about being Alexander the Great. For Putin, the past is the present and the future. Yet, for someone so focused on the past, he seems to have forgotten how the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan ended. He also seems to have forgot about the USSR’s own failed invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s which helped facilitate the downfall of the communist regime. We could be witnessing yet again, the last dying grasp of declining nation. A new paradigm shift in this quasi post-cold war European detente. In the meantime, thousands will die, refugees will pour out of Ukraine and the global economy will suffer even more. My thoughts are with the people of Ukraine.
If you’re so inclined. Here is the Kenyan ambassador to the UN eloquently explaining how people suffer under manufactured borders.