March 09, 2022

Why Putin Invaded Ukraine

Why Putin Invaded Ukraine
Putin gives a televised speech discussing his reasons for Russian troops entering Ukraine, February 24, 2022. Press Office of the President of Russia

For many (we at Russian Life included), the invasion of Ukraine was a sudden and abrupt turn of events. While tensions had been ongoing for years, few, even at the highest levels, foresaw an actual military operation. After all, this is 2022, not 1936. Countries, especially European countries, don't invade each other anymore.

But here we are.

Fortunately, Putin laid out his reasoning behind the attack in a speech on February 24, just as the advance was getting underway. Even as the Russian government's websites went down later that day, other journos rushed to transcribe and analyze the speech (In case the Kremlin servers go down again, here is a good backup).

That said, the speech is a rambling, almost incoherent slog of historical references, calling for the "denazification" of Ukraine and the rebuffing of anti-Russian Western aggressors. It's baffling. To fully understand these arguments, we need more than a little context.

This, by the way, is in no way an endorsement or justification of the invasion, merely an attempt to understand the reasoning Putin is putting forth for entering Ukraine (whether or not he actually believes it is another story). As always, the history is crucial here.

Russia and Ukraine have an intricate past, by turns collaborative and antagonistic. In the Middle Ages, the Russian state was called "Kievan Rus'," and was headquartered in what is now the Ukrainian capital. Much of early Russian history, such as battles with nomadic tribes, Vladimir the Great's baptism, and expeditions to Constantinople, took place on what is now Ukrainian territory. During the imperial period, certain parts of Ukraine were the scene of bloody conflicts that secured Russia's access to the Black and Mediterranean Seas. Under Stalin, millions of Ukrainians died in a Moscow-orchestrated famine (the Holodomor).

In the Second World War, the bitter defense of cities like Odessa and Sevastopol placed Ukrainian and Russian citizens side by side to repel German invaders. However, in 1940s Ukraine, amid food shortages and brutal political repressions, allegiance to the USSR was not a given. Many Ukrainians opted instead to join forces with the Nazi army; the choice between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia would be a tough one, and some Ukrainians thought that perhaps their odds for survival and flourishing were better with this outside regime rather than the homegrown one. Russia has never forgotten this fact.

In the 1990s, Ukraine gained independence, and began a move towards the West, much to Russia's chagrin. Moscow tried, successfully, to keep Kyiv in its back pocket. It maintained a major naval base in the southerly Crimean Peninsula and maintained close trade and military ties. Ukraine more fully developed its national identity, embracing its history, language, and culture. In the meantime, NATO expanded closer to Russia's borders.

The current historical chapter begins in 2014, with the ousting of a Russia-friendly government in Kyiv and its replacement with one that was more oriented toward Europe. This was after mass popular protests occupied Kyiv's Maidan Square for months (in winter, no less!), eventually forcing the government to step down. In response, Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea, which was later ratified with a "referendum," with 97% voting in favor of joining Russia. At the same time, two relatively poor, industrial regions in eastern Ukraine (called "Donbas"), Donetsk and Luhansk, largely populated by people of Russian ethnicity and language, declared independence with Russian support (and probably troops and equipment, too, though we can't be sure). These mini-nations were almost solely recognized by Russia, and skirmishes erupted and continued along the border of these regions and Ukraine.

This 2014 episode was fuelled by a specific set of fears on the part of Russia that are now resurfacing in Putin's February 24 speech and elsewhere; to what extent this is legitimate or mere Russian propaganda is anyone's guess. Putin argued (and has continued to argue) that Ukrainian independence means Russian "genocide": that Russians living in Ukraine will not be allowed to speak their language, that their way of life will be forcibly repressed in the face of European-style imperial neoliberalism, that their children will grow up in a world of anti-Russian ideologies. In short, Russians living in Ukraine, already a minority, will be persecuted for their ethnicity.

This is where the "Nazis" enter the picture, and the need for "denazification" and a fight against this specter of evil. The West/ Ukraine/ NATO were Russia-hating Nazis before, and they are again, according to Putin. A motorcycle show from August 2014 put this fear on full display: massive cigar-wielding, dollar-grubbing hands controlled stormtroopers like marionettes, pulling the puppet strings to steal Kyiv from its rightful people. Under this interpretation, Ukraine's drift away from Moscow is caused by Western agents.

As such, Russia sees its invasion as self-defense, a preemptive strike, much like the US's wars in the Middle East. Hence the terming of it as a "special operation," not a war. 

This argument overlooks several nuances. Primarily, it doesn't seem to be very anti-fascist to invade a sovereign country smaller than you in a sudden act of war; in fact, that seems quite fascist. There is also little evidence (if any from reputable sources) of Russians being terrorized in eastern Ukraine; most conflict seems to have started after 2014, when Russia had already breached Ukrainian sovereignty. Lastly, Ukraine, as a sovereign state, has a right to self-determination per international law going back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. If they wish for closer relations with the West, so be it. But it is absurd to argue that Russia is protecting its own sovereignty by violating that of another independent country.

There's a vicious circularity about this narrative of history: whatever happens, it's a "win" for Putin. If Russian forces are victorious, it's proof of Russian superiority and Putin's leadership. If not, it's evidence of a global conspiracy against Russia. If the Russian economy booms despite sanctions, it's an act of defiance. If it gets hit hard, the blame falls on the West, not the regime.

It's a messy and ever-changing situation. Only time will tell how things will develop. But it's the history that Putin keeps pointing back to, and that's what we should heed if we're trying to understand his rationale.

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