The Ukraine Imbroglio


Why did Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine?

A multitude of answers have been given to that question. Most of them fall short.

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Why did Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine?

A multitude of answers have been given to that question.  Most of them fall short.

Fiona Hill described it as ‘a post-colonial land grab’.  It is true that Russian attitudes to Ukraine often appear neo-colonial.  But the term is misleading.  Many of Russia’s ‘subjects’, as the constituent parts of the Russian Federation are revealingly called, were colonised territories and to some extent still are.  Ukraine is in a somewhat different category.  Although Russians and Ukrainians may not be ‘one people’, as Putin claims, they are intimately related by marriage, language, culture, and history.  That makes the current conflict not so much a colonial as a civil – or perhaps more accurately an internecine – war, with all the cruelty and emotional intensity that accompanies such strife.

At the other extreme, John Mearsheimer has characterised the invasion as ‘a preventive war’ to stop Ukraine joining NATO, a possibility which, he argued, Putin viewed as an existential threat to be avoided at all costs.  Yet before the war broke out there was no realistic chance of Ukraine gaining NATO membership.   Kyiv’s links with the western alliance had been strengthened, which was indeed a source of growing Russian concern, but membership per se was not on the table.

To Ukraine’s neighbours, notably Poland and the Baltic States, the war is neither colonial nor preventive but the first step in a broader Russian offensive.  ‘If he isn’t stopped in Ukraine,’ they say, ‘we shall be next.’  That narrative has been embraced by some American politicians and even by well-respected scholars like Angela Stent.  But while Putin may be reckless, he is not suicidal.  He is not about to take on NATO.  Even if he wanted to, he lacks the means.  Since the war in Ukraine began, Moscow and Washington have gone to great lengths to avoid the risk of direct engagement.  Eastern Europe’s threat narrative is an iteration of the infamous US domino theory of 50 years ago, which held that if Vietnam went communist, the nations of South-East Asia would follow.  Vietnam did become communist, the South-East Asians did not, and today – supreme irony – the US is courting Vietnam as a partner against China.  The war in Ukraine, like that in Vietnam, is sui generis.   For the East Europeans, the threat narrative is useful to put pressure on America and other NATO members to provide advanced weaponry and strengthen security cooperation.  That does not make it true.

The writer, Anne Appelbaum, accuses Putin of genocide.  His goal, she says, is not merely to erase Ukraine from the map but to expunge the very idea of a Ukrainian nation.  President Zelensky and a number of western leaders share that view, pointing to the horrors perpetrated by Russian soldiers in Bucha and elsewhere.   But atrocities, however ghastly, do not of themselves a genocide make.    True genocides, like those against Armenians in Turkey, Jews in Nazi Germany, and in Rwanda and Burundi, have been mercifully rare in modern times.  The word should be used sparingly.   Putin may indeed wish to obliterate the cultural specificity of Ukraine, as the Soviet Communist Party also tried to do, but that is not the same as exterminating a people.

Others, like the former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, maintain that Putin invaded because he ‘feared that Ukraine’s democratic and European path would stimulate democratic change in Russia and thus threaten his own power’.  That aligns with the Biden administration’s portrayal of the war with Russia as part of an existential struggle between autocracies and democracies.  But much as we in the West might wish that to be so, not least because it implies that Russians are just longing for a democratic system – and would have one, if only they could overthrow the cold-blooded dictator in the Kremlin – there is little evidence to support it.  Change of that kind comes from within, rarely if ever from the example of strangers.  Ukraine, for all its courage in waging a David and Goliath struggle against a brutal aggressor, is hardly a model of democratic governance that Russians would wish to emulate.  It may be less corrupt than before, but the improvement is relative.  Nor is there any discernible threat to Putin’s position which a democratic Ukraine might exacerbate.

While it is important to question the validity of some of the more doubtful arguments currently being advanced to explain Putin’s decision to go to war, it is much harder to assess the different factors which did influence his thinking.  Clearly, however, at least three sets of considerations contributed.

The first were external.  By the time Volodymyr Zelensky became Ukraine’s President in May 2019, the monthly death toll from the fighting in the Donbas, which had begun five years earlier, was down to single figures.   Zelensky had campaigned on a promise to end the conflict altogether.  Soon after taking office, he began cautiously implementing the Minsk accords, signed in 2015 by his predecessor, Petr Poroshenko, which called for a measure of autonomy for the Russian separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics.  Poroshenko had never tried, arguing that Ukrainians would never accept them.  He turned out to be right.  When Zelensky proposed a referendum in the two territories on their future status, furious pushback from Ukrainian nationalists forced him to abandon it.  To Putin, that was proof that a peaceful resolution of the situation in the Donbas would not be possible.  Zelensky drew a similar conclusion:  a normal relationship with Russia would remain out of reach.  Ukraine’s future lay with the west.

In February 2021, after Joe Biden had replaced Trump in the White House, Russia began a massive troop build-up on the Ukrainian border.  That got the White House’s attention and led to an early and surprisingly positive summit in Geneva.  But Putin remained fixated on Ukraine.  Soon afterwards, when Britain sent a warship through the waters off Crimea, he wondered aloud, what would the West have done if Russia had sunk it?   Not much, he thought.  No one would risk all-out war because such a war could not be won.  In July, he published a long essay warning ominously that Russia would never allow its ‘historical territories’ to be used against it and that ‘anyone who tries will destroy their own country’.  Then, in August, came the fiasco of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.  That convinced him that the United States would not want to get involved in any fresh conflict abroad.   Washington had reacted limply to Russia’s incursion into Georgia in 2008; the annexation of Crimea had passed with barely a slap on the wrist; even the war in the Donbas, and the shooting down of an airliner carrying nearly 300 passengers and crew, flight MH17, had caused less lasting outrage than Russia had feared.  To Putin, it seemed a reasonable assumption that upping the ante in Ukraine would elicit an equally feeble response.

At what stage in this drawn-out process did Putin begin seriously considering an invasion of Ukraine?   We cannot know, but it is plausible that the idea started forming soon after the abandonment of the referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk in the autumn of 2019.  Over the next 18 months, Ukraine’s growing ties with NATO and a crackdown on the pro-Russian opposition heightened Moscow’s concerns.

NATO enlargement was not the proximate cause of the war in Ukraine.  But nor was it irrelevant.  Western claims to the contrary are the mirror image of Putin’s argument that NATO’s move eastward left Russia no choice but to fight to defend its security.  Both are detached from reality.  It is easy to forget – and many people do – that in the first years of his presidency, Putin championed closer relations with the West over the objections of many of his colleagues.  He closed Russian military facilities in Cuba and Vietnam. After 9/11, he offered the United States a degree of cooperation that George W Bush later described as ‘amazing’.  Russia gave the US overflight rights, helped it to acquire bases in Central Asia and even shared intelligence.  It reached a point where Putin was publicly reproached for going overboard to help America and getting nothing in return.  ‘Rapprochement with the west,’ he retorted, ‘is not Putin’s policy.  It is Russia’s policy’.  Russia, he insisted, was a European nation and its place was in Europe as part of the ‘civilised world’.  Yet from those promising beginnings, everything went downhill.  The Bush administration’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the Iraq War; the National Missile Defence shield; the US role, real or suspected, in the colour revolutions in other post-Soviet states; America’s democracy promotion campaign and much else besides, convinced Putin that he had been wrong and his colleagues had been right: America was determined to keep Russia down.  Meanwhile, the United States accused the Kremlin of backsliding on democracy, restricting human rights, murdering political opponents and flouting international law.

NATO enlargement was one element among many in the two countries’ antagonism but, because it was clear-cut and easy to understand, Putin made it the poster child for their growing enmity.  It dramatized for Russians the threat of encirclement by a hostile West and resonated with those westerners who had doubted the wisdom of expanding NATO in the first place.

It was in this context that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine burgeoned into full-scale war.   As was his wont, Putin kept his options open as long as possible.  In hindsight, his reference in July 2021 to Russia’s ‘historical territories’ was a strong hint that he was preparing to use force.  In mid-December, when Russia called for the withdrawal of NATO forces from eastern Europe, the die was virtually cast.  After that it would have been very difficult for him to draw back.  But the final decision appears not to have been taken until January 2022.  That was no doubt part of the reason why the assault, when it took place, was so poorly organised.  Not only was there too little time, but Putin’s insistence on secrecy meant that the troops were unprepared for the campaign that lay ahead.   Still worse, no one in the intelligence services or the military was prepared to tell him what he did not want to hear:  that the Ukrainians were likely to resist and the Russian army, with its cohorts of armchair generals and maltreated conscripts, was ill-equipped to carry out the tasks he had set for it.  A reform programme to modernise the armed forces had been launched after the war with Georgia in 2008 and had made significant progress, but Putin had halted it four years later for fear that the officer corps would grow accustomed to showing initiative and acting independently, which might pose a threat to his regime.  Sergei Shoigu, the Defence Minister, and the Chief of Staff, Valery Gerasimov, both Putin loyalists who had been appointed when the reform programme was halted, were hardly going to tell him that the army they had been in charge of for 12 years was unfit for purpose.

If Putin was aware of the deficiencies of the armed forces, he brushed them aside, just as he brushed aside warnings a month before the war from the Governor of the Russian Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, and the head of Sberbank, German Gref, that escalating the conflict with Ukraine would risk severe damage to the Russian economy.

Why was he willing to take that risk?   It was a gamble that he did not have to make, a war of choice, not the result of force majeure or insurmountable external pressures.  The answer appears to lie in the second set of factors that played a role in the build-up to the invasion: Putin’s personal obsessions and goals.

For the last 30 years, if not longer, Ukraine had infuriated him.  As early as 1993, he astonished the French consul in St Petersburg, Roland Blatmann, when, briefing local diplomats in his capacity as deputy Mayor, he launched into a diatribe against the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and in particular the loss of Crimea, ‘which we won from the Turks’.  Blatmann thought he sounded like the nationalist firebrand, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.  Ukraine, for Putin, was a case study in ingratitude:  by voting for independence, Kyiv had provoked the break-up of the USSR and afterwards had sponged off Russia via subsidised oil and gas supplies.  Gas remained an irritant throughout his presidency.  The Orange revolution of 2004, followed a decade later by the insurrection on Maidan, hardened his attitude further.  Ukraine was not just an awkward neighbour but, to Putin and many others of his generation, a crucial component of Russian national identity, arousing an intensity of emotions that has no parallel in the country’s relations with any other post-Soviet state.

That was buttressed by Putin’s reading of Russian history.  As he has grown older, he has spent many hours minutely annotating books by 19th century scholars like Vasily Klyuchevsky to derive a view of imperial Russia and its relationship with Ukraine that he can use to justify his policies.  It is not only history, however, that preoccupies Putin.  Increasingly it is his place in it: the legacy he will leave behind.  Almost from the day he was elected President in 2000, he has wondered aloud about how he should leave power.  These musings have been too consistent to be an affectation.  Putin has never wanted to die in office.  Over time, the inter-connected questions of how to relinquish the presidency and the judgement that history would make of him have become uppermost in his mind.  The purpose of the constitutional amendments in 2020, allowing him to remain in office for two more six-year terms after 2024, was to prevent him becoming a lame duck, so that he could organise the succession from a position of strength, not to permit him to stay in power indefinitely.

At some point after 2019, these two strands of thought, the desire to bring Ukraine back into the Russian fold and, by so doing, assure his place in history, came together.  When Biden took office and America fumbled its exit from Afghanistan, Putin saw a window of opportunity open.  If he could bring Ukraine to heel, it would be the crowning achievement of his career.  His position would be unassailable.  He could then install a successor of his choice, abandoning the day to day burdens of a presidency which he found increasingly tiresome, while continuing to exercise oversight as Chairman of the Security Council or from some other elevated position.

Other factors were plainly important as well.  Putin believes that the United States is in decline and that the ‘rules-based order’, created by the West after World War II, is giving way to a multipolar system of global governance – a view shared by China’s leader, Xi Jinping.  In that sense, the invasion of Ukraine was a conscious challenge to US leadership, intended to show that Washington is no longer able to call the shots or even to protect its friends.  At another remove, the war has become a shadow contest between China and the United States, the two great geopolitical rivals of coming decades.  But these were not the driving forces behind the invasion of Ukraine.  They were part of the context but not the cause.  What precipitated the invasion was Putin’s conviction that it would secure for him the place in history he desired.

One may suspect that it was this emotional involvement in the outcome that caused him to miscalculate.  Normally, he was cautious to the point of indecision.  But emotion is a poor counsellor.  It is difficult to make objective, sober, rational decisions if you are obsessed with an issue.  Putin was doubly obsessed:  with Ukraine and with his legacy.

The way he misjudged so badly both the situation in Ukraine and the state of his own army brings us to the third set of factors that need to be borne in mind in assessing the causes of the war: Putin’s character traits.  These have more to do with the manner in which the decision to invade was taken than the fundamental reasons behind it, but they are relevant because they cast light on how he may act, now that his initial hopes of a speedy victory have been dashed.  People change with time and Putin’s behaviour early in life is not necessarily a guide to his behaviour today.  But when the same characteristics keep appearing over decades, there is reason to take them seriously.

Ever since he was a child, Putin has played his cards close to his chest.  Even his closest friend at school wrote that there was an unspoken boundary in their relationship which he knew he should never cross.   Similar observations would be made throughout Putin’s career.  ‘There was a door that he never opened,’ one frequent interlocutor commented, 30 years later.  ‘He is not a man to show his inner being’.   His judo coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, remembered that ‘he kept his distance and his thoughts to himself’.  At the end of a judo bout, whether he won or lost, ‘nothing showed in his face.  It was impossible to tell what he was feeling’.  Putin was not only secretive, he made a fetish of self-control.  Showing anger or any other emotion was a sign of weakness.  Andrei Illarionov, who served as his economic adviser in the early 2000s, said he never saw Putin genuinely lose his temper.  When he appeared to do so, it was performative, designed to intimidate.

That has been one of the hallmarks of his political style.  He adopts positions which he finds politically useful, not because he actually believes in them.

In St Petersburg in the 1990s, he befriended an American cultural adviser at the Mayor’s office, Richard Torrence, who was flamboyantly homosexual.  When others looked askance, he argued that Torrence worked well and his private life was his own affair.  Yet 20 years later, when it became a useful vehicle to rally his political base, he led the charge against ‘non-traditional values’, cynically equating homosexuals and paedophiles.   Throughout his career, Putin has cultivated good relations with the Russian Jewish community and with Israel.  Yet when his erstwhile colleague, Anatoly Chubais, settled in Israel after the invasion of Ukraine, he had no compunction in using that as a dog whistle to fire up anti-Semites among his political base.  His constant attacks on the Ukrainian government as Nazis are in the same vein.  Whatever his other faults, Putin is not stupid: he is well aware that Zelensky’s team is in no sense Nazi.  But Ukrainians’ ambivalence towards figures like Stephan Bandera, who supported the Nazis in 1940 in the mistaken belief that they would help them throw off the Soviet yoke, allowed him to promote a narrative which resonates powerfully with older Russians, in which the invasion of Ukraine is portrayed as the continuation of the heroic battles against Hitler’s Germany during the Great Patriotic War.

Like the ‘legends’ which Putin learnt to fabricate in the KGB, once these deceits have served their purpose, they are abandoned or replaced by something new.  In 2014, he insisted that the ‘little green men’ who took over Crimea were just local volunteers.  Three months later, when the need for myth-making had passed, he acknowledged, ‘of course they were Russian troops’, and sounded surprised that anyone should have been so naïve as to think otherwise.

More than most politicians, Putin is a performance artist – a chameleon, in the words of one westerner who knew him well during his St Petersburg days.  Before taking at face value anything he says, it is wise to think twice and twice again.

Another consistent trait has been unpredictability.  As a judoka, Putin learnt to throw equally well to the right and to the left, an unusual skill which made it difficult for his opponent to foresee his next move.  As an apparatchik in the presidential administration, three decades later, he learnt how that could be applied to politics.  In May 1999, Boris Yeltsin faced impeachment.  Three days before the hearings were to begin, he fired his Prime Minister.  At first sight it seemed a suicidal move, all but guaranteed to galvanise the opposition against him.  But when the vote took place, the impeachment motions failed.  ‘A sharp, unexpected, aggressive move always throws your opponent off balance,’ Yeltsin explained, ‘especially if it is unpredictable and seems absolutely illogical.’  It was a lesson from a master tactician which Putin never forgot.

The decision to invade Ukraine was in that mould, secretive, unpredictable and apparently quite illogical.

Until the last moment, Putin kept his plans hidden from most of his closest colleagues.  Had American intelligence not sniffed out what was afoot, the surprise would have been total.  Even then, the idea that Russians would go to war against their brother Slavs was so implausible that few in Russia, or in Europe, gave it credence.  Small wonder that men like Igor Sechin, who had been at Putin’s side since the early 1990s, found their mega-yachts confiscated and other assets sequestered because they had been kept in the dark until it was too late to move them to safety.

Other traits of character also played into Putin’s decision-making on Ukraine.  All his life, whenever he was confronted with what he viewed as an existential choice, he single-mindedly pursued his preferred outcome regardless of potential consequences.  As a teenager, against the wishes of his parents and the advice of all his friends, he set his heart on joining the Law Faculty of St Petersburg University, where his chances of admission were, in his own words, ‘about as likely as flying to Mars’, rather than accept a guaranteed place at a technical institute.  Had he failed, he would have been conscripted into the army.  He was willing to take that risk.  In 2003, he ordered the arrest of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, knowing that it would have a chilling effect on foreign investment.  It did.  But to Putin, the political imperative to subjugate the country’s business magnates outweighed any economic damage that might ensue.  A decade later, the annexation of Crimea was out of the same playbook.  In Putin’s mind, the risk of Ukrainian resistance and western retaliation paled before the need to secure the naval base at Sevastopol.  The decision to invade Ukraine in 2022 followed the same pattern.

Last, but not least, is Putin’s attitude to the use of force.  As a child, he never shied away from a fight.  The historian, Dmitry Travin, who grew up in Leningrad at about the same time, remembered: ‘It wasn’t so much that conflicts sought him out, it was he who was always looking for conflicts.’  One of his schoolfriends wrote later: ‘He could get into a fight with anyone. It still amazes me…  He had no fear. He didn’t seem to have an inner instinct for self-preservation. It never occurred to him that the other boy was stronger and might beat him up…  If some hulking guy offended him, he would jump straight at him – scratch him, bite him, pull out clumps of his hair…  He wasn’t the strongest in our class, but in a fight, he could beat anyone, because he would get into a frenzy and fight to the end.’  Those instincts died hard.  For a time, they were channelled into judo and its Russian version, sambo.  But Putin still got into street fights when he was in his thirties and already a major in the KGB.  Throughout his life he admired toughness, whether in the shape of gangsters like Leonid Usvyatsov, who became one of his judo trainers, or the Mixed Martial Arts fighters and action stars like Steven Seagal whom he befriended as president.  During the war in Chechnya, when reproached for the brutality of the Russian army, he replied: ‘If I send them to war, I can’t order them to chew snot.’   When Russian troops committed atrocities in Bucha, he decorated the unit concerned.

If Putin’s past behaviour is any guide, he will not abandon his goals in Ukraine.  Barring a collapse of the Russian army, or widespread disaffection among his political base at home, neither of which appears particularly likely, he will dig in for the long term, waiting for western unity to fray and exhaustion to weaken Ukraine’s ability to resist.  The war has already proved extremely damaging for Russia:  it has blighted the economy; provoked a massive exodus of the liberal intelligentsia; sent legions of young men into exile and killed more than a hundred thousand others; put new life into NATO; poisoned relations with the West; and ensured that Ukraine, culturally and in many other ways its closest neighbour, will remain fiercely hostile for years if not decades to come.  Russia’s difficulties may give pause to others contemplating military solutions to political problems, most obviously China regarding Taiwan.  But the balance of advantage is not all one way.  The conflict has underlined the divide between the industrialised nations of the North and the former colonial territories of the South.  And in one important respect, Putin’s position may be stronger than it seems.  So long as Russia can maintain control of a significantly larger area of Ukraine than it held before February 24, 2022, he can present it as a victory, achieved, as he will say, despite everything the ‘collective west’ could do to prevent it.  The United States does not have options of that kind.  It has committed itself to open-ended support of Ukraine, which insists that Russia be expelled from all its territory, or, at a minimum, all the areas Russian forces have occupied in the past 20 months.  Anything less will have an odour of failure.

In judo, the aim is to use an opponent’s strength against him.  Economically and militarily, America is the strongest country in the world.  But unless that strength translates into victory for Ukraine, it risks appearing hollow, putting another dent into America’s self-image as the indispensable nation.  That is Putin’s hope.  For both Ukraine and the US, the stakes could hardly be higher.

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