So why did Russia attack Ukraine? Putin’s speech, available on the link below, provides some clues:
From the opening paragraph, it is clear that the old adage holds true: states do not change their interests, because geography stays the same. Thus, modern Russia views Ukraine in much the same way as the Imperial Russia and Soviet Union did. It is basically a Russian backyard, maybe even a rogue piece of Russian territory, and Russia has the right and duty to intervene.
Of course, Putin will not openly admit this. Therefore, he claims that “I made a decision to conduct a special military operation. Its goal is to protect people who have been abused by the genocide of the Kyiv regime for eight years. And to this end, we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”.
This is a load of hot air, yet it does provide some clues. Denazification of Ukraine makes no sense. The country is today ruled by the same extreme left regime that rules entirety of the West, and even its president is Jewish and speaks proudly of his family’s Holocaust story. Nor was there any sort of genocide carried out against the Russians in Ukraine.
But the claims, while baseless, are not aimless. Nazism is today considered the greatest evil that has ever existed, despite there having been objectively worse evils (such as Communism, which the West and especially western academia is busy exonerating). By claiming the need for “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine, Putin is laying down a groundwork for the regime change – much like the West tends to do with “freedom” and “democratization”. US have even claimed that Russia has a list of prominent Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following the occupation of the country. This claim may in other conditions be considered propaganda, but Putin’s statement about “bringing to justice those who commutted numerous bloody crimes” seems to outright state precisely that. Overall, the aim is at least to impose a pro-Russian regime after the same had been overthrown by (likely Western-sponsored) revolution.
Putin himself believes that Ukraine is an illegitimate state that exists on territory that is historically Russian. This is not actually true. Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia existed on the territory of today’s western Ukraine in 13th and 14th century. It was absorbed into Poland in 1349., but its statehood was recognized: upon annexing it, Polish King Casimir III the Great adopted the title of King of Poland and ruler of Ruthenia. But while historical context may establish Russian right to eastern Ukraine, what of rights of other countries to their own historical territories? Will Northern Ireland be returned to Ireland? Will Bosnia be returned to Croatia? Will Greece be allowed to annex Istanbul and western Anatolia – or maybe entire Turkey? But to Putin, Zelensky’s and Ukraine’s approach to the West is an attempt to legitimize a false and anti-Russian regime in Kyiv which is occupying rightfully Russian territory populated by rightfully Russian people. In fact, Putin believes Ukrainians to actually be Russians.
Whatever the narrative – denial of Ukrainian national identity or else security of the Russian Federation – the central conception is that Russia and Ukraine are fundamentally inseparable. Putin stated that:
“Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after. (…)
So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.”.
According to Putin, thus, creation of Ukraine and other Soviet republics was an attempt to win support of nationalists. Lenin had attempted to win support of the nationalists, which according to Putin was not necessary. And new republics were given territories and population of what was historically Russia. Even more, new republics were “arbitrarily formed administrative units” that were then given the status and form of national state entities, as well as the right to secede. And all of that was done by Bolsheviks in order to stay in power. In fact, he stated that Ukraine was created by Vladimir Lenin, and called all of the above “utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution”.
In short, very existence of Ukraine is a utopian fantasy. Putin stated that “the virus of nationalist ambitions” was what destroyed the Soviet Union, and that the virus is still extant in Russia. (Putin had, in fact, protested destruction of Communist monuments in Ukraine). And the Communist Party had allowed the virus to spread in its short-sighted fights for power. “Radicals and nationalists” had destroyed the Soviet Union full two years before it had fallen apart. Putin thus does not see Ukraine as a real country: “At the same time, the Ukrainian authorities – I would like to emphasise this – began by building their statehood on the negation of everything that united us, trying to distort the mentality and historical memory of millions of people, of entire generations living in Ukraine. It is not surprising that Ukrainian society was faced with the rise of far-right nationalism, which rapidly developed into aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism. This resulted in the participation of Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis in the terrorist groups in the North Caucasus and the increasingly loud territorial claims to Russia.”.
He is not wrong in all of his assessments. Statement that the Russian Federation had helped Ukraine is likely true, and it is a fact that Ukraine had escaped Russian tyranny only to fall straight into the claws of the Western one. Ukraine was a colony with a puppet regime before, and it is today. But there is precious little far-right nationalism in Ukraine, and there is no Russophobia or neo-Nazism. Likewise, it is a lie that Bolsheviks had done anything for Ukraine: as a matter of fact, Ukraine had attempted to gain independence, but this attempt was violently crushed by the Soviet Union and country reconquered. Yet this mythology informs Putin’s war aims.
And Putin does not see any pro-Russian regime as a puppet one, just as the West does not see any pro-Western regime as a puppet one. To Putin, “Ukrainian authorities (…) began by building their statehood on the negation of everything that united us, trying to distort the mentality and historical memory of millions of people, of entire generations living in Ukraine.”. Putin claims that Ukraine never had stable traditions of real statehood. In short, Ukraine is a rightful part of Russia, only separated from it by accident of history.
Perhaps more important than this is a security issue. Putin will have been willing to accept Ukraine’s independence and current territorial extent had it retained a pro-Russian government. Much like with Baltic states, Belarus and maybe Poland, Putin views Ukraine as an essential buffer for Russia. In this sense, his actions are driven by same considerations which led to formation of the Warsaw Pact: concern about attacks from the West, and need to form vassal states to protect the western borders of new Russian Empire. Thus the modern Russian invasion of Ukraine has parallels with 1939. Soviet-German partition of Poland, where both countries aimed to utilize Polish territory as a buffer against each other. Another similarity is to 1920 Soviet invasion of Poland. That invasion had several causes: territorial disputes going back to Polish-Russian wars of 17th – 18th centuries, clash of ideology due to Soviet aim of spreading Communism further into Western Europe, and Soviet aim to reconstitute territories of the Russian Empire into new Soviet Union.
Putin has also been alarmed by increasing closeness of Ukraine to NATO. NATO troops had been present on Ukrainian territory, and Ukraine had been increasingly integrated with NATO. For Ukraine, this was likely a natural response to Russian behavior, but Putin clearly did not see it like that. And regardless of Putin’s opinion, increasing shift of Ukraine towards NATO was a geostrategic problem for Russia. Putin himself viewed exercises as a cover-up for buildup of NATO military groups within Ukrainian territory. Ukraine was supposed to remain neutral, yet it was clearly aiming for closer relations with NATO, and this was something Russia could not accept. While Putin’s claim that NATO promised not to expand into Eastern Europe is likely false, it does not change the fact that Russia has always aimed to have a belt of buffer states, and that Ukraine joining NATO is undesireable from this perspective. And while NATO deployed defensive missile systems to its member states, any defensive missile system can also be repurposed into an offensive role – and many NATO’s strategic missiles can hit entire European part of Russia from bases in Ukraine. In Putin’s words, it is like a knife to a throat.
Thus, the overall goal is to enhance security and influence of Russia by transforming Ukraine into a vassal of the new Russian empire, much like it is today a vassal of the Western empire. And this shouldn’t be surprising: Putin has openly stated that collapse of the totalitarian, genocidal Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. A pro-Western Ukraine is thus a clear danger: it could easily serve as a launching pad for a CIA-backed coup against Putin’s regime. This assessment, at least, is hard to disagree with. Putin is correct in this account at least: Ukraine truly is under external control of the Western capital, foreign advisors and NGOs, and they do control “key appointments and dismissals and on all branches of power at all levels, from the central government down to municipalities, as well as on state-owned companies and corporations”, and there is no independent judiciary. In this regard, Ukraine is in the same straits as all other Western states.
Yet to Putin, there is no distinction between two above concerns: nationalistic concerns are also security ones, and the reverse. The only way to end the threat emanating from Ukraine is thus to restore Russian control over Ukraine. Much like any kind of Croatian independence and sovereignty is seen by Serbia as Nazism, so is Ukrainian independence seen by Russia as Nazism. The idea of Ukraine as a fundamentally Nazi state is deeply rooted in Russian nationalist narrative. After the Soviet Communists carried out a genocide against Ukrainians in 1920s and 1930s, some Ukrainian partisans joined Nazis against the Soviets. Thus to Putin, independent Ukraine is not just a historical Russian territory wrongly severed: it is an inheritor of a Nazi tradition that had caused untold Russian deaths, and official narrative is that neo-Nazis are running the show in the Ukraine. According to Russian narrative, Ukraine is an inheritor of neo-Nazi tradition and thus cannot be a legitimate state. As Putin had claimed, “It is not surprising that Ukrainian society was faced with the rise of far-right nationalism, which rapidly developed into aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism. This resulted in the participation of Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis in the terrorist groups in the North Caucasus and the increasingly loud territorial claims to Russia.”.
Claims of genocide in Ukraine reflect Russian nationalism. Ukraine has large ethnic Russian population, and similar to how Milosevic used his propaganda against Croatia, Putin portrays them as potential victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign by the neo-Nazi Ukrainian government. Putin has claimed that formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state would be comparable to usage of weapons of mass destruction against Russia.
In the end, it is clear that Russian aim in the war is to end Ukraine as a sovereign state. At best, it would become a vassal of Russia. All justifications are nonsense: even majority of Russians in Ukraine do not want seccession, and Russia has had to manufacture false attacks to justify further expansion. Putin’s goal is likely not to annex Ukraine outright – though he may be aiming for some territorial concessions – but to turn it into a puppet state.
But this does not end there, either. Probably main causes of the war are economic in nature.
In fact, Russia causing a war by 2022. had been predicted back in 2019. by Krzysztof Woyczal. As he wrote, Russia is extremely dependant on sales of oil: hydrocarbon sales accounted for 14% of Russian GDP and half the country’s budget. Over 90% of sales of gas were to Europe and Turkey, which were also the second largest recipient of Russian crude oil. And one of major pipelines was Yamal-Europe one, going through Poland. While pipeline has capacity of 33 billion m3 of gas per year, only 10 billion were sold to Poland: remainder went to Western Europe. And Poland made basically no profit from it, while Polish-Russian agreement on gas export expired in fall of 2022.
From May 2020., Polish government had decided to auction Russian gas exports. And with completion of Baltic pipeline, Poland had decided not to renew the agreement with Russia, which expires on 31 December 2022. With the auction model, Poland will not only earn from Russian gas, but can cut off Russian gas exports at any time. Baltic pipeline may well allow Poland to become completely independent of Russian gas exports. But Poland itself is sixth largest importer of Russian gas in Europe, and the largest importer – Germany – can only be reached through Poland. Ukraine itself was trying to become independant of Russian gas, both by increasing its own production and also by building pipeline to Poland, which would allow Poland-based imports to rise from 1,5 billion m3 to 5 billion m3, making Poland responsible for 65% of Ukraine’s import needs.
As a result, by 2022. – 2023., Poland and Ukraine will have been able to not just achieve energy independence from Russia, but also to block transfer of Russian gas westwards. Only alternatives for Russia in such a scenario would be Nord Stream I and II, which would be able to transport 110 billion m3 of gas per year. But due to EU’s bureocracy and US influence, Nord Stream II may never have reached profitability, and there is no other alternative for exports to Western Europe. Russia might compensate with sales to China, but the Power of Siberia pipeline is only expected to become operational in 2025.
And there is considerable risk that European gas market may not be as absorbent as it used to be. If Europe, particularly Germany, manages to replace Russian gas with other sources, Russia will face significant budgetary losses. These losses cannot be compensated with sales to China, both due to limited capacity of Power of Siberia but also because sales to Europe come from deposits different from those that are used for sales to China. In 2018., Poland imported 9 billion m3 of gas, Great Britain 16,3 billion and Germany 58,5 billion m3.
But Britain had announced that it will abandon Russian gas and look for other alternatives. Therefore, years 2022. – 2025. might be very difficult for Kremlin. This concern significantly increased importance of Ukraine, as transfer of gas to West would be susceptible to political pressure if the Russians failed to sign a long-term transmission agreement with the Ukraine. And oil and gas are the only significant Russian exports to the West: in all other aspects, Russia is largely immune to external trade and economic pressures. But gas and especially oil are a very problematic target, especially as US are entering European market.
And while US and Russia had been opponents since 1945., Russia is incapable of threatening the US either economically, diplomatically, financially or commercially. The only thing it still has are its armed forces, including the nuclear arsenal. Therefore, the best Russian strategy is the threat of using force. These allow Kremlin to pressure states in its surroundings, and potentially even damage the trust that US allies have in the US ability (or willingness) to protect them. As Russian zone of military influence includes NATO members (baltic states) and non-NATO US allies (Ukraine), damaging trust into US would harm US interests and, if damaging enough, prevent the US from confronting the China the way they are doing right now.
Russia also has massive population issues, with fertility rate of only 1,6. This means that in terms of both economy and technology, Russia will not be able to keep pace with the US and China, especially if exports of raw materials or their price are reduced. Europe is also held away from Moscow by the US, and China – Russia’s only major ally – is heavily dependant on trade with United States and Europe.
All of the above meant that the longer Russia waited, worse the situation became. As a result, Putin raised the bet. Precisely as predicted by Woyczal, Russia integrated with Belarus which allowed them to threaten Ukraine from the north, as well as NATO’s eastern flank (Poland and the Baltic states). And now it is aiming to install a pro-Russian government in the Ukraine.