Why Russia Invaded Ukraine: A Useful Primer

Why did Rus­sia launch an unpro­voked war in Ukraine and risk cre­at­ing a wider glob­al con­flict? If you haven’t close­ly tracked the ambi­tions of Vladimir Putin, this primer offers some help­ful con­text. In 30 min­utes, the video cov­ers the geopo­lit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal back­sto­ry. As you watch the explain­er, it’s worth keep­ing one thing in mind: For years, Euro­pean nations have long resist­ed bring­ing Ukraine into the NATO fold, pre­cise­ly because they knew it would trig­ger a con­flict with Putin. And there had been no recent plan to revis­it the issue. All of this sug­gests that Putin has high­light­ed the NATO threat (amply dis­cussed in the video) because it would pro­vide him a use­ful pre­text for an inva­sion. There was hard­ly an immi­nent threat.

If you’re look­ing for oth­er ratio­nales not cov­ered by this video, you could focus on two rea­sons pro­vid­ed by Hein Goe­mans, a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester: Putin “wants to reestab­lish direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, by annex­a­tion or by pup­pet-regimes, a Russ­ian empire—be it the for­mer USSR or Tsarist Rus­sia. A sec­ond pos­si­ble answer has to do with the role of domes­tic Russ­ian pol­i­tics, which the stan­dard lit­er­a­ture on con­flict takes very seri­ous­ly: Putin has seen what hap­pened in some for­mer Sovi­et suc­ces­sor republics and the for­mer Yugoslavia, sev­er­al of which expe­ri­enced ‘Col­or Rev­o­lu­tions’ and democ­ra­tized. Indeed, it was a Col­or Rev­o­lu­tion in Ukraine in 2014, which Putin mis­char­ac­ter­izes as a mil­i­tary coup. He wants to pre­vent more of these rev­o­lu­tions and pre­vent a demo­c­ra­t­ic encir­clement of coun­tries around him, which could pro­vide a safe haven for Russ­ian dis­si­dents who’d be dan­ger­ous to Putin’s polit­i­cal sur­vival. Both of these goals over­lap in the sense that he is seek­ing regime change, which is a dan­ger­ous game.”

For a deep­er dive into the impe­r­i­al ambi­tions of Putin–his attempt to recon­sti­tute the Russ­ian Empire–read this eye-open­ing inter­view with Fiona Hill.

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Relat­ed Con­tent 

West Point Expert Gives Ukraini­ans Advice on Con­duct­ing Effec­tive Urban War­fare Against Russ­ian Troops

Why is Ukraine in Cri­sis?: A Quick Primer For Those Too Embar­rassed to Ask (2014)

Why Putin Wants Alex­ei Naval­ny Dead

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