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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