Eyes glued to the screen, the world watches in horror as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags into April. As people speculate how the conflict will develop and what its long term consequences will be, most are overlooking the essential question of why the war is happening in the first place. Really, why would Russian President Vladimir Putin incite a conflict with Ukraine that is at once brutal, lacking in international support, and liable to rope in members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? It goes without saying that not only would escalation result in devastating casualties, but it could also threaten the established international order.
Defenders of Putin’s ill-conceived and impulsive invasion cite Russia’s historical and cultural claims to Ukraine. It is worth investigating whether this historical argument may be used to conceal Putin’s true motivations, including responding to the security dilemma posed by Ukraine, advertising Russia’s foreign policy as aggressive and expansionist, and addressing some of Russian domestic concerns.
Putin has placed an overwhelming emphasis on Russia’s historical claims to Ukraine, much like he did in 2014 when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula. When Catherine the Great ruled between 1762 and 1796, Russia occupied Crimea, establishing its central city and port Sevastopol, both of which would eventually be incorporated into the Soviet Union. Crimea remained part of Russia—and then the Soviet Union—until 1954, when it merged with Ukraine. Putin capitalized on the historical connection between Crimea and Russia to rationalize the annexation. He is using a similar line of logic to justify his actions in 2022, asserting in his February 21 speech that “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for [Russia]. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space,” and claiming that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” According to Putin, Ukraine and Russia should never have been separated in the first place.
The historical argument is not a new one: Take China and Taiwan as an example. In the post-World War II international system, China and Taiwan were united under the banner of the Republic of China. However, the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) led to Mao Zedong and his Communist armies assuming political leadership, forcing the Chinese Nationalist Party to flee to Taiwan. Relations between mainland China and Taiwan have been tense and often violent ever since then. China continues to regard Taiwan’s statehood as illegitimate and vows to reintegrate it into the mainland, by force if necessary. Like Russia with Crimea, and now Ukraine, China believes that Taiwan’s history and culture are extensions of its own.
In both cases, China and Russia ignore Taiwan and Ukraine’s distinct histories and cultural identities. Putin is correct in pointing out that Ukraine and Russia share a common ancestry because of their Slavic roots. However, Ukraine has many features that distinguish it from Russia, including its own language, the beginnings of which can be traced back to 1816. While there are certainly areas of historical overlap with Russia, Ukraine has traveled a separate historical trajectory. In addition to being ruled by Russia, between World War I and World War II areas of Ukraine were part of Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Yet we do not see those states delegitimizing Ukraine’s right to exist.
The same is true of Taiwan: Most people in Taiwan identify as Taiwanese, as opposed to Chinese, which speaks to the state’s national identity being separate from that of mainland China. The argument that China is entitled to pursue reunification with Taiwan because it was at one point part of China not persuasive.
The historical justification may have a patriotic ring to it that makes it more accessible and convincing to Putin’s audiences. However, if we take a step back and acknowledge the sheer brutality of the invasion and pace at which it has escalated thus far, are cultural and historical reasons the only motivators for the Russian president?
There are a number of other factors at play that more accurately characterize the conflict. First, Putin seems to view Ukraine’s burgeoning relationship with NATO as a security threat. Russian resistance to NATO is nothing new: A Cold War-era organization, NATO was created to destabilize the Soviet Union and counter the spread of communism. As NATO seeks to recruit more states that fall under Russia’s sphere of influence, it has become more and more of a threat to Russian dominance in the region. Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO is just a step too far for Putin’s liking. In 2017, achieving NATO membership became an official foreign policy objective for Ukraine, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reaffirming this goal in 2020 with the establishment of Ukraine’s National Security Strategy. Ukraine joining NATO would position Western-allied troops at yet another Russian border—currently, five of Russia’s neighbors are part of NATO: Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
Putin may also want to showcase Russian military and political power, perhaps as another way of countering NATO’s increasing influence. If not as a defensive tactic, Putin may be acting out of a desire to position Russia on the offensive. Some, including US President Joe Biden, speculate that Russian advances into Ukraine are only the first step in Putin’s larger ploy to bring back the glory days of the Soviet Union and forcefully combat Western influence—a desire Putin shares with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Putin is rumored to have told in advance about the invasion. Time will only tell the extent to which Russia hopes to solidify its political hegemony.
Finally, domestic troubles may also be motivating Putin’s position on Ukraine. Russia is currently facing its largest natural population decline since World War II, with a staggeringly low male life expectancy and fertility rate. This is largely a product of the massive unemployment, alcoholism, and economic deterioration which have plagued the country since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the country’s working-age population is expected to decrease by 14 percent in the next 35 years, which could dramatically impede economic growth. While the invasion surely poses a risk to Russia’s younger population, Putin may consider it one worth taking if integrating Ukraine into the Russian Federation provides an answer to Russia’s population crisis.
At this point, there is no clear-cut answer as to why Putin launched an invasion against Ukraine. While he describes the war as an act of Russian nationalism and pride, there may be other interests below the surface. These hidden motivations will likely emerge, but until they do, the direction of the war will be charted by mere predictions.