EXPLAINED: Why Russia is invading Ukraine
On February 24, the world was rocked by the news of Russia’s attack on Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement of a military operation.
In a statement on television, Putin said that the move was to defend separatists in the east of Ukraine and that it would not include the “occupation of Ukrainian territory”.
Yet, reports have since emerged of explosions across the eastern European country, including in capital Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Dnipro, Odessa, Slavayansk and Kramatorsk.
Russian-backed separatist forces have also launched large-scale strikes against Ukrainian forces.
It’s all part of what Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba dubbed a “full-scale invasion”, reported The Guardian.
“Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now,” said Kuleba.
So how did it all come to this and why has Putin decided to invade Ukraine? The issue is undeniably complex, but we’ll try and explain.
Putin sees Ukraine as part of Russia
In Putin’s own words regarding the conflict with Ukraine, one theme appears over and over again — the historical relationship between the two states.
“I would like to emphasise again that Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said in a speech on Monday (Feb. 21).
“Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.”
Simply put, Putin appears to take the view that Ukraine should be part of the Russian nation.
In an essay from July 2021, Putin described how Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of the Kievan Rus, what he referred to as “Ancient Rus”.
Kyiv formed the seat of power for this medieval state, which lasted from the late 9th century to the mid-13th century.
These shared roots, according to Putin means that Russians and Ukrainians are in fact “one people — a single whole”; the Russian president further described the idea of Ukrainians and Russians as separate nations as having “no historical basis”.
Yet, according to policy think tank Chatham House, this idea of the “triune Russian nation” is in fact a myth; one that downplays the “intrinsically European foundation on which the Ukrainian and Belarusian national self-identities have been built”.
Ukraine partnering with NATO
Setting aside the argument over whether Ukrainians and Russians are indeed “one people”, Putin has built on his assertions to point the finger at Western forces who, in his words, “have always sought to undermine our unity”.
“The formula they apply has been known from time immemorial – divide and rule,” he wrote in his July 2021 essay.
“Hence the attempts to play on the ‘national question’ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another.”
Western interference in Ukraine popped up again in Putin’s Feb. 21, 2022, speech, during which he referred to the 2014 Maidan protests as a “coup d’état” pulled off with “direct assistance” from foreign states.
According to The Guardian, the 2014 Maidan protests were sparked when Ukraine’s president at the time, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych turned his back on talks of a free-trade agreement with the European Union.
The ensuing demonstrations saw Yanukovych deposed, which was eventually followed by Russia’s attack and annexation of Crimea.
More recently, Ukraine’s current president Volodymyr Zelensky has seemingly moved the country further from Russia and closer to the West, after he announced his aim of gaining NATO membership for the nation.
The Ukrainian army has also hosted joint military exercises with NATO forces, according to Reuters.
These moves were categorised by Putin as part of a new military strategy of “confrontation with Russia and sets the goal of involving foreign states in a conflict with our country”.
“Over the past few years, military contingents of NATO countries have been almost constantly present on Ukrainian territory under the pretext of exercises,” he said.
“Their regular joint exercises are obviously anti-Russian.”
Ukraine’s growing chumminess with the West has served as a pretext for the most recent Russian aggression, with Putin previously demanding legal guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO.
The New York Times reports that Ukraine’s deepening military partnership with the United States and other NATO countries has been viewed by Moscow as an “existential threat”.
One explanation put forth by Vox is that Putin wants to protect his own government by demonstrating that Western ideals cannot succeed in Russia’s sphere of influence.
“I think the bigger threat for him is a regime threat, not an actual military invasion,” said Seva Gunitsky, a political scientist who studies Russia.
“He thinks the West wants to subvert his regime the way they did in Ukraine. That’s why NATO is only a part of threat (sic).”
Yet despite United States president Joe Biden saying in June 2021 that Ukraine’s membership in NATO remained uncertain, Russia continued its military build-up on Ukraine’s border.
Another reason, tied more closely with Putin’s view of Ukraine as inseparable from Russia, could be the Russian president’s ambition of restoring a Russian empire.
In December 2021, Reuters reported on Putin’s anguish at the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.
In comments aired in a documentary, Putin spoke on how the end of the Soviet Union had spelt the “disintegration of historical Russia”.
Such comments fuel speculations that the attack on Ukraine is part of Putin’s imperialistic ambitions.
As exhibited in his Feb. 21 speech, the idea of Ukraine and Russia being part of the same historical nation is very much at the forefront of Putin’s mind with regard to the current conflict.
Moscow no longer silent
One of the legendary origin stories when it comes to Putin stems from his experience as a KGB agent watching the end of the Cold War.
The story goes that on Dec. 5, 1989, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin was in Dresden, Germany, as demonstrators had their way with communist authorities.
Then 37 years old, Putin phoned in for backup.
“We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end replied.
“And Moscow is silent.”
Now 69, and entering the 23rd year of his reign, Putin seems more determined than ever to ensure that Moscow is anything but silent.
On the contrary, cementing his legacy as the man to restore Russia to its former glory could very much be the top of his list of priorities.