Why did Putin choose Violence? The Causes of the Russian War on Ukraine

Credits: Olga Zhukovskaya

By Elena Miscischia

In the early hours of February 24th 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his nation, announcing a special military operation in Ukraine. As of today, the war in Ukraine is one of the crises with the greatest magnitude that Europe has faced since the end of the Cold War, in political and humanitarian terms. Three sets of reasons may concur to explain Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine: the identity issues characterizing the historical relations between the two countries; the conflicting understating of Moscow and Kiev of the regional order and the clashing interests of the respective foreign policies; and the competition between Moscow and the West.

Ukrainians and Russians: separated brothers? 

In the speech given on February 24, Putin held that «the purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime». The people to whom President Putin refers are the residents of the separatist regions in Donbass. What it is argued in the speech is indeed that «the leading NATO countries, in order to achieve their own goals, support extreme nationalists and Neo-Nazis in Ukraine, who, in turn, will never forgive the Crimean and Sevastopol residents for choosing reunification with Russia»: simply put, President Putin is framing the military intervention in Ukraine as a rescue mission of those who inhabit lands that are historically Russian and who are being unrightfully prevented from reuniting with their motherland. 

Such narrative strongly recalls the Pan-Slavist notion of “Mother Russia”, which posed for a comeback when Putin became President of the Russian Federation, together with imperialist attitudes. As a matter of fact, in his essay released in July 2021, Putin outlined the historical basis for the Russian claims over Ukraine: Ukraine’s very existence as an independent State is nothing but the result of efforts put in place by forces seeking to undermine the bond between Ukrainian and Russian peoples. So, being Russians and Ukrainians one people, those who support Ukraine’s sovereignty are enemies of both Russia and Ukraine, because they lead the latter down a disastrous path. Following this rationale, one could argue that Russia is genuinely trying to save the Ukrainian brothers from an ominous faith. 

However, the Russian narrative of the events needs to be confronted with facts on the ground: it is true that the consciousness of the Ukrainian population is historically divided, as exposed by the clashes resulting from the Euromaidan protests, nonetheless the narrative of Kiev’s government holds that Ukraine is an independent State, whose legitimacy derives from the right of a nation to self-determination. Moreover, a wide section of the Ukrainian population maintain that Ukraine is Europe and it doesn’t need to be “rescued” by Russia. Accordingly, Kiev has distanced itself from its past attempts of asymmetrical integration, to embrace a clear pro-Western geopolitical positioning. In opting for Europe, Ukraine has rejected Russia’s project and has jeopardized the effect of the Mother Russia “design”. 

Kiev and Moscow: clash of interests? 

To be fair, the Ukrainian crisis has been raging for eighteen years now: turmoil on the Ukrainian-Russian border has been a reality since the beginning of the Orange Revolution in 2004. After nine years, the second act of the crisis was played in 2014, when Russian unlawful annexation of Crimea. Coherently with the overall development of its foreign policy in the post-Soviet space, the goals pursued by Russia at the regional level today appear to be consistent with those of eight years ago: removing the government of Kiev in order to prevent it from further moving towards the West and from undermining the basis of a Russia-led regional order; enforcing pro-Russian elements in the separatists regions; and strengthening a geostrategic position (as it is possible to conclude observing the trajectory followed by the Russian forces in seizing the Donbass region and creating a clear passage towards Crimea). 

The relevance of geopolitical issues in the current crisis is therefore manifested. Indeed, we should keep in mind that the democratic transition of Eastern Europe has security implications for Moscow: the expansion of Western liberal democracy (and a possible related enlargement of NATO) in its neighborhood revived the fear of isolation and encirclement. Since 2014 Kyiv has become closer to Europe and NATO, not only exposing Russia at the risk of sharing a border with a partner of an institution that is considered highly concerning for Russian security, but also presenting itself as a model for other former-Soviet countries like Georgia and Moldova. 

All this considered, one question remains unanswered: is Moscow only trying to secure what it perceives as the rightful regional status-quo, or is it pursuing wider interests? Is Putin calling or raising in Ukraine? 

Russia and the US: systemic competition for hegemony in Europe? 

According to Putin, the US is overtly trying to contain Russia through the progressive definition of a hostile area adjacent to Russian borders, namely through the recognition of NATO membership to countries that were supposed to be natural allies of Moscow. Hence, Ukraine’s increasing closeness to NATO is considered to be a matter of life and death, a threat to the very existence of the Russian State and its sovereignty, a «red line» which according to Putin shouldn’t have been crossed. 

Russia has carefully engineered its return as a global power until today on the base of a strategy that involved an array of military, economic, and diplomatic tools: now it’s using these instruments to disrupt attempts of the West to expand into the post-Soviet space. Having said that and considering the exacerbation of the Russia-West relation of the last 15 years, it could be possible to argue that the objective of the special operation launched 10 months ago is not simply that of winning in Ukraine – which one may provocatively call a pretext – but that of destabilizing the established European order, for the purpose of rebuilding it. In other words, is Russia attempting to question the configuration of European security chosen by the West and also resulting from NATO expansion eastwards, a design which has been put in place without asking for Moscow’s opinion?

So why did Putin choose Violence? 

In conclusion, all three dimensions of conflict listed above can concur to explain the decision of the Russian Federation to deploy its army in Ukraine and try to impose a change regime in Kiev. However, given the clear geopolitical interests at stake, the conflict of identity models and Putin’s belief regarding the unity of Russians and Ukrainians could be conceptualized as an incentive rather than a cause of the outset of the war. To tell which of the strategic perspectives involved – the defensive one, focused on the regional scenario, or the offensive one, focused on the global order – was prevalent in the choice made is hard to tell. 

Hence, the crisis could be labeled as «the West’s fault» or as the result of a criminal and unlawful maneuver by Russia. But in the absence of clear answers, rather than “pick a faction”, what should be drawn from a simultaneous reading of these two competing perspectives is their shared awareness of the existence of a geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West that is now manifest, and of the need to address it in order to govern the global implications that the Russian war on Ukraine will have in years to come.