Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the world and disrupted the post-Cold War security order in Europe. Understanding Russia’s motivations and rationale for this brazen act of aggression has become a matter of intense debate and analysis. This comprehensive review will examine the key strategic, political, economic, and ideological factors underlying Russia’s decision to go to war against its neighbor.
- Thesis statement
- Brief background on Russia-Ukraine relations
- Overview of Russia’s motivations
Historical Ties between Russia and Ukraine
- Shared Slavic roots and culture
- Centuries under Russian imperial rule
- Soviet era – Ukraine as part of USSR
- Post-Soviet relations and tensions
- Preventing NATO expansion into Ukraine
- Securing Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet
- Controlling gas pipeline routes into Europe
- Reasserting Russia as a great power
- Restoring Russian influence over Ukraine
- Countering Western democratic ideals
- Distracting from domestic woes
- Rallying Russian nationalism
- Gaining control of Ukraine’s resources
- Capturing Ukraine’s industrial capacity
- Access to Black Sea shipping lanes
Ideological and Cultural Motivations
- Reunifying the “Russian world”
- Protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine
- Combating “fascism” in Ukraine
- Reviving Tsarist imperial ambitions
Failed Diplomacy and Breakdown of Deterrence
- Collapse of Minsk Agreements
- Weakness of Western deterrence
Domestic Political Calculations
- Shoring up Putin’s strongman image
- Eliminating political opposition
- Silencing anti-war voices
Information Warfare and Disinformation
- State propaganda and historical revisionism
- Whipping up ethnic hatred
- Sowing confusion and uncertainty
- Summary of key factors
- Importance of understanding Russia’s motivations
- Implications for the future of European security
On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, marking the start of the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II. Russian troops, missiles, and airstrikes have wrought massive destruction across Ukraine, while stiff Ukrainian resistance has turned the conflict into a bloody stalemate.
The unprovoked attack stunned the international community and upended decades of relative peace and stability in post-Cold War Europe. Russia’s brazen violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty raises serious questions about President Vladimir Putin’s motivations and strategic calculus. Gaining insight into the complex mix of factors underlying Russia’s fateful decision to go to war is key to anticipating Putin’s next moves and formulating effective policy responses.
This comprehensive review aims to explain Russia’s rationale for invading Ukraine by examining key strategic, political, economic, cultural, and ideological factors that shaped the Kremlin’s thinking. It will analyze major issues like NATO expansion, Russia’s historical ties with Ukraine, the Donbas conflict, Putin’s domestic political considerations, and more. Understanding Russia’s motivations can help the world better grasp the gravity of the Ukraine crisis and its implications for European security.
Historical Ties between Russia and Ukraine
Russia and Ukraine share deep historical, religious, and cultural connections that heavily influence their intertwined fates. After centuries of Russian imperial control, Ukraine’s national identity remains inextricably linked to its larger neighbor. Conflicting views of their shared history are central to today’s tensions.
Centuries under Russian Imperial Rule
Ukraine spent over 300 years under Russian imperial rule before briefly gaining independence after the Russian Revolution. Most of Ukraine’s territory was gradually absorbed into the Russian Empire during the 17th and 18th centuries after the Russian defeat of the Cossack Hetmanate.
Russia imposed strict limits on Ukraine’s autonomy, banning the Ukrainian language and suppressing Ukrainian culture. Despite resistance and periodic uprisings, imperial rule reinforced Ukraine’s position as part of Russian civilization.
Shared Slavic Roots and Orthodox Christianity
Russians and Ukrainians descended from the same Slavic peoples. They adopted Orthodox Christianity under the medieval Kievan Rus’ federation based in modern-day Ukraine. This shared Slavic Orthodox identity persists despite current divisions.
Soviet Era – Ukraine as Part of the USSR
After centuries under the Russian Empire, Ukraine was incorporated into the new Soviet Union in 1922. As a Soviet republic, Ukraine underwent forced collectivization and suffered immense casualties under Stalin’s programs. Its borders, culture, and economy were dictated by Moscow.
Post-Soviet Relations and Tensions
Since Ukraine’s 1991 independence, its relationship with Russia has been strained by gas disputes, the status of Crimea, and efforts by Ukraine to integrate with the West by joining NATO and the EU. Russia seeks to maintain dominance over its former vassal state.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is driven by several overriding strategic considerations linked to Russia’s security posture and regional interests. Confronting NATO enlargement, securing Crimea, and controlling gas flows into Europe are key strategic motivations.
Preventing NATO Expansion into Ukraine
Foremost among Russia’s strategic concerns is preventing neighboring Ukraine from joining NATO, which would bring the Western alliance directly to Russia’s borders. Putin sees NATO enlargement as a fundamental threat to Russian security.
- Russia demands a guarantee that Ukraine will stay out of NATO. But the US and NATO reject this red line.
- Allowing NATO forces in Ukraine could enable Western encirclement of Russia from the Black Sea and Baltic regions.
- Putin also wants to stop the spread of Western military infrastructure into Ukraine. This includes anti-missile systems that could undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent.
Securing Access to Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet
When Ukraine tilted west after the 2014 Maidan revolution, Russia feared losing access to its key Black Sea naval base in Crimea. Annexing Crimea bolstered Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and southern defenses.
- Russia’s massive military buildup in occupied Crimea provides leverage over Ukraine and NATO.
- Dominating the Black Sea helps project Russian power into the Mediterranean and Middle East.
- The Kerch Strait bridge connecting Russia to Crimea secures the fleet’s resupply routes.
Controlling Gas Pipeline Routes into Europe
Ukraine contains vital gas infrastructure carrying Russian energy exports to Europe. Russia wants to bypass Ukraine by building new pipelines like Nord Stream 2 under the Baltic Sea.
- By controlling gas flows, Russia gains political leverage over energy-dependent states in Central and Eastern Europe.
- Pipelines transiting Ukraine like Brotherhood are vulnerable to conflict, risking Russian gas revenues.
Reasserting Russia as a Great Power
Putin aims to reestablish Russia as a dominant world power that can counter US hegemony and Western liberal political values.
- Controlling Ukraine recreates a sphere of influence and buffer against Western expansion.
- Occupying Ukraine’s industrial heartland gives Russia more economic and military heft.
- Projecting strength in Ukraine burnishes Putin’s strongman image at home.
Russia is working to destabilize and undermine Ukraine’s pro-Western government while reestablishing political dominance over its wayward neighbor. Ukraine’s democratic protests threaten Putin, so the Kremlin is using hybrid warfare to keep Ukraine weak.
Restoring Russian Political Influence over Ukraine
Putin wants to install a subservient puppet government in Kyiv that will once again be loyal to Moscow, ending Ukraine’s political drift westward.
- Backing separatists in eastern Ukraine gives Russia leverage to manipulate Ukrainian politics.
- Occupying southern Ukraine creates a land bridge to supply arms to separatists and puts Crimea under Russian control.
- Russia uses bribery, propaganda, and energy cutoffs to pressure Ukrainian leaders. Cyberattacks and assassinations target adversaries.
Countering Western Democratic Ideals
Successful democracy in Ukraine, especially after anti-Putin protests toppled the old regime in 2014, would undermine Putin’s authoritarian crony capitalism.
- Allowing real democracy could inspire similar protests against Putin’s corrupt one-party rule in Russia.
- Russia spreads disinformation to discredit Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders as corrupt neo-Nazis.
Rallying Russian Nationalism
Whipping up Russian nationalism and historical grievances boosts domestic support for Putin’s military adventurism in Ukraine.
- State propaganda pushes an imperial pan-Russian identity and vilifies Ukrainians as Nazis.
- Manufacturing a clash of civilizations narrative portrays Russia’s mission in religious terms.
- The political boost from occupying Ukraine can help offset Putin’s failures on COVID, the economy, and poverty.
Distracting from Domestic Woes
Rattling the saber with Ukraine helps divert attention from Russia’s stagnant economy, political repression, pension crises, and disastrous COVID policies.
- The surge of patriotism from war fervor redirects public anger outward at foreign foes instead of Putin.
- Occupying Ukraine provides new resources and leverage to bolster Putin’s domestic standing.
Recapturing control over Ukraine’s strategic economic assets, advanced industries, and access to the Black Sea boosts Russia’s wealth and power. Ukraine’s economy is deeply intertwined with Russia’s.
Gaining Control of Ukraine’s Resources
Ukraine contains abundant natural resources that Russia covets, from iron ore to titanium to coal. Its fertile farmlands and advanced defense plants also hold real value.
- Occupying Ukraine’s southeast industrial heartland provides resources to fuel Russian steel mills and factories.
- Seizing Ukraine’s energy reserves and pipelines denies crucial transit fees to Kyiv.
- Controlling Ukraine’s farming and electricity frees up more output for export to Russia.
Capturing Ukraine’s Industrial Capacity
Integrating Ukraine’s diversified modern industries and technology into Russia’s economy can provide an economic boost.
- Ukrainian manufacturing plants like the Motor Sich aerospace company offer advanced capabilities Russia lacks.
- Kyiv’s tech and R&D ecosystem enhances Russia’s skills base beyond oil and mining.
- Ukraine’s industrial engine can help modernize Russia’s economy when integrated under Moscow’s control.
Access to Black Sea Shipping Lanes
Control of Ukraine’s long Black Sea coast secures Russia’s access to vital seaborne trade routes and the Mediterranean.
- Occupying Ukraine’s ports allows Russia to ramp up Black Sea commerce and energy exports.
- Projecting naval power into the Black Sea and Mediterranean enhances Russia’s influence in the Middle East and North Africa.
- Blocking Ukrainian shipping and grain exports raises pressure on Europe.
Ideological and Cultural Motivations
Reunifying the so-called “Russian world” and reestablishing dominance over Russian speakers drive’s Putin’s obsession with recapturing Ukraine by force. He also vilifies Ukraine as beholden to fascism.
Reunifying the “Russian World”
Putin portrays Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” illegitimately divided. He claims Ukraine as rightfully part of Russia’s rightful Slavic, Orthodox Christian sphere.
- Putin values imperial-era unity over national sovereignty and denies Ukraine’s distinct identity.
- He wants to forcibly reunite Ukraine with Russia as Belarus has aligned with Moscow.
- Restoring unity of the Russkiy Mir offsets Russia’s declining population.
Protecting Russian Speakers in Ukraine
A common justification for invading Ukraine is protecting ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers there from alleged persecution.
- Putin asserts a duty to defend Russians in Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltics as compatriots.
- Russian state media falsely claim Ukraine seeks to repress Russian speakers and Orthodoxy.
- The presence of over 8 million ethnic Russians in Ukraine is used to justify intervention.
Combating “Fascism” in Ukraine
Putin falsely labels Ukraine’s democratically elected government as run by dangerous ultranationalists and fascists as a pretext for invasion.
- Russian propaganda exaggerates Ukraine’s limited far-right elements like the Azov Battalion to smear the whole state.
- Comparing Ukrainian leaders to Nazi collaborators exploits Russia’s heroic World War II legacy.
- Crushing imagined fascists in Ukraine helps rally the public around Putin’s strongman appeal.
Reviving Tsarist Imperial Ambitions
Occupying Ukraine revives Moscow’s imperialreach and quest for great power status dating to Czarist times.
- Bringing Ukraine under Russia’s wing helps Putin emulate the vast territories controlled by the Czars.
- Restoring past boundaries satisfies nationalist dreams of rebuilding Greater Russia.
- With Ukraine, Russia gains over 200 million citizens and becomes the dominant state in Eastern Europe.
Failed Diplomacy and Breakdown of Deterrence
The road to Russia’s invasion was paved by the slow unraveling of the Minsk peace process and the evident weakness of Western deterrence measures in the face of Russian escalation.
Collapse of the Minsk Agreements
Russia’s failure to implement the Minsk accords governing the status of occupied Donbas obliterated hopes for a negotiated settlement, opening the path to war.
- Ukraine insisted on regaining control of its border with Russia per Minsk; Russia refused.
- Moscow’s proxies in Donbas had no incentive to compromise when Russia backed maximalist demands.
- Months of fruitless negotiations ended with Russia casting aside diplomatic options.
Weakness of Western Deterrence
Despite frequent warnings and threats of massive sanctions, the US and NATO failed to deter a Russian attack due to self-imposed constraints.
- Biden ruled out direct US military intervention, eliminating Russia’s greatest source of risk.
- Germany refused to halt activation of the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite the looming threat to Ukraine.
- Macron and Scholz kept negotiating with Putin even as he mobilized for invasion.
- Financial sanctions were treated by Putin as an acceptable cost of occupying Ukraine’s strategic space.
Domestic Political Calculations
President Putin also factored in various domestic political benefits from military action in Ukraine as he planned his bold escalation amid Russia’s stagnant economy and COVID troubles.
Shoring up Putin’s Strongman Image
Waging war successfully in Ukraine conveys strength, determination and Russian revival under Putin’s bold leadership.
- Putin’s machismo appeal relies partly on reestablishing Russia as a military superpower abroad.
- Occupying Ukraine helps put Putin in the tradition of forceful leaders like Stalin and the Czars.
- Projecting unrelenting will in Ukraine overrides any perception of Putin as aging or faltering.
Eliminating Opposition Voices
Putin has cracked down ruthlessly on domestic dissent, and the Ukraine conflict provides a new justification for stamping out the last remnants of political opposition in Russia.
- Under the banner of patriotic unity, Putin liquidated remaining independent media outlets and non-government organizations
- Laws imposed years in prison for “discrediting” Russia’s military or spreading “false information” about the war.
- Public anti-war sentiment was further chilled by mass arrests of protestors.
Silencing Anti-War Voices
Despite widespread support, Putin faces dissent from anti-war elements who oppose this costly foreign adventure. Invading Ukraine lets Putin tar all critics as treasonous.
- The rally-around-the-flag effect mutes dissent, but protests indicate a minority oppose the war.
- State propaganda paints the conflict as a necessary struggle against Western neo-Nazis bent on destroying Russia.
- Harsh legal reprisals deter open questioning of the Ukraine mission among foreign policy experts.
Information Warfare and Disinformation
Russia has employed extensive propaganda and information warfare tools to quash public criticism, justify the war, and manipulate ethnic tensions in Ukraine. False narratives create pretexts for invasion.
State Propaganda and Historical Revisionism
Years of pro-Russian disinformation from state media primed the public to accept Putin’s distorted rationale for war.
- Claims that Ukraine is an illegitimate state fuel irredentist territorial ambitions.
- Outlets like RT downplay Ukrainian nationhood, falsely labelling leaders as CIA-backed Nazis.
- Revanchist propaganda stokes avenging Russian World War II defeat of Germany.
Whipping up Ethnic Hatred
Russian media spread hateful language against Ukrainians to dehumanize them and encourage violence.
- Ethnic slurs like “Ukrop” proliferate on Kremlin outlets like Sputnik.
- Russians are told Ukrainians are ungrateful fascists who resent Moscow’s patronage.
- Language of purifying Ukraine’s Russian speakers helps justify ethnic cleansing.
Sowing Confusion and Uncertainty
Moscow perfected techniques of spreading lies and fabrications to paralyze opponents and muddy the waters for its own advantage.
- Disinformation campaigns forced Ukraine to spend resources countering false reports of attacks.
- Doctored videos portrayed Ukrainian forces attacking Russian territory, justifying retaliation.
- Empty peace talks and mixed signals sowed strategic ambiguity prior to the invasion.
Russia’s unprecedented assault on Ukraine stemmed from a complex mix of security imperatives, political opportunism, economic motivations, ethnic nationalism, and historical identity. By examining these factors, observers can better understand the strategic calculus behind Putin’s decision for war and his potential endgame scenarios. Russia’s future moves in Ukraine will be driven by many of the same considerations outlined here.
The Kremlin’s justifications do not withstand scrutiny, but illumination of its motives makes Russian escalation more predictable. While Putin bears responsibility for launching Europe’s largest conflict since 1945, the West’s failed deterrence also paved the way. Reestablishing stability in Europe requires firmness and clarity to counter Russia’s expansionist worldview.
Looking ahead, preventing a prolonged and bloody Russian occupation of Ukraine is paramount. But the world must also strengthen deterrence and shore up the international order against future revisionist meddling by rising authoritarian powers. The crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely reshape global geopolitics for years to come.
Subscribe to our list
Don't worry, we don't spam
FAQs about Russia’s Motivations for Invading Ukraine
What was Russia’s main strategic motivation for invading Ukraine?
Russia’s overriding strategic concern was to prevent neighboring Ukraine from joining NATO, which would bring the Western alliance with its military forces directly to Russia’s border. Putin sees NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe as a fundamental threat to Russian security interests.
How does controlling Ukraine help Russia economically?
Occupying Ukraine offers Russia a number of potential economic benefits, including control of Ukraine’s ample natural resources, industrial capacity, and access to valuable Black Sea trade routes. Ukraine’s diversified modern industries, technology, and R&D ecosystem could provide an economic boost when integrated with Russia.
What domestic political benefits does the Ukraine war offer Putin?
The Ukraine war provides several domestic political benefits to Putin. Waging war reinforces his strongman image as a decisive leader reestablishing Russia’s power. The patriotic rallying effect mutes dissent while giving Putin a renewed mandate. Cracking down on opposition is easier under the banner of national unity.
How did Russia use disinformation and propaganda prior to invading Ukraine?
In the years before the invasion, Russia employed extensive disinformation through state media to prime the public to accept the distorted rationale for war. This included false narratives about alleged persecution of Russian speakers, revisionism claiming Ukraine is not a real nation, and outright fictions about the presence of CIA labs or Russian-hating fascists in Ukraine.
What role did the failure of diplomacy play in Russia’s decision to invade?
The slow collapse of the Minsk peace process and evident weakness of Western deterrence measures despite frequent warnings paved the way for Russia’s escalation. Failed negotiations removed hopes of a diplomatic solution, while self-imposed constraints prevented credible deterrence by the US and NATO.
How does controlling Ukraine help project Russian power globally?
Dominating Ukraine allows Russia to reassert itself as a dominant power on the world stage that can counter US influence. Controlling Ukraine’s strategic space gives Russia more economic and military might. Projecting strength in Ukraine also burnishes Putin’s prestige at home.
Why did Russia feel threatened by closer Ukraine-NATO ties?
Russia feared that if Ukraine joined NATO, it would enable Western military forces to deploy directly on Russia’s border. It would also allow NATO to position anti-missile systems and other advanced weapons in Ukraine that could undermine Russia’s defenses and nuclear deterrent.
How does Putin use pan-Slavic ideology to justify invading Ukraine?
Putin portrays Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” who should be reunited in a common Slavic, Orthodox Christian sphere naturally dominated by Russia. This ideology rejects Ukraine’s national sovereignty. Restoring this imagined Slavic unity offset Russia’s demographic decline.
What ethnic nationalist motivations help explain Russia’s invasion?
Ethnic nationalist ideologies include protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine from alleged persecution and fulfilling a mission to reunite a Russian World divided by artificial borders. Reviving an imperial pan-Russian identity helps whip up nationalist fervor for occupying Ukraine.
What historical motivations shape Russia’s views on Ukraine?
Centuries of tight imperial control reinforced Russia’s view that Ukraine belongs under its sphere of influence. Putin values this historical unity over national sovereignty. Restoring past imperial boundaries satisfies nationalist dreams of rebuilding Greater Russia. Bringing Ukraine into its orbit helps Putin emulate past Czarist power.