Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the world. After months of military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, Russian forces launched coordinated attacks across the country, beginning what would become the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II.
The invasion sparked immediate condemnation from Western nations, which responded with severe economic sanctions and military aid for Ukraine. But Russia’s motivations and goals have deeper roots reaching back decades.
Understanding the complex history between Russia and Ukraine is key to making sense of this conflict and its potential consequences going forward. This comprehensive guide examines the key factors behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Overview of Russia-Ukraine Relations
Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. Since then, Ukraine has sought closer ties with Western institutions like the European Union (EU) and NATO, while Russia has tried to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence.
Key factors contributing to the conflict:
- Historical ties – Russia views Ukraine as culturally and historically intertwined with Russia since the 9th century Kievan Rus era.
- geostrategic importance – Ukraine serves as a strategic buffer between Russia and western Europe. Loss of influence over Ukraine weakens Russia’s position.
- Ethnic Russians in Ukraine – Ukraine has a large ethnic Russian population, concentrated in Crimea and the Donbas region. Russia claims a duty to protect these groups.
- NATO expansion – Russia vehemently opposes NATO expansion into former Soviet states like Ukraine, seeing it as a threat to Russian security.
- Natural resources – Ukraine offers economic benefits for Russia, including access to natural resources and industries.
Timeline of Key Events
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have steadily escalated since Ukraine declared independence in 1991:
- 1991 – Ukraine declares independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
- 2004 – Pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych is declared winner of Ukraine’s presidential election, sparking allegations of vote-rigging and massive protests known as the Orange Revolution. Elections are rerun and pro-Western Victor Yushchenko is elected president.
- 2010 – Viktor Yanukovych elected president after running on a platform of closer ties with Russia. His government abandons a proposed EU association agreement.
- 2014 – Pro-EU protests lead to the ousting of Yanukovych. Russia responds by annexing Crimea and supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, leading to an ongoing conflict.
- 2019 – Volodymyr Zelensky elected president of Ukraine on an anti-corruption, pro-peace platform. Efforts to end conflict with Russian-backed separatists fail.
- 2021 – Russia begins massing troops along Ukraine’s borders. US intelligence warns of imminent plans for a Russian invasion.
- February 2022 – Russia officially recognizes breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine and deploys “peacekeeping” forces. Soon after, a full-scale invasion is launched.
Russia’s Key Strategic Motivations
Russia has presented a long list of grievances to justify its invasion. But experts largely agree on three core strategic motivations driving Russia’s actions:
1. Prevent Ukraine from Joining NATO
- Russia sees NATO expansion as a major threat to its security interests. This intensified after eastern European countries like Poland joined NATO in 1999.
- Allowing Ukraine to join NATO would bring the alliance right up to Russia’s border. Russia wants to stop further NATO growth at all costs.
- Russia demands legal guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO. But the US and NATO have firmly rejected this.
2. Reassert Russian Influence Over Former Soviet States
- Russia seeks to remain the dominant power over former Soviet countries like Ukraine. Loss of influence is seen as weakening Russia.
- Bringing Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence has become an important nationalist goal for Putin’s government.
- Occupying parts of Ukraine allows Russia to exert leverage and block closer Ukraine-EU relations.
3. Boost Domestic Political Support
- Starting a foreign conflict can often create a temporary “rally around the flag” effect at home.
- Putin’s government likely seeks to boost its domestic approval, which has declined due to economic stagnation.
- Successfully occupying Ukraine could elevate Putin’s strongman image and legacy in Russia.
Understanding Russia’s Security Perspective
To comprehend Russia’s actions, it’s important to consider Russia’s unique security situation and perspective:
- Invasion vulnerability – Russia’s vast territory with few natural borders makes it vulnerable to invasions, as seen in WW1/WW2. So Russia prioritizes buffer zones around its borders.
- Loss of status – Russia maintains an outsized view of its rightful place on the world stage as a superpower, based on its Soviet-era status and nuclear weapons today.
- Encirclement fears – NATO expansion over the decades has made Russia feel increasingly threatened and encircled by Western adversaries.
- Distrust of the West – Russia sees NATO as merely an instrument for US military power projection rather than a purely defensive alliance. This breeds distrust.
Given this backdrop, Russia’s invasion seeks to prevent what it sees as hostile Western encroachment on its natural sphere of influence. However, Russia’s security concerns don’t justify violating another country’s sovereignty.
How the West Underestimated Russia’s Intentions
In the months before the invasion, Western powers like the US extensively downplayed the likelihood of a full Russian invasion:
- US officials stated that Putin was just posturing and wouldn’t actually invade, likely to avoid panic.
- Russia was seen as not wanting a costly, risky conflict with uncertain outcomes. Diplomacy was expected to prevail.
- There was insufficient recognition of how important Ukraine was for Russia strategically and for Putin’s personal legacy.
- Western sanctions after the 2014 invasion of Crimea were not severe enough to deter future aggression from Russia.
- Cuts to military spending after the Cold War led to reduced capability to intervene militarily in the region.
This complacency allowed Russia to catch the world off guard while meticulously laying the groundwork for invasion through disinformation, proxy forces, and diplomatic subterfuge.
False Pretexts for Invasion
To retroactively justify its aggression, Russia has promoted verifiably false narratives:
- Allegations of Genocide – Russia has falsely claimed that Ukraine was committing genocide against ethnic Russians in the Donbas, necessitating intervention.
- Denial of Ukraine’s Sovereignty – Putin has baselessly asserted that Ukraine is an illegitimate state. A core war aim is to “de-Nazify” and fully subjugate Ukraine.
- Threat to Russia – Russia has dishonestly branded Ukraine as the aggressor, making far-fetched claims about Ukraine developing nuclear weapons or hosting Western offensive weapons.
- Liberation Rhetoric – Russia depicts the invasion as a mission to “liberate” ethnic Russians in Ukraine who desire unification with Russia. But polls of Ukrainians show little support for this.
In reality, these are flimsy pretexts to obscure Russia’s true motivations in invading.
Potential Future Flashpoints
The war in Ukraine shows no signs of resolution in the near future. Looking ahead, several areas are potential flashpoints:
- Eastern Ukraine – Bitter fighting continues as Russia tries to capture the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This could become a “frozen conflict” even if peace is reached.
- Southern Ukraine – Russia seeks to establish a land bridge connecting Russian-controlled areas and cutting off Ukraine’s access to the sea.
- Moldova – This former Soviet state fears it could become Russia’s next target, especially the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria.
- Other Post-Soviet States – Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the Baltics are on high alert for Russian aggression or subversion.
- NATO Territory – If any clashes erupt between Russia and NATO forces sent to reinforce Eastern Europe, this could trigger a cataclysmic escalation.
Diplomacy and de-escalation are urgently needed to prevent the conflict from engulfing more of Europe.
Wider Impacts and Implications
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a tectonic event with immense humanitarian and geopolitical implications:
- Global security order – Russia’s willingness to brazenly invade a sovereign nation sets a dangerous precedent and shakes faith in international law.
- Civilian suffering – The UN estimates over 5,000 civilians have been killed, with millions more displaced from their homes.
- Economic fallout – Energy and food shortages caused by the war are increasing costs of living globally, especially in already vulnerable nations.
- Refugee crisis – Over 7 million Ukrainians have fled the country, creating an immense humanitarian challenge in Europe.
- Climate goals derailed – Europe’s need for non-Russian energy supplies is driving up demand for fossil fuels, undermining emissions reduction efforts.
- Power shifts – Asian and Middle Eastern nations remain noncommittal, signaling a potential shift from a US/Europe dominated global order.
The outcome in Ukraine will reshape geopolitics and alliances for years to come. The world anxiously awaits any return to stability and peace.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the Minsk agreement?
The Minsk agreements were a series of ceasefire deals between Ukraine and Russia in 2014 and 2015, brokered by France and Germany. They aimed to end fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. But the key conditions were never implemented, and frequent violations occurred. Many saw it as just freezing the conflict.
Is Russia’s claim about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine justified?
No. While there are some far-right nationalist groups in Ukraine, they have little power or popularity. Ukraine’s government and society at large in no way resemble a Nazi regime. Ukraine’s president Zelensky is Jewish himself. It is baseless propaganda meant to justify invading a sovereign nation.
Can Ukraine actually win or successfully resist Russia’s invasion?
Russia assumed it could quickly topple Ukraine’s government, but Ukraine’s fierce resistance has proven much tougher than expected. Western weapons and intelligence aid have bolstered Ukraine’s capabilities. Russia may be forced to scale back its goals, but compromise solutions seem far off as both sides remain defiant.
Does Ukraine have a right to join NATO if it wants?
Ukraine has the right as a sovereign state to apply to join NATO if it wishes. But NATO members must unanimously agree to allow any new member to join. Many argue provoking Russia by admitting Ukraine into NATO could lead to greater overall conflict in Europe. Both sides’ positions have validity.
Subscribe to our list
Don't worry, we don't spam
How does this invasion compare to Russia’s previous military actions?
The invasion of Ukraine is far larger in scale than Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia or 2014 annexation of Crimea. It marks Russia’s first full-scale war against a former Soviet republic in Europe since WWII. The massive costs and uncertain gains make it one of Russia’s most aggressive and risky military ventures of the past decades.
Could China play a decisive role in ending the conflict?
As one of Russia’s closest partners, China’s stance is critical. While China has avoided directly condemning Russia’s actions, its muted shows of support also indicate some unease. If any nation can apply effective diplomatic pressure on Russia, it is China. But so far, China is treading cautiously to avoid damaging ties with Europe and the West.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents a flagrant violation of international law and brings immense suffering upon millions. But given the complex history and clashing security interests, the path towards peace and stability remains unclear.
While Russia’s actions cannot be justified, diplomacy requires understanding their strategic perspective and priorities. There are no simple solutions. But Ukraine’s sovereignty must ultimately be restored, and mechanisms put in place to rebuild shattered trust.
Providing a clear-eyed analysis of how this conflict arose gives the context needed to prevent such unconscionable aggression from occurring again. The world desperately hopes that sanity and humanity can prevail.