Why Did Vladimir Putin Start a War Against Ukraine?

Ksenia Eggert | March 24, 2022

The historical and ideological reasons behind the war against Ukraine, as described by a Russian international student.

Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/GettyImages. (CSIS.org)

In the early morning of 24th February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Russian troops that had been located for many weeks on the borders between the two countries attacked Ukraine on multiple fronts. This happened while the members of the UN Security Council were having an emergency meeting and calling Russia for peace. 

A month has passed since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite the claims of the Russian government that there would be no attacks on the civil population and civilian objects, the world has seen plenty of evidence to the contrary. People dead and injured (including children), civilian buildings shelled and bombed, key infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Russian military attacked the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear power station and committed countless war crimes by killing civilians and even shooting at the car of a Swiss journalist. It is already obvious that this conflict is the first of this scale in Europe since the second world war.  

So, why did Russia attack Ukraine? And was it unexpected?   

The current war against Ukraine is a continuation of the attack that began back in 2014. It is also the horrifying culmination of 20 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule and the tragic outcome of Russia’s first 30 years after the collapse of the USSR. 

Unfortunately, many people I have met in Europe still do not understand that Russia’s foreign policy is intimately connected to a deteriorating domestic situation.  Many of you are probably familiar with this explanation of the war through numerous videos and articles already – that Russia attacked Ukraine because it feels threatened by NATO expanding eastward, even though it was promised that NATO would not expand. This explanation is often taken at face value, especially by those opposed to NATO, the US, or the so-called western world. The problem with this argument is that it only works if: 1) you do not know the political context in Ukraine and Russia, or 2) you are willing to sacrifice countless lives for geopolitical gains. Moreover, the myth that NATO promised Russia to not expand eastward has already been refuted in an extensive Chatham House report, as well as many others (examples here, here, and here).  

Vladimir Putin and his entourage may believe this, but it should be remembered that any attempt by the Kremlin to pit Russia against the West, or to portray the West as equally “bad”, or to use the realpolitik terms is first and foremost a charade for the domestic audience. One should not underestimate the seriousness of the Russians’ post-Soviet imperial complex. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, its longtime Cold War rival, the United States, became the sole superpower and achieved gigantic political and cultural influence around the world. Inside Russia however, the promised rapid changes to the free market and democracy did not materialize, and the difficult transition period of the 1990s left many Russians severely disillusioned and craving both stability and a sense of identity.   

At the same time, many of the former Soviet bloc countries joined NATO and the EU and underwent their own painful transitions to develop free economies and democratic regimes. Despite persistent problems, many of these countries have succeeded in economic, political, and social development, unlike Russia. The disappearance of direct Russian (as in Soviet) influence in these countries and the loss of the superpower status, combined with growing domestic problems, has created a need for an ideology that would compensate for both internal deprivation and the lack of external “greatness”. Putin’s famous Munich speech marked an active turn of his foreign policy and domestic policy towards a revival of Russia. 

War with Ukraine is not entirely shocking to anyone who remembers that Russia has already been at war with its neighbors in this century. In 2008, Russia responded with military aggression to a referendum in Georgia in which 77 % of Georgians favored the country joining NATO. As a result, the Russian military sided with the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and ended up essentially creating puppet states there.  

In 2014 Vladimir Putin was severely displeased with the revolution in Ukraine, during which the country’s citizens overthrew pro-Kremlin President Vladimir Yanukovich and opted for Ukraine’s accession to the EU. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and establishing proxy “states” on Ukrainian territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  

In both cases, these conflicts were presented to the Russian public as a consequence of direct aggression and a threat from Georgia/Ukraine/West, as protection of peaceful citizens (Ossetians, Ukrainians, Russians), and as an attempt to stop genocide. Each conflict was presented as a victory for Russia, which was supposed to make ordinary Russians once again proud of Russia’s active role in the international arena. This was especially true of the annexation of Crimea. It raised Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings to record highs and distracted Russians from internal corruption and the regime’s increasing authoritarianism.  

For many Russians, 2014 was the year of “Crimean euphoria” for a wary minority – a breaking point after which it became clear that Russian military aggression in the region would only increase. Relatively mild sanctions from the West, continued formal and informal political relations (often promoting the personal business interests of Russian politicians and businessmen as well as of their Western colleagues) and the generally positive reaction of the Russian society finally convinced the Kremlin of the effectiveness of the militarist and revanchist imperial ideology. Since 2014, this ideology has started to completely dominate Kremlin’s propaganda along with pseudo-patriotism and pseudo-Orthodoxy. 

The problem is that the standard of living in Russia has also changed since 2014: corruption in all sectors, growing poverty, the growing dissatisfaction of citizens with the regime and its authoritarianism. This led to the need to increase the pressure of the ideology, distracting Russians from their internal problems and convincing them that only Vladimir Putin’s regime can provide them with a new identity as citizens of a country “respected and feared throughout the world,” and to protect Russians from the “aggressive” environment. Self-assertion in the region at the expense of Ukraine has become an ideological condition for the regime’s existence. For the past 8 years, Russian propagandists on state TV and radio channels and other media platforms have been telling Russians that they are threatened by NATO and the West, that Ukraine is not a sovereign state, that the Ukrainian authorities are committing genocide against Russians in Donbas, and that the Ukrainian government is fascist. In the last months of 2021 and the first months of 2022, I personally watched as the propaganda narratives intensified, screaming of an imminent military clash between Russia and Ukraine, because Russia has to “protect Russians in Ukraine” and because “the West is pushing us into war” (debunked here). 

In Vladimir Putin’s televised address, broadcast on the morning of February 24 he does not call the attack on Ukraine a war – but “a special military operation to ‘denazify’ and ‘democratize’ Ukraine”. This was only to be expected considering all the preparatory rhetoric. 

A lot of people wonder if Vladimir Putin is “crazy” to start a war and to continue it in such an inhumane way. The short answer? No. The long answer was summed up perfectly by Andrei Kozyrev – the former and the first Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation under President Boris Yeltsin – in a Twitter thread. Basically, Putin really believes, that 1) Ukraine is not a real country, 2) Russia’s army is in great condition, and 3) the West (especially NATO and the EU) is weak. He acted based on these conclusions, believing they were right. Until the Ukrainians proved him to be very wrong.  

Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/GettyImages. (CSIS.org)

This war has already claimed the lives of many Ukrainians. But they continue to defend their country. They refuse to give up. 

Slava Ukraini! 

Check out the page of “Students for Ukraine” – an official KU Leuven student association that collects humanitarian donations for Ukraine  https://www.students4ua.org/