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Why would Putin’s Russia do this to Ukraine?

Photo by Markus Spiske

As footage rolls in of Russian T-90 tanks scurrying across the Ukrainian border, many are left with a shaken worldview. In an international system where war is demonized and organizations such as the United Nations are supposed to prevent conflict, Europe is once again plunged into a large-scale conventional war. Many are left asking, “How could Putin do such a thing?”

Caricatures of President Vladimir Putin as a madman or an unhinged dictator pervade Western media and thought circles. Russia’s leader is portrayed as acting in the absence of rationality. The danger of this approach is to neglect what Russia sees as real security considerations. If one comes to the negotiating table believing an adversary has no legitimate concerns, resolution becomes a remote possibility.

A difficult yet necessary academic detachment is needed to properly assess the situation. While many are shocked by Putin’s actions, an analysis of Russian politics and history yields the conclusion that this should be no surprise at all.

In great world power competition, there are generally two types of empires: Thalassocracies and tellurocracies. A “thalassocracy” operates on the concept of sea power and maintaining a network of alliances and colonies to increase its geopolitical standing. In contrast, a “tellurocracy” is a land based power with a heavy focus on continental systems. There is a spectrum between the two, but generally great powers fall into one of these categories.

An archetypal example of a thalassocracy would be the former British Empire, while Russia serves as an excellent example of a tellurocracy. The concept of tellurocracy itself is a Russian intellectual invention. Without the luxury of oceans to insulate the frontiers from geopolitical competitors, Russia has historically opted for the use of client states to buffer any would-be aggressors.

A key example of this is Belarus. Before the Euromaidan in 2014, Ukraine was firmly in Russia’s sphere of influence or at least neutral. With the overthrow of Yanukovych and the collapse of the pro-Moscow government, a key buffer state fell to the opposing bloc. This threatened to restrict Russia’s access to the Black Sea, isolate its client state of Transnistria and bring NATO right to its doorstep. 

NATO formed as a defensive bloc in opposition to the Soviet Union. Since the dissolution of the USSR, the alliance remained intact and expanded into many of the former Soviet aligned territories. Known as the Warsaw Pact, nations such as Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria used to be Soviet client states. These states are now full members of NATO; a stark disparity from their Cold War alignments.

From Russia’s point of view, the encroaching borders of NATO represent a policy of encirclement. Given the weapon sharing practices of the alliance, Russia grows uneasy when these assets show up on their front door. Again, one must take a detached understanding of Moscow’s perspective. NATO has participated in a number of interventions since the fall of the Soviet Union. The bombings in Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s as well as bombarding Libya in 2011 amidst its civil war serve as prominent non-defensive examples in Russia’s memory.

While these interventions may have been justified under the protection of human rights, Moscow operates on a different frequency. They characterize these operations as Western aggression and interventionism and see the human rights argument serving only as an excuse.

Moreover, Russia points to the actions of NATO members such as the U.S. which engaged in a full scale conventional invasion of Iraq for dubious pretenses as evidence of a double standard. In the minds of Moscow’s policy makers, an alliance with a history of intervention with members who have engaged in their own unilateral invasions is now trying to absorb Ukraine into its sphere of influence.

Another argument Russia will make is that they did not start the war. They reason that the civil conflict in the eastern part of the country has been raging since 2014 and resulted in 13,000 deaths before the invasion started. Putin sees himself as ending the war, not igniting it. A key part of the NATO charter is Article 5 which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. In other words, mutual defense of members provides a deterrent from aggression.

Russia worries that Ukraine, already in conflict, would potentially invoke Article 5 if inducted. The country was already in the midst of a proxy conflict with Moscow via the Donbass War.

In his calculus, Putin decided it was better to invade Ukraine now rather than let them be inducted into NATO and face all of its members at once. With a limited industrial base and economy, Russia could not win a war against the full force of NATO. From his perspective, Putin chose the lesser of two evils.

It is easy to be inundated with voices decrying the Russian invasion as totally without cause and the actions of a madman. The reasons stated above are just the surface of Moscow’s perspective. Discounting Russia’s motivations only serves to prolong the conflict and create a zero sum game.

One does not have to agree with these controversial actions. In order to bring about a swift solution, however, we must at least acknowledge that real reasons for Russia’s invasion exist.


Edited by James Sutton




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