Foreign Affairs

Putin’s Invasion: The Reasons for War and the Fate of Ukraine

This is the first part of a two part series covering the causes behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what it means for Ukraine, Russia, and the world. Part two will focus on likely scenarios as a result of the war for Russia and the rest of the world.

On Feb. 24, 2022, the Russian Federation launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. During a United Nations Security Council meeting addressing the Ukraine crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in a prerecorded video a “special military operation” against Ukraine with the alleged aim of “the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” This announcement came in the wake of President Putin’s recognition of the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region three days earlier.

Now, war rages in Ukraine. The Ukrainian military, alongside a conscripted force of all male citizens ages 18-60, is fending off a three-pronged invasion by Russian military forces. While details are murky, it is known that many major cities in Ukraine, including the capital city of Kyiv, have been subject to missile bombardment accompanied by a full-scale ground invasion of the border regions, forcing approximately 2.8 million Ukrainians thus far to flee their homes. Factors weighing in Ukraine’s favor include the substantial land size of the country itself, broad international and domestic support, and a spirited defense of the country by the Ukrainian people. Opposing Ukraine, however, is the vastly superior Russian military which holds advantages at nearly all levels. No matter how this conflict is resolved, it is likely to be a painful slog in which the morale of an entire nation is brutally tested.

Why is Russia Invading Ukraine?

The path to this moment in history has been long and winding and is fraught with conflict, shared statehood, independence, and cultural change over the course of more than a thousand years. To determine what outcomes Ukraine, Russia, and the world might face at the end of this invasion, one must first understand why Putin is ordering the invasion of his Slavic sister state in the first place.

In July 2021, Putin penned an article regarding Ukraine in which he described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” who are part of “the same historical and spiritual space.” Although Russia and Ukraine have indeed always been interconnected to some degree since the formation of the Kyivan Rus’ by the Norse prince Rurik in 882 AD, Ukrainians have developed their own national identity through a unique history, language, and culture. Regardless of the accuracy of his claims, Putin has now made it clear that he is willing to fight for these beliefs.

However, Putin’s blood and soil ideas regarding a supposedly identical ethnic history between Russia and Ukraine are not his only motive behind this invasion. In a 2005 address to the nation, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and a “genuine tragedy.” Given his former occupation as a high-ranking KGB agent, whose focus most likely included monitoring foreigners and crushing political dissidents within the USSR, these remarks are hardly surprising. 

Only now, however, these words have actual force behind them. As remarked by former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1994, “It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” With this fact in mind, Putin’s motives become significantly clearer.

Ideological convictions are not the only driver for Putin’s aggression, however. Matters of geographic security and resource acquisition also contribute to the thinking of Russian leadership. In these two categories, there are four primary concerns: Ukraine’s position on the North European Plain, Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, Ukraine’s natural gas reservoirs and pipelines, and Ukraine’s bountiful agricultural development.

Firstly, Russia’s position on the North European Plain, the vast flat land stretching from northern Germany in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east, has always been a cause for concern for Russia in relation to her often imperial western neighbors. The invasions of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée and Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa, both of which forced Russia (or, in the latter case, the Soviet Union) to adopt scorched earth policies due to the amenable terrain, clearly demonstrate the danger Russian leaders feel when looking to the west. 

This is also where Russia’s insistence that Ukraine never join NATO comes into play. Granting Ukraine NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense protections is, in the minds of Russian leaders, a direct threat against Russian national security, as this would open a potential line of battle in a conflict between Russia and the West so wide that it would be impossible to maintain. The vicious conflict that has taken place in the central region of the Plain, which contains Ukraine, has earned the region the moniker of the Bloodlands from historian Timothy Snyder.

Secondly, the Black Sea is another area of great strategic importance to both Russia and Ukraine. For Ukraine, the Black Sea serves as their gateway to the seaborne global trading network, with the port of Odessa on Ukraine’s southern coast, which now seems to be at risk of imminent Russian assault, being the most significant port Ukraine possesses. 

For Russia, the Black Sea is of similar importance, although the more crucial area of significance is what the Black Sea does for Moscow militarily. One of the underlying reasons Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 was to secure permanent Russian control over the port of Sevastopol, one of Russia’s only warm water ports. It is from Sevastopol that Russia is able to project power not only into the Black Sea but also, in conjunction with their naval base in Tartus, Syria, into the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. Another key point to note is that since the forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine has closed the North Crimean Canal linking the Dnieper River to Crimea, which previously provided 85 percent of the water consumed in Crimea. Now, after invading, Russia has reopened the canal, alleviating (for now) the 90 percent contraction in arable land in Crimea since 2014.

Thirdly, Ukraine’s natural gas reservoirs and pipeline connections with Europe also paint a tempting picture for Moscow. Russia is currently Europe’s largest supplier of natural gas, crude oil, and coal by a wide margin. The most crucial of these three exports to both the Russian economy and European household heating is natural gas, which is the largest energy source for this purpose. Approximately one-third of the natural gas flowing from Russia to Europe goes through Ukrainian pipelines, a privilege for which Ukraine charges Russia tariffs. More importantly, however, are two major natural gas lodes in what is legally Ukraine: the shale gas deposits in eastern Ukraine and the potentially two trillion cubic meters of natural gas off the coast of Crimea, both of which Russia would be more effectively able to extract were these territories no longer contested.

Finally, Ukraine is known as the “breadbasket of Europe,” having previously supplied 25 percent of all agricultural production for the former Soviet Union. While the Ukrainian agriculture sector has struggled in recent years, Ukraine remains a major player in global food production, possessing 42 million hectares of arable land upon which everything from wheat to sunflower seed is produced.

The Fate of Ukraine

Russian victory over Ukraine seems, on its face, to be the most likely scenario. Russia is the more powerful state demographically, economically, and militarily. In addition, the United States or any other country at present, is not planning to deploy ground troops nor an air defense system to aid Ukrainian defense. This move would be domestically untenable, at least in the U.S. However, early Ukrainian victories are making this outcome seem less and less certain. 

So, what might happen if the revanchist nationalist Vladimir Putin succeeds in crushing Ukraine under the weight of a military invasion? There are multiple possible scenarios, but one fact is for certain: there will be a Ukrainian refugee crisis. The massive numbers of Ukrainians who have fled the country and continue to flee as the conflict continues will, in large part, not want to return to a war torn state from the safety of Central European NATO member states. This will force a geopolitical conundrum onto the rest of Europe, similar to the 2015 refugee crisis.

Beyond this, however, there are four likely outcomes, or some mixture of the four, for the Ukrainian state itself in the event of a Russian victory: partition, federalization, annexation, or regime change.

Since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, there have been potential scenarios floated for a partition of the Ukrainian state into something approximating East and West Ukraine. The country would likely be divided down the Dnieper River which runs roughly down the middle of Ukraine and empties into the Black Sea. East Ukraine would be home to the more Russian-leaning and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine, while West Ukraine would be populated by the more Western-leaning, Europeanized citizens of the country, whose historical ties with the West, particularly in cities like Lviv, stretch back centuries. A more mild scenario of this approach is now being floated by Russian diplomats. This outcome would require Ukraine to formally cede Crimea to Russia and recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, but as of now Ukraine has soundly rejected this demand.

Another possible outcome is complete federalization of Ukraine. Until Putin’s recognition of the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region, this was the stance of separatists in these areas. A federalization of Ukraine would have allowed them to more easily attain their independence or incorporation into Russia through a referendum vote, or through other means, that the weak central government would be powerless to resist. In the event of a Russian victory, Putin might seek to implement this system in Ukraine, which would allow the eastern territories to officially secede and essentially nullify any future effective nationwide action by Ukraine against Russia.

Perhaps the most radical move Putin could make is the total annexation of Ukraine in a similar fashion to Russia’s takeover of Crimea. Before the invasion, Putin called for international recognition of Russian control of Crimea, something which would theoretically be granted were a Ukrainian state no longer to exist. This option, however, is exceedingly unlikely, as it would require a sustained and costly occupation of the entirety of Ukraine for years to come, a decision made all the more unappealing due to the CIA-backed guerillas that would most likely resist Russian rule.

A more likely scenario would be a regime change, which Russia could administer more effectively and use to cut Ukraine off from Western support. This would turn Ukraine into a client state of Russia in a similar manner as Belarus. If this approach were to be successful for Moscow, this would also mean a demilitarization of Ukraine, which was one of their stated goals before invading. While this outcome would still require the continued presence of a significant Russian military force in key Ukrainian areas, it would likely not meet the same level of resistance as a simple war of conquest would.

By no means is a Russian victory in Ukraine a certainty, however. After three weeks of fighting, Ukrainians have held their ground in key areas, destroyed the unit of Chechen special forces reportedly sent to capture or kill Ukrainian leaders, eliminated two leading Russian generals, Magomed Tushayev and Vitaliy Gerasimov, and have allegedly killed over 12,000 Russian troops. The latter number is almost certainly inflated given that this information comes from the Ukrainian government who, like all governments, has an interest in exaggerating their success. However, when taken with the Russian sources which claim that only 498 of their soldiers have died with nearly 1,600 wounded, it can be reasoned that the truth is somewhere in the middle, likely around the 5,000 to 6,000 casualties estimated by the U.S. officials.

In addition, 16 countries thus far have sent lethal aid to Ukraine, with the United States having sent over $1 billion in weapons and supplies since last fall. This has now been dwarfed, however, by a $13.6 billion spending package of aid to Ukraine and Eastern European allies passed by Congress. Ukrainian manpower and morale is also being bolstered by a legion of foreign volunteers with reportedly thousands of individuals enrolled already, several hundred of whom have already been confirmed to have arrived in Ukraine.

Furthermore, Ukrainian defenders are waging a largely successful information campaign, seemingly expressing great optimism and resilience to the rest of the world. Part of this includes the lionization of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a man who from unlikely origins has proven himself to be an effective and inspiring wartime leader. His bold moves, such as submitting a petition to join the European Union while in the midst of war, thus far seem to have emboldened the Ukrainian populace into continuing their heroic struggle. 

If Zelenskyy’s leadership continues and these early successes build upon one another, it is plausible that Ukraine grinds the Russian invasion to an unsustainable halt and forces a humiliating withdrawal from Putin. Four rounds of peace talks have already taken place between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, although no ceasefire has thus far been negotiated. If things progress as they have been, however, more talks are sure to follow.

What might a victorious Ukraine look like? Certainly more well off than a defeated Ukraine, but a country that would still be riddled with problems. First and foremost, Ukraine would have to undertake the logistical feat of convincing the refugees that have fled the country to return and providing temporary shelters for those whose homes have been destroyed. This would need to happen alongside sweeping repairs of damaged or destroyed infrastructure, which will become more expensive as the war continues to rage.

Once these immediate problems are solved, Ukraine will still have to contend with issues that have plagued it for years. Like in Russia, much of the wealth in Ukraine is held by oligarchs with vast political sway, each worth over a billion dollars. This, combined with Ukraine’s low GDP per capita, makes wealth inequality a significant problem in the country. Although in the first years of office, President Zelenskyy has done his best to limit the power of these oligarchs. Furthermore, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s government has been wracked with corruption, in which the oligarch class plays a significant role.

If all of this were not bad enough, Ukraine is staring down the barrel of rapid population decline, a weakened agricultural sector, miniscule rates of foreign direct investment, and a flagging industrial sector. It is never too late for a country, particularly one with such a resilient population as Ukraine’s, to change course, but unfortunately, defeating a Russian invasion will not by itself turn Ukraine into a prosperous country with a recovered economy.

Only time will tell what the future holds for Ukraine and her people, but one can hope that this conflict will end as quickly as possible for the sake of the 44 million human lives in Ukraine.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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