Why Is Putin Invading Ukraine Now?

On the morning of February 24, Russia began its coordinated attack on Ukraine, deploying armed convoys originating from mainland Russia, Lugansk and Donetsk in Ukraine’s east, the Belarusian border in the north, and the annexed Crimean Peninsula in the south.

In the days since, over two million Ukrainians have fled to Poland, Hungary, and other refugee safe havens.

Though the international community — even long-time neutral states such as Sweden and Switzerland — largely backs Ukraine militarily, Vladimir Putin remains undeterred.

Within Russia, Putin’s war proves unpopular. In the last two weeks, local police arrested nearly 14,000 anti-war protesters, political and economic leaders have made public anti-war statements, and civil servants and soldiers have defected from their service to the regime.

The question remains: why is Putin’s war in Ukraine happening now? Below, I explore several explanations for this war, ranked by plausibility.

Most Plausible (Tied): Russia Perceives a Security Threat

Ukraine has looked to exit Russia’s shadow since shortly after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Over the past 30 years, Ukraine has engaged in talks with NATO about membership that would allow it to depart from Russia’s orbit and give it military, economic, and even diplomatic leverage over the regional hegemon.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba give a press conference
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba give a press conference following their meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on April 13, 2021. Photo: Francisco Seco/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has long desired a guarantee that Ukraine will not join a military alliance with the rest of Europe and the US, as it fears that NATO support could lead to an invasion launched from Ukraine or, more likely, Ukraine recapturing the Crimean Peninsula.

The Putin regime openly admits its concerns about an attack from neighboring Ukraine with Putin’s explicit claim that “the war machine is moving and, I repeat, it is coming close to our borders.”

Controlling Ukrainian territory and installing a pro-Kremlin leader would be an effective way to mitigate NATO’s security threat, create a buffer between Russia and the West, and even successfully “demilitarize” the country, as Putin has proposed to do.

Most Plausible (Tied): Bargaining Failure

Since 2014, Ukraine and Russian separatists have been fighting over land in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

To both states, controlling the region is a zero-sum bargain; both states are unwilling to divide or give up this land. These opposing perspectives on the divisibility of Ukraine and the alliances it wishes to form to protect itself led to a bargaining failure.

This is exacerbated because Russia is an autocracy, allowing the Kremlin to demonstrate aggression without major concerns about public accountability as police and military forces can be utilized to stop protests. The result of a bargaining failure is war.

Moderate Plausibility: Ethnocentrism Drives the Conflict

Putin has spoken publicly about protecting ethnic Russians living outside the Russian Federation, and he has raised explicit concerns about Ukraine committing genocide against the ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine.

This insinuates a systematic, state-sponsored extermination of the ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, their forced displacement, or some other severe and systematic cultural destruction (possibly influenced by allegations that instruction in the Russian language was banned in Ukrainian schools).

Further, Putin has given speeches negating Ukraine’s legitimacy, claiming that Ukrainian history, language, and culture can be inextricably linked back to Russian history, language, and culture.

In addition, Putin has expressed that it is unacceptable to have what he perceives to be an anti-Kremlin administration in Ukraine when the country is populated so heavily with ethnic Russians.

The Kremlin wants to install a pro-Russian leader, as Ukraine had before the 2014 revolution. This may also lead to claims that Putin is aggressing upon Ukraine to rebuild some kind of Slavic alliance between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, as well as those in other neighboring states.

Low-to-Moderate Plausibility: Conflict for the Kremlin’s Own Benefit

Putin has used misinformation and disinformation in his speeches, such as claims about the prevalence of Nazis in Kyiv, to encourage the public to support the Kremlin’s advances in Ukraine.

Further, we do know that Ukraine possesses a sizable proportion of the world’s mineral resources, including large coal, gas, and iron ore reserves, in addition to warm water ports on the Black Sea.

Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after a fighting with Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv
Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after fighting with a Russian raiding group in Kyiv on the morning of February 26, 2022. Photo: Segei Supinski/AFP

That said, while the rally effect of war abroad traditionally reinforces national unity and popular support for a leader, the typical tools used to rally the people are absent in this conflict.

There was no effort to stage a faux (or real) attack as a pretext for entering this conflict and little effort to mobilize the public in Russian cities through pro-Kremlin and pro-war demonstrations.

Low Plausibility: Putin Is Emotional or Irrational

This argument is difficult to evidence, though we can turn to psychological experts or leaders such as the former UK Ambassador to Russia, Sir Roderic Lyne, who has gone on the record describing Putin as driven by emotion, vengeance, and a belief that the West desires to destroy Russia.

What we can see is that Putin has expressed emotionally heightened and revisionist concerns about genocide, statehood, and Nazism in Ukraine. These emotional shortcuts are used to justify conflict against an enemy based on what they represent in the Russian collective memory.

In addition, Putin seems unaware of (or unconcerned by) the potential backlash his short-term actions may bring in the form of sanctions, geopolitical isolation, or even military responses.

Other explanations, albeit difficult to quantify, are that Putin’s frustration drives his aggression after perceived rejection by the West after the fall of the Soviet Union or that Putin feels dismissed by NATO and the West.

Whatever the explanation for this conflict (likely to be a combination of those discussed here), it is certain that the continuation of the Russian military’s bombardment of Ukrainian cities is tragic and bound for further devastation.

Headshot Alexis LernerDr. Alexis Lerner (@PostSovietGraf) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the United States Naval Academy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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