Russia-Ukraine situation, an update, and some insight

international politics, Politics

Elizabeth Boyle, Staff

Russia has gained a global audience because of its tensions with Ukraine. After positioning approximately 190,000 soldiers, armored military units, and naval vessels outside the Ukrainian border for several months, Russia has officially invaded Ukraine. Russia invaded the southeast region of Ukraine on Russia’s border, specifically Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Both provinces have Russian-backed separatist-held areas. The world is talking about the reasoning behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives for the attack. Here are five potential rationales and the arguments that go along with each.

1. Russia was threatened by NATO expansion.

            Putin, on more than one occasion, has claimed that NATO expansion is the central driver of Ukraine versus Russia crisis. Many believe that NATO was trying to play off of Russia’s insecurities by putting pressure on it. Putin responded violently to his perception of a threat from NATO when he invaded Georgia in 2008 and, to a lesser degree, when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Some believe that if Putin can prevent Ukraine from becoming a NATO member, he will no longer feel threatened by NATO expansion in Ukraine. By invading Ukraine, Putin has, in the short term, eliminated the potential for Ukraine to become a NATO member because NATO will not accept a country that is under the partial control of Russia.

2. Russia was threatened by Ukrainian democracy.

            Many who believe that Putin is not threatened by NATO believe that he is threatened by Ukrainian democracy. These people look at history over the last 30 years and claim that while NATO is a variable in the conflict between Russia and the West, it is not the major contributor. Instead of looking at NATO expansion, the people who agree with this argument look at the increase of democracy in Europe and Asia as a threat to Putin’s autocratic rule. NATO expansion by including Ukraine in the alliance was not a short-term threat because Russia had already invaded and seized part of Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine would not be admitted into NATO as long as Russian forces were operating on its soil, as they have been in Crimea and the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. If NATO were to admit Ukraine while the Russian military operated on its soil, Ukraine could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter calling for NATO military action in the collective defense of one of its members. This eliminates the argument that NATO expansion is the cause of Putin’s invasion because he had already prevented Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO by invading Ukraine in 2014. As an autocrat, essentially President-for-Life, Putin does not want Ukraine to stand as an example to the Russian populace. Putin’s goal is to return Ukraine to the control of one of his selected colleagues, such as former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was removed by Ukraine’s parliament in February 2014 due to his close ties to Russia.

3. Russia wants to expand its sphere of influence.

            If Ukraine were to fall under Russian control, it would greatly increase the power Russia has. Although many people don’t realize it, Ukraine is an important country in terms of natural resources, agriculture, and industrialization. Ukraine is the second-largest country by land in Europe, second only to Russia. Ukraine has the second-largest iron ore reserves in the world at 30 billion tons. It ranks in the top three in Europe in terms of mercury ore reserves, shell gas reserves, and recoverable uranium ores. Ukraine places in the top five in the world for the production of rye, potatoes, corn, barley, and sunflower oil. Ukraine also ranks in the top five in the world for the largest natural gas pipeline system and iron, clay, titanium, and turbines exportation. Having access to these resources would increase Russia’s economic independence and its economic influence in Europe. The argument could be made that modern-day Russia looks to America as an example. The U.S., after its founding, continued to expand its influence into Latin America and the Caribbean and assisted in the removal of European powers from the Western Hemisphere. Secretary of State Richard Olney, in 1895, said, “The United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” As a country such as the U.S. grows into a hegemonic power with a large sphere of influence, it begins to fear for the economic and political consequences of challenges to its power. Within a country’s sphere of influence, it has the power to influence regional and global aggression beyond its borders. If Putin were to increase Russia’s sphere of influence through the use of Ukraine’s resources and Western proximity to NATO countries, he would be able to increase Russia’s economic and political power within Europe and beyond.

4. Russia wants to reestablish the historic Russian empire.

            As mentioned in rationale number three, Ukraine’s resources help it economically compete on a global scale. If Russia were to gain control of Ukraine, it would have access to these resources. By looking at history, one can see that, for hundreds of years, Russia was a strong empire full of many people and cultures and had a great amount of global power by virtue of its geography and economic potential. One potential reason for Putin’s invasion is a want to return to that powerful Russian empire. The old empire was able to control resources including the productive capacity of the people by gaining land and its resources by conquest. By annexing Ukraine into Russia, Putin would be able to move Russia a step closer to returning to the historic and powerful Russian empire. 

5. Russia wants to reestablish the geographic contours of the Warsaw Pact.

            In this argument, one must read Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Russian people. Putin starts his speech by saying, “I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.” Putin goes on to say that Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia or to be more precise by the Bolshevik communist Russia.” Putin talks about the borders that the USSR used to have and praises Stalin’s leadership there. The way he talked could lead one to believe that Putin is worried Russia’s borders will shrink in the coming future. This leads to the fifth reason why Russia would want to invade Ukraine: to reestablish the geographic contours of the Warsaw Pact. There was no independent Ukraine when the Warsaw Pact was signed and Putin’s speech could lead one to think he wants to see that again. In April 2005, Putin referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Those who believe in this rationale think that the combination of the Russian and Soviet empires collapsing is what Putin aims to reverse with the goal of bringing the Russian empire back to its previous power and borders. He wants to undo the “catastrophe” of the demise of the USSR.

Now that you’ve read five highly popular theories on why Putin invaded Ukraine, what do you think? Is Putin worried about the spread of democracy in Europe? Is he trying to ruin Ukraine’s eligibility of entering NATO for fear of NATO expansion? Or maybe Putin is trying to increase Russia’s power and align their sphere of influence with the past Russian Empire, which includes increasing its borders as they were when the Warsaw Pact was signed?

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