Why Russia Will Invade Ukraine
A pro-West Ukrainian government threatens Russian interests
Russia will soon invade Ukraine, according to US President Joe Biden.1 Russia has mobilized sizable military forces near the Ukrainian border, forewarning of an imminent invasion.2 But why will Russia likely invade Ukraine? Russia’s vital interests are protecting its peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians. To defend these interests, Russia is willing to sacrifice blood and treasure. In Ukraine, Russia wants a reliable (or permanent) pro-Russia Ukrainian government to help protect its interests, but the current Ukrainian government is pro-West, threatening Russian interests. Thus, to protect its peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians, Russia is willing to bear the costs of invading Ukraine; however, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own cost-benefit calculation will determine whether Russia pursues partial annexation or full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russia wants to protect its peripheral influence. Specifically, Russia seeks a buffer of pro-Russia governments between itself and member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU).3 Russian leaders constantly express opposition to NATO countries on Russia’s periphery. For example, among several NATO leaders in 2007, Putin said that NATO expansion “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”4 Similarly, in 2010, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, “The issue is that NATO’s endless enlargement, by absorbing countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, or who are our immediate neighbors, is of course creating problems because NATO is after all, a military bloc.”5 Notably, Russia said NATO membership for Ukraine was a “red line.”6
Russia also opposes EU enlargement into the former Soviet sphere. Russia wants a pro-Russia buffer with the EU,7 and Russia views EU enlargement as weakening Russia and strengthening the EU. In 2008, Jackie Gower wrote in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies, “What in Brussels is now referred to as the ‘shared neighbourhood’ is regarded by Russians as their own very special ‘backyard’, where historical, cultural and economic ties naturally bind states like Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia into a close relationship with Moscow.”8 Yet, the EU intruded into Russia’s backyard buffer, deepening ties with Ukraine and accepting former Soviet Bloc countries Bulgaria and Romania as members.9 Today, Russia is willing to defend its peripheral influence by invading Ukraine.
Russia wants to protect its global prestige. After being named Boris Yeltsin’s successor in 1999, Putin wrote, “Russia was and will remain a great power. It is preconditioned by the inseparable characteristics of its geopolitical, economic and cultural existence.”10 This interest requires Russia to compel respect from NATO and the EU. In 2007, Medvedev said, “We aren’t trying to push anyone to love Russia, but we won’t allow anyone to hurt Russia. We’ll strive to win respect both for the citizens of Russia and for the country as a whole.”11 Sharing this desire for global prestige, a majority of Russians want Russia to be a superpower, according to a 2008 public opinion survey.12
Markedly, Russia’s 2009 security strategy asserted Russia’s global ascendance: “Russia has overcome the consequences of the systemic…crisis at the end of the 20th century….All in all, the prerequisites have been established for the…transformation of the RF [Russian Federation] into one of the leading great powers.”13 Putin has pursued Russian global prestige through Russian military might. In 2013, he said, “Nobody should have any illusion about the possibility of gaining military superiority over Russia. We will never allow this to happen.”14 To solidify Russia’s global prestige, Russia wants respect from key international actors, including NATO and the EU.15 But for Russia, NATO and the EU have violated (and continue to violate) Russian prestige by seeking enlargement.16 Today, Russia is willing to defend its global prestige by invading Ukraine.
Russia wants to protect its ethnic Russians. This interest requires the safety and unity of ethnic Russians in former Soviet states—especially Ukraine. Symbolically important, Ukraine is the origin of Russian civilization and Orthodox Christianity.17 During the Russian empire, eastern and southern Ukraine encompassed a region called Novorossiya, and during the Soviet Union, this region became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. But with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union lost Ukraine—and with it, the symbolic heart of Russia. In fact, Putin has referred to Ukraine as “Little Russia,” even telling US President George W. Bush that “the greater part [of Ukraine] is a gift from us.”18
Importantly, in November 2013, protests against the pro-Russia government in Kiev swept Ukraine, ostensibly threatening ethnic Russians there. In response, the pro-Kremlin Gazeta.Ru urged Russia to incorporate Ukraine: “It is time to change the Russian Constitution, return to the ideological foundation, and fasten it with confessional might. It is time to recall that it is precisely with Kiev that the history of the Russian land began.”19 Likewise in 2019, Putin said, “I believe that Russians and Ukrainians are one people…one nation, in fact.”20 He continued, “When these lands that are now the core of Ukraine joined Russia…nobody thought of themselves as anything but Russians.”21 Today, Russia is willing to defend its ethnic Russians by invading Ukraine.
Option 1: No Action
Today, Russia has broadly three options for Ukraine: no action, partial annexation, or full-scale invasion. If Russia does nothing, Russia’s interests of peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians would be severely harmed in Ukraine. First, the pro-West Ukrainian government would still try to join NATO and the EU, endangering Russia’s buffer with both organizations. For instance, a leaked Russian strategy document highlighted Russia’s concerns about a pro-West Ukrainian government amid protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was largely pro-Russia:
The collapse of the Yanukovych regime will leave us in a “scorched desert” situation without any influential political forces to rely on. We will be opposed by an extensive network of agents of influence fostered by the Western intelligence services who have already taken deep roots in all branches of government, the media, the education system, the expert community and law enforcement agencies.22
Second, the pro-West Ukrainian government would become more cooperative with NATO and the EU, showing Russia as feckless against both organizations and damaging Russia’s global prestige. This reputational harm would weaken Russia’s domestic legitimacy, which Putin seeks to strengthen.23 Third, the pro-West Ukrainian government would further restrict the political power of ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine, threatening ethnic Russians there.24 Since ethnic Russians in Ukraine view Russia as their historical protector, Russian failure to intervene in Ukraine would erode ethnic Russians’ support for Russia.
Option 2: Partial Annexation
Russia invading and annexing parts of Ukraine would largely protect Russia’s interests of peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians in Ukraine. First, partial annexation would secure Russia’s peripheral influence by strengthening Russia’s buffer with NATO. Since NATO advises that “resolution of [territorial] disputes” is a factor in inviting countries to the alliance, NATO would likely avoid Ukrainian membership if Russia annexed part of Ukraine.25 Second, partial annexation would secure Russia’s global prestige by displaying Russia’s military might and inclusion in great power dialogues. Also, the lack of a robust NATO and EU response would exhibit both organizations as feckless amid Russian military threats. Lastly, partial annexation would help protect ethnic Russians in parts of Ukraine by securing their safety and unity with Russia. To solidify their protection, Russia could absorb Donetsk and Luhansk as federal Russian republics (like Crimea and Sevastopol) or recognize these regions as independent countries (like South Ossetia) that then request military assistance from Russia. Moreover, just as Putin’s ratings jumped following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, his approval ratings would likely increase dramatically after partial annexation of Ukraine.26 Putin could also use partial annexation and Ukrainian military response as a pretext for a full-scale invasion.
Option 3: Full-Scale Invasion
Russia launching a full-scale invasion to conquer eastern Ukraine and Kiev would permanently protect Russia’s interests of peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians in Ukraine. First, a full-scale invasion would secure Russia’s peripheral influence by either installing a pro-Russia Ukrainian leader or incorporating Ukraine as an independent Russian republic. Russia’s fear of Ukraine joining NATO or the EU would be totally assuaged. Second, a full-scale invasion would secure Russia’s global prestige by exhibiting Russia in great power dialogues prior to invasion and displaying Russia’s military capabilities during invasion. Furthermore, the lack of a military response from NATO and the EU would display both organizations as spineless against Russian military power. Lastly, a full-scale invasion would help protect ethnic Russians by incorporating Ukraine—and thus ethnic Russians in Ukraine—into Russia. Additionally, Putin’s approval ratings among Russians would likely increase following a successful invasion—similar to his ratings increasing after Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.27
No one except for Putin knows whether Russia will invade Ukraine. His decision depends on his cost-benefit calculation of Russia’s interests and corresponding courses of action. However, Putin does seem willing to bear costs like military casualties to protect Russia’s vital interests. As Putin said in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea:
But no, it appears it [death] may be beautiful if it serves the people: death for one’s friends, one’s people or for the homeland, to use a modern word. These are the deep roots of our patriotism. They explain mass heroism during armed conflicts and wars and even sacrifice in peacetime. Hence there is a feeling of fellowship and family values. Of course, we are less pragmatic, less calculating than representatives of other peoples, and we have bigger hearts.28
In Ukraine, Putin is indeed willing to sacrifice for Russia’s interests of peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians. But how much is Putin willing to sacrifice in blood and treasure to defend these interests? This cost-benefit calculation will determine Putin’s decision of partial annexation or full-scale invasion. And no one besides Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin knows the final result.
David E. Sanger, “Biden Predicts Putin Will Order Ukraine Invasion, But ‘Will Regret Having Done It’,” New York Times, January 19, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/19/us/politics/biden-putin-russia-ukraine.html.
Vladimir Isachenkov, Yuras Karmanau, Aamer Madhani, and Zeke Miller, “Biden Is ‘Convinced’ Putin Has Decided to Invade Ukraine,” AP News, February 19, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-joe-biden-europe-russia-moscow-c2e55b8b2b061b58e2b140d2a6dc1d57.
James Greene, Russian Responses to NATO and EU Enlargement and Outreach (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2012), 1, 18–19, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/Russia%20and%20Eurasia/0612bp_greene.pdf.
Vladimir Putin, “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy” (Munich, February 10, 2007), Kremlin, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24034.
Conor Sweeney, “Medvedev Objects to ‘Endless’ NATO Expansion,” Reuters, February 25, 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-medvedev-nato/medvedev-objects-to-endless-nato-expansion-idUSTRE61O2OQ20100225.
Sweeney, “Medvedev Objects.”
Greene, Russian Responses, 1, 3–4, 9–10, 12.
Jackie Gower, “European Union–Russia Relations at the End of the Putin Presidency,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 16, no. 2 (2018): 165, https://doi.org/10.1080/14782800802310084.
Janusz Bugajski, Georgian Lessons: Conflicting Russian and Western Interests in the Wider Europe (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2010), 106, http://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/102110_Bugajski_GeorgianLessons.WEB.pdf; European Parliament, “European Parliament Resolution of 25 February 2010 on the Situation in Ukraine,” February 25, 2010, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-7-2010-0035_EN.html; “Two New Members Join the EU Family,” European Commission, December 28, 2006, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_06_1900.
Vladimir Putin, “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,” December 30, 1999, https://pages.uoregon.edu/kimball/Putin.htm.
“‘We Won’t Allow Anyone to Hurt Russia’ – Medvedev,” RT, December 10, 2007, https://www.rt.com/russia/we-wont-allow-anyone-to-hurt-russia-medvedev/.
“Half of Russians Yearn for Super-Power Status,” Angus Reid Global Monitor, February 4, 2008 via Roger E. Kanet, The Return of Imperial Russia: Russia and Its Neighbors (Urbana-Champaign, IL: ACDIS, September 2008), 8, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/161954189.pdf.
Elena Kropatcheva, “Russian Foreign Policy in the Realm of European Security through the Lens of Neoclassical Realism,” Journal of Eurasian Studies 3, no. 1 (2012): 32, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.euras.2011.10.004.
Alexei Anishchuk and Steve Gutterman, “Putin Says Russia’s Power Is Moral as well as Military,” Reuters, December 12, 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin/putin-says-russias-power-is-moral-as-well-as-military-idUSBRE9BB0TM20131212.
Stephen J. Blank, Perspectives on Russian Foreign Policy (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2012), 2, https://press.armywarcollege.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1545&context=monographs.
Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill, Dimitri K. Simes, and Paul J. Saunders, Russia and U.S. National Interests: Why Should Americans Care? (Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Center for the National Interest, 2011), 17, https://www.cfr.org/sites/default/files/pdf/2011/10/Russia_US_nationalinterests_report.pdf.
Dan Kaszeta, “If Ukraine Disintegrates Will It Be a Divorce or an Explosion,” Stratfor, via The Interpreter, December 10, 2013, https://www.interpretermag.com/if-ukraine-disintegrates-will-it-be-a-divorce-or-an-explosion/.
James Marson, “Putin to the West: Hands off Ukraine,” TIME, May 25, 2009, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1900838,00.html.
“Between Maidan and Bolotanya,” Gazeta.Ru, December 2, 2013, via The Interpreter, https://www.interpretermag.com/between-maidan-and-bolotnaya/.
“Putin: Russians, Ukrainians Are ‘One People’,” AP News, July 20, 2019, https://apnews.com/article/entertainment-oliver-stone-europe-russia-ukraine-3fe3ff2299994fae97825381765b831c.
“Putin,” AP News.
“On a Set of Measures to Involve Ukraine in the Eurasian Integration Process,” ZN.UA, August 16, 2013, https://zn.ua/internal/o-komplekse-mer-po-vovlecheniyu-ukrainy-v-evraziyskiy-integracionnyy-process-_.html.
Michael Kofman, Katya Migacheva, Brian Nichiporuk, Andrew Radin, Olesya Tkacheva, Jenny Oberholtzer, Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), 12, www.rand.org/t/RR1498.
“Language Law for National Print Media Comes into Force in Ukraine,” RadioFree Europe/RadioLiberty, January 16, 2022, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-language-law-russian/31656441.html.
“Study on NATO Enlargement,” NATO, last updated November 5, 2008, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_24733.htm
Adam Taylor, “Is There a Link between Putin’s Approval Rating and Aggressive Russian Foreign Policy?” Washington Post, November 26, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/11/26/is-there-link-between-putins-approval-rating-aggressive-russian-foreign-policy/.
Taylor, “Is There a Link.”