Russia will invade Ukraine, according to US President Joe Biden.1 Russia has mobilized sizable military forces near the Ukrainian border, possibly forewarning of an imminent invasion. Many people are wondering, why would Russia invade Ukraine?2 Fortunately, history offers insight. On February 23, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to pursue annexation of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula along the Black Sea.3 The factors that influenced Russia’s mobilization in 2014 also influence its mobilization today: Russia’s identity as a resurgent imperial power; Russia’s desired position as a great power; and Russia’s interests of protecting its peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians.
Identity: Resurgent Imperial Power
Identity is the state’s perception of itself. International relations scholar Alexander Wendt defines identities as “relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self.”4 Identities then have corresponding interests, which drive state behavior.5 For instance, a state with the identity of a great power will seek and protect great power interests, while states with other identities seek and protect other interests.6 Identities also vary in salience—that is, a state’s willingness to sacrifice for its interests.7 The more salient a state’s identity is, the more attached a state is to its interests.8 Identity salience largely depends on “historical, cultural, political, and social context.”9
The salience of state identity influences war initiation.10 International relations scholar Richard Hermann finds the more salient an identity is, the more emotions “release the observer from normative restrictions and license actions.”11 Such abnormal actions include war initiation.12 And before its invasion of Crimea, Russia’s identity was as a resurgent imperial power—and it was salient. The Russian president, politicians, and public all believed Russia was a resurgent imperial power.13 Thus, Russia’s identity was very salient. The context of this salient identity was three chapters of Russia’s recent past: the glory of the Soviet Union, the humiliation of post-Soviet Russia, and the resurgence of imperial sentiment.
First, Russians experienced the glory of the Soviet Union. After World War II ended in 1945, the United States and Soviet Union emerged as the world’s undisputed superpowers. From the United Nations to the Olympics, the Soviet Union was respected internationally. Domestically, the Soviet government held legitimacy as protector of the Russian people. In his “Long Telegram,” George Kennan—then a Soviet analyst at the US Embassy in Moscow—wrote, “At the bottom of [the] Kremlin’s neurotic view of the world is [the] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.”14 And by protecting Russians from ostensible foreign threats, the Soviet government garnered domestic glory and legitimacy.15 Consequently, the Soviet Union’s imperial identity was historically-grounded and salient.
Then, however, Russians experienced the humiliation of post-Soviet Russia. In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev—general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—resigned, and Boris Yeltsin was elected president. Yeltsin implemented economic shock therapy that significantly increased Russian mortality and poverty, and Russian oligarchs accumulated vast wealth and economic influence.16 Concomitantly, Yeltsin—sometimes drunk—mumbled and stumbled on the international stage, reducing Russia’s prestige at home and abroad. Then in 1993, a constitutional crisis between Yeltsin and the Russian parliament resulted in the shelling and storming of the parliament building by the Russian military. Needless to say, Russia’s imperial identity was severely damaged.
Yet, Russians experienced a resurgence of imperial sentiment. In 2000, a supposedly pro-reform Vladimir Putin became president. A former KGB agent, Putin sought to restore Russia to its former Soviet glory, calling “The demise of the Soviet Union…the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”17 He subsequently achieved many victories for Russia. In the late 2000s, the Putin-led government defeated the Chechen separatist movement. In 2008, Russia fought Georgia, securing territory for pro-Russian separatists. During these years, the Russian economy—which relies heavily on energy exports—improved amid rising global energy prices, and in 2013, the Russian economy reached its highest GDP since the Soviet Union’s collapse.18 Thus, Russia considered itself a resurgent imperial power.
Desired Position: Great Power
Position is external actors’ perception of a state. State positions are socially constructed rights and duties that bound what behavior is acceptable in an international system.19 Psychologists Rom Harré and Fathali Moghaddam note that a position “implicitly limits how much of what is logically possible for a given person [read ‘state’] to say and do.”20 Importantly, while self-perception largely constructs identity, others’ perceptions largely construct position.21 A state then acts to align its position with its identity.22 With Russia’s resurgent imperial identity domestically, Russia sought a great power position internationally: “Russia is not claiming a great power status. It is a great power by virtue of its huge potential, its history and culture,” as Putin said in 2000.23
Key international actors play an important role determining positions, and key international actors accepted Russia’s great power position—except for the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). When one actor rejects another actor’s desired position, the rejected actor becomes more emotional and hence more prone to behave irrationally.24 In fact, the rejected actor may seek to secure its desired position through war initiation.25 As a consequence of Russia’s desired position being rejected, Russia’s actual position became increasingly antagonistic with the positions of NATO and the EU, and vice versa.26 And as adversarial states develop antagonistic positions, they move “further apart, with the ultimate goals of thwarting, blocking, or even destroying the other.”27
NATO and the EU recognized Russia’s desire for a great power position. As a European official said in 2007, “Putin wants Russia to have the same position in the world as the former Soviet Union.”28 But NATO’s and the EU’s actions threatened Russia’s great power position.29 In 2004, NATO and the EU expanded into the former Soviet sphere, with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania becoming members of both organizations.30 Russia viewed NATO and EU enlargements as expansions threatening Russia’s great power position, and Putin accused both organizations of trying to expand their military scope, saying “[W]e do not need to substitute NATO or the EU for the UN.”31 Thus, Russia had an adversarial position versus NATO and the EU.
In the early 2010s, Russia’s adversarial positioning toward NATO and the EU intensified, especially regarding Ukraine. Seeking to grow Russia’s power against NATO and the EU,32 Putin wanted to create a Russia-led Eurasian Union with “close integration across the post-Soviet space,” including Ukraine.33 In 2013, Putin called Ukraine “part of our greater Russian, or Russian-Ukrainian, world,”34 and the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia accused the EU of pursuing an accession agreement with Ukraine “to frustrate Russia, its integrationist plans in the Eurasian space, and specifically Vladimir Putin.”35 Russia sought to forcefully establish Russia’s great power position, even if it risked confrontation with NATO and the EU.
Interests: Peripheral Influence, Global Prestige, Ethnic Russians
Interests are domains and regions necessary for a state’s identity and desired position. States interact with key actors—that is, those actors most influencing state positions—to protect and advance their interests. States have secure interests when state position aligns with state identity. The importance of interests vary, but they are generally categorized as vital, important, and peripheral.36 Particularly, damage or loss of vital interests fundamentally threaten state identity and position. Therefore, as Samuel Huntington notes, states will spend “blood and treasure” (i.e., initiate war) to defend vital interests.37 And for Russia in 2014, its vital interests were protecting its peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians.
Russia wanted to protect its peripheral influence. Specifically, Russia sought a buffer of pro-Russian governments between itself with NATO and EU countries.38 Russian leaders consistently expressed opposition to NATO countries on Russia’s periphery. Speaking before several NATO leaders in 2007, Putin said NATO expansion “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”39 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.”40 Notably, Russia said NATO membership for Ukraine was a “red line.”41
Russia also opposed EU enlargement into the Soviet sphere. Russia wanted a pro-Russia buffer with the EU,42 and Russia viewed 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.”43 Yet, the EU continued to erode Russia’s buffer, accepting former Soviet Bloc countries Bulgaria and Romania as members and deepening ties with Ukraine.44 And Russia was willing to defend this peripheral influence with military force.
Russia wanted to protect its global prestige. After being named 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.”45 This interest required Russia to compel NATO’s and the EU’s respect. 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.”46 Sharing this desire for global prestige, a majority of Russians in 2008 wanted Russia to have a superpower status, according to a public opinion survey.47
Notably, 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.”48 Moreover, Putin emphasized global prestige through 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.”49 To solidify Russia’s global prestige, Russia sought recognition from key international actors, including NATO and the EU.50 But in Russia’s eyes, NATO and the EU violated Russian prestige by seeking enlargement.51 And Russia was willing to defend this global prestige with military force.
Russia wanted to protect ethnic Russians. This interest required 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.52 During the Russian empire, eastern and southern Ukraine encompassed a region called Novorossiya, and during the Soviet Union, this region became a part of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. But with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union lost Ukraine—the symbolic heart of Russia. In 2011, William Varettoni presciently noted, “Russia wants to annex Crimea and is merely waiting for the right opportunity, most likely under the pretense of defending Russian brethren abroad.”53
In November 2013, protests against the pro-Russian government in Kiev swept Ukraine, ostensibly threatening ethnic Russians there. In response to the protests, the pro-Kremlin Gazeta.Ru wrote, “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.”54 Also emphasizing fraternal bonds, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in January 2014 that Ukraine is “our neighbor, our partner, our friend, our brother.”55 In February 2014, clashes between Ukrainian demonstrators and pro-Russian security forces intensified, supposedly endangering ethnic Russians in Ukraine. And Russia was willing to defend these ethnic Russians with military force.
The Steps to Invasion
Russia’s identity and position were manifestly salient. Domestic elements in Russia described NATO and EU actions in Ukraine as threatening Russia’s existence. For example, in December 2013, the Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov described anti-Yanukovych protests as “a matter of our survival.”56 The Russian State Duma blamed NATO and the EU for these protests, saying in late January 2014, “Responsibility for the aggravation of the situation in Ukraine falls not only on the extremist elements of the opposition, but also on Western politicians who grossly interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign Ukraine.”57 Clearly, given Russia’s statements, Russia’s identity and position were salient and threatened by NATO and the EU.
Russia’s interests in Ukraine were correspondingly salient. In early January 2014, Alexei Pushkov, head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Russian State Duma, accused NATO and the EU of “trying to incorporate Kiev into the orbit of their interests”—a direct risk to Russia’s peripheral influence.58 In December 2013, the Duma criticized NATO and the EU for “blatant interferences” in the “policies of our fraternal country,” threatening Russia’s global prestige.59 Also in December 2013, Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia party, invoked Russian ethnicity and described the Ukrainian protests as “a blow to the Slavic Union, a blow to the heart.”60 Thus, Russia believed NATO and the EU threatened its interests, and Russia was willing to sacrifice to defend its interests.
In February 2014, clashes between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine escalated—and so did Russian accusations and threats. On February 14, 2014, deputies from the Duma traveled to Simferopol, Crimea, announcing that “Russia will consider the request of the Crimean people for joining very quickly.”61 On February 18 and 20, Lavrov blamed “connivance by Western politicians and European structures” for increasing violence in Kiev.62 Then on February 21, a senior Kremlin official warned, “If Ukraine breaks apart, it will trigger a war. They will lose Crimea first [because] we will go in and protect [it], just as we did in Georgia.”63 Ultimately, Russia’s fears were realized: on February 22, 2014, pro-Western demonstrators in Ukraine ousted the pro-Russian Yanukovych.
Option 1: No Response
In response to Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia had, broadly, two options: no response or response. If Russia did not respond, Russia’s interests and accompanying position and identity would be severely harmed. First, the pro-Western Ukrainian government would try to join NATO and EU, endangering Russia’s buffer with the two organizations. In fact, a leaked Russian strategy document noted the following:
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.64
Second, pro-Western demonstrators ousting a pro-Russian government would show Russia as feckless against color revolutions, damaging Russia’s global prestige. This harm would weaken Russia’s domestic legitimacy, which Russia wanted to strengthen.65 Third, the pro-Western government in Kiev would likely reduce the political power of pro-Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine, threatening ethnic Russians. Pro-Russian populations in Ukraine view Russia as their historical protector; therefore, Russian failure to intervene in Ukraine would erode ethnic Russians’ support for Russia.
Option 2: Annexation
Conversely, one response option was annexation. Russian annexation of part of Ukraine would secure Russia’s interests, protecting its resurgent imperial identity and great power position. First, annexation would secure Russia’s peripheral influence by strengthening Russia’s buffer with NATO. Since NATO says “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.66 Second, annexation would secure Russia’s global prestige by displaying Russia’s military effectiveness and inclusion in great power dialogues. The lack of a robust NATO and EU response would also exhibit the organizations as feckless against Russian military might. Lastly, annexation would help protect ethnic Russians by securing their safety and unity in parts of Ukraine. Russia could solidify their protection by absorbing Crimea and Sevastopol as federal Russian republics.
Consequently, Putin’s response option was settled after Yanukovych’s ouster: Russia would invade Ukraine and annex Crimea. On the morning of February 23, 2014, Putin directed his security chiefs, “We must start working on returning Crimea to Russia.”67 Ultimately, Russia would successfully annex Crimea. But with Russia’s mobilization today, Russia may pursue more territory. Some even speculate that Russia may seek to conquer all of Ukraine.68 Yet, regardless of its specific territorial aims today, Russia—just like in 2014—will seek to protect its identity as a resurgent imperial power, desired position as a great power, and interests of peripheral influence, global prestige, and ethnic Russians.
Survival of the Fittest
Geopolitics is survival of the fittest. After annexing Crimea, Putin said, “An intensive genetic, informational and cultural exchange is going on in the modern world. There is no doubt that other peoples have precious and useful things that we can borrow, but we have relied for centuries on our own values, which have never let us down and will stand us in good stead in the future.”69 While Putin understands that Russia is no longer an apex predator as a superpower, he believes Russia’s genes—identity, position, and interests—make Russia fitter than the rest and will therefore help Russia—and himself—survive longer than the rest. So, will Russia’s genes express themselves in a Russian invasion of Ukraine? If Russia’s 2014 mobilization offers any insight, they will.
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