Why Did Putin Invade Ukraine?
· 15 min. read
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On February 24, 2022, Russia began a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, attacking through the south from Crimea, the east via the contested areas of Donbas and Luhansk, and the north through Belarus.
Since then, a lot of propaganda has been put out – by both sides – about who is responsible for this crisis. The Russian government says Ukraine brought it upon themselves, while the West says the Russians are responsible. What is true?
As somebody with Ukrainian heritage, and who visited Ukraine in 2016, I know a bit about the country and the people there. When I was in Kyiv, I saw various military personnel, I had to go through several military checkpoints, and I saw memorials for the soldiers that died fighting in Donbas and Luhansk. I also got to experience Easter Sunday in Kyiv, which was an absolute pleasure. Ukraine and Kyiv are beautiful places with beautiful people.
So why would Russia want to invade it? There are various reasons behind it, so I'll do my best to explain them all.
The first involves the status of the contested areas of Donbas and Luhansk, which Russia recently recognized as independent countries, while the rest of the world has not. Their story goes back centuries but we will begin in 2014.
In 2014, Ukraine underwent the "Revolution of Dignity", which overthrew the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Following the revolution, Yanukovych fled Ukraine, and Oleksandr Turchynov became acting president. Following that, an anti-Russian president, President Petro Poroshenko was elected, and in 2019, the current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was elected.
Simply put: within five years, Ukraine has had four different presidents.
To the West, this looked fine. A pro-Russian president was removed and proper democratic order was restored. However, to the Russians, this wasn't so simple. They believed (and there is probably some truth to this) that the anti-Russian president, President Poroshenko, was chosen by the West to change foregin policy against Russia.
Russia's answer to this was to annex Crimea, a former Ukraine territory which they claimed belonged to them. Additionally, Donbas and Luhansk were unhappy with the revolution, as former President Yanukovych was very popular in those regions, and their voices were effectively silenced. Russia then provided weapons and materials to Donbas and Luhansk so that their concerns could be heard loud and clear.
Ukraine didn't want their politics influenced by pro-Russian forces, so they responded with violence in return. Since the fighting began, it's estimated that 14,000 people have died from the conflict. In an effort to stop this violence, both sides signed Minsk-1 and Minsk-2, also known as the Minsk Agreements. The agreements were so that both parties would commit to a ceasefire, pull their weapons back and find a democratic solution.
This never happened. The pro-Russian rebels state that Ukraine is attempting a "genocide" of the region, and to surrender would be death. Meanwhile, Ukraine is against the idea of allowing to give representatives from Donbas and Luhansk a seat in Kyiv, as they are considented domestic terrorists by the state.
But this reason – that neither party fulfilled their Minsk Agreement obligations – isn't the only reason Russia invaded Ukraine.
The other reason Russia invaded Ukraine was Russian President Vladamir Putin's belief that Ukraine and Russia are one people, separated by a fictional border the West made to divide them. He made this clear in his July 12, 2021 essay "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians". His argument for the unity of the two people is due to the fact that they have a common ancestry – that is, the former Kievan Rus'.
The former capital of the Kievan Rus' was Kiev, now called Kyiv, and was the birthplace of early Russia. In the essay, Putin references Oleg the Prophet who said Kyiv was to be, "[The] mother of all Russian cities."
Putin goes on to describe the complicated history of Ukraine, from the invasion of the Mongols, the various Partitions of Poland, the rise and fall of the Bolsheviks, the Austrian-Hungary invasion and the creation of the USSR. According to Putin, the 1922 Declaration on the Creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (later the 1924 USSR Constitution) states that any republic has the "right [...] to freely secede from the Union". Putin refers to this right as a "timebomb" which blew in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin then quotes historian Anatoly Sobchak, who stated that "The republics that were founders of the Union, having denounced the 1922 Union Treaty, must return to the boundaries they had had before joining the Soviet Union. All other territorial acquisitions are subject to discussion, negotiations, given that the ground has been revoked." He continues: "In other words, when you leave, take what you brought with you." Ukraine didn't do this, as when the USSR split, Crimea, Donbas and Luhansk voted to go with Ukraine.
The question then arises: does Ukraine have to follow the USSR Constitution if the USSR no longer exists? Ukraine says no, Russia says yes.
Putin also argues that, following the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine began rewriting their history. One of these was a spin on the 1930s famine that Ukraine declared a Russian genocide, called Holodomor. Putin says they began warping history, glorifying Nazis who fought in The Great Patriotic War (their name for World War II) as heroes simply for being anti-Soviet.
This rewriting of history even has a term in the West – "decommunization". Ukranians are actively removing Soviet symbols, Soviet statues and even renaming cities to their Ukrainian names instead of their Russian ones – such as "Kyiv" instead of "Kiev" – all to regain their history and throw off the chains of Soviet Russia.
But Putin also believes that if Ukraine really wants to be independent, they must give back pre-Soviet Russian land – this being Crimea, Donbas, Luhansk and possibly more. On February 21, 2022, Putin went on television to explain his case. He said: "[Ukraine wants] decommunization? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunization would mean for Ukraine." This being that a Ukraine without Russia could and should not exist.
This is all pretty straightforward. Russia and Ukraine were one people, then had centuries of division due to outside forces, then rejoined as one people during the USSR, and then had more division due to outside forces, but this time Ukraine took some of Russia's land. Because Ukraine doesn't wish to return these areas of land, and won't abide by the Minsk Agreements, Russia has no choice but to take the land by force.
But is this true? Instead, it's a case of Orwellian doublethink - where there are two true, yet equally conflicting statements. After all, in Putin's 2021 essay, he said: "Russia has never been and will never be "anti-Ukraine". And what Ukraine will be – it is up to its citizens to decide." Has the sovereignty of Ukraine changed because Putin's opinion shifted?
When I was in Krakow, Poland, I asked my guide what it was like living under Soviet control. She told me that under the Soviets, there was the truth, and "the truth", and you needed to believe whatever helps you sleep at night. Is Putin's idea of reunification with Ukraine legitimate? He's a 70-year-old ex-KGB agent. He was indoctrinated by Soviet concepts from birth. He firmly believes the collapse of the USSR was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." He is a byproduct of Soviet state propaganda. But is he completely wrong with his claims?
Not necessarily. It is true that Ukraine is rewriting its history. It has to. For seventy years it had its history written for it. A great example of this is the Golden Gate in Kyiv. This masterful relic from the Kievan Rus' early days was rebuilt by the Soviets for Kyiv's 1,500th birthday. But they didn't build it correctly. They added extra parts, took parts away, and changed some of the purposes of it. This is a metaphor for Ukraine in a nutshell. It's a hodgepodge of truths, new truths, and mistruths – all formed by various foreign powers, and being rewritten even today.
It's also true that Ukraine has a neo-Nazi problem. Extreme nationalistic views have emerged following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, in the 2019 election, these neo-Nazis only got 2% of the vote and won no seats in parliament. Although there are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, there are also neo-Nazis in Canada, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Yet, none of these countries are at all considered neo-Nazi ruled.
In fact, many of the claims Putin has said following the invasion are equally untrue. Putin claims "Russia has done everything to stop fratricide", yet they are bombing residential neighbourhoods. He claims Ukraine is run by Neo-Nazis, yet Ukraine's president is Jewish. He claims the US installed a puppet government in Kyiv, yet they are currently trying to overthrow the Ukrainian government. Putin claims they just want peace, but threatened "consequences you have never seen in history". Putin says one thing but then does another. His version of events is different from Western reality, and his claims are a mix of lies and truths.
It's worth noting that this hypocrisy also exists in the West. The number of times the American government has spied on innocent civilians is astronomical. The governments often lie to the public. There is a reason why Chelsea Manning was imprisoned, and Edward Snowden fled the United States. The US has also meddled in many foreign policies, like Chile on September 11, 1973. In the case of NATO, they also bombed Kosovo in 1999. The West has plenty of blood on their hands too. Doublethink exists on both sides of the spectrum.
In the case of Ukraine though, it's clear the people have chosen their destiny. They no longer wish to be in the shadow of Russia and they want to join the West. While Ukrainians might love their brothers and sisters in Russia, they no longer love Mother Russia. Instead, they love Ukraine. Putin expected this invasion to be easy but instead was met with a military that shattered his worldview.
So how will this end? I doubt it will result in a nuclear conflict. Instead, much like every other war in history, diplomacy will prevail. I see two possible outcomes. The absolute worst-case scenario is that Russia takes half of Ukraine, with Kyiv remaining the capital of Ukraine and Kharkiv being the capital of the new Russian state. This is what happened during the Soviet-Ukrainian War in 1917 - 1921, and this partially fulfills Putin's narrative of a Ukraine without Russia. The second outcome is to let Donbas and Luhansk vote to either leave Ukraine or join Russia. Of the two, I think the last one will happen, as we saw in 2008 with the Russian invasion of George and the cessation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I also predict this conflict will also be short, only a few weeks, like the one in 2008 only lasted twelve days.
But what do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
If you want to help Ukraine, you can donate online at The Red Cross or you can send money directly to The NBU Fund. Ukraine could use all the help it can get.
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Categories: Chernobyl & Pripyat, Europe, History, Ukraine