Causes of Ukraine war
THE greatest geopolitical crisis of the 21st century, the causes behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are hugely complex to decipher, not only what motivated the invasion but also what made it even possible, because this war thoroughly defies the norms underpinning the modern world.
Uncovering the reasons why is especially important as the war is likely a harbinger of global destabilization and of the current world order disintegrating. Being ahead of this therefore requires understanding the present war in Ukraine.
Conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in 2014, when Ukrainians overthrew a pro-Russian government, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine amidst the chaos, and a pro-Russian separatist insurgency began in Ukraine’s coal-producing Donbass area bordering Russia.
Many ethnic Russians live in Ukraine, which was joined with Russia as one country for centuries until 1992.
That, combined with Ukraine’s wealth and immense land area, makes the country attractive for Russian expansion. Russia’s annexation of strategic economic hub Crimea is a key factor in the war’s genesis.
Crimea is joined by land with Ukraine but not Russia and got almost its entire water supply from a canal in Ukraine, which Ukrainians blocked since 2014.
This means Russia can have a fulfilling future with Crimea only by bringing Ukraine under its wing or incorporating Ukraine’s south-eastern portions connecting Crimea.
Since that is home to most of Ukraine’s Russian-speakers, Russia can claim a right to the area.
Donbass serves as Russia’s entry-point there, hence Russia fomenting its unrest (the current invasion was probably long in the making).
Nations generally invade with the rationale of removing a threat, and Russia’s invasion is no exception.
Of course, what the Russians openly proclaim is their casus belli cannot necessarily be trusted to represent their actual intentions.
But analyzing a war begins with its pretext. Vladimir Putin has long been building up the foundation of one, saying Ukraine is naturally part of Russia and was separated by Bolshevik leaders, therefore has no right to independent statehood.
And now, the Russian government is saying they are invading to protect Ukraine’s ethnic Russians from “genocide”, “de-Nazify” Ukraine, and prevent Ukraine joining NATO.
Claims of persecution of Russians and of neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine are obviously concocted or overblown. But Ukraine’s relationship with the West is certainly central to why the war is happening.
Unlike Belarus, also historically tied with Russia, Ukraine stayed out of Moscow’s orbit, veering towards the West with open intentions of joining EU and NATO.
The issue of NATO is especially serious. Russia has felt threatened by its eastward expansion since 1997 and Ukraine joining it would be the last straw. Being stationed in Ukraine would give NATO immense advantage in any war with Russia.
However, NATO is a purely defensive alliance and the West could not possibly want to be aggressive against a powerful nation like Russia.
So what makes Russia uneasy? First of all, one never knows what could happen that provokes the West.
Iraq and Afghanistan never attacked America but got invaded anyway over fabricated WMDs and bin Laden’s stopover.
Russia would not want to be rendered vulnerable to the world’s most powerful country that behaves like this.
Secondly, and likelier, if Russia has designs on Ukraine, joining NATO would prevent Russia from ever safely taking military action against it.
How then can Russia gain territory around Crimea without starting WW3? Also, events like the Maidan and Donbass insurgency show Ukraine to be a volatile country in which violence by non-state actors can break out.
Russia would want the ability to project military force in this region, but NATO also being there would greatly complicate things.
Finally, once Ukraine joins NATO, the entire alliance can be called in to fight the Russian-backed Donbass uprising.
So Russia has compelling reasons to forestall, by any means, NATO incorporating Ukraine. But the chances of that accession were remote up to early 2022. So why has Russia taken the drastic action it has? The pandemic may be the war’s final instigator.
Russia’s own economic struggles may have driven it towards expansionism and a world so badly devastated for two years has to be less able or willing to take strong action against Russia.
Putin, for instance, must have believed his invasion would not be met with heavy international sanctions because the world economy was in fragile recovery.
He probably also thought now was his final opportunity to act, because, since December, experts suggested Omicron would hasten the pandemic’s end, a prediction seemingly materializing by February 2022.
In a longer-term context, this war manifests what many observers say is the world’s swing from democracy towards autocracy, part of which is Putin’s strongman rule turning struggling post-Soviet Russia around.
But Russia has always been isolated from the rest of Europe and therefore resistant to integrating Western values and distrustful of Westerners.
This began in the 1200s when the Mongol conquest of Russia destroyed its budding ties with Europe.
One might think the effects of a 13th century invasion would have worn off by now, but it actually put Russia forever behind the West’s march of constant change. Russia retained serfdom when it died out in Europe.
Russia eventually turned to communism to shake off its feudalistic nature, putting it on a collision course with Western capitalist democracies.
Now, as the West becomes highly liberalized, with gay rights, euthanasia, and mass Muslim migration, Russia is pitching itself as the bastion of a solid, traditional order.
Yuval Noah Harari advised Westerners to set aside their culture wars to unite against the invasion of Ukraine.
But, actually, the culture wars bolster Putin’s vision and will drive many Europeans to his side.
Launching a war like this is so risky and costly in today’s world, only grand ambitions, grave fears, or a tempting opportunity could drive Russia towards it. It shows how warfare remains an inextricable part of human affairs.
Russia might achieve its momentary goals by the war’s end, but at terrible cost to the world’s stability.
—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management.