Why Vladimir Putin Has Really Invaded Ukraine

February 24, 2022 Topic: Russia-Ukraine War Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaUkraineUkraine CrisisNATOVladimir Putin

Why Vladimir Putin Has Really Invaded Ukraine

By making a foil of the West, Putin unifies Russians against a narrative about an external threat trying to deny Russia its rightful place in the world.

 

Since Russia started amassing troops on the Ukrainian border last year, experts in the foreign policy establishment have sorted into denialist and alarmist camps. But, this time, as it turns out, the alarmists correctly sounded the alarm.

In the late hours of Wednesday, February 23 (the early hours of Thursday, February 24 in Moscow and Kiev), Russian president Vladimir Putin, in an address to the Russian people, announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” Ukraine.

 

Since his announcement, news outlets have reported on explosions rocking Kiev, Kharkiv, Odessa, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities and tanks and other armored vehicles entering Ukraine via its border with Belarus. The Russian Ministry of Defense has also claimed Ukrainian airbases and defenses have been neutralized.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has declared martial law, and the West has condemned the Russian invasion “in the strongest possible terms.” Thursday morning, European Union (EU) Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised a “package of massive and targeted sanctions,” and EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell called the package the “harshest” and “strongest” ever considered.

But Putin doesn’t seem to care about the West’s condemnations and sanctions. The West consistently and ignorantly sizes up Putin through a Western lens. They correctly label him pragmatic but misallocate his pragmatism. Putin hides his motives behind a smokescreen of national security concerns, but his fundamental interest is restoring Russia’s status as a great power.

Since the tsars, Russia has been a brawny great power, and that national identity underpins the Russian psyche. Ukraine plays a key role in this narrative. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was the birthplace of the Kievan Rus, the ancestors of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Imperial Russia united these peoples under monarchical rule. Putin has decided that the modern Russian nation should adopt this “pre-revolutionary understanding of what Russians are.” Just this week, to the horror of historians, Putin claimed Vladimir Lenin created Ukraine ex nihilo.

Setting his sights on great power also helps Putin divert Russian eyes from domestic issues like a floundering economy and unfair elections. By making a foil of the West, Putin unifies Russians against a narrative about an external threat trying to deny Russia its rightful place in the world.

Jenna Biter is a former editorial intern at The National Interest and a current M.S. candidate in National Security at Liberty University.

Image: Reuters.