October 1, 2023

Institute for the Study of War. — special edition on why Russia invaded Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

Weakness is Lethal: Why Putin Invaded Ukraine and How the War Must End


Nataliya Bugayova, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan

October 1, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t invade Ukraine in 2022 because he feared NATO. He invaded because he believed that NATO was weak, that his efforts to regain control of Ukraine by other means had failed, and that installing a pro-Russian government in Kyiv would be safe and easy. His aim was not to defend Russia against some non-existent threat but rather to expand Russia’s power, eradicate Ukraine’s statehood, and destroy NATO, goals he still pursues. 

Putin had convinced himself by the end of 2021 that Russia had the opportunity to safely launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to accomplish two distinct goals: establish Russian control over Ukraine without facing significant Western resistance and break the unity of NATO. Putin has long sought to achieve these goals, but a series of events in 2019-2020 fueled Putin’s belief that he had both the need and a historic opportunity to establish control over Ukraine. Putin’s conviction resulted from the Kremlin’s failed efforts to force Ukraine to submit to Russia’s demands, Putin’s immersion in an ideological and self-reflective bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Western responses to global events and Russian threats in 2021. Putin had decided that he wanted war to achieve his aims by late 2021, and no diplomatic offering from the West or Kyiv short of surrendering to his maximalist demands would have convinced Putin to abandon the historic opportunity he thought he had.

Putin has long tried to accomplish two distinct objectives: breaking up NATO and seizing full control over Ukraine. Putin’s core objectives from the start of his rule have been preserving his regime, establishing an iron grip on Russia domestically, reestablishing Russia as a great power, and forming a multipolar world order in which Russia has a veto over key global events.[1] Establishing control over Ukraine and eroding US influence have always been essential to these core objectives

Putin has sought to break NATO and Western unity, but not because the Kremlin felt militarily threatened by NATO. Russia’s military posture during Putin’s reign has demonstrated that Putin has never been primarily concerned with the risk of a NATO attack on Russia. Russian military reforms since 2000 have not prioritized creating large mechanized forces on the Russian borders with NATO to defend against invasion.[2] Russia deployed the principal units designed to protect Russia from NATO to Ukraine, which posed no military threat to Russia, in 2021 and 2022.[3] In 2023 – at the height of Russia’s anti-NATO rhetoric – Russia continued to withdraw forces and military equipment from its actual land borders with NATO to support the war in Ukraine.[4] Putin‘s fear of NATO manifested in his preoccupation with the West’s supposed hybrid warfare efforts to stage “color revolutions,” which Russia claimed the West had done in various former Soviet states including Ukraine.[5]

Putin has always been more concerned about the loss of control over Russia’s perceived sphere of influence than about a NATO threat to Russia. Putin’s actual issue with NATO and the West has been that they offered an alternative path to countries that Putin thought fell in Russia’s sphere of influence or even control. The “color revolutions” that so alarmed Putin were, after all, the manifestations of those countries daring to choose the West, or, rather the way of life, governance and values the West represented, over Moscow. NATO and the West threatened Russia by simply existing, promoting their own values, as Russia promoted its values, and being the preferred partner to many former Soviet states – which, in Putin’s view, undermined Russia’s influence over these states. Putin saw the ability to control former Soviet states as an essential prerequisite to reestablishing Russia as a great power, however. In simple terms, the West – and those in the former Soviet states who preferred to partner with the West even without fully breaking with Russia – stood between Putin and what he believed to be Russia’s rightful role in the world.

Putin therefore initiated policies attacking NATO unity and enlargement. Putin has made it a priority throughout his rule to prevent more former Soviet states and even other states, such as the Balkan countries, from joining NATO.[6] The Kremlin has also sought to undermine the relationships between the members of the alliance.[7] Putin accelerated his efforts to undermine Western unity and NATO following the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that drove out Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, and brought in a pro-Western government. Russia responded by illegally occupying Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

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