From his headquarters in the Kremlin, Russian president Vladimir Putin gave the military orders to invade Ukraine. The consequent invasion has led to huge losses of life, destruction to homes and businesses, as well as the forced relocation of millions of people. Putin’s actions have been almost universally condemned by the international community, with harsh sanctions being imposed on all aspects of the Russian economy, from natural gas to sports teams. Arising from these profound consequences is the question of why Putin chose to invade Ukraine now, and the rationale behind this gross violation of international law as well as human dignity.
On 24 February, Putin made a speech recounting his reasons for the invasion. Amongst a plethora of alleged grounds, Ukraine’s movement towards NATO membership stood out. The Russian president pointed towards broken promises “not to move NATO eastwards even by an inch” as his rationale for launching these “special military operations”.
Throughout Ukraine’s history, there have been competing forces, west and east, pulling it towards different orientations. However, recent leadership has seen Ukraine seek to integrate itself into the broader European community. These sentiments are informed by successive pro-Russian governments marred in corruption and poor economic growth. These movements towards western institutions have been met with imperialist advances by the Russian regime, representing an existential threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and future socio-economic prosperity.
NATO and the EU: a long and winding road for Ukraine
The promises Putin is referring to were made by NATO officials following the end of the Cold War. Since then there has been an eastward expansion of the treaty organisation from its original resting point of east Germany following the fall of the Soviet Union, into former members or satellite states of the USSR, such as Bulgaria and Estonia.
Given these accessions, the prospect of Ukraine also joining has been on the agenda for some time. However, until 2014, Ukraine had been governed almost exclusively by pro-Russia presidents, who staunchly argued against Ukraine supposedly integrating into the west. The most recent of these leaders, Viktor Yanukovych, governed until 2014. During this period, he allowed Russia to use ports in Crimea in exchange for cheaper natural gas, a move that generated considerable backlash from the Ukrainian populace.
Due to mounting pressure, Yanukovych stated his intentions to engage in some preliminary EU negotiations, which was met with widespread positivity, and he bounced back in the polls. Only a few months later, however, Yanukovych rescinded his support for EU integration. He also sought to change elements of the Ukrainian constitution to prevent protests and consolidate government power, interpreted by many as anti-democratic.
This breaking of potential ties to the EU and changes to Ukrainian law led to the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine. This movement held large-scale protests and sit-ins across the country to protest the failure of these EU negotiations. The Euromaidan protests grew into the 2014 “revolution of dignity”, which led to violent clashes between protestors and police, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people. The rising tide of public outrage in Ukraine led to Yanukovych fleeing the country and his subsequent impeachment by the Ukrainian parliament. Putin’s reaction to this revolution was the invasion and annexation of Crimea and support for separatist forces in Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
Following these developments, elections were held in Ukraine, with the victor being pro-EU candidate Petro Poroshenko. Self-described as a leader of the Euromaidan protests, Poroshenko was a supporter of Ukraine joining NATO and also sought to minimise Russian media influence in Ukraine as well as limit references to Ukraine’s prior status as a member of the USSR generally. This change meant Ukraine faced backlash from Russia, most notably via a further increase in troop deployments along the border and within Crimea and Donbas.
However, Poroshenko’s time in office was marred domestically by sentiments that he was using his role for personal enrichment. Moreover, his bank accounts designed to avoid tax emerged in the Panama papers scandal, consolidating the view that despite Poroshenko’s welcome foreign policy stance, his personal affairs were not dissimilar from his corrupt pro-Russia predecessors.
Consequently, when former comedian and political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskyy ran against him on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption platform, he received widespread support and was elected in a landslide, winning 73% of the vote. Commentators claimed that this victory was looked favourably upon by Putin at the time as destabilising to Ukraine given Zelenskyy’s lack of political experience.
“[Zelenskyy] has continued the pro-EU legacy by increasing Ukrainian involvement in the international community and has attempted to reduce global reliance on Russia for energy imports”
Zelenskyy’s approach to leadership has since defied Putin’s expectations, however. He has continued the pro-EU legacy by increasing Ukrainian involvement in the international community and has attempted to reduce global reliance on Russia for energy imports.
Like his predecessor, Zelenskyy has also refused to recognise the 2015 Minsk 2 treaty. Minsk 2 was an emergency treaty to create a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine in Donbas. The treaty gives Russian backed separatists in Donbas, the LNR and the DNR, a “special status”, which could eventually give the separatist groups veto power over Ukrainian foreign policy. This would override Ukrainian sovereignty by granting Russia a permanent, legitimate fixture in Ukrainian politics.
Putin responded to Zelensky’s refusal in a widely-anticipated fashion by increasing the already large troop build-up along the Ukrainian border. As a result, the Ukrainian president accelerated NATO association as a means to protect Ukrainian sovereignty. In October 2020, Ukraine updated its National Security Strategy, introducing reforms to its military and defence policy with the express intention of becoming a NATO member. This move towards NATO heightened the tensions with the Kremlin and is seen as a major factor in why Putin ordered the invasion.
What is so troubling for Putin about Ukraine’s move towards the west?
Analysts assert that NATO and other western organisations like the EU represent a threat to Putin’s intent to create a larger Russian sphere of influence. Despite Ukraine’s distinct culture, language and heritage, as well as the vast majority of Ukrainians viewing themselves not as a part of Russia, Putin has long seen Ukrainians and Russians as “one people” sharing “historically Russian land”. Consequently, by moving towards western organisations, Ukraine is moving away from Putin’s idea that they are the same state with the same goals. The aggressive strategy Putin is employing now is also related to the political situation in Ukraine.
“Given widespread dissatisfaction with previous pro-Russia leaders like Yanukovych, the chances of a pro-Russia president being elected in Ukraine are slim to none”
Given widespread dissatisfaction with previous pro-Russia leaders like Yanukovych, the chances of a pro-Russia president being elected in Ukraine are slim to none. Consequently, to pursue his foreign policy goals, Putin sees this aggressive strategy as necessary.
Why does Ukraine want to move towards the west?
For many Ukrainians, western integration represents a chance at a brighter socio-economic future. Since the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine’s GDP per capita has been one of the lowest in Europe, and its growth has been more inconsistent than its neighbours. Adding to these economic issues is the huge amounts of money it pours into defence spending each year to fight the aforementioned Russian-backed insurgents in the Donbas region. This is a double-edged sword as since the conflict initially started in 2014 foreign investment in Ukraine has significantly decreased. Another, more long-term strain on the Ukrainian economy is corruption. Economists regard Ukraine as having one of the most corrupt economies in Europe, with reports suggesting the country loses nearly 37 billion dollars each year through corruption, close to a quarter of its annual GDP.
Importantly, the corruption in the country was generally considered to be at its worst during the leadership of pro-Russian politicians. This is evidenced in the 2004 “Orange Revolution” which succeeded in overturning a fraudulent election result designed to elect the aforementioned Yanukovych. Moreover, before this revolution, the Russian aligned President Leonid Kuchma was also heavily involved in corrupt practices. This was seen to the greatest extent when audio recorded by his bodyguard revealed his apparent involvement in the brutal murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze and arms sales to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Consequently, the EU’s anti-corruption monitory network represents a checks and balances system which much of the populace feel is necessary to make Ukraine more stable and prosperous. Even the EU member state with the most corruption, Bulgaria, is still considered by most measures to be significantly better off than Ukraine. This is in stark contrast to Ukraine’s history of corruption and economic strife within the Russian sphere of influence.
Moreover, free trade and engagement with EU institutions are seen as a way to pull the country’s economy financially closer to its counterparts on the continent. Whilst these societal issues pale in comparison to the horrors the country is currently undergoing, it helps to illustrate why EU integration and western integration generally have such importance for Ukrainians, and why it drew the ire of the Kremlin.