By Hayden Siratt
Russia has finally shown its hand. On February 24th, Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine, triggering an invasion unseen since 1939. Russia manufactured this international crisis seemingly without a set strategy or reasonable objective. This begs the question, does Russia have a genuine geopolitical reason for its invasion of Ukraine or is it the result of a crazed leader’s obsession?
Russian demands over Ukrainian membership to NATO may seem to make sense at face value, but further analysis into the situation raises more questions than answers. Russia’s primary demands are that Ukraine will never join NATO, they should end military activity in Eastern Europe, and not deploy missiles in countries near Russia. These demands make perfect sense when analysing them from a Realist perspective (an international relations theory that takes security as the ultimate goal of the state). Russia sees the expansion of NATO into Ukraine as a clear threat to its security. This thinking on security would make sense if NATO was actually a threat to Russia; however, analysis of current NATO policy in Russia makes these demands seem far-fetched.
NATO is not a real security threat to Russia. Only 6% of NATO countries actually border Russia and there is no indication that former Soviet states, such as Ukraine or Georgia, will be accepted into NATO in the future. According to NATO’s policy statements regarding Russia, NATO is a defensive alliance and does not seek confrontation with Russia, and military activity in Eastern Europe amounts to such low activity that it does not pose any sort of threat. It is no secret that before the current Ukrainian crisis, NATO was facing mounting problems, with most members failing to meet the 2% of GDP defence spending budget, as well as struggling to stay relevant since the end of the Cold War. However, it has been Russia’s recent aggression that has revived NATO. After understanding the context of NATO’s policies and objectives, Russia’s demands make little logical sense as NATO expansion and activity in Eastern Europe is the fault of Russia’s own actions.
Russian response and demands about NATO make little strategic sense, so is there another reason for Russia’s interest and activity in Ukraine? Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has ceased to be a great power, and its old sphere of influence has completely collapsed. In Russia’s view, the balance of power has shifted from a Western unipolar order to a multipolar order, and Russia should be listened to, and its concerns taken seriously. However, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the West has made clear that any chance of diplomatic solution is gone. This flexing of military might and blatant violation of international law is contrary to how a state becomes a great power in today’s world.
Great powers are no longer defined by their hard power capabilities as it was in most of the 20th century, but by their standing and respect in the international community. Military might is no longer an effective instrument in conveying power, but rather how a state conveys and gains power today is based on how effectively a state can work with others to achieve its aims. Whenever Russia cooperates, it enhances its great power status, such as when Russia has collaborated with the US in the Middle East, or its role as a stable and efficient supplier of natural gas to the EU. If Russia wanted to be considered a great power today and to revive the lost respect after the fall of the Soviet Union, its instigation of an international crisis in Ukraine hardly seems like an optimal strategy, and it runs counter to the concept of power in today’s political reality.
When looking from a strategic point of view, the question of Russian aggression in Ukraine remains unanswered. However, Russia is controlled by a singular all-powerful man and his goals and dreams for Russia are directly translated into Russian policy. In early 2020, President Vladimir Putin achieved absolute power over the Russian government when he rewrote the constitution to reset term limits keeping him president. He enacts any decision which he deems fit, and any opposition to his power is swiftly and brutally silenced. Even though Putin has achieved absolute power in Russia, his actions and his obsession with Ukraine suggest he still craves power, and he is now turning to the rest of the world to feed his insatiable hunger for power.
Putin has a fantasy of rebuilding the Soviet empire which in his view was wrongly and unjustifiably ripped from the Russian people by outsiders. In a 2005 speech, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He continues by saying that “as for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” In an article published in 2021, Putin launches into an argument about the historical, cultural, and spiritual links between Russia and Ukraine, claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, who have been wrongly separated by outside powers. What these examples from Putin demonstrate is a dream of putting back together the Soviet empire, and that he will stop at nothing to realise this.
The humanitarian and economic cost of this full-scale invasion of Ukraine will be catastrophic. This invasion into Ukraine has already cost both Russia and Ukraine thousands of military casualties and even greater civilian causalities, and it has triggered a humanitarian crisis with millions of Ukrainians displaced from their homes and blanket food shortages. Already we are seeing this play out in the first hours of Russia’s invasion. Thousands of refugees are already fleeing into nearby Eastern European countries while some are taking up arms to defend their country to the bitter end.
These costs will only be compounded by Western economic sanctions. Sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea have already stagnated the Russian economy. This past week, Putin has announced the recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Directly after, he sent in a “peacekeeping” force into the regions. The West was quick to respond with limited economic sanctions coming from the US, UK, and EU targeting Russian elites and financial institutions and warning that more are to come if Putin does not stop. This clearly has not deterred Putin.
When Russian troops crossed the border, the US, UK, and EU started leveling harsh sanctions on Russia. The West is targeting all areas of the Russian economy from oil and gas, the financial sector, and wealthy high-profile Russians. The West is united in their response to Putin and will make Putin pay. The Russian economy is already facing a crisis directly after the announcement of the sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine. But Putin does not seem to care and will not stop. He has such an iron grasp on the Russian state that he is free to chase fantasies of rebuilding the Soviet empire even if it will mean thousands of deaths and a crippled Russian economy.
Putin is just the most recent of history’s long line of terrible dictators who achieved absolute power. Every single time it has been the insatiable hunger for power that has led to the downfall of these dictators. Caesar’s quest for power ended with him being backstabbed by men he once called friends. Napoleon’s conquests ended when he was faced by a united coalition of Europe. Hitler’s reign of terror ended when he attempted to force his horrendous ideology and ideas onto the world. In each of these cases, these dictators had achieved absolute power domestically but their appetite for more eventually caused their downfall.
History will likely repeat itself. Putin has manufactured an international crisis with no objective except to fuel his own whims and fantasies. War will cause Putin’s domestic power-base to slip. The death of thousands of Russians in a prolonged war will turn the Russian people against Putin, and the oligarchs who maintain his system will grow weary of economic sanctions caused by Putin’s actions. Putin has started down a path that will end in his own downfall. When the ashes settle and the guns fall silent, we can look to a brighter future with the beginnings of change in Russia and a new age of security in Eastern Europe.
“The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.”