What motivates Russia’s actions in Ukraine

Since spring 2021, the Euro-Atlantic democracies have been nervously looking at Eastern Europe, where the first signs of a large Russian military build-up were noticed with approximately 90,000 troops relocated next to the border of Ukraine. Then Russian  officials announced the withdrawal of concentrated Russian forces, followed by the first official summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June. Yet Ukraine, the country at the epicentre of the unfolding security crisis in Europe, continued to ring alarm bells about the Kremlin’s intentions. Today, key intelligence agencies confirm once again that Russia has mobilised around 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, while the United States (US) has briefed its allies that the Kremlin is planning[↗] to invade – perhaps even next month. 

Russia’s military build-up is coupled with the ongoing tensions in the immediate neighbourhood of Ukraine and other political developments around the world. Belarus’ ‘weaponisation’ of migrants continues to cause chaos and instability. At the same time, significant changes are taking place in various Euro-Atlantic capitals: The US and United Kingdom (UK) are focused on Covid-19 and the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC); Germany, after 16 years, is changing its leader; and France is facing an election next spring. With these events unfolding in the background, last month Putin made threatening[↗] remarks, warning[↗] the free world not to cross Russia’s ‘red lines’, while accusing ‘the West’ not to use Ukraine as a ‘springboard against Russia’. His warning is worrisome for two reasons: firstly, it clearly signals escalation in the Kremlin’s rhetoric; secondly, it portrays a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine as defensive in nature.  

The Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine are fuelled by a mix of interconnected reasons, both strategic and tactical. The key strategic factor is the paranoia of the Russian kleptocracy, which is related ultimately to its need to survive. It knows that as Ukraine, perhaps more than any other neighbour, becomes a successful and prosperous democracy, the Russian people will start to ask why they cannot enjoy the same freedoms and prosperity as their Ukrainian neighbours, threatening the Kremlin’s hold on power. Therefore, Putin ferments destabilising conflicts in almost all of his country’s neighbours to hold them back, particularly those which have not yet joined the protective embrace of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

This intersects with Russia’s desire to regain the ability to shape the security architecture of Europe and remain an important power on the global stage. The Kremlin craves a veto over any decisions surrounding countries might take to determine their own destinies, especially if they seek to become more democratic and integrate with the Euro-Atlantic structures. Putin has looked on in horror since 2014, particularly since the Ukrainian ‘Maidan’ revolt, which toppled Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, and encouraged Ukraine to look towards the Euro-Atlantic system. Since then, successive Ukrainian presidents, including Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have actively pursued closer political and military ties with the UK, US and the European Union (EU). Zelenskyy has also established the Crimea Platform[↗], voiced his willingness to find a solution to Russia’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine, and expressed strong determination for Ukraine to eventually join NATO.

Unsurprisingly, Putin and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, frequently question[↗] the prevailing order, just as they flaunt the idea of a new European security agreement to prevent further countries from joining NATO. Engaging with key powers – not least the US[↗] and the UK[↗] – and dividing NATO’s allies[↗] into ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ halves gives Moscow not only greater authority in the eyes of the Russian people and internationally, but also derails Ukrainian attempts to consolidate its democratic gains by joining the Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Finally, the Kremlin has emphasised historical myths[↗] over the importance of Ukraine to Russia. Russians often view Kyiv – the Ukrainian capital today and once the centre of the mediaeval ‘Kyivan Rus’ realm – as the birthplace of their nation. For many, Ukraine’s independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a shocking episode. The subordination of Ukraine was an important factor in determining Russia’s identity, which Putin’s kleptocracy has played on to shore up its own authority. The realisation that Ukraine – a country where over half of the population is now supportive[↗] of NATO accession – seeks to fully escape Russia’s orbit is difficult to comprehend and deal with. It strikes at the heart of Russia’s understanding of itself as a great power.

In addition, the Kremlin’s actions are also motivated by tactical considerations. With his current military build-up, Putin has created a situation in which he has almost every option on the table and could step up military operations in Ukraine at any time. He is undoubtedly testing the key Euro-Atlantic democracies’ commitment to Ukraine; although support from many key Ukrainian partners has been forthcoming, it has often been expressed in vague terms. The UK and US have provided the most support, including the provision of heavy weapons[↗], but even their assistance has been limited. He may be trying to discourage it altogether.

Equally, the ongoing positioning of military equipment and units on the border with Ukraine allows Russia to pursue coercive diplomacy as it creates a shorter mobilisation time to conduct offensive operations or respond to any efforts by Ukraine to retake the Donbas region. In addition, the Kremlin may well be using the deployment to compel Ukraine into negotiating a diplomatic solution to the Donbas region on terms more favourable to Russia or to relinquish its further integration into the Euro-Atlantic order.

For at least seven years, Europeans and North Americans’ diplomacy in relation to Russia and Ukraine has been ineffective. This has allowed Russia to shape the geopolitical parameters of the situation in a way that is detrimental to Ukraine. The question now is: how can the Kremlin be properly deterred?

This was the first of a two-part series on Russia’s troop deployment to the Ukrainian border. For the second part, which focuses on how the United Kingdom can resist American ‘Indo-Pacificism’ and deter the Kremlin, please click here.

Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė is Co-founder and Director of Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy.

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