Why and why now? The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly affected most of us. Even though the signs were there, very few thought that the Russian leadership would go so far. As it happens, Putin was biding his time and preparing the terrain as well as building the legitimacy of his moves carefully. And Western powers helped him.
To understand Putin’s rationale, it is necessary to go to history. Russian history links Kyiv to the foundation of Russia itself around Kievan Rus and Prince Svjatoslav in the years 945–972. This would be followed by Christianization and the Eastern Christian Orthodox Church becoming entwined with state legitimacy. In the early shaping of Russia, perhaps the most traumatic and significant event was the Mongol invasion at the end of the 13th century. Even though the Mongols never occupied the whole of Russian territory, they conquered Kyiv and subjugated several Russian principalities. Despite this, Moscow and Russian territory continued to grow and became the center of the Orthodox Church after the fall of Constantinople. The prince that would liberate Russia from the Mongol yoke was Tsar Ivan the 4th, also known as “Ivan the terrible,” in the middle of the 16th century, conquering the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia. He also managed to centralize power from conspiring princes and carry out several reforms, including a fiscal one and the creation of the secret police to discipline and control the feudal lords-nobility and the growing commercial bourgeoisie. Another important figure shaping Russian history was Peter the Great, who, only 100 years after Ivan, expanded and consolidated the Russian Empire and tried to modernize Russian institutions. This was also the moment when Russia advanced to the Baltic at the expense of the Swedish empire. Another traumatic experience that was to mark Russian history was the invasion of Napoleon, only aborted by harsh winter conditions. Finally, we have the Crimean War in 1853 and the defeat at the Japanese War in 1904–5, followed by the First World War. To these traumatic experiences of defeat, we have to add the German invasion during the Second World War. Not surprisingly, Stalin demanded a defensive belt of friendly states to protect the Soviet Union’s borders, a belt that became the Warsaw Pact. As we know, this marked the beginning of the Cold War and the creation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
After the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Russia not only lost its superpower status but also went through one of the worst economic crises in its history thanks to the shock therapy applied to its economy, degrading the country from the Second to the Third world in terms of social distress and political instability. An oligarchic elite ravaged state property (the biggest robbery in history, as one of my close Russian friends called it), conquered the state, and the democratic window of opportunity was closed. Could Western countries have helped this window of opportunity remain open, perhaps by a Marshall plan instead of shock therapy? We will never know. But moreover, once the Warsaw Pact dissolved, NATO remained and grew at the expense of the former security belt and included some of the former Soviet republics despite the alleged Western promises to Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
These historical facts are essential to understanding Putin’s mentality and the construction of his discourse. His allegations have to do with this historical trauma of invasions and the need for barriers. But they also have to do with the historical construction of Russia as a nation. For him, both Ukraine and Belarus are part of the Russian nation, and, as long as they elected governments loyal to Moscow, the fiction of their sovereignty could be maintained. The Maidan Square Revolt and the ousting of Yanukovych made this fiction harder to keep. But the red line was crossed as ties between Ukraine and the West strengthened, bringing it closer to the European Union and perhaps in a not-so-far-away future to NATO. Putin then tried to personify Ivan the 4th, Peter the Great, and Stalin to recover Russia’s great power status and address its threatened security. The first step was the “recovery” of Crimea (a territory returned to Ukraine in the 1960s). The sanctions of the West only made the Russian leadership more resolute to attain relative economic independence with the development of domestic technology, the creation of a fund of 190 billion US dollars from gas and oil exports, and gold and foreign reserves amounting to 620 billion US dollars. Moreover, the Russian public debt amounts to only 20% of its GDP, and its macroeconomic indicators are quite robust, according to several Western economic experts.
As argued initially, Putin prepared for this “special military operation” consciously. He chose the moment when he perceived the West as weakened, by the Trump effect in American democracy, by the dramatic Western defeat in Afghanistan, by Brexit, by the weakening of European democracies by extreme-right parties, by in-fighting among NATO member-states, by the pandemic, and especially by the trade war between China and the US and the global criticism against China’s human rights policies. He negotiated China’s total support in case of serious Western sanctions, and then he used the Western notion of R2P, Responsibility to Protect, as his excuse for the operation. He intervened to protect “the threatened populations of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk.”
This invasion was designed as a flash war. It had to be short with minimum Russian casualties. According to Russian propaganda, Ukrainian citizens would welcome Russian troops that could “liberate them” from their “Nazi government,” making us wonder about Putin’s contact with reality. It must surprise them that Ukrainians resist and that the invasion is not a welcome parade.
Whatever the outcome, this invasion reminds us of Garcia Marquez’s novel A Chronicle of a Death Foretold because of the lost opportunity of democratization of Russia in the 1990s, the development of the autocratic regime we see today, and the expansion of NATO instead of disappearing as the Warsaw pact did, have all been the necessary preconditions for the tragedy we are witnessing today.
Edmé Domínguez R. is Associate professor in Peace and Development research, with a PhD on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Her present interests are on Latin America, International Political Economy, and gender issues but she keeps an eye on the former Soviet republics, in particular regarding the women’s situation.