Why Putin went to war against Ukraine

Steven Pifer
William J. Perry Fellow
Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine

Vladimir Putin laid out the Kremlin’s rationale for going to war against Ukraine early on February 24, just as Russia’s armed forces invaded its neighbor. He justified the invasion by citing NATO enlargement and false charges of genocide, neo-Nazis and nuclear weapons. None of those reasons were true.

In reality, the Kremlin launched this war because it feared that Ukraine was slipping irretrievably out of Moscow’s orbit. Domestic political concerns provided a second key motivating factor. Finally, there was Putin’s badly distorted view of Ukraine.

What threat?
To be clear, Ukraine posed no security threat to Russia. Active duty personnel in Russia’s armed forces number four times as many as in Ukraine’s military, and the Russian military enjoyed a defense budget ten times larger. By 2021, the Russian military had almost completed a large-scale modernization of its conventional ground and air forces.

Moreover, Russia has 4,400 nuclear weapons in its active stockpile. Ukraine has none. In the early 1990s, Ukraine had on its territory the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. However, it gave up the nuclear weapons—in large part because Russia committed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to not use or threaten to use force against Ukraine.

This was no war of necessity. It was a war of choice. Putin’s choice.

NATO enlargement
In explaining his decision to go to war, Putin pointed to NATO enlargement and the movement of its military infrastructure toward Russian borders. However, the last NATO member that borders Russia or the Kaliningrad exclave to join the Alliance did so in 2004, more than 17 years ago. NATO maintained virtually no ground forces on the territory of the new member states until 2014, when it deployed small multinational battlegroups in the Baltic states and Poland following the Russian military’s seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in Donbas.

Putin did not always regard NATO enlargement as a problem. In May 2002, he joined a summit with NATO leaders and signed a declaration entitled “NATO-Russia Relations: A New Quality.” He did so despite knowing that the Alliance later that year would issue a new round of membership invitations, most likely including to the Baltic states.

While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s attitude toward NATO membership has evolved from ambivalence to strong support, virtually everyone knew Ukraine had no near-term prospects. With Russian forces occupying Ukrainian territory, Ukraine’s entry would have raised immediate Article 5 considerations, and allies were not ready to go to war with Russia.

More falsehoods
Putin offered a string of outright lies to justify war. He claimed that Kyiv was committing genocide in eastern Ukraine. The murder of six million Jews during World War II was genocide. The death of some 14,000 Ukrainians in an eight-year conflict in Donbas sparked and sustained by Russia is a tragedy but certainly not genocide.

Putin charged that neo-Nazis were in charge in Kyiv. Zelensky, who won a run-off election with 73 percent, is Jewish, as is the former prime minister. Like many countries, Ukraine has a far-right element, but far-right candidates collectively received less than two percent of the vote in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections.

Putin claimed without evidence that Ukraine aspired to acquire nuclear arms. True, many Ukrainians regret giving up a nuclear arsenal in the 1990s, but they do not seek nuclear arms now. If they did, Putin could have pointed to a facility to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium. He did not and could not.

Motives for war
Three reasons explain why Russia attacked Ukraine. First, the inner circle in the Kremlin wants Ukraine in Moscow’s sphere of influence but feared Ukraine was irretrievably moving away from Russia and toward the West. That was true, but nothing has done more to push Kyiv away from Moscow and toward the West than Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the Donbas conflict. In 2010, the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) adopted a law on non-bloc status. At that time, less than 20 percent of Ukrainians favored joining NATO. In late 2014, the Rada overturned the law in light of Russian actions in Crimea and Donbas. Earlier this year, just before Russia invaded, polls showed that as many as 62 percent supporting NATO membership.

A second major driver behind Russia’s war is fear of a successful neighboring state. A European-oriented, democratic and economically robust Ukraine poses a nightmare for the Kremlin. Russians might well ask why they could not have the same political voice and democratic rights as Ukrainians. This war is in part about regime survival for the Kremlin.

The third factor is Putin himself. He wrote a lengthy essay on Ukraine in July 2021 that all but denied a right for a sovereign Ukrainian state to exist and presented a history of the country that few historians would recognize. Ukraine and its stubborn desire to set its own foreign and domestic policy course draw emotional, even angry, responses from the Russian president.

The Kremlin has tried to construct a narrative justifying its unjustifiable attack on Ukraine. It is a false narrative that seeks to hide the real and illegitimate reasons for this tragic war.

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