- Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
- Insider spoke to three experts about why it happened, and the motives behind President Putin’s move.
- They highlighted how Russia viewed Ukraine over its history, and some recent geopolitical shifts.
Russia surprised the world on February 24, 2022, by invading Ukraine, starting a brutal battle that is still raging today.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has given varying public explanations for why he launched the invasion.
Here are the reasons Putin gave, how they match with reality, and the other likely reasons why Russia sent its armed forces into an independent, sovereign nation.
Putin sees Ukraine as Russian
Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, before declaring itself an independent country, cementing the move in a referendum days before the USSR collapsed in December 1991.
The country has maintained its independence ever since. But Putin still refers to Ukraine as Russian, and denies it’s a nation in its own right. He told then-US President George W. Bush in 2008 that Ukraine wasn’t even a country.
Putin spoke to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in an interview released on February 8, 2024, where he argued Russia has a historic claim to Ukraine.
Stephen Hall, a Russian politics expert at the University of Bath in the UK, said many Russians still hold this view, and that “it isn’t just the Kremlin.”
Hall said Russia sees Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, as the “mother of Russian cities,” and for Putin he can’t have that being outside his own country.
Hall added that Russia needs to claim Ukraine in order to back up its argument to being a great power that has existed for millennia.
Without it “Russia can’t claim a thousand years of history because Kyiv was already in existence 1,200 years ago, when Moscow was a forest,” he said.
Recreating a Slavic Brotherhood
Fifteen of today’s sovereign nations were once part of the Soviet Union, and experts say Russia cares more about Ukraine than nearby Belarus, as well as other former USSR countries in central Asia.
Hall said “Putin’s opinion has always been that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people, that they’re part of the Slavic Brotherhood of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.”
Belarus is already essentially a Russian puppet state, making a military invasion of it almost pointless, whereas Ukraine has increasingly aligned itself with the West in recent years.
Belarus is also much smaller than Ukraine and Russia is less interested in claiming its history, Professor Brian Taylor, a Russian politics expert at Syracuse University, noted.
Thomas Graham, cofounder of Yale University’s Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies program, said Ukraine has been important to the “Russian political imagination for decades, if not centuries.”
A former US presidential advisor on Russia, Graham also said that Ukraine’s territory aided Russia’s economic strength throughout its history, including supplying much of the Russian Empire’s coal, steel, and iron from the 19th century.
He added that without Ukraine’s Donbas region, “Russia would not have been a great power at the end of the 19th and into the early years of the 20th century.”
Putin blamed the West
Taylor said the invasion of Ukraine reflects Putin’s “grievances that have been brewing for a long time.”
For Putin, “Russia has a right to rule Ukraine. Russians and Ukrainians are one nation and one people. They were illegitimately and artificially separated when the Soviet Union collapsed, and he blames the West for trying to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s natural friendship,” Taylor said.
At the start of the invasion, Putin blamed NATO’s expansion into eastern Europe for forcing his hand, echoing a criticism he has made for years.
Hall said the idea that NATO is threatening Russia by expanding towards its borders is “very much part of the Russian propaganda narrative.”
He also pointed out that NATO doesn’t simply expand, but that countries apply to join, usually motivated by a perceived outside threat. In eastern Europe, that threat often comes from Russia.
Lithuania’s prime minister, for example, told Insider in February that her country joined NATO “because of Putin.”
But Putin has reversed that excuse and was playing a “blame game,” she said.
A NATO excuse
Putin has used the NATO line to try to convince an international audience who might already have strong misgivings about the Western military alliance, Hall said.
And if Russia can engage with even a minority who feel this way “it creates an electoral voice for Russia to use to try and stop Western engagement,” he said.
Hall added that even if NATO was expanding “that doesn’t justify what Russia has done in Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s own ties with NATO deepened after 2014, when pro-Russian forces invaded eastern Ukraine, starting a conflict that continued until the 2022 invasion.
But Taylor said he doesn’t see a “coherent explanation” for how NATO’s alleged expansion could lead to this war.
Before Finland joined NATO earlier this year, no new countries had joined the alliance since 2004, and even then it was “pretty tiny countries” — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — Taylor noted.
He also said that NATO didn’t put additional troops in the region “so it wasn’t like the addition of those countries created this military force on Russia’s doorstep.”
In fact, Taylor said that the US was cutting back on the size of its armed forces in Europe until pro-Russian forces occupied parts of Ukraine in 2014.
Even so, Putin has used this excuse to varying degrees throughout his invasion.
In his recent interview with Carlson, Putin first ignored multiple questions about the alliance and instead spoke about Russian and Ukrainian history. But when he later discussed NATO, he again blamed the idea that it was expanding eastwards.
It’s all about the ‘Nazis’
One of Putin’s most frequent claims is that “Nazis” run Ukraine, so Russia must intervene to stop them.
This is despite Ukraine having a Jewish president in Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and there being no evidence the country’s leadership is controlled by Nazis.
The point is one that Putin made again in his interview with Carlson, where he said Russia has not achieved its aims in Ukraine “because one of them is denazification.”
Taylor said there are some who identify with Nazi ideology in Ukraine, but “it’s a small group. They’ve never been politically powerful or important, but they are there.”
“But there are also Nazis in Russian politics, there are Nazis in American politics,” he said.
The experts said the key to understanding Russia’s repeated claim of Ukrainian Nazis is that they use the term differently to the West.
“Russia has a different perception of what Nazism is and what fascism is in general to how we perceive it in the West,” Hall said.
“Nazism is Russia-phobia to them. So the Ukrainians are Nazis because they’re anti-Russian.”
Putin also promotes this Nazi idea to win support in the West, where people have always been “susceptible” to the argument that Ukraine has a Nazi problem, Hall said.
He said Putin’s strategy is partly “throw things at the wall and see what sticks.”
But really, Putin just wants a legacy
According to Graham, there is no evidence that Putin was under public pressure to invade Ukraine, which suggests at least some of his reasoning was personal.
All three experts said Putin’s desire to be revered in history books likely motivated him to attack.
Hall said Putin’s anxiety is around “am I going to be a footnote in Russian history or are they going to write books about me like they do Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin.”
Taylor agrees, saying that Putin sees himself as “a great historic Russian leader restoring Russian lands, and he was thinking about his legacy as he turned 70.”
“What have the great Czars done? They’ve expanded Russian territory,” Graham said.
Even so, why now?
Even with all of the above, why the invasion happened when it did is an intriguing question. Experts pointed to multiple reasons why Russia invaded in February 2022.
One was the arrival of Zelenskyy, who came to power in 2019 after a career as a comedian and actor. Putin believed that in Zelenskyy “he had someone he could manipulate in Ukraine,” Hall said.
Taylor said that during the 2019 election, Zelenskyy was also seen “as the one who was potentially more pro-Russian. He’s from a Russian speaking region. His first language was Russian.”
But then, in 2021, Ukraine charged one of Putin’s closest allies with treason.
Taylor said the arrest of Viktor Medvedchuk made Putin realize “his goal of bringing Ukraine under Russian control peacefully has failed. And so the only option left is the military one.”
He also pointed to geopolitical reasons why Putin didn’t launch a full invasion sooner.
Part of the reason was US President Donald Trump getting into power. Trump was “very friendly towards Putin, at least in his public language,” said Taylor, and also publicly criticized NATO. This meant Putin could wait to see if the alliance would ” kind of shatter from within.”
But in 2021 President Joe Biden, who was a much stronger proponent of NATO, took office.
Taylor also credits the COVID-19 pandemic, saying Putin “was much more isolated for that two-year period than he normally would have been.”
Graham said Putin’s recent tendency towards “megalomania” had been “exacerbated” by him being “in extreme isolation.”
Putin saw his chance
Graham believes that Putin also likely saw some opportunities from the state of global politics in 2022.
He noted Zelenskyy had a low approval rating before the invasion, and some squabbling among Ukraine’s elite meant Putin thought they likely wouldn’t unite against him.
The US’ “chaotic” withdrawal from Afghanistan, new leaders of Germany and the UK, and pressure for France’s president all meant Putin thought there was no “capable Western leadership” to oppose Russian aggression, he said.
Based on all this, Putin thought that he could just invade Ukraine and take Kyiv in a matter of days.
But little has turned out the way he expected.
“Almost all of Putin’s assumptions turned out to be wrong,” Graham said.