Why did Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine and try to capture Kyiv in February 2022, and not years earlier? Moscow has always wanted to dominate Ukraine, and Putin has given the reasons for this in his speeches and writings. Why then did he not try to take all or most of the country after the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, rather than only annexing Crimea, and giving limited, semi-covert help to separatists in the Donbas?
On Friday’s one-year anniversary of Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, it is worth thinking about precisely how we got to this point – and where things might be going.
Indeed, Russian hardliners spent years criticising their leader for not invading sooner. In 2014, the Ukrainian army was hopelessly weak; in Viktor Yanukovych, the Russians had a pro-Russian, democratically elected Ukrainian president; and incidents like the killing of pro-Russian demonstrators in Odesa provided a good pretext for action.
The reason for Putin’s past restraint lies in what was a core part of Russian strategy dating back to the 1990s: trying to wedge more distance between Europe and the United States, and ultimately to create a new security order in Europe with Russia as a full partner and respected power. It was always clear that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would destroy any hope of rapprochement with the western Europeans, driving them for the foreseeable future into the arms of the US. Simultaneously, such a move would leave Russia diplomatically isolated and dangerously dependent on China.
This Russian strategy was correctly seen as an attempt to split the west, and cement a Russian sphere of influence in the states of the former Soviet Union. However, having a European security order with Russia at the table would also have removed the risk of a Russian attack on Nato, the EU, and most likely, Ukraine; and allowed Moscow to exert a looser influence over its neighbours – closer perhaps to the present approach of the US to Central America – rather than gripping them tightly. It was an approach that had roots in Mikhail Gorbachev’s idea – welcomed in the west at the time – of a “common European home”.
At one time, Putin subscribed to this idea. He wrote in 2012 that: “Russia is an inseparable, organic part of Greater Europe, of the wider European civilisation. Our citizens feel themselves to be Europeans.” This vision has now been abandoned in favour of the concept of Russia as a separate “Eurasian civilisation”.
Between 1999, when Putin came to power, and 2020, when Biden was elected president of the US, this Russian strategy experienced severe disappointments, but also enough encouraging signs from Paris and Berlin to keep it alive.
The most systematic Russian attempt to negotiate a new European security order came with the interim presidency of Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 to 2012. With Putin’s approval, he proposed a European security treaty that would have frozen Nato enlargement, effectively ensured the neutrality of Ukraine and other states, and institutionalised consultation on equal terms between Russia and leading western countries. But western states barely even pretended to take these proposals seriously.
In 2014, it appears to have been Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warnings of “massive damage” to Russia and German-Russian relations that persuaded Putin to call a halt to the advance of the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas. In return, Germany refused to arm Ukraine, and with France, brokered the Minsk 2 agreement, whereby the Donbas would return to Ukraine as an autonomous territory.
In 2016, Russian hopes of a split between western Europe and the United States were revived by the election of Donald Trump – not because of any specific policy, rather because of the strong hostility that he provoked in Europe. But Biden’s election brought the US administration and west European establishments back together again. These years also saw Ukraine refuse to guarantee autonomy for the Donbas, and western failure to put any pressure on Kyiv to do so.
This was accompanied by other developments that made Putin decide to bring matters concerning Ukraine to a head. These included the US-Ukrainian Strategic Partnership of November 2021, which held out the prospect of Ukraine becoming a heavily armed US ally in all but name, while continuing to threaten to retake the Donbas by force.
In recent months, the German and French leaders in 2015, Merkel and François Hollande, have declared that the Minsk 2 agreement on Donbas autonomy was only a manoeuvre on their part to allow the Ukrainians the time to build up their armed forces. This is what Russian hardliners always believed, and by 2022, Putin himself seems to have come to the same conclusion.
Nonetheless, almost until the eve of invasion, Putin continued unsuccessfully to press the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in particular to support a treaty of neutrality for Ukraine and negotiate directly with the separatist leaders in the Donbas. We cannot, of course, say for sure if this would have led Putin to call off the invasion; but since it would have opened up a deep split between Paris and Washington, such a move by Macron might well have revived in Putin’s mind the old and deeply held Russian strategy of trying to divide the west and forge agreement with France and Germany.
Putin now seems to agree fully with Russian hardline nationalists that no western government can be trusted, and that the west as a whole is implacably hostile to Russia. He remains, however, vulnerable to attack from those same hardliners, both because of the deep incompetence with which the invasion was conducted, and because their charge that he was previously naive about the hopes of rapprochement with Europe appears to have been completely vindicated.
It is from this side, not the Russian liberals, that the greatest threat to his rule now comes; and of course this makes it even more difficult for Putin to seek any peace that does not have some appearance, at least, of Russian victory.
Meanwhile, the Russian invasion and its accompanying atrocities have destroyed whatever genuine sympathy for Russia existed in the French and German establishments. A peaceful and consensual security order in Europe looks very far away. But while Putin and his criminal invasion of Ukraine are chiefly responsible for this, we should also recognise that western and central Europeans also did far too little to try to keep Gorbachev’s dream of a common European home alive.