Nearly three weeks have passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin began his invasion of Ukraine, but it still is not clear why he did so and what he hopes to achieve. Western analysts, commentators and government officials have put forward more than a dozen theories to explain Putin’s actions, motives, and objectives.
Some analysts posit that Putin is motivated by a desire to rebuild the Russian Empire. Others say he is obsessed with bringing Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Some believe that Putin wants to control Ukraine’s vast offshore energy resources. Still others speculate that Putin, an aging autocrat, is seeking to maintain his grip on power.
While some argue that Putin has a long-term proactive strategy aimed at establishing Russian primacy in Europe, others believe he is a short-term reactionary seeking to preserve what remains of Russia’s diminishing position on the world stage.
Following is a compilation of eight differing but complementary theories that try to explain why Putin invaded Ukraine.
The most common explanation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that Putin, burning with resentment over the demise of the Soviet Empire, is determined to reestablish Russia (generally considered a regional power) as a great power that can exert influence on a global scale.
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According to this theory, Putin aims to regain control over the 14 post-Soviet states — often referred to as Russia’s “near abroad” — that became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This is part of greater plan to rebuild the Russian Empire, which territorially was even more expansive than the Soviet Empire.
The Russian Empire theory holds that Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, as well as his 2015 decision to intervene militarily in Syria, were all parts of a strategy to restore Russia’s geopolitical position — and erode the U.S.-led rules-based international order.
Those who believe Putin is trying to reestablish Russia as a great power say that once he gains control over Ukraine, he will turn his focus to other former Soviet republics, including the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and eventually Bulgaria, Romania and even Poland.
Putin’s ultimate objective, they say, is to drive the United States out of Europe, establish an exclusive great-power sphere of influence for Russia on the continent and dominate the European security order.
Russian literature supports this view. In 1997, for instance, Russian strategist Aleksandr Dugin, a friend of Putin, published a highly influential book — “Foundation of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia” — which argued that Russia’s long-term goal should be the creation, not of a Russian Empire, but of a Eurasian Empire.
Dugin’s book, which is required reading in Russian military academies, states that to make Russia great again, Georgia should be dismembered, Finland should be annexed and Ukraine should cease to exist: “Ukraine, as an independent state with certain territorial ambitions, represents an enormous danger for all of Eurasia.” Dugin, who has been described as “Putin’s Rasputin,” added:
In April 2005, Putin echoed this sentiment when, in his annual state of the nation address, he described the collapse of the Soviet empire as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Since then, Putin has repeatedly criticized the U.S.-led world order, in which Russia has a subordinate position.
In February 2007, during a speech to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Putin attacked the idea of a “unipolar” world order in which the United States, as the sole superpower, was able to spread its liberal democratic values to other parts of the world, including Russia.
In October 2014, in a speech to the Valdai Discussion Club, a high-profile Russian think tank close to the Kremlin, Putin criticized the post-World War II liberal international order, whose principles and norms — including adherence to the rule of law, respect for human rights and the promotion of liberal democracy, as well as preserving the sanctity of territorial sovereignty and existing boundaries — have regulated the conduct of international relations for nearly 80 years. Putin called for the creation of a new multipolar world order that is more friendly to the interests of an autocratic Russia.
The late Zbigniew Brzezinski (former National Security Advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter), in his 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard,” wrote that Ukraine is essential to Russian imperial ambitions:
The German historian Jan Behrends tweeted:
Ukraine expert Peter Dickinson, writing for the Atlantic Council, noted:
Bulgarian scholar Ivan Krastev agreed:
Transatlantic security analyst Andrew Michta added that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was:
Writing for the national security blog 1945, Michta elaborated:
Many analysts attribute the Russian invasion of Ukraine to geopolitics, which attempts to explain the behavior of states through the lens of geography.
Most of the western part of Russia sits on the Russian Plain, a vast mountain-free area that extends over 4,000,000 square kilometers (1.5 million square miles). Also called the East European Plain, the vast flatland presents Russia with an acute security problem: an enemy army invading from central or eastern Europe would encounter few geographical obstacles to reach the Russian heartland. In other words, Russia, due to its geography, is especially difficult to defend.
The veteran geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan wrote that geography is the starting point for understanding everything else about Russia:
Russia’s leaders historically have sought to obtain strategic depth by pushing outward to create buffer zones — territorial barriers that increase the distance and time invaders would encounter to reach Moscow.
The Russian Empire included the Baltics, Finland and Poland, all of which served as buffers. The Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact — which included Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania — as a vast buffer to protect against potential invaders.
Most of the former Warsaw Pact countries are now members of NATO. That leaves Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, strategically located between Russia and the West, as the only eastern European countries left to serve as Russian buffer states. Some analysts argue that Russia’s perceived need for a buffer is the primary factor in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Mark Galeotti, a leading British scholar of Russian power politics, noted that the possession of a buffer zone is intrinsic to Russia’s understanding of great-power status:
Others believe that the concept of buffer states is obsolete. International security expert Benjamin Denison, for instance, argued that Russia cannot legitimately justify the need for a buffer zone:
Closely intertwined with theories about empire-building and geopolitics is Putin’s obsession with extinguishing Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin contends that Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and that its independence in August 1991 was a historical mistake. Ukraine, he claims, does not have a right to exist.
Putin has repeatedly downplayed or negated Ukraine’s right to statehood and sovereignty:
- In 2008, Putin told William Burns, then the U.S. ambassador to Russia (now director of the CIA): “Don’t you know that Ukraine is not even a real country? Part of it is really East European and part is really Russian.”
- In July 2021, Putin penned a 7,000-word essay — “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” — in which he expressed contempt for Ukrainian statehood, questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders and argued that modern-day Ukraine occupies “the lands of historical Russia.” He concluded: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
- In February 2022, just three days before he launched his invasion, Putin asserted that Ukraine was a fake state created by Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union:”Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia — by separating, severing what is historically Russian land…. Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect.”
Russia scholar Mark Katz, in an essay — “Blame It on Lenin: What Putin Gets Wrong About Ukraine” — argued that Putin should draw lessons from Lenin’s realization that a more accommodating approach toward Ukrainian nationalism would better serve Russia’s long-term interests:
Ukraine’s political independence has been accompanied by a long-running feud with Russia over religious allegiance. In January 2019, in what was described as “the biggest rift in Christianity in centuries,” the Orthodox church in Ukraine gained independence (autocephaly) from the Russian church. The Ukrainian church had been under the jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarchate since 1686. Its autonomy dealt a blow to the Russian church, which lost around one-fifth of the 150 million Orthodox Christians under its authority.
The Ukrainian government claimed that Moscow-backed churches in Ukraine were being used by the Kremlin to spread propaganda and to support Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region. Putin wants the Ukrainian church to return to Moscow’s orbit, and has warned of “a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed” over any attempts to transfer ownership of church property.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has declared that Kyiv, where the Orthodox religion began, is comparable in terms of its historic importance to Jerusalem:
On March 6, Kirill — a former KGB agent who is known as “Putin’s altar boy” due to his subservience to the Russian leader — publicly endorsed the invasion of Ukraine. In a sermon he repeated Putin’s claims that the Ukrainian government was carrying out a “genocide” of Russians in Ukraine: “For eight years, the suppression, extermination of people has been underway in Donbass. Eight years of suffering and the entire world is silent.”
German geopolitical analyst Ulrich Speck wrote:
Ukraine expert Taras Kuzio added:
This theory holds that Putin invaded Ukraine to prevent it from joining NATO. The Russian president has repeatedly demanded that the West “immediately” guarantee that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO or the European Union.
A vocal proponent of this viewpoint is the American international relations theorist John Mearsheimer, who, in a controversial essay, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” argued that the eastward expansion of NATO provoked Putin to act militarily against Ukraine:
In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Mearsheimer blamed the United States and its European allies for the current conflict:
In fact, Putin has not always opposed NATO expansion. Several times he went so far as to say that the eastward expansion of NATO was none of Russia’s concern.
In March 2000, for instance, Putin, in an interview with the late BBC television presenter David Frost, was asked whether he viewed NATO as a potential partner, rival or enemy. Putin responded:
In November 2001, in an interview with National Public Radio, Putin was asked if he opposed the admission of the three Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — into NATO. He replied:
In May 2002, Putin, when asked about the future of relations between NATO and Ukraine, said matter-of-factly that he did not care one way or the other:
Putin’s position on NATO expansion radically changed after the 2004 Orange Revolution, which was triggered by Moscow’s attempt to steal Ukraine’s presidential election. A massive pro-democracy uprising ultimately led to the defeat of Putin’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually did become president of Ukraine in 2010 but was ousted in the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe, discussed how Putin’s views about NATO have changed:
In recent years, Putin repeatedly has claimed that the post-Cold War enlargement of NATO poses a threat to Russia, which has been left with no other choice than to defend itself. He also has accused the West of trying to encircle Russia. In fact, of the 14 countries that have borders with Russia, only five are NATO members. The borders of those five countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Poland — are contiguous with only 5% of Russia’s total borders.
Putin has claimed that NATO broke solemn promises it made in the 1990s that the alliance would not expand to the east. “You promised us in the 1990s that NATO would not move an inch to the east. You brazenly cheated us,” he said in during a press conference in December 2021. Mikhail Gorbachev, then president of the Soviet Union, countered that such promises were never made.
Putin recently issued three wildly unrealistic demands: NATO must withdraw its forces to its 1997 borders; NATO must not offer membership to other countries, including Finland, Sweden, Moldova or Georgia; NATO must provide written guarantees that Ukraine will never join the alliance.
Writing for Foreign Affairs, Russian historian Dmitri Trenin, in an essay — “What Putin Really Wants in Ukraine” — argued that Putin wants stop NATO expansion, not to annex more territory:
This theory holds that Ukraine, a flourishing democracy, poses an existential threat to Putin’s autocratic model of governance. The continued existence of a Western-aligned, sovereign, free and democratic Ukraine could inspire the Russian people to demand the same.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and Robert Person, a professor at the United States Military Academy, wrote that Putin is terrified of democracy in Ukraine:
Ukraine expert Taras Kuzio agrees:
Ukraine holds the second-biggest known reserves — more than one trillion cubic meters — of natural gas in Europe after Russia. These reserves, under the Black Sea, are concentrated around the Crimean Peninsula. In addition, large deposits of shale gas have been discovered in eastern Ukraine, around Kharkiv and Donetsk.
In January 2013, Ukraine signed a 50-year, $10 billion deal with Royal Dutch Shell to explore and drill for natural gas in eastern Ukraine. Later that year, Kyiv signed a 50-year, $10 billion shale gas production-sharing agreement with the American energy company Chevron. Shell and Chevron pulled out of those deals after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
Some analysts believe Putin annexed Crimea to prevent Ukraine from becoming a major oil and gas provider to Europe and thereby challenge Russia’s energy supremacy. Russia, they argue, was also worried that as Europe’s second-largest petrostate, Ukraine would have been granted fast-track membership to the EU and NATO.
According to this theory, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is aimed at forcing Kyiv to officially acknowledge Crimea as Russian, and recognize the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states, so that Moscow can legally secure control over the natural resources in these areas.
On February 24, the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops restored water flow to a strategically important canal linking the Dnieper River to Russian-controlled Crimea. Ukraine blocked the Soviet-era North Crimean Canal, which supplies 85% of Crimea’s water needs, after Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014. The water shortages resulted in a massive reduction in agricultural production on the peninsula and forced Russia to spend billions of rubles each year to supply water from the mainland to sustain the Crimean population.
The water crisis was a major source of tension between Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted that the water supply would not be restored until Russia returns the Crimean Peninsula. Security analyst Polina Vynogradova noted that any resumption of water supply would have amounted to a de facto recognition of Russian authority in Crimea and would have undermined Ukraine’s claim to the peninsula. It would also have weakened Ukrainian leverage over negotiations on Donbas.
Even if Russian troops eventually withdraw from Ukraine, Russia likely will maintain permanent control over the entire 400-kilometer North Crimean Canal to ensure there are no more disruptions to Crimea’s water supply.
This theory holds that the 69-year-old Putin, who has been in power since 2000, seeks perpetual military conflict as a way of remaining popular with the Russian public. Some analysts believe that after public uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, Putin decided to invade Ukraine due to a fear of losing his grip on power.
In an interview with Politico, Bill Browder, the American businessman who heads up the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign, said that Putin feels the need to look strong at all times:
Anders Åslund, a leading specialist on economic policy in Russia and Ukraine, agreed:
Russia expert Anna Borshchevskaya wrote that the invasion of Ukraine could be the beginning of the end for Putin:
Soeren Kern is the Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group, one of the oldest and most influential foreign policy think tanks in Spain. He specializes in U.S. and European defense- and security-related issues. The article was originally published on Gatestone Institute.