Russia is attacking Ukraine. Here’s why Putin pulled the trigger.


Russia is attacking Ukraine. Here’s why Putin pulled the trigger.

A brief rundown of what helped bring about this moment.

Zeeshan Aleem, MSNBC Opinion Columnist February 23, 2022

It’s finally happening.

After weeks of building up troops along Ukraine’s borders and diplomatic brawling with the West, Russia has formally announced plans to attack its neighbor. Just before dawn on Thursday in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin announced Russia will conduct military operations in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine declared a state of emergency and there were reports of explosions in the former Soviet republic.

Why did Moscow decide to send troops and tanks into the country and risk potentially severe punishment from the international community?

Ukraine was not looking to fight its far more powerful neighbor and had already been struggling to deal with Russian-backed separatist rebellions in its southeastern Donbas region. So why did Moscow decide to risk potentially severe punishment from the international community?

Experts do not share a consensus about what motivated Russia to make its move, but there are a number of non-mutually exclusive factors that likely fueled this action. Much of it has to do with long-held concerns that Russia has about security in the region and its fear of Ukraine becoming increasingly independent from its influence. Then there’s the element of timing: It appears Putin calculated that he had the strategic upper hand and decided this was a particularly good time to strike to advance his interests.

Here’s a brief rundown of what helped bring about this moment and why Putin decided to act now.Russia is threatened by NATO’s expansion and wanted to draw a line in the sand

In December, Russia sent a list of security demands to the U.S. calling for, among other things, a halt to NATO’s eastward expansion right up to its borders, ending Western military assistance to Ukraine, removing NATO troops and bases from former Soviet Union territory and a ban on intermediate-range missiles in Europe — and it threatened to use military force if its demands were not met diplomatically.

Ukraine’s Zelensky Calls on allies to impose sanctions on Russia

The major item Russia is particularly concerned about is the looming prospect of Ukraine entering NATO, a possibility that’s been floated by the U.S. for many years but for which there is no clear timeline. Anatol Lieven, the senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry,” has likened that possibility to Mexico entering military alliances with China — a development that would be, of course, deeply alarming for the U.S.

This is a concern that predates Putin. As Lieven told me in a recent interview, Russia has long expressed warnings that NATO’s expansionism could trigger war:

Since the beginning of NATO expansion in the mid-’90s, when Russia had a very different government under Boris Yeltsin, the Russian government, and Russian commentators and officials, opposed NATO enlargement but also warned that if this went as far as taking in Georgia and Ukraine, then there would be confrontation and strong likelihood of war. They said that explicitly over and over again. So this is not about Putin.

The Russian foreign policy establishment as a whole has long considered Ukraine joining NATO to be a major threat, and militarily dominating Ukraine is a potential way to forestall that possibility.

Russia is unsettled by Ukrainian independence and democracy

Regional analysts have also pointed out that Russia fears how Ukraine’s status as a democracy — which has allowed it to develop an increasingly anti-Russian orientation in recent years — poses a threat to Russia’s influence over its neighbors, as well as Russia’s own internal stability.

Putin was a KGB officer in East Germany when the Soviet Union collapsed. That experience has shaped his perception of the threats that emerge from street movements, protests and anti-authoritarian rhetoric, according to Anne Applebaum, historian and staff writer at The Atlantic.

When Putin considers Ukraine — which has seen two major pro-democracy uprisings, the last of which led to the ouster of the pro-Russian president of Ukraine in 2014 — he sees a country with which Russia has rich historical and cultural ties moving irreversibly out of its sphere of influence. In fact, he also fears Ukraine’s influence on Russia, as Peter Dickinson of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert wrote in December:

The emergence of a genuinely independent and democratic Ukraine is viewed by many in the Kremlin as a direct attack on Russia’s imperial identity and an existential threat to the country’s authoritarian system of government. For a generation of Russian leaders still haunted by the pro-democracy uprisings that sparked the collapse of the USSR, the rise of a European Ukraine looks ominously like the next stage in a nightmare scenario stretching all the way back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. …

… He recognizes that as Ukrainian democracy matures and consolidates, it will inevitably inspire demands for similar change within Russia itself and serve as a growing threat to his own authoritarian regime.

Putin sees intervention as an opportunity to bring Ukraine back into the fold and undermine its potentially infectious democratic energy.

Russia knows it has an unusually strong hand at this moment

Energy prices are rising around the world, and the surge is particularly big in Europe — where many countries are dependent on Russian natural gas for things like heating their homes. Analysts say sanctions against Russia could cause an energy crisis in Europe on the scale of the 1970s oil crisis. That’s why we’ve seen hesitation from the Germans on joining threats to sanction Russia into oblivion if it entered Ukraine. Moscow knows Europe’s hands are tied to some extent, making the incursion less costly now than it might be at another moment.

Another factor with timing might be that Russia has decided that the Biden administration’s renewed focus on confrontation with China leaves it with less room to maneuver on Russia

Whether Putin will succeed in achieving his goals remains to be seen; it’s still unclear how big and how ambitious his incursion will be. And the possibility that this will backfire in some ways by engendering more hostility from Ukrainians over the longer term looms large.

In any case, as with all war, civilians will bear the brunt of cold geopolitical maneuvering. Let’s hope for the best for Ukrainians and their right to self-determination as the country faces off against a formidable foe and the international community scrambles to decide what it will do to deter Russia from going further.

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.