Why is Russia so intent on taking over Ukraine? To most Americans, it simply doesn't make any sense. If I ask people at work, the answer is, "Maybe Putin is trying to rebuild the old Soviet Union." If I ask why, they say, "He just wants power."
But that is rather vague, and it doesn't seem to justify why he is apparently willing to sacrifice so much. He is destroying relationships with the entire western world, and causing sanctions to be imposed that are seriously degrading the Russian economy. Even so, Putin and his Ukrainian adventure are very popular in Russia.
Irredentism as an excuse
On the surface, there is their stated desire to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine. This is known as "irredentism", which is defined by wikipedia as,
...any position of a state advocating annexation of territories administered by another state on the grounds of common ethnicity or prior historical possession, actual or alleged.Irredentism has been the prima facie cause of many major wars, including the Mexican-American war (US citizens in Texas), WWI (Serbs in Austria-Hungary), and WWII (Germans in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Austria).
While it is interesting (and rather concerning) that the largest wars in the history of the world have been apparently caused by the same thing Russia is claiming in attacking Ukraine, in most instances irredentism has been an excuse, not the real reason for war. There is usually a larger compelling national interest. This is also the case in Ukraine.
The compelling national interest
While Russia's desire to develop regional economic hegemony as a way to ensure security and power is well known, I don't think it can explain the intensity and sacrifice inherent in their Ukraine invasion.
As I show below, it has been apparent for some time that their real reason is to maintain political and military power. Without Ukraine, Russia would have great difficulty remaining a world superpower to be reckoned with. And most importantly, without Ukraine, Russia would be highly vulnerable in any future world war. The recapture of Ukraine therefore becomes an existential imperative to Russia.
Crimea and the Sea of Azov
Clearly, Russia annexed Crimea to ensure their access to and control of the Black Sea. Their ports at Sevastopol in Crimea, and Novorossiysk, also on the Black Sea, are particularly important since their only other year-round port is at Vladivostok, which is pretty much on the other side of the world.
To let another country (particularly a country now aligned with Europe and NATO) take over Sevastopol, would put the Black Sea in dispute, which would threaten Russia's entire naval force-projection capability, worldwide.
Russia could not remain a great power without Crimea. After the overthrow of the pro-Russian government in Kiev, the annexation was a certainty.
So Crimea is now a part of Russia again, but it is cut off by Ukrainian territory to the north around the Sea of Azov. The Russian invasion of that area, starting last week, was probably a result of military analyses/simulations showing that Crimea would be indefensible without controlling the entire perimeter of the Sea of Azov. So the invasion through Donetsk was also a certainty.
What of the rest of Ukraine?
|The German Invasion of Russia in WWII|
Yes, the last time it happened was indeed over 70 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. But do we really think that Russia is going to allow NATO to have missiles, artillery, and troops in Ukraine, right on their border -- a 6-hour drive from Moscow? With Ukraine aligning more and more with the West, that was a likely end result.
|Road Trip from Ukraine to Moscow|
A natural barrier to separate an "east" and "west" Ukraine would be the Dnieper River. But Kiev straddles it. And really Russia would prefer all of Ukraine as a buffer.
Ukraine as Texas
Consider this scenario: Imagine if Texas were to break away from the US and declare itself a separate country, coincident with other states breaking away during a time of national crisis. Suppose that as time goes on many of the Anglo residents move out of Texas back to the US, and the Hispanic ethnic group becomes a majority. After 10-15 years, with the US back on its feet, Texas begins to align itself with Mexico.
Even though Mexico has never invaded the US, wouldn't we want to secure the oil ports and production facilities along the Gulf coast, to provide for our strategic defense and global reach? And wouldn't it be likely that we would invade Texas using the excuse that we were doing it "to protect the historically American people still living there"? Wouldn't we have an even greater imperative to do so if there had been a past history of invasions across the Rio Grande that had resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Americans?
Note that I am not trying to justify Russia's position, merely trying to understand how this situation will progress.
The bottom line
Russia has a clear strategic imperative to own Crimea, and all approaches to it. They will secure Crimea and the area around the Azov Sea up to the Dnieper. It is needed for them to remain a global power. They will be willing to sacrifice much for this, including relations with other countries, and they will absorb any economic sanctions that are imposed. Russian control of these areas is non-negotiable.
Russia will work to have all of the Ukraine under their dominion. They need a buffer between them and Europe/NATO. They will not allow even the possibility of NATO forces 6 hours from Moscow. They will likely conquer slowly, a piece at a time, in order to keep the West on a slow simmer. They may stop at the Dnieper for now, but I suspect that long term they want all of it.
About the only thing that would stop Russia would be for Ukraine to rescind their ties with NATO, and go back to the Russian fold as an independent but Russia-aligned nation. Hard to see how this could happen at this point, even if Russia provides assurances about sovereignty.
A worst case scenario?
An important point was made by Putin at a youth camp today:
"Russia is far from being involved in any large-scale conflicts," he said at the camp on the banks of Lake Seliger. "We don't want that and don't plan on it. But naturally, we should always be ready to repel any aggression towards Russia.He then compared Ukraine's military operations to the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War Two:
"Russia's partners...should understand it's best not to mess with us," said Putin, dressed casually in a grey sweater and light blue jeans.
"Thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers."
"Small villages and large cities surrounded by the Ukrainian army which is directly hitting residential areas with the aim of destroying the infrastructure... It sadly reminds me of the events of the Second World War, when German fascist... occupiers surrounded our cities."Putin indeed has the invasion of WWII in his thoughts, and directly links the current situation to it. Russia wants all of Ukraine, and probably Belarus too.
A final thought
It is odd to think that during the Cold War, it was the stated policy of the United States to use nuclear weapons to stop any invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union. The allied conventional forces in Europe were no match for the Soviet conventional forces, so nukes were the only solution, and everyone knew that explicitly. This policy kept the Soviets in check, because it was clear that any incursion would quickly escalate beyond anyone's control.
Now, with the decline of the United States as a world power, the huge draw-down in our nuclear weapon stockpile, and the lack of any resolve whatsoever at our highest levels of power (yes, I am talking about Obama), Russia can pretty much do anything they want, including invading other countries. And now they are threatening the use of nukes if anyone tries to stop them.
It's like a bad Russian reversal joke:
"In 1960s, if Russia invades, you nuke Russia. Now, if Russia invades, Russia nukes you!"