By Kayla Nguyen
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of its Crimean Peninsula has been a growing concern for the international community since last November, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych walked away from an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. This sudden move away from the EU sparked protests and violence in Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and those who are devoted to Ukrainian independence.
The war in Ukraine has led many Western scholars and security leaders to ask the question, “Is this our fault? Did the West, through actions like NATO and EU expansion, provoke Putin into acting out in Ukraine and reacting against a creeping Western encroachment?” Responders generally tend to fall into two camps — those who believe that Putin is reacting to an impertinent Western expansion and those who believe that there are other factors that motivated Putin to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea.
I fall into the latter category. While the West unwisely failed to consider Russia’s perspective during the rapid NATO and EU expansion, these actions provided the pretext for Russia’s opportunistic leader to capitalize on an opportunity to assert Russian power internationally and expand its sphere of influence, while simultaneously capturing much-needed domestic support. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine is simply a 21st century manifestation of a broader struggle between two fundamentally opposed civilizations — Russian and Western Europe — that have been at odds for several hundred years.
It is not hard to defend the idea that Putin is an opportunist who saw this as an ideal time to invade a politically unstable Ukraine and expand Russia’s sphere of influence. Since the end of the Cold War and the decline of the Soviet Union, Russia has experienced many ups and downs as it has tried to transition into a great power. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that Putin was even considering cooperation with the West during his first presidential term. Among this evidence are Putin’s own words to the BBC in 2000.
“I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe … so it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy,” he said. He also cited his quick support of the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
Statements like these suggest that Putin was potentially open to favorable relations with the West. However, when conditions became favorable to make an expansion of Russian power in Ukraine, things changed. Putin dropped any remnant of a pro-Western stance, assumed a belligerent position and began reasserting Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.
Additionally, Putin was lacking the support of the Russian people. At that time, Russia was experiencing economic decline with the ruble rapidly depreciating, and anti-Putin protests were happening throughout 2011-2012. Putin was in need of a distraction to whip up feelings of nationalism and gain support for his own leadership. Furthermore, Putin needed a way to prove to his domestic audience that he was the strong, forceful leader that Russian culture traditionally desires.
There is a deep-seated cultural conflict between the West and the East that results from their two very different political philosophies and structures. Since the Muscovite era in the 13th century, for example, the Russian authoritarian system has been based off of principles that consist of a rule of men over a rule of law, where oligarchs and those who can manipulate and intimidate their opposition are the ones who end up with power. This partly explains why Russian politicians have been notorious for their corruption and violations of the individual liberties that the West holds so dear. For example, Russia is famous for its tendency to silence journalists that get too critical of the regime, most famously the death of Anna Politkovskaya, and also for the Kremlin’s aggressive propaganda machine. Often, pictures of Putin are circulated that depict him doing “manly” activities such as shooting a whale with a crossbow, riding shirtless through the mountains on a horse and holding a tranquilizer gun while tracking a Siberian tiger. These images, which Westerns often mock, reflect how Putin’s PR team understands the Russian people’s desire to see their leader as a “macho” protector who will increase the strength of the state and make them feel secure. These factors, along with robust propaganda, explain Putin’s overwhelming 87 percent approval rating.
All of these factors combined to create a formidable case for why it was not the West that directly provoked Russia into acting out in Ukraine. Russia was acting on an opportunity to expand its influence, appeal to its domestic faction and continue the clash between Russia and the West; instances of Western expansion merely set the pretext for Russia’s interference.
While it is generally accepted that the West did do things to aggravate tensions, like violate its promise not to expand NATO further east, the issue of the West’s culpability for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains a controversial subject. The pivotal thing that all scholars agree on, however, is the importance of trying to better understand Russia’s motives so as to formulate an effective policy in response to the events in Ukraine.