Perhaps the most troublesome part of the West’s coverage of Ukraine is its inability to understand the simplest thesis – “Ukraine was no closer to joining NATO in February 2022 than it was in 2014 (when the Crimea was annexed), or at any time in its 31-year-long history.” If anything, in February 2022, it was the furthest it has been from joining the Alliance. Anyone arguing that Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and the West’s supposed “expansion” are what provoked Putin, shows a complete ignorance of what is required for a country to join the Alliance and, frankly, what NATO itself is as an organization. To grasp these concepts, one needs to examine Ukraine as a potential NATO candidate. Prior to this examination, two concepts about NATO must be mentioned — namely Articles 5 and 10 of the NATO charter. Article 10 specifically states that in order for a country to join the Alliance, the invitation must be unanimously approved by all 30 NATO members and Article 5 explains that an armed attack on one NATO member «shall be considered an attack against all».
Now to the examination of Ukraine as a candidate. Ever since 2014, Ukraine has been at war with the regular Russian army (albeit a small part of it) and Russian mercenaries in the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk (a.k.a. «Russian-backed separatists», as Western media prefers to refer to them). Separated from the entire world, the only reason as to why these so-called «separatists republics» managed to resist Ukrainian control was the constant supply of weapons, money, mercenaries and (when “things got hot”) regular Russian troops on orders from the Kremlin. With this being said, by accepting Ukraine into NATO, all 30 countries of the Alliance would automatically have found themselves at war with Russia, even prior to the 2022 invasion, which even the most anti-Kremlin countries such as Poland would have opposed. Hence, after the start of hostilities in 2014, Ukraine became ineligible for joining the Alliance, since its membership is a de-facto declaration of war on Russia. In even simpler terms, the second Ukraine joins NATO, the Alliance must take military action to reclaim Ukraine’s territories and expel Russian troops and mercenaries from Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, which, in turn, entails a potential WW3. Putin, on the other hand, perfectly understands the West’s reluctance to confront a nation with nuclear weapons. Throughout modern Russian history, Putin was, for the most part, indifferent to NATO expansion as long as it didn’t threaten him politically (as exemplified by Russia’s silence on Baltic states joining the alliance in early 2000s, when Putin’s rule was considered democratic and stable). Even from a strictly militarical perspective, if Putin is successful in invading Ukraine, the distance between the Kremlin and the closest NATO country (Latvia) would still be less than 550 kilometers (Figure 1). Moreover, what even the “Western military experts” fail to understand, in the current age of nuclear weapons, is that the distances between nuclear alliances (especially Russia and NATO) play no role during an actual armed conflict. Even if at the onset of WW3 NATO was to position its forces on the Red Square, Russia would still be able to devastate all NATO countries with rockets launched from Siberia regardless of their proximity (and vice versa).
Figure 1. Map of NATO countries as of 2015 (since 2015, Montenegro and North Macedonia joined the alliance) (https://nordregio.org/maps/nato-and-non-nato-membership-in-europe-in-2015/)
Now, when it is understood that it wasn’t the threat of Ukraine’s NATO integration, which prompted the 2022 escalation, the real reasons for the full-scale attack must be determined. Here again, Western media demonstrates its incompetence with claims such as «Putin’s is going insane», «Putin wants to restore the USSR» or «the West somehow provoked Putin». That’s why, once more, a new concept must be introduced as a starting point for outlining the real reasons as to why the large-scale invasion is taking place now — «Putin and his inner circle will do anything to maximize their grasp on power». Many may argue that this is a well-known notion, and that Putin may have ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine anytime from 2014 to 2022, and hence it must be «Western imperialists» who provoked him to attack in 2022. To debunk, clarify, and elaborate on these claims, one needs to (for just one second) divert attention from international politics and to instead examine the internal state of affairs within Russia and its proxies Belarus and Kazakhstan. When asked about the biggest political developments within Russia, Belarus, or Kazakhstan in the last five years, any informed Russian, Belorussian, or Kazakh will list the growth of the opposition movement, imprisonment of independent journalists, assassinations or attempted assassinations of opposition leaders (the biggest story being the attempted poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of Alexei Navalny), large scale anti-government demonstrations (the largest being in 2020 Belarus, when a nation-wide protest of 600 thousand people almost overthrew a 26-year-in-power dictator and Putin’s closest ally Lukashenko), and increasing government campaigns to quell dissent. All these political developments within Russia and its proxies demonstrate that prior to the escalation, a gradual growth of the opposition movement slowly but surely eroded Putin’s grasp on Russia.
When this is understood, let’s examine Ukraine’s position in the context of Putin’s grasp on power. While it is important to know that Ukraine in its 30-year independent history has always been externally influenced by Russia and forcibly prevented from associating with the West (for one, in 2004 a pro-western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned by Russian operatives during his presidential campaign), a real break in Ukraine’s «chains» to Russia came in 2014, when as a result of a revolution, a pro-Putin president Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee Ukraine to Russia, de-facto terminating the Kremlin’s top-down control of the Ukrainian population. Since the 2014 revolution and subsequent hostilities initiated by the Kremlin, every year Ukraine grew more independent from its neighbor. Promoting democracy, gradually cutting its trade with Russia, improving its standards of living, replacing the ruling oligarchy class with democratically elected representatives and on top of all that, preventing Russian mercenaries from advancing further from occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk — all these factors were pivotal in making Ukraine the Kremlin’s number one target. Initially, however, due to the Ukraine’s pre-2014 dependence on Russian exports, the Kremlin’s plan was to starve Ukraine economically, force Ukraine to divert a great share of its budget to resisting Russian advance in the East, bombarding Ukraine with pro-Russian propaganda and sanctions, and sponsoring corrupt Ukrainian politicians with the goal of gradually destabilizing the country. This was an attempt of resubjugation which ultimately failed. As a result of the benefits Ukraine obtained from its close association with the EU and the West (ranging from the increase in foreign investment, a more favorable and freer economic climate, increase in military imports etc.) and, frankly, the pro-western resolve of the Ukrainian people, Russia failed to quash Ukraine’s development, further angering the Kremlin and worrying Putin. If, initially, Russia’s propaganda machine used the slogan «do you want Russia to turn into a Ukraine?» as a chant referring to Ukraine’s instability and war in the East, in the late 2010s and 2020-2021 propagandists started to avoid using the chant as by that time the rate of economic growth, real salaries and civil liberties in Ukraine matched or even surpassed those in Russia. Another aspect of Ukraine’s free existence that drove the Kremlin insane was the fact that many Russian activists, businessmen, and elites, once targeted by the Russian government for dissent moved to Ukraine to resume their business and anti-Putin activism. If, initially, the majority of Russians welcomed the annexation of Crimea, driving Putin’s ratings through the roof, by 2021 many Russian citizens seeing the current economic stagnation and crackdown on civil liberties reconsidered their position and started to contemplate the possibility of overthrowing Putin’s regime. Seeing how close Putin’s closest crony Lukashenko came to being overthrown in 2020 finalized the decision of destroying Ukraine as a state. A state which escaped from Putin’s grasp, prospered despite the Kremlin’s best efforts, and became a beacon of hope for populations trying to cut their ties with Putin.
We now need to return to examining Russia’s pre-invasion position on the world stage to understand the additional reasons as to why the full-scale attack took place in 2022. While in retrospect the Russian economy is comparable to that of Florida or to the capitalization of any of the top-5 US companies, there are several reasons why a stagnating and corrupt country managed to continue to exert influence on the world. The most important ones by far are the EU’s current dependence on Russian energy products and the West’s inability to project sufficient strength with its new policies of brokering peace agreements with dictators. While the EU’s dependence on Russian oil and gas was always a Kremlin’s economic weapon for thwarting European anti-Kremlin policy makers (who pushed for harsher sanctions on Russia), this century-long tool was now in danger of disappearing. The EU’s economic efforts aimed at diversification and large-scale investment in renewables and curtailing its use of carbon-based energy, resulted in, for the first time in the modern history, a decrease of Russian energy imports. In the 2019-2020 period, 27 EU countries demonstrated a record-breaking 2.5% increase in the share of renewables in their total energy production utilization (Figure 2.). With that, around 25% of EU’s energy needs by 2022 were fulfilled by renewables with a steady 2-3% yearly increase of the number. Because of this, the oldest and most powerful economic tool in the Kremlin’s arsenal was now at risk of becoming obsolete in the course of the next few decades. If the US managed to pass the pending legislation banning Russian gas and oil imports, which constituted 8% of its total energy needs, in five to ten years or even sooner, countries like Germany (with 30-40% of the energy supplied by Russia) would also be capable of acting likewise without a disastrous effect on their respective economies (Figure 3.). Overall, with more “third world” countries becoming industrialized, most of the Russian natural resource exports were becoming at risk of being outsourced, resulting in Russia gradually losing its small but sizable economic leverage. Hence, the longer Russia waited, the weaker its economic influence became. Finally, the last confirmation for the invasion Putin needed was the weakness US and its NATO allies demonstrated over the course of the last ten years. After seeing the inadequate Western response following the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk, US withdrawal from Syria in 2015, the fall of independent Hong Kong in 2019, and the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq in 2021-2022, the Kremlin understood that if there is a chance of successfully invading Ukraine and repressing the opposition movement at home (while at the same time suffering the least from an economic standpoint), it is in 2022.
Figure 2. History of the percentage-share of renewables on the gross final energy consumption in the European Union since 2004
Figure 3. Gross generation of electricity by source in Germany 1990-2020 showing the shift from nuclear and coal to renewables and fossil gas
Among the first moves undertaken by Kremlin in the first week of the invasion was the forcible dissolution of the remaining independent media outlets (such as closing the popular news radio station Echo Moscow and the TV Rain channel etc.) in addition to assuming the total control of the social information flow within Russia (the banning of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and passing the laws criminalizing the publication of information without the Kremlin’s approval etc.). Simultaneously, all the major cities in Russia were flooded with riot police arresting anyone who disapproved of the Kremlin’s stance. With this, Putin finalized the transformation of Russia into a totalitarian state with a repressed population that is currently incapable of gathering enough power and support to overthrow him. In conclusion, the invasion of Ukraine was nothing but a power move by Putin to bolster his quest of centralizing power and to treat the population at home in accordance with war-time laws. With the majority of Putin’s cronies realizing that failure in Ukraine would result in not just Putin’s, but also their downfall from power, they have no choice but to comply.
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