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Explaining the Ukraine Invasion

Putin’s pretexts, realists’ rationales, and Russian identity.
March 7, 2022
Explaining the Ukraine Invasion
IRPIN, UKRAINE - MARCH 03: A man rides his bike past destroyed buildings on March 03, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. Russia continues assault on Ukraine's major cities, including the capital Kyiv, a week after launching a large-scale invasion of the country. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues and there are no signs that the conflict is nearing an end. Much of the world has weighed in on the side of Ukraine, hoping to put down Russia’s incursion through economic sanctions, increased military aid to Ukraine, and soft-power support for the bravery and resolve of the Ukrainian people.

But if we are to understand what might come next—and to think clearly about what might be done to help bring the conflict to an end—determining Vladimir Putin’s core motivations is essential. Dictators’ real ambitions and intentions can be notoriously difficult to divine, and since Putin tends toward secrecy and dissembling, it is necessary to sort through various explanations and theories.

First, there is Putin’s own public pretext for the invasion, promoted in the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda—and thus perhaps the explanation most Russians accept. The purpose of the “special military operation,” Putin has claimed, is “to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians.” The fact that Ukraine’s president is Jewish reveals the falseness of a Russian denazification campaign. As for the “bloody crimes against civilians,” it is true that in the eight years of fighting over Ukraine’s separatist regions, there have been many civilian injuries and deaths. But those injuries have been on both sides, and offer no moral justification for Putin’s massive new invasion and the intentional targeting of Ukrainian civilians.

Beneath such rhetoric, however, exist more credible reasons for Putin’s actions. The most obvious is that Putin is on a quest to secure national security by rebuilding the Russian empire and restoring Russia’s place as an global power. Ukraine—for historical, geopolitical, and cultural factors—is key to Putin’s imperial aspirations. Indeed, he has suggested that Ukrainian statehood lacks legitimacy and it should resume its proper place as a Russian territory.

Another rationale for the invasion, one widely discussed in the press, involves supposed Russian fears that NATO will be enlarged to include Ukraine. Speaking in 2007 about NATO’s previous enlargement, Putin said it “reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?” A year later, NATO assured Ukraine that it would someday be offered membership in the alliance. So, the explanation goes that Putin considers having NATO right on Russia’s doorstep intolerable.

And then there is the oft-cited explanation that Putin cannot stand to have a democracy blossoming at Russia’s doorstep. With social and cultural connections between the people of Ukraine and Russia still very much alive, the contrast between the nations in political ideology and system of governance would be stark and evident, perhaps intensifying discontent within Russia and destabilizing Putin’s hold on government. While the threat of NATO, a military alliance, may feel real to Putin, the expansion of democracy presents political, economic, cultural, and ideological challenges to Russia’s autocracy that feel existential.

These last two explanations—about NATO-related security concerns and a vivid democratic contrast—have recently been explored in The Bulwark by Tomáš Klvaňa and Cathy Young. My sense is that, to the extent those two explanations hold true, they are geopolitical interests that should be understood as subparts of, or secondary to, a broader rationale: Putin’s obsession with the affirmation of Russia’s supranational identity.

Political scientist Jennifer Mitzen has described how a nation-state desires a stable sense of itself that is realized through steady relationships and routine, familiar interactions with others—a kind of geopolitical version of the psychological concept of “ontological security.” And a nation-state, as political scientist Brent Steele argues, will pursue and defend ontological security with the same fervor as more widely recognized physical and economic security threats.

In a paper published last year, University of New Haven researcher Brendan Chrzanowski applied the concept of ontological security to Putin’s Ukraine maneuverings since 2014, particularly as it pertains to the Donbas invasion. There is, Chrzanowski writes, an “insatiable desire within Moscow to wield considerable Russian influence over Ukraine” and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict that has emerged over the last decade has become central to how Russia tries to secure its sense of ontological security.

In other words, taking military action in Ukraine is the primary way that Putin’s Russia now acts to meet not its geopolitical security needs but its identity needs. Russia is arguably not a nation-state in the usual sense of the term, but a state made up of multiple nations; the invasion may well be an important part of how Putin affirms Russia’s “self-identity.” Under this explanation, conflict is a security-seeking activity, but one that contravenes the typical conceptions of security that suggest rational actors are loath to embark on military campaigns without focused and achievable objectives.

If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were strictly a matter of stopping the enlargement of NATO, creating a buffer between democracy and the Russian state, securing the pro-Russian separatist regions in Ukraine, or some other realist objective, the world—and certainly American foreign policy—would be much better positioned to address Russia’s actions and perhaps find ways to create off-ramps.

But ontological security doesn’t play by the same rules. As Anne Applebaum has written, “[Nations] do not, as some academics have long imagined, have eternal interests or permanent geopolitical orientations, fixed motivations or predictable goals. Nor do human beings always react the way they are supposed to react.” It is much more difficult to address the concerns of an autocratic leader feeling a national identity crisis who is thus incentivized to seek conflict as a means of finding security. Steele has articulated that a nation-state seeking to stabilize its sense of self may be compelled to act in ways that seem irrational, but which are wholly consistent with trying to ameliorate that which has been disrupted.

Whatever direction the Russian invasion turns, the United States and its allies will have to keep in mind the centrality of Russian identity in motivating Putin’s actions. With the understanding that he may be prepared to bring every element of Russian power to bear, resolving this conflict and Putin’s imperial ambitions will hinge on addressing the ontological insecurities that haunt him.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.