Ukraine Invasion: What Does Putin Actually Want?

The Russian president's motives for his invasion of Ukraine aren't exactly clear.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is the driving force behind the war in Ukraine
Russian president Vladimir Putin is the driving force behind the war in Ukraine
via Associated Press

Vladimir Putin finally declared war on Ukraine on Thursday after months of threats, despite the West’s best attempts for de-escalation.

The Russian president has bizarrely claimed that he has no intention of occupying Ukraine, even though Russian air strikes across the country are forcing people to seek shelter.

Ukraine has also made it clear that it will fight back in order to protect its sovereignty, with Nato’s full support.

Russia is essentially now going up against all of Europe and the US. If Putin persists with his invasion beyond Ukraine, and steps foot on any Nato land, the West is likely to engage in full-scale war to stop him.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace did warn shortly before the invasion that Putin had gone “full tonto” over Ukraine – but it remains unclear exactly what is driving the Russian president.

Here are the most likely explanations for Russia’s unprovoked attack:

Revenge against the West

In Putin’s speech which aired just before he launched an attack on Ukraine, he implied the US and its allies were his main targets.

He claimed it was the West who had established the “fundamental threats” which triggered Russia’s attack Ukraine, and that by invading the country, he was going to humble the West.

Putin said: “All of the so-called Western bloc, which the US formed in its image and likeness, all of it in its entirely, is what’s known as the empire of lies.”

He also claimed that after the Soviet Union fell, the West “tried to crush us, beat us down, and finish us off”, before adding ominously: “We remember that and will never forget it.”

He blamed the West for the wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere too, claiming: “Where the West comes to establish its order, they end up turning into bloody wounds that cannot heal, boils of international terrorism and extremism.”

A map showing how the crisis has moved on in the last 24 hours
A map showing how the crisis has moved on in the last 24 hours
PA GraphicsPress Association Images

Putin continued: “Anyone who tries to get in our way, let alone tries to threaten us and our people, should know that Russia’s answer will be immediate, and it will lead to consequences of the sort that you have not faced ever in your history.”

It was not clear what kind of action would be considered threatening to Russia at this point, but the West has emphasised it will be supporting Ukraine with defence and financial support.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has also expressed a desire to build an “anti-Putin coalition” with Western leaders.

Before this particularly aggressive speech, it was widely believed that Russia was mainly after Ukraine.

A return to the Soviet Union – or Russian Empire?

It’s likely that Putin wants Ukraine and Russia to be under the same sphere of influence because they were both once important parts of the Soviet Union.

Putin did also dub the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” back in 2005.

However, others speculate Putin would prefer to create a Russian Empire instead, as he is said to idolise former Russian emperor Peter the Great, who ruled between the 17th and 18th Century.

In his speech on Monday, he referred not to the loss of the Soviet Union but to the “territory of the former Russian empire”.

Some fear Putin could target other European states if he succeeds in Ukraine. Author and Russia specialist Keir Giles wrote in The Guardian that Putin might soon eye up Poland, Finland and the Baltic states.

Controlling Ukraine?

In July, Putin published an essay called “On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians” where he said Ukraine’s independence was unsustainable.

Russia was already accumulating troops around its neighbour’s borders when he published this.

Then with Thursday’s invasion, Russia called for all Ukrainian fighters to put down their arms, calling for a demilitarisation.

Ukraine has no intention of surrendering at the moment. It has also promised that its army is much stronger than when it was last threatened by Moscow, during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, especially as most of the population still want Nato and EU membership.

Some speculate Putin wants to end Ukraine’s aspirations to become like Poland by stopping it from being a prosperous democracy. Others believe Moscow wants to turn Ukraine into Belarus, Russia’s ally and a fellow dictatorship.

Stopping the expansion of Nato?

Ukraine is not actually a member of Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) even though it really wants to be.

It expressed its desire to join the Western nuclear alliance in its constitution, back in 2002.

Ukraine is considered a Nato “partner” but support from the organisation is relatively limited unless it becomes an official member.

Being a Nato member would strengthen Ukraine’s military, so it had more protection against Russian attacks, and its western alliances.

It would likely pave the way for Ukraine to join the EU too, moving it even further away from Russia’s grip.

Nato refused to provide Russia with any guarantees it would not one-day admit Ukraine as a member, which appeared to escalate Putin’s attack on its neighbour.

However, for a nation to join Nato has to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area and have unanimous approval from current members.

What does Trump have to do with it?

Trump has been particularly vocal about how impressed he is by Putin’s military action, which has certainly shocked some critics in the West.

It’s also worth noting that Putin seemed particularly quiet when Trump was in the White House. He went after Georgia when George W Bush was in the White Office, and annexed Crimea when Barack Obama was the US President.

Then, he seemed to back away during Trump’s premiership.

Now Biden is in office, Putin has gone on the offensive again.

Putin aims to undermine democratic powers and institutions – but, according to some circles, Trump was divisive enough to do that himself, so his Russian counterpart did not interfere.

Trump also undermined the EU, Nato, the US democracy and even Ukraine in 2019, when he withheld military aid from the European country.

As The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin said this week: “Trump’s foreign policy sought to do much of what Putin wants to achieve, including intimidating Ukraine by withholding vital defensive weapons.”


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