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Why Putin Invaded Ukraine


Published August 10, 2022

Why did Putin invade Ukraine? Putin, like all dictators, is threatened by democratic ideas, governments, and peoples. Putin fears democratic expansion, not an expansion of NATO.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would Putin fear democracy? Is Russia a democracy?
  2. Can wars be prevented? If so, how?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “What Putin Fears Most,” by Robert Person and Michael McFaul. Available here.
  • Read “Vladimir Putin Does Not Think Like We Do,” by Michael McFaul via Washington Post. Available here.
  • Watch “Why Nations Go to War,” on PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has ignited the largest war in Europe since the Second World War, indiscriminately spilling the blood of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and innocent civilians. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin, as well as some analysts in the West, wants you to believe that NATO is to blame. Putin and others have claimed that the possibility of a NATO expansion—not the 200,000 Russian soldiers and sailors attacking Ukraine—is the central driver of this crisis. Blaming the United States and our European allies has become a dominant framework for explaining—if not justifying—Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine. 

It is true that Ukraine aspires to join NATO someday. The goal is even embedded in the Ukrainian constitution. But while NATO leaders have remained committed to the principle of an open-door policy, they also clearly stated prior to the war that Ukraine was not yet qualified to join. 

Putin may dislike NATO expansion, but he is not genuinely frightened by it. Russia has the largest army in Europe and thousands of nuclear warheads. NATO is a defensive alliance. NATO has never attacked the Soviet Union or Russia, and it never will. Putin knows that.

The more serious cause of tensions between Russia and the West, and Russia and Ukraine, has been a series of democratic breakthroughs and popular protests throughout the 2000s, which many, including Putin, refer to as the “color revolutions.”

After each of them—Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, the Arab Spring in 2011, Russia in 2011–12, and Ukraine in 2013–14—Putin has pivoted to more hostile policies toward the United States. Putin like all dictators, is threatened by democratic ideas, democratic governments, and democratic believers.  Putin fears democratic expansion, not NATO expansion. 

And that is certainly true regarding Ukraine. Putin cannot tolerate a successful and democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border, especially if the Ukrainian people also begin to prosper economically. That would undermine the Kremlin’s own regime stability and proposed rationale for autocracy. 

Just as Putin cannot allow the will of the Russian people to guide Russia’s future, he cannot allow the people of Ukraine, who have a shared culture and history, to realize the prosperous, independent, and free future that they have voted for and now fight for.

As a defender of democracy, the United States and countries in the free world have rightly denounced Putin’s barbaric invasion and occupation of Ukraine. The free world also has tried to assist President Zelensky, the government, and his army in stopping the invading Russian army, first by providing military assistance to the Ukrainian army, second my providing economic assistance the Ukrainian government, and third by implementing comprehensive sanctions against Russian companies and individuals. 

Ironically, in claiming to invade Ukraine to stop NATO expansion, Putin has triggered greater unity within the alliance than ever before and at the same time compelled two countries, Finland and Sweden, to seek membership in the NATO alliance. 

To date, Putin has failed to achieve most of the goals of his military intervention. His invasion has not united the Russians and Ukrainians, which Putin calls one nation. He failed to “denazify” Ukraine by overthrowing the Zelensky government. He failed to demilitarize Ukraine. He failed to occupy Kyiv. So now he has modified his war aims to just focus on capturing Donbas. Tragically, Putin and his army are making incremental gain in achieving that objective.  

Occupying Donbas, however, has nothing to do with NATO expansion. It is straight-up, old-fashion imperial conquest, a Russian practice that occurred centuries before NATO even existed.

Ukrainians are fightly heroically to not allow imperialism to succeed, to not allow annexation return to Europe as a normal practice. The United States, democratic Europe, and all countries that believe in a rules-based international order share these same goals, and therefore should do more – more and better weapons, and more and better sanctions – to stop Putin’s army, restore Ukrainian sovereignty, and preserve Ukrainian democracy.