Vladimir Putin is trying to save his own regime rather than Russia itself, by striking out against Ukraine now, writes Professor Robert Patman
Opinion: President Putin’s decision on February 24 to launch a “special military operation” against Ukraine appears to be the greatest use of force by one state against another in Europe since 1945.
The decision came shortly after Putin announced his recognition of the independence of Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and indicated he would send a “peacekeeping mission” to support the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”.
So why has the Russian president significantly escalated military actions against neighbouring Ukraine? What could justify the deployment of large numbers of troops to Ukraine, missile strikes against major Ukrainian cities, including Kiev, the country’s capital, and the possibility of a full Russian invasion?
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine erupted in March 2014 after Putin’s Russia annexed Crimea – the first time inter-state borders in Europe had been changed by force since 1945 – and then intervened in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine to support armed separatists.
In recent months, the conflict has entered a dangerous new phase.
US and NATO spy satellites as well as independent commercial satellites have detected the build-up of 150,000 plus Russian troops, accompanied by air defence formations , artillery and logistics on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus.
At the same time, vital enablers for a large-scale military operation like field hospitals and engineering units have been placed in frontline positions.
Meanwhile, the Putin regime has reiterated a familiar argument; NATO enlargement in East Europe during the post-Cold War era is the central cause of a grave security threat to Moscow and has cited Western warnings about the military build-up around Ukraine as proof that Russia is the target, not the instigator, of aggression.
With this in mind, Putin demanded that NATO membership for Ukraine must be permanently ruled out and that NATO pull back from Eastern Europe. And unless these demands were met diplomatically, the Putin regime warned the West that Moscow would employ “military-technical” means to resolve what it saw as the core security threat emanating from Ukraine.
These demands were predictably rejected by the Biden administration and its allies. There is little evidence to support Putin’s narrative that the United States has been the driving force behind NATO’s enlargement in Eastern and Central Europe.
The real impetus for NATO’s expansion has come from the countries of the region that were determined to protect themselves against the possibility of any renewed Russian attempt to re-establish a sphere of influence in eastern Europe during the post-Cold War era
Energetic diplomatic efforts involving the US, Germany, France and the UK failed to bridge the gulf with the Putin government’s concerns over the Ukraine.
The crucial difference seems to be Putin refuses to accept that Ukraine is a legitimate sovereign state. In a recent televised address, the Russian leader denied the Ukraine ever had “real statehood” and claimed the country was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.”
Putin’s hardening stance toward Ukraine is linked to the 2013 Euromaidan protests, which toppled pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, and thereafter saw democratic governments in Kiev deepen their ties with the EU and the West generally.
This trend could be seen as a major political threat to the survival of Putin’s authoritarian regime in Russia.
It should not be forgotten that since Putin returned to power as President in 2012 he taken steps to deepen the conservative orientation of his authoritarian regime at home – placing tight restrictions on NGOs, “gay propaganda”, political rallies, and media freedoms – and championing national populist politicians and movements internationally.
At the same time, while Putin’s political circle and friendly oligarchs have amassed enormous political and financial power, the Russian economy remains quite sluggish, support among young Russians for imprisoned opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny remains resilient, and the Kremlin has been rattled by large-scale protests against authoritarian allies in Belarus and Kazakhstan.
In these circumstances, the Putin regime has been deeply concerned about the political effects that a closer relationship between a democratic and Western oriented Ukraine would have in Russia itself over time.
Thus, Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine does reflect a sense of threat in the Kremlin, but it is a threat relating to the political survival of his authoritarian regime rather that the national security of Russia as he claims.
Robert G. Patman is a Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and a specialist in International Relations at the University of Otago