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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, marked the re-emergence of war on the European continent, and an ultimate attempt to correct the Western-led system prevailing since the end of the Cold War. Fyodor A. Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, clarifies the motives behind the Russian leadership’s decisions in Ukraine. He also shares how Russia views shifts to the new world order and how global governance could be improved. This article is part of Ukraine Shifting the World Order.
Institut Montaigne: Several rationales have been advanced by President Putin and his circle to justify the attack on Ukraine. How do you assess the respective weight of the motivations behind Russia’s move?
Fyodor A. Lukyanov: The launching of a military campaign against Ukraine is undoubtedly a groundbreaking event in post-Soviet history – perhaps the most significant. Many intertwined motivations guided this decision. We can try to summarize the most important ones.
- First, there was development both inside and around Ukraine pointing to increased military cooperation between Ukraine, NATO and the US. During the war, many things from the previous period came up, confirming the Kremlin’s suspicious belief that military interaction between Ukraine and the West had been essential and growing after 2014. Now the secret is out in the open and has become a matter of pride for the US, the British and NATO. Since Moscow noticed this dynamic for a protracted while, a conclusion was made that either Ukraine (or Ukraine together with NATO) may try to challenge Russia one day in the foreseeable future. So, when Russian leaders said that the February move was a preemptive strike, they meant it.
- Ukraine is the culmination of a long history of Russian attempts to limit NATO expansion, which started in the 1990s and never stopped since. From the Russian point of view, NATO abused its exceptional position obtained after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The alliance de facto positioned itself as equal to the European security system. Its expansion was presented as the consistent extension of the security zone in Europe despite Russian claims that this went against the overall consensus on indivisible securities. Starting from the late 1990s, Russia came up with several proposals about how to adapt the European security architecture to address Russia’s concerns as a country never considered a potential NATO ally. All Russian ideas were consistently dismissed by Western allies without proper discussions. The assumption that security arrangements (as they emerged in the wake of the collapse of communism and the USSR) were non-negotiable was seen by Western powers as an axiom. Russian bitter irritation grew with each new state joining NATO, and it was clear since 2008 that Moscow considered Ukraine as an absolute red line when it came to NATO membership, Putin warned about that during NATO’s Bucharest summit. The 2014 Euromaidan in Ukraine, passionately supported by the West, contributed to the feeling that the West decided to disregard any red lines drawn by Russia.
The specific part of this decision clearly outlined in President Putin’s article in July 2021 is a perception in Russia that Ukraine in its current borders, and with its current identity based on sharp distancing from Russia, is an artificial creature with no real historical grounds. This is a complicated reckoning with the Soviet past, considered in today’s Russia in an ambivalent way – both as a historic peak of Russian might and an experiment that undermined traditional Russia and encouraged quasi-ethnic separation. Some call the current situation a postponed Russian civil war: one which the nation avoided immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but with growing internal tensions fueled by what was described above.