Why Did Russia Invade Ukraine: An Ever-Changing Narrative

For many in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion started in 2014, and it was an act years in the making.

Understanding Moscow’s true intention behind the invasion of Ukraine is no easy task as it sits masqueraded behind a complex web of deception and disinformation founded on both facts and fiction, creating a myriad of justifications that bear some merit on the surface level.

Ultimately, the truth lies within a variety of reasons that could all simultaneously be true.

As the war rages on, Moscow also alters its narratives to accommodate the new objectives, adding to the complexity in determining the cause of its invasion.

Based on events and statements that preceded the February 2022 full-scale invasion – at times even before 2014 – here’s Kyiv Post’s attempt at peering behind the ever-changing narratives to answer a simple question:

“Why did Russia invade Ukraine?”

NATO Expansion

While NATO did expand eastwards since the 1990s, whether it presented an “immediate threat” to Russia remains questionable, and the expansion in no way justified the invasion of Ukraine.

Nonetheless, this remained one of the Kremlin’s purported reasons for the invasion.

On the eve of its 2022 invasion, Moscow made clear that it perceived Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO – with that, its eastward expansion – as an immediate threat to Russia.

In an ultimatum sent to the US and NATO in December 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that NATO deny any post-Soviet republics, including Ukraine, the possibility of joining the alliance, as well as restoring the 1997 geographical status quo by demanding NATO pull troops from its eastern flank, from member states that were once under Moscow’s sphere of influence.

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The US and NATO called the terms “nonstarters” in response.

While it was possible for the US to deny Ukraine NATO membership, there were no active discussions in place preceding the invasion to bring Ukraine into the bloc – moreover, member states on NATO’s eastern flank – such as Lithuania and Poland – would not agree to troops withdrawal due to their historical conflicts with Russia, a fact that Putin is well aware of.

With that, NATO’s expansion might just be a convenient excuse to justify the invasion.

While the alliance did expand eastwards since the 1990s and incorporated nations in Eastern Europe that were once under the Kremlin’s influence, they did so of their own volition, which might have contributed to Putin’s disdain for the alliance in recent years.

Putin’s relationship with NATO – turning from hopeful in the early years of his presidency to antagonizing in recent years – would deserve an article of its own, but it would be fair to say that NATO’s expansion has been a point of frustration for Putin as Moscow losses its former sphere of influence to the West, though the claims of an “immediate threat” remain questionable.

Ironically, a young Putin once said Ukraine was “entitled to make the decision independently” on whether to join NATO.

“On the topic of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, the Russian President said that it was entitled to make the decision independently. He does not see it as something that could cloud the relations between Russia and Ukraine. But President Putin stressed that Russia’s position on the expansion of the bloc remained unchanged,” read an official press release published by the Kremlin in 2002.

More ironically, Moscow’s invasion has directly led to the further expansion of NATO after Finland and Sweden announced their intention to join the bloc, citing the invasion as a direct factor.

Historical Ties and Imperial Russia

Some could argue the invasion was part of Mosco’s imperial expansion.

Putin has long boasted about the historical ties between Ukraine and Russia, even going as far as publishing an essay on the topic titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” just months before the full-scale invasion.

In it, he described Russians and Ukrainians – as well as Belarusians – as “one people” and that the Kyiv regime was a result of a “coup,” staged by malevolent forces, that ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, discrediting the Euromaidan and disregarding the subsequent democratic elections. Putin also went on at length to describe a version of Eastern European history many Ukrainians rejected as revisionisms that exaggerated Moscow’s claim on Kyivan Rus, a medieval kingdom originating from modern-day Kyiv.

While Russia, Ukraine and Belarus share similar cultures, the Kremlin’s narratives could best be described as historical fantasy.

The rejection of Ukrainian statehood is nothing new, however, as there have been multiple instances in history where Ukrainian identity was suppressed under the Russian Empire and the USSR – but the narratives, combined with Moscow’s state propaganda machine, could signify that imperialism was ultimately at play.

Traces of imperialism – which referenced the empire’s former glory preceding and under the USSR – could be seen in Putin’s statement on the USSR and some Russians’ desire for monarchy restoration, as well as the naming of Moscow’s new submarines, among others.

The Russian president’s essay would also fit nicely into the category.

Regarding Putin’s essay and Moscow’s version of events, US historian Timothy Snyder summed it up nicely in an interview with Yale MacMillan Center.

“[Putin’s] claim that Russia and Ukraine and others, for that matter, are one country because of something that happened a thousand years ago just doesn’t hold up logically. There weren’t nations in the modern sense a thousand years ago. And between the thousand years ago and now, an awful lot of things happened in the meantime,” said Snyder.

Russian Language Issue

Russia has frequently said its “special military operation” was to protect the interests of Russian speakers from Kyiv’s oppression.

The fact is, Russian speakers were never suppressed in Ukraine – even though the language issue remains a heated issue domestically, many Ukrainians continue to communicate in both Russian and Ukrainian after the 2014 Euromaidan.

An earlier Kyiv Post report covered the language issue in detail.

One major counterargument to Moscow’s claims would be the Azov Brigade, whom the Kremlin has branded “neo-Nazi” – many serving in Azov have been communicating in Russian despite their nationalist tendency.

The systematic destruction of Russian-speaking cities such as Mariupol in Ukraine by the Russian military also added an extra layer of irony to its claims.

Donbas Escalation

Apart from the language issue, Russia has also accused Kyiv of indiscriminate attacks against the pro-Russian population in the East.

Newsguard, an independent news reliability assessment platform, has dispelled the myth on its site.

“The International Criminal Court, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have all said they have found no evidence of genocide in Donbas, the Eastern Ukrainian region partly occupied by Russian-backed separatists since 2014,” it read.

Moscow’s plan to capture Kyiv and other regions in Ukraine during the invasion would also render the claims of protecting Donbas somewhat invalid.

Nonetheless, the escalation in Donetsk and Luhansk was years in the making and prepared Putin for the current war – rather than a justified cause, the separatist movements in the east provided Moscow with a pretext for the invasion, which the Kremlin set in motion back in 2014 – or potentially earlier.

A Ukrainian YouTube channel has identified a Russian intelligence officer who laid the groundwork for the separatist movements long before the 2014 annexation, where the flag of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) was seen as early as 2012.

While the Donbas issue remains a complex topic, an analysis published by the European Council on Foreign Affairs provided insights into the pitfalls of the Minsk Agreements, signed in 2014 and 2015, that were supposed to bring peace to the region.

Nazism in Ukraine

Putin has publicly stated that the war was to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine, constantly referring to the Kyiv regime as Nazis – even though the current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is of Jewish heritage.

Then there were outrageous comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Adolf Hitler and the worst Nazis were actually Jewish.

Since 2014, Russia would constantly refer to the regime change in Ukraine as a “coup” staged by “neo-Nazis” in order to justify the annexation of Crimea and Donbas, which has proven to be effective with its domestic audience with its WWII patriotic nostalgia.

However, let’s not forget that Euromaidan was a revolution propelled by ordinary Ukrainians, who subsequently elected two presidents through democratic processes.

Regarding the ongoing Nazi claims in 2022 and 2023, the German news outlet DW released an article to debunk them. And yes, there are far-right elements in Ukrainian society, but they remain marginalized in the country’s political system and maintain no control over it – in 2019, Right Sector, a far-right party in Ukraine, won no parliamentary seats while only obtaining two seats in local elections a year later, mathematically less than one percent of all elected.

Natural Resources in Ukraine

Some have believed natural resources to be a potential reason for the invasion, which bears some merit.

Ukraine possesses some of Europe’s largest mineral reserves and is a major iron producer and exporter, and a majority of those resources are located in eastern Ukraine, which Russia has been eyeing since at least 2014.

There are also fossil fuel deposits – in 2019, a Ukrainian official said the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea deprived the country of “80 percent of oil and gas deposits in the Black Sea,” as well as 115 out of 150 coal mines located throughout the occupied territories.

In 2011, international oil corporations also began to make their move in eastern Ukraine, and some have also suspected the separatists’ seizure of Slovyansk in 2014 – presumably under Moscow’s order – to be related to the Yuzivska gas field that spans across Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, with Slovyansk sitting in the middle of it.

Soon after Ukrainian forces liberated the city in July 2014, Russian state media TASS also claimed that Slovyansk residents were opposed to the shale gas field’s development.

Ukraine is also known to be the “breadbasket of Europe” with its fertile land and strong agricultural industry, where there have been documented cases of Moscow stealing Ukrainian grains during the war.

Militarily, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 also allowed the Kremlin to consolidate its grip over the Black Sea, though the performance of its Black Sea Fleet, as demonstrated in the current war, remains questionable.

Of course, Moscow would not publicly acknowledge resource grab to be the reason for their “special military operation,” so whether it was the reason for the invasion remains speculative at best. However, it would be fair to say that Ukraine’s rich resources have become a prize for the Kremlin’s invasion.

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