The edge of war: what, exactly, does Putin want in Ukraine?

The massive military buildup could be a bluff, or a political ploy designed for a Russian audience. Either way, the US is digging in

Why is Russia threatening to invade Ukraine?

Russian spokespeople daily deny any intention to invade. So, too, did Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, when he met the French leader, Emmanuel Macron, last week, and when he spoke to US president Joe Biden on the phone. There are two problems with this. First, given Putin’s Johnsonian relationship with truth, few western governments believe the denials. Second, Putin has not explained why, if his intentions are peaceful, more than half of Russia’s armed forces, including 130,000 troops, are massed on Ukraine’s borders. It could all be a bluff. But who would bet the house on that?

So what drives Putin?

There are numerous theories. Putin is said to want to rebuild a Russian sphere of influence in eastern Europe, principally embracing former Soviet republics such as now independent Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine. He has frequently bemoaned their “loss” after the Soviet Union collapsed. Putin may also hope to demonstrate to the west (and Russians) that the country is still a superpower, even though by most measures (nuclear weapon stockpiles and geography apart) it is a failing medium-sized power.

Why Ukraine?

Putin fears strategically important Ukraine, commanding Russia’s south-western flank, is assimilating into the west. He objects to its growing closeness to Nato. He also opposes Kyiv’s developing links with the EU. Worse still, from his point of view, Ukraine is a democracy, with free speech and free media, which freely elects its leaders. In practice, Russians enjoy no such freedoms – if they followed Ukraine’s example, Putin would not last long. More broadly, Putin is a nostalgic revisionist who regards Ukraine as an integral part of historical Russia and its loss as a symbol of Russia’s cold war defeat.

Why now?

Putin may sense western weakness. Nato was humiliated last year in Afghanistan and Joe Biden, who campaigned to end wars, not engage in new ones, has refocused American foreign policy and military resources on China, not Europe. It’s also suggested Putin needs a big victory to shore up his domestic support, vindicate his anti-western policies, excuse rampant regime corruption and kleptomania, and justify the hardships Russians endure as a result of western sanctions imposed after his first attack on Ukraine, in 2014. That was when he annexed Crimea and took de facto control of the eastern Donbas region.

What are Putin’s demands?

To end the standoff (maybe), Putin wants Nato to promise never to accept Ukraine (or Georgia and Moldova) as members. He wants the alliance to pull back from “frontline” countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact. He wants Kyiv to accept autonomous status for the Donbas region and relinquish its claim to Crimea (as part of the so-called Minsk accords). He wants to limit or halt deployments in eastern and southern Europe of new US medium-range missiles. More ambitious still, he wants to redesign Europe’s “security architecture”, to re-establish Russia’s influence and extend its geopolitical reach. To most of this, the US says “no”. Hence the current crisis.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Biden warns Putin: you’ll pay a heavy cost if you attack Ukraine
US president fears ‘great suffering’ in the event of an invasion as Russia denies there are any plans for an attack

Julian Borger in Washington, Shaun Walker in Kyiv, Michael Savage Policy Editor

12, Feb, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
Ukraine-Russia crisis: who’s winning the international influence war?
The balance of power in the diplomatic battle is shifting constantly. But are any of the key players making real advances?

Simon Tisdall

19, Feb, 2022 @2:20 PM

Article image
Joe Biden hails decision to issue ICC arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin
US president joined by German chancellor in support of action taken after Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children

Emma Graham-Harrison and Pjotr Sauer

18, Mar, 2023 @7:03 PM

Article image
Will western leaders cut and run as the costs of the Ukraine war mount?
The longer the war goes on, the more the early anti-Putin momentum could be stalled by political stresses, an energy crisis and the huge bill for aid

Simon Tisdall

03, Apr, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Behind Nato’s defensive ‘shield’ lies weakness and division. Ukraine will pay the price
Miscalculations by the west opened the way for Russia’s invasion. As Kyiv’s outgunned forces fight for survival, the alliance risks another catastrophic failureRussia-Ukraine war: latest updates

Simon Tisdall

12, Jun, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Observer view on why Europe’s pressure on Putin must redouble | Observer editorial
As Russia’s attack on Ukraine falters, the west has to show there are no cracks in its support for Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Observer editorial

27, Mar, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Confusion over UK claim that Putin plans coup in Ukraine
Foreign Office claim of plan to install pro-Moscow government comes with scant detail

Emma Graham-Harrison, Luke Harding in Kyiv and Andrew Roth in Moscow

22, Jan, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
For years, Putin didn’t invade Ukraine. What made him finally snap in 2022? | Anatol Lieven
This war is Russia’s fault. But European nations rebuffing Russia during the noughties did not help, says Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Anatol Lieven

24, Feb, 2023 @3:43 PM

Article image
Ukraine is fighting for all of us. Now Europe must fight too | Simon Tisdall
As Russia threatens another offensive, this is the moment of maximum danger. Ukraine’s allies must move fast and decisively

Simon Tisdall

22, Jan, 2023 @8:00 AM

Article image
Timidity, greed and sloth: why the west always loses to Putin
The allies failed to prevent the invasion. Will they now dare to topple Russia’s rogue president?

Simon Tisdall

26, Feb, 2022 @5:17 PM