UKRAINE (WETM) – Early in the morning on February 24, Russia launched a “military operation” in Ukraine, finally executing an invasion much of the world has feared for months.
Explosions were heard in cities across Ukraine, and Putin warned other countries that if they tried to interfere, there would be “consequences you have never seen in history.”
But the months and years of buildup have left many wondering just what Putin wants and why Russia is invading. The history of these tensions—likely unsurprising—stretches back centuries. But a Syracuse Political Science professor said the key date is 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Brian Taylor, Political Science professor in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin—who became president in 2000—has always felt that “Ukraine was naturally part of the Russian sphere of influence” ever since the USSR split into 15 internationally-recognized countries. Taylor said Ukraine and Russia even signed a treaty to recognize their borders.
But over the last 22 years, Ukraine has moved away from Russia’s “sphere of influence” and has tried to integrate more into the Western World, said Taylor. This, of course, is in stark contrast to what Taylor said is one of Putin’s high-priority foreign policy items.
Fast forward to 2014. Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula that was legally part of Ukraine. This action strongly spurred Ukraine to move even further away from Russian influence.
Then Russia sponsored “a separatist war” in the Donbas region in the southeast of Ukraine. Taylor said this made Ukraine much more favorable to western allies like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
All this western movement became too much for Putin, according to Taylor.
“I think Putin has been resentful about this direction, frustrated that his previous attempts have always failed and the Ukrainians have had other ideas about where their political futures lie,” Taylor said. “And he felt like now was the time to act and try and reverse that.”
In a speech on Monday, February 21, Putin said “I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.”
Brian Taylor’s full interview can be watched in the player below:
He added that “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. … Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.”
But what is the root cause of Putin’s desire to take back Ukraine in the first place?
Well, his goal is not to reunite the Soviet Union, Taylor clarified. Rather, Taylor thinks that Putin wants to assert Russia’s status of power on the world stage and “its right to have a sphere of influence.” Taylor called this sphere Russia’s Neighborhood.
So to accomplish that, Taylor said Russia’s immediate goal is to overthrow the Ukrainian regime in the capital city of Kyiv and put in place a regime loyal to the Russian Federation, evidenced by attacking the country on three sides.
However, Taylor doesn’t think it’ll be that easy.
“I don’t think the Ukrainian people will accept that. He will have a hard time finding people to play the role of willing puppets of the Putin regime and I think he also is going to face some pressure from inside Russia.”
While Taylor doesn’t think people protesting Putin’s actions inside Russia as an immediate threat, the situation is still very different from 2014. When Russia annexed Crimea, Taylor said the Russian people generally rallied behind the government. But now, he feels people are more worried and, even if the Russian people aren’t necessarily against Putin’s government, that widespread support from 2014 isn’t there.
“So I think that should give him pause,” Taylor said.
All of this stretches even further back in time, too. Taylor said a Ukrainian nationalist movement pushing for independence began in the 1800s and continued into the 20th century. These actions led the Bolsheviks to create the Ukrainian Republic in 1917 in an effort to satisfy the Ukrainian people while also keeping them inside the USSR.
Ultimately, Taylor thinks Russia should follow the example of Africa, a continent that saw most of its borders created at the hand of colonial powers.
In a February 22 speech, the Kenyan U.N ambassador said Russia should look to the way African nations handled these redrawn borders. “Rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia,” he said, “we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.”
So what comes next? Are other previously-Soviet nations next on Russia’s list?
Taylor thinks Ukraine is likely a one-off situation because “the three states that matter most to Putin or Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.” And he said Belarus is already almost completely in Russia’s pocket after a 2020 rigged election that kept Russian-back president Lukeschenko in power.
Taylor said Ukraine is just “the third piece of the puzzle”, but it likely won’t just fall into Putin’s lap.
Meanwhile, political experts say a similar geopolitical conflict could break out in Eastern Asia between China and Taiwan. President Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month, suggesting an alliance between the two countries could form; however, Professor Taylor says no such alliance has formed yet.
China also shares similar territorial ambitions to Russia, spanning from the South China Sea to Taiwan to the Indian border. The tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China could boil over, but there are stark contrasts between this geopolitical conflict and the invasion of Ukraine.
Taiwan is not a sovereign nation per the U.S. State Department. China and the United States seem to recognize one government for the People’s Republic of China, rather than a separate government for Taiwan. Some experts say China is watching to see how the United States and its NATO allies respond to Putin before acting themselves.