One Year into Europe's War: A Brief Overview of the Conflict's Causes
On the eve of the one-year anniversary since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders of both political and military background are contemplating the transfer of increasingly advanced weaponry to fight off the aggressor. And while the inclusion of artillery in the initial aid packages following February 24, 2022, was seen as controversial by some at the time, nowadays, the discussions have evolved to include long-range missiles, main battle tanks and even cautious remarks about fighter jets.
However, while the US and its allies all over the world are busy with the practical aspects of the conflict, placing the emphasis on the importance of supporting Ukraine through all means possible, another question, perhaps of a more academic nature, has seen less time in the spotlight: what exactly is it that led to the invasion in the first place and what was the rationale behind the Kremlin’s decision?
As can be expected, the answer is complex and multidimensional, with different experts assigning varying weights to the most commonly laid out arguments. Almost all of them agree that the 2022 invasion was a de facto continuation of the conflict which started in the Eastern part of Ukraine in 2014. Back then, the ousting of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych during the Maidan Revolution because of his refusal to establish closer ties with the European Union led to the swift invasion of Crimea by the Kremlin. The following events were responsible for the deaths of more than 14,000 people and the forceful relocation of at least one million others, who fled the fighting.
Several models have been proposed since in order to explain the escalation eight years later. An example is the game theoretical framework of political scientist William Spaniel, who is also the author of “What Caused the Russia-Ukraine War? (And How Will It End?).” In general, he argues that a war only occurs when there is a combination between one or more substantive causes and bargaining frictions. The former category consists of the different issues that two entities (in our case countries) have and are willing to fight over, such as weakening Russian influence within Ukraine and the expansion of NATO to the East. Those can typically be solved by bargaining, since a compromise can usually be found that leaves both parties better off than the outcome they would get if they engaged in military action. In some cases, however, there may be something that either interrupts the bargaining process or prevents it from occurring altogether – a bargaining friction. Spaniel’s argument is that you need both categories to be present in order to start a war.
To better illustrate this, he also gives concrete examples which have been forwarded by different experts since the full-scale invasion started. In addition to the already mentioned East-West rivalry and the expansion of NATO, further substantive causes for this conflict are:
The presence of separatist sentiment in the heavily industrialized regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have historically been more aligned with Russia and parts of which have been de facto quasi-independent entities since 2022.
The inadequate access of Russia to the Crimean Peninsula ever since the latter’s annexation (the Crimean Bridge was the single access point for a population of over 2 million people); furthermore, the main source of fresh water in Crimea was a canal that was dammed by the Ukrainians after they lost control of the territory.
Russian imperialist ambitions to restore the borders of the Soviet Union, which is not without precedent, as witnessed by the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the Russian support for separatists in Transnistria.
Utilization of Russia’s existing energy leverage at the start of the conflict, which could decrease in the future as Europe morphs into a greener economy; additionally, the invasion prevents Ukraine from developing its own fossil fuel reserves, reducing the danger of substituting Russian gas and oil quickly.
The aforementioned list can be completed by mentioning some of the bargaining frictions as well:
Power Shift Prevention – ever since the Crimean annexation, Ukraine was improving its ties to NATO, which could theoretically provide support for an opportunity in the future to take back the peninsula; Georgia was similarly invaded shortly after declaring its interest to join the Atlantic Alliance.
Miscalculation – although very hard to believe, considering how calculated the Kremlin has been in its geopolitical affairs in the past, a bargaining friction might have been the wrong belief of Putin that the Ukrainian citizens would welcome the Russians as liberators.
Of course, this framework can be further refined and expanded upon by various other factors, even intellectual and ideological ones.
For example, writer and academic Walter Russell Mead recently shared an interesting thought during his discussion with Jordan Peterson; according to him, the main reason why Putin decided to go ahead with the invasion was to secure his own base of domestic political support. He argued that the Russian president frequently explained the difference between the West and the East with the fact that the two categories represent two very separate civilizations and sets of moral values. In a now notorious article, published by the Kremlin in 2021, the argument is set forth that Russians and Ukrainians are essentially the same people, “a single whole”. Therefore, Mead believes that Putin was worried about Ukrainian integration into the Western world, as it could lead to developments which are irreconcilable with the single nation theory and would therefore undermine the entire narrative and a vital source of political support.
Russian-British intellectual Vlad Vexler expands on the previous notion by noting that, in the eyes of the Russian leadership, the conflict is not seen as a war between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, but rather – as a war between the Western and the Eastern European worlds.
Whatever the interpretation is, it is clear that the decision to start a new war on the European continent was the product of a wide variety of reasons and was not taken lightly. It is important to continuously analyze similar pivotal moments in order to learn as much as possible so as to understand how the myriad of factors that came together to cause this war can help us understand different perspectives better and prevent similar tragedies in the future.