After twelve months of all-out war in the Ukraine, the reasons that Russia initially presented to justify its invasion have not changed. The main arguments put forward by the Kremlin to invade Ukraine are the “threat” of NATO’s growing influence in Eastern Europe and an alleged genocide of the Russian-speaking inhabitants of the Donbass. Nationalist and historical doctrines also continue to play an important role in Vladimir Putin’s speech to give the green light to his “special military operation”.
A year has passed, but the invasion of Ukraine is still for Russia a “special military operation” and not a war, as all the Western media call it. In fact, this word is taboo for the Kremlin and it even penalizes those media that dare to pronounce it. From Moscow, the narrative regarding the war has been essential to address its citizens, as well as the justification for this conflict.
On February 24, 2022, the first day of the invasion, Putin addressed Russia -and the world- with a speech loaded with points that made an “intervention” in Ukraine “understandable” for the Kremlin’s vision. Some of them referred to avoiding the “genocide” of the Russian-speaking population in the Donbass -a region in eastern Ukraine where there is the largest pro-Russian population- after almost eight years of war and others to the historical “invention” of what we currently know as Ukraine. without forgetting the “responsibility” of the West in the conflict.
NATO expansion, a threat to Russia
NATO has been a central issue of rejection by Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin for years. This military organization was created in 1949 in a Cold War context by several European countries, the United States and Canada with the sole objective of counteracting the military power of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, who had a similar organization, the Warsaw Pact. .
The Warsaw Pact disappeared in the early 1990s along with the Soviet Union, but despite the end of the Cold War NATO continued. Moscow placed several conditions on this organization after the dissolution of the USSR, such as not extending its borders, especially among countries that had left the socialist orbit or had even become independent from the USSR. But this was not fulfilled.
In 1999, during the government of Boris Yeltsin, three former members of the Warsaw Pact -Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland- joined the Atlantic Alliance. And in 2004, already during Putin’s first Executive, nine other countries from the former socialist bloc joined this organization. Among them Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, three republics that had belonged to the USSR and whose borders were only a few hundred kilometers from the main Russian cities.
In 2007, the Russian leader was already expressing his growing frustration with the expansion of NATO at the Munich Security Conference:
“It seems clear to me that NATO enlargement has nothing to do with the modernization of the alliance or with security in Europe. On the contrary, it is a provocation that undermines mutual trust and we can legitimately ask ourselves who this enlargement is aimed at.” he said at this Conference.
Putin also denounced US unilateralism and shared the vision of the world that he wanted to implement, a multipolar world, with several global powers, and within them, Russia.
“I believe that, in the contemporary world, the unipolar model is not only unacceptable, but also impossible,” announced the Russian head of state in Munich.
Finally, it was the pro-Europe protests of the Euromaidan in Ukraine that marked a turning point for the Russian leader at the end of 2013. After the rejection of an association agreement proposed by the EU by the Ukrainian government, a large part of the population Ukrainian protested for months in favor of European integration, making Putin fear of losing his influence in the country.
According to the Russian president, although the USSR no longer existed, the former Soviet socialist republics remained in Russia’s orbit and continued to form a security space between Russia and the West. For Putin, it was unthinkable to see a rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU. Consequently, Russia, which considered itself entitled to intervene in Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula unilaterally – and not internationally recognized – in March 2014. Shortly after, in April, the war in Donbass began, which remains valid today.
Since then, military and security cooperation between NATO and Ukraine has increased considerably. For Vladimir Putin, the possibility of Ukraine one day joining NATO represents a major threat to his country’s security and power.
Protect the population and “denazify” Ukraine
One of the arguments used to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the supposed need to save the Russophones in eastern Ukraine. According to Putin, kyiv was systematically killing Russian-backed separatists who had been fighting the Ukrainian government since 2014 in the Donbass.
“The aim of this operation is to protect the people who, for eight years, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime,” Putin said on February 23, 2022, the day before the invasion.
Although the Russian leader has accused Ukraine of genocide since 2015, little evidence has been presented. Russian representatives brought a document to the International Court of Justice stating that Ukraine was exterminating the civilian population in Donbass and accusing Kiev of genocide. However, the court concluded that the evidence was insufficient.
On the other hand, Moscow aims to “denazify” Ukraine and often uses this narrative to justify its war.
“Forgetting the lessons of history leads to the repetition of terrible tragedies. The proof is in the crimes against civilians, ethnic cleansing and punitive actions organized by neo-Nazis in Ukraine,” Vladimir Putin declared in a statement on January 27.
Although there are historically neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, such as the Azov Battalion, or extreme right-wing parties such as the Right Sector or the National Corps, these groups continue to be a very minority in the country.
However, Russian propaganda even accuses Volodimir Zelensky, of Jewish origin, of leading a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”. According to experts, these statements use Russia’s collective memory of World War II to rally Russians around the war in Ukraine.
Towards a great Russia?
In addition to the geopolitical aspects that Putin uses to legitimize Russia’s war in Ukraine, the conflict has a greater dimension for Russia, a cultural and historical dimension. Vladimir Putin, who believes that Ukraine is historically part of Russia, not only wants to regain control of this country, but also of its sphere of influence that he lost after the fall of the USSR in 1991.
In July 2021, the Russian president published a text on the Kremlin website in which he stated that “Russia and Ukraine are the same people”, a way of uniting the two countries.
“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country, it is an inalienable part of our history, culture and spiritual space. They are our comrades, friends and… moreover, relatives, people united by blood ties,” Putin said then.
“Modern Ukraine was created entirely by Russia or, to be more precise, by the Bolsheviks, communist Russia,” the Russian president also says.
Underlining the historical and social ties between the two countries and denying the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine makes it possible to justify the need to “save” Ukrainians from the regime that Putin describes as Nazi, but it also unites the Russians around the idea of a great Russian nation. which should be collected.
Supporting and reinforcing this narrative is Alexander Dugin, an orthodox Russian thinker who supports the idea of neo-Eurasianism, a doctrine that promotes the creation of a large Eurasian continental bloc.
Dugin, who is very close to Putin and who some even consider “his brain” or ideologue, does not shy away from sharing his extremist ideology.
According to him, the Soviet empire “will be rebuilt by different means: force, diplomacy, economic pressure… It will depend on the place and the moment,” says the intellectual. And apparently, Putin, who always believed that “the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, he pays more and more attention to these postulates.
On the Ukrainian question, Dugin also has a very specific idea in mind.
“Ukraine has to disappear from the Earth and rebuild from scratch or the people need to take it back. I believe that the people in Ukraine need a total revolt at all levels and in all regions. An armed revolt against the junta, not only in the southeast”, he stated in May 2014.
In August 2022, the thinker lost his daughter Daria in a car bomb attack outside Moscow and accuses Kiev of being responsible for the murder, something Kiev has repeatedly denied.
While Vladimir Putin himself may not believe in the possibility of rebuilding a Russian empire as it existed during the Soviet Union, he at least seeks to retain his wide sphere of influence and security and uses nationalist rhetoric to rally the Russians around the war. .
After a year of conflict, the majority of the Russian people do not seem to be more critical of the war or the government and Putin would even have managed to unite his people against the West and its sanctions.
According to Victor Jeifets, a professor at St. Petersburg State University, “What grew (among the population) is the feeling of enmity with the West (…) they feel that the West is not attacking the government but is attacking the Russians.”