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Special Report: Why Putin Invaded Ukraine

Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine is a strategic move by Vladimir Putin to restore the former superpower's sphere of influence in the world.
Special Report: Why Putin Invaded Ukraine
Ukraine's capital of Kyiv.

The Invasion

Russia launched an extensive assault on Ukraine from multiple directions in the early morning hours of February 24. Military strikes were geographically widespread, hitting several Ukrainian towns and cities while world leaders issued scathing condemnations for the attack. Reports of casualties mounted as Russian troops engaged Ukrainian forces as they advanced toward the capital city of Kyiv.

In a statement, President Biden denounced the operations as “unprovoked and unjustified … Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way.”

Crowds of people lined up at ATMs as raid sirens blared on the streets of the Ukrainian capital while residents were fleeing cities across the country. NATO’s secretary-general declared, “Peace on our continent has been shattered,” as the alliance announced it would deploy more defensive forces to its eastern flank and host an emergency summit after Russia initiated a “brutal act of war.”

Just hours before the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for peace in an emotional video address. “If these forces attack us,” Zelensky warned, “if you attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves.” Diplomatic ties were immediately severed between the two countries after Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine.

As the assault by Russian forces continued by land, air and sea, Ukraine vowed an “all out defense” in response to this “full-scale attack.” The country’s emergency services reported that attacks were launched against 10 regions, while the Russian military said it was targeting military installations and air bases, most likely to prepare for a large-scale ground invasion. With superior military assets and a larger number of ground forces, the Russian occupation of Ukraine was all but assured in the coming days and weeks.

However, as Russian forces continued their push into Ukraine, the world was captivated by the wartime leadership of President Zelensky and the resistance of his troops as they managed to seriously hamper the enemy's advance. The Ukrainian military's stiff resolve, heavily supported by western-style weapons, stymied Russia's progress, and the war ground to a standstill after a month of heavy fighting.

Whether a calculated strategy for terrorizing the population or brutal retribution for its heavy losses, the Russian military targeted civilians through devastating, indiscriminate shelling of residential areas and population centers. Repeated agreements to evacuate towns and villages failed as the Russian occupiers laid waste to Ukrainian cities.

As the halted Russian forces began a withdraw in early April from the outskirts of Kyiv, unable to capture the capital city, proof of its gruesome war crimes against the Ukrainian people has emerged. Meanwhile, the defending nation is bracing for a renewed assault in eastern Ukraine from Russia's repositioned forces.

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Putin's Long Game

President Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, and through a series of political maneuvers and constitutional amendments, was able to extend his rule and is now at age 69 poised to be the president of Russia for the rest of his life. Over his more than two decades in the Kremlin — and five American presidents during the same time — Mr. Putin has harbored an acrimony over the collapse of the Soviet Union and an increasing animosity toward the West.

Putin has always considered Ukraine a part of Russia, even arguing recently that Ukraine was created as a separate republic by Lenin to support the Bolshevik cause. When a Ukrainian revolution in 2014 ousted their Russian-supported president, Putin used this political setback as an opportunity to deploy forces to Crimea, the peninsula along the southern tip of Ukraine, and eventually annex the disputed territory.

During the intervening years as Ukraine has moved more toward democracy — although political corruption is still rampant — and was considered a possible, future member of NATO, Mr. Putin accused the United States of reneging on a promise not to expand the alliance to Russia’s borders. He demanded that NATO stay out of Ukraine and pull back from Eastern Europe.

Then in late 2021 with the United States ostensibly exhausted of foreign wars and NATO seemingly at odds, Putin decided it was time claim territories he believed belonged to Russia and halt any further Western or NATO encroachment on Russian borders. As the military buildup around Ukraine began, however, NATO showed that it remained capable of uniting against a common threat by joining together to threaten Russia with debilitating economic sanctions should the nation not alter course.

As reported in both the New York Times and Washington Post, the United States intelligence community also proved a valuable asset in this regard as the various agencies were able to accurately predict and then broadcast Russia’s intentions to carry out an invasion, taking away any element of surprise and stripping the Russian leader of his capacity to go to war on a false pretext.

The result has been a remarkable four months of diplomacy, deterrence, and information warfare, including a last-ditch effort to disrupt Mr. Putin’s strategy by plugging into the Russian military’s plans and then exposing them publicly. Although the tactics ultimately failed to prevent the incursion, it clearly demonstrated the capabilities of the United States and NATO to cooperate against a common foe and disseminate the intelligence needed to do so.

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A Changing Landscape for Europe and the World

While Russia’s short-term goal is to topple the Ukrainian government and replace it a Russian-controlled puppet regime, President Putin’s long-term ambitions may extend far beyond the former Soviet state’s borders. According to his recent speeches, it appears that Putin is nostalgic to return Russia to its bygone glory and the perceived power and strength of the Soviet Union.

In his view, the Cold War was an equilibrium between superpowers, with each nation a counterbalance to the other, and that stability no longer exists. It appears that Putin, in cooperation with China and other authoritarian regimes, wants to realign the world’s balance of power and establish new spheres of influence. Sadly, the Cold War ignited several “hot wars” throughout the world, most notably Korea and Vietnam, and the invasion of Ukraine may the first of those conflicts during this new upheaval.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a televised address to his nation during the early days of the war, said that Russia’s attack on Ukraine amounts to the “most serious damage to peace and stability” Europe has faced in decades. Macron also called the events of the past 24 hours “a turning point in the history of Europe and our country,” adding that “they will have lasting and deep consequences on our lives.”

Just as World War II permanently altered the political and cultural landscape of Europe and the world, we may now be entering a new era of global disruption. With the outbreak of the first conventional war between two sovereign nations in almost 80 years, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “We now have war in Europe on a scale and of a type we thought belonged to history."

How this invasion of Ukraine escalates beyond a humanitarian crisis and threat to world peace is yet to be seen, but the onset of crippling sanctions and buildup of NATO forces should momentarily deter Putin from further military action beyond Ukraine. However, as history has shown us, the pride and paranoia of one man can have a debilitating impact on the world as reason and logic are replaced by emotion and fervor and the consequences cannot be predicted.

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