Jul 23, 2022
7 mins read
Territory of Ukraine in color of their flag Elionas from Pixabay
On the surface there are many similarities between Russia and Ukraine that can justify why the former has in the past tried to keep the latter in its political orbit. Both share Russian as a language, media popular in Russia has also been popular in Ukraine, there many families who live and work across both countries, and Russia itself had invested billions of dollars into Ukraine before the invasion. However, this barely scratches the surface as to the many reasons why President Putin of Russia pursued an invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. In the paragraphs to follow you will get a sense for the many reasons that Russia would want to annex their neighbor that, when examined altogether, perhaps indicate that an invasion was a question of “when” and not “if” given the increasingly tightening of ties between Ukraine and the West.
The first of these reasons is the oldest. The capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, was the birthplace of the first Russian state nearly 12 centuries ago. Called Kievan Rus, the state itself gave rise not only to the latter’s name of Russia but also to Slavism and Orthodox Christianity during the time of the Byzantine Empire, which are themselves core components of the modern Russian identity. Even though the Russian capital would eventually move to Saint Petersburg, then later to Moscow, the city of Kyiv, and the Ukrainian state in which it sits, is still perceived by Russians as being of significant cultural importance. President Putin himself in the past called Ukraine “Little Russia”. Indeed, in 2009, the Russian president said that no one should be allowed to interfere in the relations between the two states. Thus when Ukraine began to increasingly turn towards the West in its politics, and even experienced the Orange Revolution in 2004, Russia began to feel threatened at their loss of influence and that pro-democracy sentiment might spread into parts of the Russian Federation itself.
To a degree this worry is justified, again due to the presence of a large Russian population in the eastern portion of Ukraine close to the Russian border. Beyond the fact that the Russian language and culture was popular throughout Ukraine, if this Russian portion of the population became more democratically inclined and in favor a greater anti-corruption efforts by the state, and saw measurable benefits from pursuing these stances, the example of Ukraine as well as familial and economic ties across the border could spread such sentiments and put the power and fortunes of President Putin and his supporters at risk.
In addition to these considerations is the geopolitical value of Ukraine itself. Following the end of the Cold War, which saw the Soviet Union dissolve cutting off Russia’s control of the Baltic states and reduced its influence in the Balkans, any influence to stave off further encroachment by the West to Russia’s borders was seen as important. Whenever Putin’s Russia has felt threatened, in fact, he has countered with aggressive policymaking, and given the geography that sees Ukraine nestled right between NATO and EU states with the Russian border, its Slavic neighbor could not help but acquire core importance to the security of the Russian state. After all, it has faced several significant invasions from Europe in recent centuries.
Perhaps the most explicit source of military value is Crimea, which might explain when it was seized so quickly several years ago. As a peninsula in the Black Sea, Crimea gives Russia access to its naval base in Sevastopol, which was home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet even before the conflict. As a warm water port possessing a natural harbor and extensive infrastructure built up over time, it is one of the best naval bases in the entirety of the Black Sea and its possession allows Russia to more easily project its power in the region and beyond into the Mediterranean itself, and further into the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans if it so chooses. Lastly, in the event of threats from neighboring states, control over Crimea allows Russia to better secure its southern flank.
Crimea also possesses offensive utility for Russia as well, as we have seen in the course of the invasion of Ukraine. Control over the peninsula allowed Russia to invade Ukraine from three directions, which largely rendered the eastern half of Ukraine much harder to defend in the earliest stages of the war. Further, forces based out of Crimea could flank counteroffensives by Ukraine if they move too far east too quickly, as well as impose a naval blockade on the southern ports of Ukraine itself. Lastly, though it largely hasn’t been proven effective in the course of the war, Russia could project airpower into Ukraine from Crimea as well.
But perhaps the most important reasons are tied to the greed and corruption of the Russian state and its supporting oligarchs. The economy and resources of Ukraine itself.
In recent years, many foreign investors have pursued economic opportunities in the Ukrainian economy, and by 2020 there was almost $50 billion in accumulated foreign direct investment in Ukraine. Over the past thirty years, hundreds of foreign companies have expanded operations to Ukraine, with some of the largest investors being the German automotive companies, which has turned Ukraine’s production facilities into a core part of the EU car supply chain (cite TRT world). Even major technology companies are getting on board, with more than 100,000 people employed in Kyiv and Lviv by some of the largest in the world, like Facebook (now Meta). The Ukrainian consumer market itself is also very large, and composed of a highly educated and cost-competitive workforce according to the 2021 Investment Climate Statement from the US Department of State.
All that aside, it is perhaps the list of many resources that best represents the Russian desire to possess Ukraine, which it has already been acting to steal for itself whether it be simple crops or valuable historical artifacts and gold. According to a compilation of Ukrainian economic rankings, Ukraine possesses in terms of mining resources:
The 1st most proven recoverable reserves of uranium ores in Europe
The 10th highest amount of titanium ore reserves in the world.
The 2nd most explored reserves of manganese ores in the world.
The 2nd most iron ore reserves in the world.
The 2nd most mercury ore reserves in Europe.
The 13th most shale oil reserves in the world.
The 8th most coal reserves in the world.
In addition, it possesses significant agricultural resources as well:
The most arable land area in Europe.
The 1st most exports of sunflowers and sunflower oil in the world.
The 3rd most amount of black soil in the world.
The 3rd largest producer of potatoes in the world.
The 4th largest producer of barley and barley exports in the world.
The 4th largest producer of rye in the world.
The 5th largest producer and the 4th largest exporter of corn in the world.
The 5th largest producer of honey in the world.
The 5th largest producer of wheat exports in the world.
Lastly, it also has significant industrial might:
The 7th largest installed capacity of nuclear power plants in the world.
The 3rd largest gas production and 4th largest gas market in Europe.
The 3rd largest exporter of iron in the world.
The 13th largest railway network in the world.
The 3rd largest exporter of clay in the world.
The 5th largest exporter of titanium in the world.
The 9th largest exporter of 'ores, slag, and ash' in the world.
The 12th largest steel producer in the world.
As it can readily be seen, there are a lot of individual reasons why Russia had a stake in the future of Ukraine prior to its invasion. Shared history, connections between culture and their populations, geo-strategic and military importance, and more than a few economic incentives as well. By themselves, these components have motivated Russia to pursue close ties and political influence within Ukraine since the end of the Soviet Union. When Ukraine began to move towards the West increasingly after the events of 2014, potentially putting Russian interests in greater jeopardy, the combination of these many interests is likely at the core of why President Putin declared the "special military operation" that has since been recognized by the rest of the world as a full-blown invasion. Time will tell how this war ends, but so long as these incentives exist, and Russia is able to guide the conflict in a direction that meets its goals, it is likely the war will continue to drag on to the detriment of both states and the rest of the world.