Is Ukraine the Key to Russian Power?

Nakul Suresh, Contributor

Alarm bells went across the world when Russia declared war on Ukraine and proceeded to invade the country. The recent invasion has been the bloodiest conflict in continental Europe since World War 2. As a consequence, Russian occupation has the hurt the Ukrainian economy, endangered Ukrainian civilians and created a refugee crisis. However, the war in Ukraine has not necessarily been a fruitful endeavor for Russia either. So why did Vladimir Putin blindside the world by unexpectedly attacking Ukraine?

Inspired by ‘RealLifeLore’, a YouTube channel dedicated to analyzing geopolitics, there are four possible reasons that gave rise to the Russian invasion: geographic security, the economics of oil and gas, a climate crisis in Crimea and Russia’s own internal demographic crisis.

Russia and Ukraine have a shared history that goes back centuries; the two countries were most notably a part of the Soviet Union for the majority of the 20th century. In fact, the territory of the Soviet Union was significantly larger than that of modern-day Russia, covering the plains of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, communist puppet countries, a part of the Warsaw Pact, acted as a buffer space between the West and East. As a result, the old Soviet border had more natural barriers for self-defense against NATO.

These natural barriers no longer act as self-defense for Russia, as former Warsaw Pact countries and even former Soviet countries have become a part of NATO. This has led to Russia feeling increasingly threatened by an expanding NATO. On the other hand, Ukraine has not joined any military alliance. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO is detrimental for Russia, as that would result in a 2,300-kilometer flat terrain border with an adversarial alliance. A long and flat border ensures an easier potential attack, undermining Russian national security.

Ted Eytan

Besides geographic security, Russia has its eyes on Ukraine’s potential to capitalize on its own oil and natural gas resources. Modern Russia has financed itself significantly through its profits from oil and natural gas deposits. A large portion of these profits come from European countries. Since Ukraine does not have the infrastructure to capitalize on its own resources, the country allowed Western corporations like Shell and Exxon to drill in their territory. Therefore, Ukraine has the potential to be the second Petro state in Europe, impeding economic opportunity for Russia.

Taking advantage of political instability in Ukraine, Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, claiming Crimea was more ethnically Russian. In reality, invading Crimea led to Russia controlling an important port in the Black Sea and gaining access to a significant portion of Ukraine’s oil and natural gas resources in its maritime economic zone. There’s a similar motivation behind supporting the more recent independence movement in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, as this region contains shale gas deposits. The political instability drove away Western corporations and reduced the amount of resources Ukraine had access to, curbing its ability to economically compete with Russia.

While the annexation of Crimea is a geopolitical win for Russia, Ukraine still controls Crimea’s major water source. After the annexation, Ukraine cut access to this water source, drying up Crimea ever since. Climate change is likely exacerbating the situation as well, leading to an expensive endeavor to maintain natural integrity in Crimea. Consequently, a major motivation for Putin to invade Ukraine is to reopen the water supply to Crimea.

Finally, an internal demographic crisis in Russia likely justified the swift invasion in their eyes. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a shrinking population and a gender imbalance. The number of people dying has consistently exceeded the number of people being born; the number of able-bodied men of age who can fight has been steadily decreasing as well. That being the case, the longer Russia waits to invade Ukraine, the more difficult their ambition will be to achieve.

That being the case, the longer Russia waits to invade Ukraine, the more difficult their ambition will be to achieve

In order to pull out of Ukraine, Putin has three demands for the west. First, Ukraine must never be allowed to join NATO. Second, NATO must withdraw troops in Eastern Europe and move them back much further. Third, NATO must freeze its expansion. These demands will likely never be met by Western powers, leading to further geopolitical conflict. Despite the acts of Russia toward Ukraine being unethical and inhumane, will the West and Ukraine be able to compromise with Russia to avoid further conflict?