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Why Is Russia in Ukraine?

A 25-year Army combat veteran who studied Economics at the Eisenhower School and Strategy at the Army School of Advanced Military Studies.

Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory” states that the power that controls Central Asia (where Russia sits)—the great pivot area—could and would eventually emerge as the most powerful state in international politics (Mackinder, Geographic Pivot of History 1904). This is a theory that is strongly embraced by the Neo-realists in Russia.

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.      — Mackinder, Geographic Pivot of History 1904.

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world. — Mackinder, Geographic Pivot of History 1904.

Russia is, and historically has been, the regional hegemon of the “Heartland.” Yet, that power and influence has been greatly reduced by the United States (U.S) and some of its NATO allies. This is a fact that is not lost with the Russian oligarchy and government leaders who badly want to regain the respect and power they enjoyed while in the international center stage during the Soviet Union era.

I present the reader with this theory to explain the importance Russians give their geographic location, their Motherland. And although they stare at and need the West, their identity is Eastern, Asian, and Orthodox. These distinctions delineate them from Western Europe but strongly align them culturally with several eastern European nations such as Belarus, Georgia, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states. And due to such cultural alignment, Russia deploys political, military, informational and economic tools to advance its interests in the area (Rutland. Peter. “Paradigms for Russian Policy in the Caspian Region” in Energy and Conflict in Central Asia and the Caucasus, 2000. p 163).

The West interprets the deployment of such tools as coercion with neoimperialist intentions, while Russia clearly wants to advance its interests in opposition to U.S. and NATO efforts to penetrate their defensive periphery. This brings us to where the world is now with Russia and Ukraine. Why is Russia carrying out an invasion of Ukraine?

Russian actions against Ukraine have no legal standing in international law or in the law of war. It’s flat out wrong. Nevertheless, a Russian invasion of Ukraine is taking place and its crucial to attempt to understand how this action is justified in the mind of Russian leadership…especially President Putin. To that end, I would like to present the reader with four Russian casus belli.

First, many Russians see Ukraine as a historical part of Russia. Second, for centuries, the most loved and respected leaders of Russia gained fame and established their legacies through conquest and expansion. Third, Russia has a long history of being invaded and occupied by foreign powers. This is a nightmare that is seared into their minds, and they are determined to never let it happen again by ensuring buffer states exist to create depth against foreign threats. Finally, Russia wants to teach Ukraine a lesson that will resound not only in Ukraine but to any other neighboring state that would ever consider leaving its orbit of influence and threatening Russia’s safety by allowing perceived enemies (in this case NATO) to encroach on its borders. So, let’s start by looking at the historical tie between Ukraine and Russia.

Map of the Byzantine Empire and Kievan Rus’ (underlying map © Google)

Map of the Byzantine Empire and Kievan Rus’ (underlying map © Google)

The historical ties originate with the Kievan or Kyivan Rus. This was a federation of Slavic, Baltic and Finnic peoples in Northeast Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century, led by the Rurik dynasty founded by the Varangian prince, Rurik. Rurik was a Northern prince whose family and closest allies would rule the area for centuries. The modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus' ancestry from where Belarus and Russia take their names. The Rurik dynasty would continue to rule parts of Rus until the 16th century with the Tsardom of Russia (Ukraine – History, section "Kyivan (Kievan) Rus"". Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020-03-05.). This historical narrative presently serves as one of the Russian casus belli to keep two regions “united” culturally and historically.

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Prince Rurik, Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020-03-05

Prince Rurik, Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020-03-05

Peter the Great gained his fame by Westernizing a backward Russia, defeating the Swedes at the Battle of Poltova and securing the claim to the Ukraine territory. Here is arguably the most famous leader of Russian history cutting his teeth in victorious war and conquest. He along with Catherine the Great who greatly expanded Russia’s borders, absorbing the Crimea, partitioning Poland, and annexing territories along the Black Sea (The 10 Most Important Russian Czars and Empresses (thoughtco.com). Please note what follows each of their names…” the Great.” President Putin is no different than any other Russian leader. He wants to grow his esteem and legacy the same way Peter and Catherine did, through conquest and expansion.

For centuries, imperial expansion was Russia’s way of defending itself against invasion. This is not to say that the Russian appetite for imperial conquest was unique in the 19th century. On the contrary, it was in line with the imperialist trends of the era, as well as the dominant practices of Realpolitik in Prussia, France, England, and elsewhere (Russian Foreign Policy in Historical and Current Context: A Reassessment/rand.org). Russians, past and present, have long believed that if Russia did not enlarge its empire other states would do so at its expense. Therefore, putting its security at risk. But it’s important to note that unlike the empires of other European states, Russia’s expansion was continental. It expanded by incorporating neighboring territories, making present policy a continuation of past policy. Russia views its greatest threats as those on their periphery, neighboring states that must remain friendly to Russian interests and serve as a buffer against potential enemies from western Europe or Southeast Asia. It’s an attitude largely defensive where buffer states provide depth and time in case of an attack.

Finally, an extension to the narrative above, Russia wants to teach Ukraine a lesson that will resound not only in Ukraine but to any other neighboring state that would ever consider leaving its orbit of influence and threatening Russia’s safety.

The Two-Headed Eagle (Kievan Rus) Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Two-Headed Eagle (Kievan Rus) Encyclopedia Britannica.

Back in 2008, recent history by the way, Dmitri Medvedev, the then President of Russia, defined Russia’s interests in the neighborhood as “privileged” (https:// www.rand.org/content/ dam / rand/ pubs/perspectives/PE100/PE144/ RAND_PE144). In other words, we, the Russians, can act as we see fit to meet our policy objectives whether it be through financial, political, or military means. You may remember that the speech came on the heels of a weeklong war with Georgia over two pro-Russian regions that had been supported by Moscow since the 1990s. The result was the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent regions by Russia, a loss to Georgia still.

Georgia republic map - Wikipedia

Georgia republic map - Wikipedia

But now, Russia feels that Ukraine has gone too far by courting NATO and must be taught a stronger lesson. It looks as if Russia will not only recognize the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions but will also force a harsh peace on Ukraine by occupying the capital Kyiv and force a change in government that will stop looking West and ally itself again with Russia.

The map provided by Getty shows the areas of dispute in Ukraine. Moscow has recognized the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk people's republics.

The map provided by Getty shows the areas of dispute in Ukraine. Moscow has recognized the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk people's republics.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Fernando Guadalupe Jr

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