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Why Putin invaded Ukraine? It is not about ethnicity

By Brenna McKee | November 3, 2017



The war in Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian military and paramilitary forces has been portrayed by the media as a conflict drawn down ethnic lines: the ethnic Russians seceding versus the ethnic Ukrainians saving the union. However popular the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has made this story, ethnic ties have served only as an excuse for the Russian government to use Ukraine and its civil strife as a buffer between Russia and the West. What appeared in the early days to be ethnic conflict was more accurately a proxy for a struggle between two political models.


The Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled his country and position in early 2014, after large scale revolts erupted in response to his decision to turn away from a trade deal with the European Union (largely at the behest of Vladimir Putin). In the ensuing chaos, Putin jumped at the chance to seize control of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and to incorporate it into the territory of Russia proper. Putin loudly proclaimed the reason for Russia’s annexation of Crimea was solely to protect the ethnic Russians in the region, whom, he claimed, faced grave danger when the anti-Russian protesters in Kiev took power.


What followed in the Donbas proved that all of this “ethnic-strife” rhetoric had been nothing but excuse-making: A few weeks after Russian fighters help bring Crimea into the Russian fold, fighting broke out, again largely spurred by national Russian fighters, in two provinces far removed from Crimea but very close to Russia. This time, there was no ethnic Russian majority for Putin to claim he was protecting. Rather, he now claimed the majority ethnic-Ukrainian regions Donetsk and Luhansk, which have historically associated with Soviet identity and the Russian language, were going to be victims of a war against Russian culture in Ukraine. Some have speculated that Putin’s moves in Crimea and the Donbas can be interpreted as the last dying gasp of the Russian government’s attempts to reestablish the great power of its predecessors: the USSR and tsarist, imperial Russia.


However, with these maneuvers, Putin was not aiming to annex parts (or all) of Ukraine into a nouveau soviet-federalist system but he was aiming to punish those revolutionary leaders who had turned their back on Yanukovych, a leader who depended heavily on President Putin and typically fell into line with Russia’s plans, in favor of association with the EU. Even more important was the removal of the threat of NATO moving further into Russia’s former sphere of influence and into a state with great historical and cultural significance to Russian nationals (whose opinions Putin caters to). Indeed, the slow and entrenched warfare which now exists in eastern Ukraine is more helpful than all out annexation of either region, because neither NATO nor the EU will consider potential members with ongoing civil conflict.



Brenna McKee is the current JIPS Editor In Chief.  She is studying International Politics with a focus on Latin America at GPS. She earned her undergraduate degree in International Relations and Latin American History from Rollins College, where she was a junior editor for the publication Agricultural History. Her Fulbright experience in Viet Nam also nurtured her interest in Southeast Asian affairs. She aims to apply the skills she is learning at GPS to support developing countries in the future. When she is not busy, she enjoys reading and playing soccer.