As of the morning of Feb. 24, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has ceased to be an imminent threat and is now an ongoing reality. This frightening situation has been coming into fruition for several months now, as we’ve witnessed the conducting of large-scale military drills, the influx of Russian troops in Belarus and the evacuation of diplomats in Ukrainian embassies. The effective declaration of war on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation have brought forth hundreds of thousands of Russian troops within the borders of their neighboring country, alongside a legion of tanks, artillery and field hospitals. Furthermore, Russia has recognized the independence of the breakaway states inside of Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, and has already ordered Russian troops inside both.
But what exactly are the reasons for war, and how do they reflect the timing of this invasion? The answers are certainly not black and white. But if we turn back the pages of time and take a peek at the world’s energy needs, we may have been able to obtain some foresight behind the ulterior motives of this conflict — and its inevitability. The re-establishment of former Russian territory, limiting the increasing influence of NATO and capitalizing on natural gas deposits from the Crimean Peninsula are all major suggestions behind Russia’s ultimate decision of aggression over diplomacy.
Russia’s status as a significant global power has maintained consistency throughout history, despite the varying manifestations of its governmental body. This included the Tsardom of Russia in the 16th century, the Russian Empire in the 18th century, the Soviet Union in the 20th century and now the Russian Federation in the late 20th century, which arose from the ashes of the communist state. Through a geopolitical lens, the peak of Russia’s power was realized during the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union when their territory stretched from Eastern Siberia all the way to Western Europe. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, countries including Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine and Moldova were all part of the same Russian body.
With the Warsaw Pact additionally keeping more European countries within Russia’s scope, the central government of Moscow held an enormous buffer against any potential military incursion from the primary Cold War rivals from the west, in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But the end of the Cold War brought with it a massive restructuring of Russian territory, and it lost out on 15 newly independent republics that were previously part of Russia for centuries prior. From the Netherlands in the west to the Ural mountains in the east, all of the land in between is dominated completely by a geographic feature called the North European plain. Almost entirely flat, the plain is shaped like a funnel, with a very narrow width in northern Germany, but with a mouth that opens up increasingly wider as it approaches the Ural mountains. From a tactical standpoint, Moscow becomes increasingly difficult to defend the more that the eastward expansion of independent nations continues, and this fear of exposure has been realized significantly in recent times.
Perhaps the largest threat to Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and arguably the primary reason for the invasion of Ukraine, is the expanding influence of NATO. Despite American promises to cease this Western military alliance — which was initially created to counteract the influence from the Soviet Union — NATO’s power and geographic frontiers have done nothing but spread further and further eastward toward Russian territory for the last three decades. Within the last year, talks of Ukraine potentially joining this military alliance may just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Strikingly similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis, where Americans were faced with the deadly threat of a nuclear-armed Cuba less than 100 miles away from the mainland U.S, Russia is now staring down the barrel of Ukraine posing the same exact threat after decades of remaining a neutral country.
Peeling back the layers of the Russian economy, we can start to see that the assured control of Crimea and Ukraine, or at the very least the retention of Ukraine’s neutrality, is paramount for the economic prosperity of Russia as the world’s second largest oil exporter. The oil and gas sector in Russia make up 40% of Russia’s federal budget revenues, and the estimated value of its natural resources are as high as 60% of the Russian GDP. With almost half of those exports traveling through pipelines from Siberia to many European countries, it is clear how significantly they depend on Western oil consumption, and any disruption to this revenue stream could prove catastrophic. It turns out that Ukraine could very well prove to be this destructive roadblock. It wasn’t until early in 2012, back when Ukraine still had control over Crimea and an exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea, that 2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas deposits were discovered, largely concentrated around the Crimean peninsula. On top of this, shale gas deposits in both western and eastern Ukraine were ready to be harvested due to an advancement in drilling technology in the early 2010s. The threat of Ukraine being Europe’s second petrostate, behind Russia, poses a serious threat to Moscow and its heavy dependency in the export sector.
If we dig a little deeper into the historical context that led to the events of late February, we might come to realize just how unavoidable this conflict really was. From the get-go, Vladimir Putin’s demands, which remain consistent today, have widely been dismissed by Western powers. This has caused political turmoil to escalate until the point where war was deemed a justified response by the Russian Federation, given the multitude of problems that have been brewing over the last 30 years leading up to this point. Diminishing geopolitical control, the spreading of NATO influence and the inherent energy needs of Russia have mixed together in tandem to create the perfect storm. Now more than ever, we need to take in a cosmopolitan perspective in resolving these issues before we face the largest European conflict since the Second World War.