How is Putin justifying Russia's invasion of Ukraine? - explainer

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, seemingly for no reason. A close look at Putin's speeches at its beginning shows the 'official' reasons why he embarked on such a dangerous experiment.

 Ukrainian tanks move into the city, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Mariupol, February 24, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)
Ukrainian tanks move into the city, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Mariupol, February 24, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)

On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was launching a “special military operation” in Ukraine after building up his forces on the border for several months.

Although the Kremlin flatly denied that it was intending to invade Ukraine, it ended up doing so on the very day that US intelligence predicted it would.

Across the spectrum, many did not believe Russia would actually invade Ukraine and interpreted the buildup of forces as merely a power play. It seemed at the time that Putin only had everything to lose and nothing to gain from an invasion. Invasions are costly, financially and in casualties, and there was the risk of international push-back.

What did Putin stand to gain by launching a major offensive?

A close look at two speeches Putin gave, on February 21 and 24, provides a somewhat coherent picture of his motives and goals. The first speech culminated in Putin recognizing two breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine as independent republics. The second was the launching of the “special operation.”

From the West’s point of view, Putin’s claims are, at best, far-fetched and many of them are simply false. Paying attention to his motives, however, provides insight into his worldview and may explain the extent that he will be willing to go in order to bring Ukraine to its knees.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS, VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS, VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)

His arguments can be classified into three main groups that build on each other: The Donbass argument, the legal argument and the “de-Nazification” argument.

The Donbas argument

The central pretext for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the ongoing battle in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region.

The “Euromaidan” protests in Kyiv broke out in the winter of 2013-2014, sparked by the Ukrainian government’s sudden decision not to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement. The protests led to the “Revolution of Dignity” and to the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.

As an immediate result, Putin-led Russia took control of the Crimean Peninsula and held a referendum in which he claimed that 97% voted in favor of separation from Ukraine. Russia, on March 17, 2014, officially recognized Crimean independence. On March 27, the UN General assembly voted overwhelmingly that the referendum was invalid (UN resolution 68/282).

Another result of the Revolution of Dignity was the “Russian Spring,” where anti-Maidan and pro-Russian groups in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of southeast Ukraine – known together as Donbas – launched a separatist insurgency, which Ukraine countered by with an “Anti-Terrorist Operation.” The hostilities developed into the “War in Donbas.”

Similar to Crimea, disputed referendums were held in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Both were announced as overwhelmingly pro-separation. Attempts at ending the conflict began with the Minsk Protocols from September 2014, which quickly collapsed, followed by the Minsk II agreements, which came into effect on February 15, 2015. They were not fully implemented and constantly violated.

How does Putin justify the invasion?

Putin in his two speeches laid out his view of Russia’s actions in Crimea and the war in Donbas.

Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk “freely” made their choice to be part of Russia, he claimed, and Ukraine attempted to undermine their choice by activating “terrorist” cells and operating a terrorist underground – with the international community’s support.

Ukraine was unwilling to comply with the Minsk agreements and organized a “Blitzkrieg” into the region. The residents of Donbas were suffering from indiscriminate killing, Putin said, with their only sin being that they opposed the 2014 “coup” and shift away from Russia. Therefore, Putin saw “no choice” and recognized the independence of the two regions at the end of his February 21 speech. The Russian parliament ratified the decision a day later.

Donbas is proof that Russia is “under attack” by the West, he claims, and serves as immediate justification to defend itself by launching the operation.

The legal argument

Putin’s legal argument is based on Chapter VII, Article 51 of the UN Charter, which states: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

Putin also referenced the principle of equal and indivisible security, as stipulated in the 1999 Charter for European Security of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which was adopted in Istanbul, in addition to the 2010 OSCE Astana Declaration.

The principle is simple: A state cannot strengthen its own security at the expense of the security of other states. In Putin’s eyes, this is exactly what Ukraine is doing.

However, in his view, the perceived threat is not just confined to southeast Ukraine but is essentially a threat by the West on all of Russia.

Although he did not list a single incident as constituting an “attack” on Russia, he described what he perceived as a growing threat that began 30 years ago with the fall of the Soviet Union and has crossed a red line. The accumulation of these actions by the West warranted a preemptive attack.

The US-led West, armed by its superiority after the fall of the Iron Curtain, simply did not want a big and independent country like Russia around and was acting accordingly, he believes. NATO slowly expanded its sphere of influence after five waves of adding European countries, and its history has shown that it does not fear launching offensives into countries it deems as threatening, such as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and US actions in Syria, Libya and Iraq.

If it would add Ukraine to its sphere of influence, advanced missiles could be positioned near the Russian border and could reach Moscow in almost no time – in some cases within minutes. This is akin to a knife being held to Russia’s throat, Putin said.

The “special military operation” is, therefore, a preemptive act of self-defense, and it will have fulfilled its purpose if the following three goals are achieved:

  1. Prevents further NATO expansion.
  2. Leads to guarantees that NATO will refrain from deploying assault weapon systems on Russian borders.
  3. The rolling back of NATO’s military capability and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 1997, when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.

The “De-Nazification” argument

One of Putin’s strangest claims, which he stated repeatedly as being a direct goal of the invasion, is that he is doing the world a service by “de-Nazifying” Ukraine.

Russia is the country that invaded its neighbor and multiple attacks against civilians have been recorded. If anything, it is Russia’s actions that resemble those of Nazi Germany.

What then does Putin mean when he blames Ukraine of Nazism?

Putin lays out a version of Russian history that goes back to the very beginning of Soviet Russia.

He views Ukraine as being an “inalienable” part of Russia’s “history, culture and spiritual space.”

From “time immemorial,” Putin claimed, Ukrainians defined themselves as being part of the Russian nation or part of the same religious body – Orthodox Christianity. Modern Ukraine is merely a “superfluous” invention.

According to Putin, two conflicting approaches to Soviet sovereignty emerged at the onset of the USSR.

The Stalinist approach was that the republics of the union should be given broad powers only if they integrate into one great state, while the Leninist approach stipulated that the USSR should be a confederation and the republics should exist independently. Lenin’s approach eventually won out, and the results, both because of the flawed initial approach and failed policy, proved that it was a big mistake, as it led to the emergence of nationalism.

Nationalism meant that Ukraine came to believe that it had a right to secede from Russia. But for Putin, Ukrainian nationalism is illegitimate and is merely a new version of Nazism.

Like the Nazis in Germany, “radical” nationalists took control of Ukraine and worked to “distort” the memory of Russia and Russian mentality. Ukrainian Nationalists “embezzled” the legacy not only of Soviet Russia but also of the preceding Russian Empire. These nationalists will never accept the supposedly independent decisions in Donbass and Crimea to associate with Russia – and Ukraine is a hollow entity whose only goal is to not be Russian.

Ukrainians should know better, Putin argued, since the nationalists have made Ukraine a failed state. Everything about Ukraine is a failure: Its economic successes came from its parasitic attitude toward Russia and because Moscow paid off the debts of the entire USSR.

The Ukrainian government system is rigged to favor oligarchs, Putin says, and contrary to its claims, is completely corrupt. According to Putin, 15% of its workforce moved abroad because they could not find work, utilities are exceedingly expensive, and the state-run companies have run themselves into the ground.

This nationalist, neo-Nazi, failed regime would therefore benefit from a Russian takeover, and its soldiers would serve their country by laying down their own arms and welcoming Russia’s.

Hence, Putin said, “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”