The world is fretting over Putin’s move on Ukraine. Why?

Ukraine has become the main flashpoint in Moscow’s relations with the West, with Russian troops massed near its border and Nato’s forces on standby in case Russia attacks its neighbour. Here are some of the reasons why Russian president Vladimir Putin is so preoccupied with Ukraine.

What explains Nato’s interest in the region?

Since the Cold War ended, Nato has expanded eastwards by taking in 14 new countries, including the states of the former Warsaw Pact and the three Baltic nations that were once in the Soviet Union. Russia saw this as a threatening encroachment towards its borders and continues to say it was a betrayal of Western promises at the start of the 1990s—something the US and its allies deny. Ukraine is not a Nato member but has a promise dating from 2008 that it will eventually get to join. Since toppling a pro-Russian president in 2014, it has become closer politically to the West.

What are Russia’s concerns?

Ukraine has staged joint military exercises with Nato and taken delivery of weapons including US Javelin anti-tank missiles. Kyiv and Washington see these as legitimate moves to bolster Ukraine’s defence after Russia seized the Crimea region in 2014 and backed separatists who are still fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine. Putin says Ukraine’s growing ties with the alliance could make it a launchpad for  Nato missiles targeted at Russia. He says Russia needs to lay down “red lines” to prevent that. Russia rejects suspicions it may be preparing an invasion of Ukraine, saying it is responding to threats.

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Post-soviet Nato expansion

What is EU’s economic reliance on Russia?

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The European Union (EU) depends on Russia for about one third of its natural gas—providing leverage for Putin in any dispute with the West. One of the main pipelines passes through Ukraine. Controlling the Ukrainian territory that it crosses would enhance Russia’s pipeline security and protect its ability to “weaponise” energy supplies.

Why was Ukraine’s loss painful?

With the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia lost control of 14 former republics it had previously dominated, but the loss of Ukraine was the most painful. The two had been linked since the 9th century when Kyiv became the capital of the ancient state of Rus. In a long essay in June 2021, Putin said Russians and Ukrainians were one people who shared a single “historic and spiritual space” and that the emergence of a “wall” between them in recent years was tragic. Kyiv rejected his argument as politically motivated.

Is Putin worried about personal legacy?

Putin has devoted his presidency to restoring Moscow’s influence throughout the post-Soviet space, defying the West and trying to reassert Russia as a global power. Keeping the world guessing about a possible invasion of Ukraine is consistent with those aims. After 22 years as Russia’s paramount leader, some analysts believe he may be pondering his own legacy and looking to complete unfinished business in Ukraine by blocking its westward shift and reclaiming it as part of a Russian sphere of influence.

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