Vladimir Putin surprised the world when he ordered Russian troops to attack several areas in the Ukraine, which the United States and Western countries described as an invasion.
They said Russia wanted to replace Ukraine’s president with someone more friendly to Moscow, in short a puppet government. In fact, Putin has called on Ukraine’s military to depose its democratically elected leaders and move closer to Russia.
Russia is getting worried about the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the rival of the former Warsaw Pact led by the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during much of the Cold War after the end of the Second World War.
From an original dozen members, NATO has expanded to 30 states since 1991 when the USSR collapsed into several republics, including Ukraine.
Soviet satellite states, like Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – have joined NATO.
And NATO continues to expand, with the Ukraine and Georgia knocking on its door.
This has alarmed Putin because Russia’s archrival, the United States, could gain access to military bases in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, encircling and threatening his country.
Putin wanted guarantees from the US and NATO not to expand into Russia’s borders, preferring to have some buffer zones, which the Ukraine has provided for more than 30 years.
Ukraine is Russia’s doormat. It is at its front door, not in its backyard. NATO’s expansion into Kyiv is seen as a threat to Moscow. It wanted Ukraine as a buffer zone to the United States and NATO.
In a way, Putin was also accusing the US and NATO of reneging from a promise not to expand NATO when the old USSR broke up in 1991.
Putin was not only worried about Russia’s own security. He also harbored ambitions to expand Russia’s sphere of influence and slowly regain the USSR’s old glory.
Russia is the top exporter of crude oil and natural gas. It uses its oil-and-gas revenues to strengthen its military – developing, building and deploying hypersonic ballistic missiles and modernizing its conventional army.
Russia is Europe’s largest and most capable army. It also has the most number of nuclear weapons. Russia’s armed forces dwarf the Ukraine’s army which lost much of its capability after Moscow seized Crimea in 2014. Russia could take Ukraine in a matter of days, sending a strong message to the US and NATO.
But it may not stop there. Russia could move into other former satellite states which have joined NATO if the US and its allies fail to take strong action to stop the invasion in the Ukraine.
It can be emboldened to grab more territories in Eastern Europe until the US and NATO take a strong stand. The US and NATO countries are fast losing credibility in abandoning Ukraine to fight its own war against Russia.
After crossing into the Ukraine last week, Russia has discovered it can do whatever it wants with muted resistance from the US and its allies, including NATO.
Biden and his allies could only slap economic sanctions against Putin, his foreign minister, and Russian oligarchs.
But Russia may have long prepared for these economic sanctions. It could look for other markets, like China and other Asian states, to defeat the sanctions.
Europe will have to look for other sources of natural gas if it wants to punish Russia for Ukraine’s invasion. Russia is the world’s second largest supplier of natural gas and also one of the world’s major oil producers.
But can Europe really afford a disruption in its gas supplies?
Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine could also send an alarming message to the world’s democratic states. It could revive the Cold War as Russia expands its sphere of influence in former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia.
Last month, Russian troops intervened in civil unrest in Kazakhstan. Russia’s behavior makes many countries nervous, particularly its neighbors in Europe, in the Caucasus, and in Central Asia.
China is closely watching the situation in the Ukraine and expressed concern when Russian troops intervened in Kazakhstan. The two countries may be aligned with each other but they have their own national interests. China would not like a strong Russia.
Beyond Russia’s geopolitical ambitions and energy supply issue, Ukraine may have domestic political implications for Putin.
Putin has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president and prime minister, rising to power in 1999 after Boris Yeltsin resigned.
He is the second longest serving leader in Europe after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who rose to power in 1994.
Putin and Lukashenko are considered dictators, who do not tolerate dissent. They have stayed in power for the longest time.
Installing a puppet government in the Ukraine would expand authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe.
Many people in Ukraine speak Russian. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was born in a Russian-speaking part of the country. A comedian before he rose to power in 2019, the 44-year-old Zelenskyy represents the new leadership – an anti-establishment and anti-corruption leader.
Russia considers Ukraine as its sister country but the latter is moving swiftly to democracy and aligning itself with the European Union and NATO.
When Ukraine becomes fully integrated into the European Union and NATO, it could create a problem for Putin because the Russian people would start asking why they could not experience the same democratic space the Ukraine was enjoying.
Putin would have to fight for his own survival if the Ukraine became fully integrated with the European Union and NATO.
Ukraine’s invasion is not only Russia’s insecurity with NATO, it could also be Putin’s own insecurity as neighboring countries march to democratization.