Political power adjustments in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union rank among the deepest causes of the war. But balance of power alone does not explain the crisis and war.
As recently as mid-February the media was asking whether there would be war in Ukraine. The question was a little late. The fact is that war has been going on in the country for eight years.
Admittedly, the war has been kept on the back burner, but prior to 2021 the war had cost well over 13 000 people their lives and caused more than 1.5 million people to flee their homes.
On 22 February, Russia crossed the border into Ukraine with massive military forces in the south, the east and the north. The long hybrid war in eastern Ukraine suddenly became a conventional war of aggression throughout the country. Few had expected such a massive attack. This essay will discuss some of the main causes of the war.
International balance of power
The deepest causes lie in the political power adjustments in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
From a unipolar to a bipolar world
One such adjustment took place when Russia was down for the count. The United States emerged as the victor of the Cold War and announced a new security policy doctrine.
That doctrine involved transforming the old communist states in the East into liberal democracies. This would create a stable Europe, because democracies do not fight against each other.
Countries in Eastern Europe took advantage of Russia’s weakness and took the Americans at their word. They introduced democratic reforms and lined up to become members of the EU and NATO – while Russia sank into chaos.
Russia was too weak to prevent this flight from the old Soviet sphere of influence into Western organizations. But when Putin came to power and rebuilt Russia’s economy and military strength, Russia changed its tune.
With a re-established military power behind it, Russia was able to stem Western interference in Eastern Europe. International observers began to talk about the world becoming bipolar again, and that a new Cold War was brewing in Europe.
Ukraine right in the middle
Ukraine was positioned right in the middle of the tension caused by this new bipolarity. The country’s geographical location meant that Ukraine became the subject of a major political tug-of-war between East and West.
To assess this tug-of-war, we need to change our focus. We have to shift our analytical gaze from the international balance of power and peer into Ukraine’s domestic political processes – for example to Ukraine’s presidential election, which was impacted by this major political tug-of-war.
Pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych won Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election. When his opponent, the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, suggested that the election was corrupt, his opponents tried to kill him. Yushchenko was poisoned and hovered between life and death.
Election fraud and assassination attempts triggered large demonstrations in Kyiv in 2004-05 – the so-called Orange Revolution– and an election win for Yushchenko. In the years that followed, he made several contacts with the Western powers and the EU.
Ten years later, another demonstration broke out, this time as a result of pro-Russian Yanukovych dismantling Yushchenko’s work. He terminated Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU, accepted loans from Russia, and entered into closer ties with Russian organizations. This gave rise to such violent protests – including on Majdan (Independence) Square in Kyiv – that Yanukovych determined it best to flee to Russia.
Putin immediately understood that Yanukovych would be replaced by a new, pro-Western president and that Ukraine would slip under even stronger Western influence. He recognized that if Russia was to retain its naval base in Crimea, he would have to take the Crimean peninsula by force.
In February 2014, Putin not only invaded Crimea, but he also increased his support for an insurgency in the Russian-speaking provinces of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Breakout groups in Luhansk and Donetsk declared the two provinces independent.
In August 2014, overzealous Russian-backed rebels shot down a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane with a Russian rocket. The loss of 283 lives created an international scandal. This act made it clear for anyone who wanted to see that Russia was supplying the rebels in Donbas with powerful weapons.
The war in Ukraine was underway.
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Causes of the war
Wars can usually be traced back to changes in the balance between Great Powers. But changes in the balance of power alone cannot explain crisis and war. They do not in themselves lead to crises and political calamities, unless people perceive the changing balance, consider it a problem and decide to do something about it.
We can say that the international balance of power is a predisposing cause of crisis and war – perhaps even that it is a necessary cause – but it is not a sufficient explanatory factor. We also need to take human reactions into account.
The significance of a changing balance of power becomes clearer if we compare the lead-up to the war in Ukraine with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. At that time, the Soviet Union changed the balance of power by placing nuclear missiles on Cuba. This provoked President Kennedy, who responded with military threats. In Ukraine, it was Putin’s perception of Western expansion that provoked Russia, and Putin who responded with military threats.
The external conditions are comparable in the two crises, but the outcome is different: the Cuban missile crisis was resolved diplomatically and did not lead to war. Kennedy’s military threats led to negotiations and political compromise. The Soviet Union removed its nuclear weapons from Cuba, in exchange for the United States promising to remove similar weapons from Turkey and to leave the Castro regime alone.
During the Ukraine crisis, several Western leaders travelled to Moscow to negotiate. But none of them led to compromise. From this perspective, it is easy to present the war in Ukraine as a fatal misjudgement by the West of Russia’s security needs and Putin’s demands.
From the way Putin received his guests – by placing them at a distance from him, on the opposite end of an insanely long marble table – it is reasonable to believe that he was not particularly interested in accommodating the West.
Interpretations that place too much emphasis on the balance of power run the risk of miscalculating the situation. Admittedly, balance of power is an overarching or predisposing cause of crisis and war. But the government’s assessments are what trigger the crisis, and it is the head of state who declares war. These are domestic, not international, political factors.
In order to gain a fuller picture of Russia’s war against Ukraine, we need to set aside the balance of power for a moment and turn our attention to Russia’s domestic political institutions.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is the decisive event here too. New political institutions emerged in Russia in the years following this collapse. Vladimir Putin was deeply affected by the humiliating years that followed – which he has described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 2oth century”.
Russia’s autocratic institutions
We should recall that the Soviet Union was a federation of 15 states, and that they all became independent when this federation collapsed in December 1991.
Three of these states – Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – took the initiative to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an international organization that quickly gained another six states as members. However, CIS did not bring all the former communist states along. They could not prevent the Eastern European satellites of the Soviet empire from escaping the CIS sphere of influence and seeking refuge in Western organizations such as the EU and NATO.
In Russia, which was the dominant CIS state, Boris Yeltsin sought to replace the old communist command economy with a new liberal market economy. Yeltsin’s regime sold the vast state-owned properties to private buyers. The privatization was a disaster for the nation. Russia’s riches became concentrated in the hands of a few increasingly powerful oligarchs. The economy collapsed. People starved. Russian cities became battlefields, where mafia gangs fought for power and influence.
Then Putin came to power. As the head of state, he used the police and judiciary to remove mafia bosses and tame the oligarchs. Or rather, he removed a good number of them – the ones who disagreed with him. But he rewarded others and included them in his political circle. With the help of state law enforcement and obedient oligarchs, Putin rebuilt Russia.
During the rebuilding, he gathered power and authority into his own hands.
Domestically, Putin became the primary and most powerful of all the oligarchs.
Interpreting Putin’s policies
In his foreign policy, Putin put his foot down against Western interference in Russia’s neighbourhood. At the Munich security conference in 2007, he made it clear that the expansion of Western influence to the east was completely unacceptable. The following year, as Georgia prepared to join NATO, Putin responded by invading the country. When an anti-Russian uprising erupted in Kyiv in 2014, Putin responded by invading the Crimean Peninsula to retain Russia’s Black Sea fleet base. Putin did not hesitate to use military force when he deemed it necessary.
In this sense, the invasion of Ukraine fits a familiar pattern. And the war in Ukraine appears as a war foretold.
Some voices explained this pattern by saying that Putin is an aggressive anti-Western autocrat. They argued that when Putin deployed close to 200 000 Russian troops along the northern and eastern borders of Ukraine during February, it signalled an impending invasion. This was the attitude of Western intelligence, including the Norwegian Intelligence Service, which in its annual report for 2022 warned of a “real risk that Russia would invade Ukraine again.”
Others explained the pattern of Russian use of force as the country’s reaction to Western expansion. They viewed the US’s consistent rejection of Putin’s warnings and to the West’s unwillingness to enter into serious talks with Putin as causes leading to the current situation. This was how the Norwegian left-wing daily newspaper, Klassekampen, interpreted the developments.
Conservative Americans concurred with this point of view, as did neo-realists like John Mearsheimer. In a speech to the Norwegian Atlantic Committee a few weeks before the Russian invasion, he blamed the United States for the Ukraine crisis.
Mearsheimer explained that the Clinton administration introduced the strategy of “engagement and expansion” when the United States was the world’s dominant power. It was never adjusted, even when Russia re-emerged as a superpower. The neo-realist argument is simple and seductively beautiful: an American doctrine that was adapted to a unipolar world remained the prevailing policy even when the world became bipolar again.
It follows from this reasoning that if the United States and the West had perceived Putin correctly, been lenient and promised that Ukraine would never join NATO, the war could have been avoided.
But is that the case?
Heads of state and domestic political games
Neo-realists fix their analytical gaze on states and assume that these states are rational actors – that when a state faces a major political challenge, it coolly weighs possible costs against possible gains. If the gains of war are perceived as greater than the costs, a nation goes to war; but if the costs are greater than the gains, then it will wait or seek to negotiate.
Neo-realists regarded Russia as a rational player, calculating the cost of invading Ukraine as sky high and the gain as uncertain. The conclusion was that Russia would wait to invade.
The problem with this approach is that it is not political analysis; the reasoning springs from a simple economic free-market model. It is mechanical and pays attention to neither history nor culture. Where economists see rational companies competing for profit, neo-realists see Great Powers competing for power and influence.
The neo-realists look at this competition, so to speak, from the outside. They don’t pay enough attention to political factors within the states and how leaders like Putin actually think.
Now that Putin’s invasion has become fact, a neo-realist would assert that Putin regarded the flight of Eastern European states to the West as Russia’s loss of its sphere of influence, and that he considers this loss so important that he is willing to bear the costs of war in order to restore a sphere of influence and provide Russia with a deep defence.
But Ukraine is big. The country is home to almost 50 million inhabitants, which is one-third of Russia’s population. The cost to Russia will be astronomical. First comes the cost of the invasion itself. Then comes the cost of occupying and pacifying a recalcitrant nation. And all this will be paid for while the West tries to destroy Russia’s economy with economic sanctions.
Based on a rational-actor analysis, it was initially reasonable to believe that the costs of the war would far exceed any gains that Putin could amass in the form of increased security. Most neo-realists thus drew the reassuring conclusion that rumours of a Russian invasion were significantly exaggerated.
The Cuban missile crisis can shed some light on this situation once more. Studies of this crisis remind us that while the balance of power is the major strategic framework that state leaders must adhere to, the way leaders think is not always shaped by cool calculation. Their reasoning is based on a number of other factors as well, including a leader’s personal psychology, the leadership’s collective conceptions, the culture of the nation and the domestic political game, to name a few.
From hard power to soft explanations
Heads of state are shaped by many factors. And the worldview they have when they rise to power will forge the policy they pursue. Because their everyday lives are so hectic, leaders rarely have time to learn anything new after coming into power. They seldom have enough peace to thoughtfully consider options and gain a systematic overview of events.
When the Soviet Union unexpectedly collapsed, American leaders latched onto a Cold War idea that a world without communism would be in a world without conflict, believing that a world consisting exclusively of democracies would be a world at peace. As was stated in Clinton’s security strategy of engagement and enlargement, democracies do not fight against each other. Exporting democratic governance was from this point of view practical peace work.
Clinton’s liberal peace thesis met with opposition among conservative scholars and was criticized in light of experiences from Afghanistan and Iraq. Such is the political decision-making process in democracies.
In the United States and other Western democracies, heads of state must defend their political ideas. They face opposition and criticism in every step of the processes that lead to important political decisions. In authoritarian states, the political process is different.
The difference is well illustrated by comparing images from the White House during the Cuban missile crisis with images from the Kremlin during the Ukraine crisis.
In October 1962, President Kennedy gathered members of the United States National Security Council to discuss what they should do about the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy sat in their midst around a large oval table. The council members discussed options. And the discussions could get quite heated.
In February 2022, Putin gathered members of Russia’s National Security Council in a large hall. He sat down at a large desk at one end. He lectured. The members of the Security Council sat on slender chairs at a good distance. They listened. The situation gave the impression of an autocratic system of government, where a head of state is surrounded with obedient servants who don’t contradict the boss.
There is no guarantee that democratic states will avoid ideological blinders or groupthink. However, in autocratic states, the chance of groupthink is so much greater — as are the foolish decisions that stem from them.
In a democratic system, a head of state who cultivates irrational ideas will be criticized or corrected by a circle of close advisers, and will then be ridiculed by the media. In an autocratic state, the members of the cabinet will be loath to criticize their leader; rather, they may exercise self-criticism. And journalists will ridicule their leader at the risk of imprisonment and even death. Over time, a powerful dictator effectively shapes the members of his cabinet in his image and socializes them into a groupthink bubble. And the media feeds the arguments to the nation.
Based on this approach, it can be argued that some of the causes of the Ukraine War lie in Russia’s institutions and in the worldview of the Putin regime. In this case, the rational-actor model of the neo-realists is of limited value. An explanation of the outbreak of war would have greater force if it took into account Russia’s political structure, the regime’s decision-making processes and, not least, the worldview of Vladimir Putin and members of his close circle. A good explanation must also refer to history. Because all these factors are shaped by past events and evolution through time.
Once again, we need to return to the collapse of the Soviet Union – as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, as Putin put it. We can form theories with sociological and psychological analyses – even if the latter easily leads to the slippery, thin ice of speculation. But there are those who claim that Putin was shaped by his communist upbringing, his education as a counter-intelligence officer and by his past as a KGB agent in East Germany during the Cold War. All of this has contributed to his tendency to think in conspiratorial terms.
Putin considers the USA to be Russia’s most significant opponent – a reasonable assumption, since the United States is, after all, NATO’s main contributor and real leader. He also pretends to see the United States as the West’s leading capitalist state – which in itself is not unreasonable. We know from speeches he has made that he also regards the United States as an expansionist nation – a view that aligns with old Leninist theory that capitalist states are expansionist and imperialist.
Finally, it seems that Putin not only attributes expansionist motives to the Americans, but that he also exaggerates their influence. For example, he seems to believe that the United States was behind the so-called colour revolutions – the regime changes in Georgia (Rose Revolution in 2003), Ukraine (Orange Revolution in 2004-05) and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip Revolution in 2005).
It is tempting to conclude that the old adage, “whomever God gives an office, he also gives knowledge and understanding”, is simply not true. In fact, whatever sense state leaders have when they come to power, in terms of their ability to think deeply and formulate a basic idea of the world, is what they will work from as long as they are in power.
If leaders lack this kind of knowledge and understanding, their decisions can become unpredictable. In a democracy, leaders’ world views are discussed publicly. Their existing knowledge is acknowledged and supplemented by experienced advisors. Strange ideas, nonsense and misunderstandings are criticized and corrected. This is not necessarily the case in an authoritarian system of government.
Ignorant leaders are usually weeded out at the next election in democracies. In authoritarian systems, they can survive for a long time. And the longer they sit in power, the more obsolete their basic understanding of the world becomes. Putin has been in power for 22 years, much longer than any Western leader. Has he spun the members of his regime into a groupthink bubble? Do Putin’s cabinet members contradict the conspiracies he has developed, or are they accepted by them?
What happens now?
The international balance of power is the most fundamental explanation for crisis and war. That balance is now rapidly changing as a consequence of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. And changes in the balance of power are a source of conflict and strife. The changes we now see in Europe are no exception. However, such changes only identify a preconditioning or predisposing cause. The balance of power alone does not identify the formative or triggering causes. However, it is the basic factor in any assessment of international relations. If we are to make any meaningful comment on the situation, it is necessary to first assess the balance of power before we move on to other levels of analysis.
Such an assessment shows that Russia is the superior party in the military balance. The power ratio between Russia and Ukraine is, very roughly, 4: 1 or 3: 1 – in conventional capabilities, that is; because it is important to add that Russia also has both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. If Putin starts rattling them, the game will change. If Russia engages in nuclear blackmail, he will have a significant diplomatic advantage that could force the Ukrainians to the negotiating table.
Based on the balance-of-power assessment alone, the odds strongly suggest that Russia will win a military victory. A power ratio of 3: 1, however, would be tight for an attacker. Ukraine is a big country. The invasion of Ukraine will be enormously more costly than Russia’s invasions of the small, Russian-speaking areas of northern Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014). It appears that Putin has made some monumental miscalculations.
First, he has overestimated the power of Russia and underestimated that of Ukraine. He may have miscalculated the balance of capabilities between the two nations. And he must certainly have underestimated the nationalism, discipline and resolve of the Ukrainian nation. It is hard to know the reasons for this miscalculation.
However, we may find a clue in Putin’s portrayal of the Ukrainians. He portrays them as Russians – as dissatisfied and frustrated little brothers who live under the thumb of a drug-addled Nazi regime. Is this empty propaganda? Or does it reflect Putin’s innermost perception? And has his regime of yes-men bought into this perception? In other words, does Putin’s regime believe its own propaganda?
We can only speculate about the causes of these miscalculations of Ukrainian patriotism and the discipline and resolve of its government. The consequences of these miscalculations are, however, plain to see: what Putin expected to be a massive and quick conquest of Ukraine’s major cities, has turned into a costly slog. And that has, in turn, produced the opposite effect of what Putin intended. He wanted to demonstrate strength and resolve. He wanted to restore Russian prestige, and re-unify the core nations – Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – of the Russian empire. Instead, he has undermined Russia’s prestige by revealing the astonishing weakness of the Russian army. The inefficiency of the invasion has surprised many military observers in the West. This change in perception has alone altered the balance of power in Europe.
Second, Putin underestimated the Western responses. As long as he has been in power, Putin has sought to create dissent and disagreement in the West, and thus weaken the Atlantic alliance. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has undone all his efforts. It has caused Western states to circle their wagons, coordinate their efforts, and use all available measures short of war to weaken Russia’s capabilities. At the same time, the Western states are strengthening their own.
Putin’s greatest miscalculation concerns Germany. The country has over the last quarter of a century made itself increasingly dependent on Russian supplies of oil and gas. With Angela Merkel’s conservative coalition out of power, Putin must have thought that the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholtz, is a novice leader of an unstable traffic-light coalition whose members – Scholtz’ own SPD, the Free Democrats (FDP) and “the greens” – would pull in different directions and produce dissent and turbulence in the country. Instead, the Scholtz-government has quickly transferred weapons to Ukraine, canceled the $ 10 billion Nord-Stream 2 gas-pipeline deal with Russia, and proposed to double its military budget – which means that the budget will surpass € 100 billion. This increase is by itself larger than the entire military budget of Russia – which will now have to be financed by an economy that is strained by Western sanctions. These factors are rapidly altering the balance of military capabilities in Europe. Observers in Russia will perceive this as the return of a geopolitical nightmare: a unified and strong Germany will confront an exhausted Russia. Putin’s miscalculation has produced the very scenario that Russia has feared since the days of Bismarck – and this time there few chances for Russia to contain Germany by entering into an alliance with France or Britain. They will have to turn to Asia and China to redress the balance in Europe.
The Russian difficulties do not end there. For although Russia is larger and stronger than Ukraine and may still win a military victory, that victory must also be converted into a new political order. This will place Russia in the situation that haunted the US after the end of the Cold War: the Americans have won military victories in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have still lost the peace. They have been unable to convert their military victory into a legitimate order.
This challenge – to turn a military victory into a generally accepted, political order for a sullen and recalcitrant population – is Putin’s great challenge in the long run. The more the Ukrainians are willing to stand up and fight back, the more difficult his task becomes.
Ukraine’s big problem is that the country is alone. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. And NATO has no obligation towards Ukraine’s defense. There is no reason to believe that the US-dominated NATO alliance will be drawn into the war against a nuclear-armed Russia – although individual states may supply Ukraine with weapons, contribute to non-military sanctions against Russia, and otherwise boycott Russians from the world community’s innumerable activities.
But Russia may also be alone. Russia is the leader of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but CIS has no power over Ukraine – Ukraine withdrew from CIS after the invasion of Crimea and the uprising in Donbas. Russia is likely to pull CIS into the war. For, as Putin faces stronger opposition in Ukraine than expected, he will ask the CIS countries for assistance. They, in turn, may well hesitate. If they contribute militarily to Putin’s occupation – a misadventure which probably took all CIS countries by surprise – they will be subject to Western sanctions. This could cause deep disagreements and splits in the CIS and cause the organization’s allegiances to disintegrate.
Another level concerns the internal affairs of the superpowers. Putin’s popularity has been declining within Russia. It is likely to fall further as a result of the war in Ukraine. For Western sanctions will have a profound effect on Russia’s economy. Scarcity and distress will cause discussions and further undermine the Putin regime’s legitimacy. Popular protests have already occurred in several Russian cities; they show that people are opposed to Putin’s war. The protests have been crushed by Russian security forces. These forces may have a lot to do in the near future. Domestic control will tighten, freedom of expression diminish, and Russia may once more become a totalitarian state.
It is impossible for Putin to conceal the fact that Russia is involved in a costly war in Ukraine. Putin will sooner or later to have to justify the war for the Russian population. The question is: who will believe him, and for how long? Will they buy the argument that Ukraine is not a sovereign state but part of the greater Russian nation? Will they believe that Ukraine is being run by drug-addicted Nazis? These formulations draw on the proud fatherland myth from Stalin’s times, produced by the victory over Nazi-Germany. This rhetoric may appeal to Russia’s older generation. But will it stir the same patriotic emotions in the younger Russians, who are connected to Western media and culture through social media? Or will they blame Putin for an unnecessary war and question his sanity and his leadership? As the Russians discuss their economic downturn and the war in Ukraine, public opinion is likely to fracture quietly along generations lines.
Finally, there is reason to recall that Putin came to power in ways that make him particularly vulnerable to the West’s targeted sanctions. He is the top oligarch in a mafia regime, and Western sanctions are specifically tailored to weaken this regime.
The sanctions are intended to target members of the rich elites of Russian society, foment dissatisfaction with Putin’s leadership and create divisions in his inner circles. Will the sanctions work as intended? How will Putin respond? That we don’t know.
But we do know one thing, and that is that the United States and NATO have been the most significant force in containing Russia. The United States is the strongest state in this game. But Biden is perhaps the weakest head of state. He is unpopular at home. He has to deal with a Republican party that not only holds him in contempt, but that also has members that admire Putin.
Biden will be 80 years old in November. In US policy on Russia, he has landed on the side of the hawks. He is playing for high stakes both at home and abroad. A foreign-policy misstep will trigger relentless condemnation from Republicans. And they are preparing, as Putin also knows perfectly well, for the US midterm elections this autumn.
A shorter version of this article has appeared in the regional Norwegian newspaper Adresseavisen.