Photo Credit: Screengrab from YouTube.
On February 24 at around 5:00 AM local time, Russian forces invaded Ukraine. This should be unsurprising given the widespread media and government coverage over the preceding months. However, the West is now scrambling for explanations, often resorting to calling Putin an irrational tyrant. Perhaps he is tyrannical, but he is far from irrational. To understand Putin’s decision, it helps to look at World War One.
First, a timeline highlighting key events that preceded the invasion. Russian forces massed along the Ukrainian border over the last several months. But particular attention must be given to the days just before invasion. On February 21, Russia recognized the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and deployed troops on peacekeeping operations. In response, Ukraine drafted reservists on February 22 “to promptly replenish the Ukrainian army and other military formations.” A state of emergency was declared on February 23. The next day, Russia invaded.
While Ukraine did not order a general mobilization, the situation is reminiscent of World War One. Mobilization was the watchword at the end of July 1914 and the fear of the great powers. Before its declaration of war, the Imperial German government scrambled at the news of partial Russian mobilization on July 29 and general mobilization on July 30. Total mobilization was ordered on July 31 which prompted a German declaration of war on August 1, 1914. Such as in the United States, partial mobilization typically calls a limited number of reservists for a limited duration whereas full mobilization calls all reservists for an unlimited duration. Germany felt that even the former posed a significant threat which compelled it to act.
Imperial Germany believed there was an advantage in the offensive and it was necessary to strike before Russia could amass its strength. Just as the Germans faced Russian mobilization, Putin’s Russia faced Ukrainian reservist conscription. Thus, a similar dilemma arose. Putin could either invade Ukraine now and strike before its forces mobilized, or he could wait and risk a stronger adversary that could retake the Donbas with force. As a rational actor, he chose the former.
But why did Putin risk so much for these separatist regions? Russia’s economy buckles under the new sanctions regime and it is more internationally isolated than ever before. The simple reason is its fear of NATO.
Ukrainian accession to NATO was always a national security concern for Russia. Putin’s 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, his warning against Ukrainian accession in 2008, and even his demands this February all echo this concern. Enter another level of Putin’s decision-making calculus. He could either invade Ukraine to resolve this vital national security concern now, or he could wait and risk Ukraine drifting ever closer to the West. Further, if Ukraine became powerful enough to retake the Donbas through force, Russia would likely lose another edge against Ukrainian accession to NATO. Once again, another point to the former.
While these factors help explain Putin’s decision to invade, it seems that the decision was last minute. Russian tanks lay stranded without fuel, troops are unsure who they are fighting, and the military is running behind schedule due to unexpected Ukrainian resistance. These observations suggest the Russian military was unprepared for invasion. If invasion was always the intention, the military should have come prepared with basic supplies like food and fuel. Rather, it seems that concerns over Ukrainian mobilization may have pushed Putin over the edge at the last hour, forcing an invasion with an unprepared military. The invasion was not a foregone conclusion before February 22 and de-escalatory steps might have prevented it.
So let us stop calling Putin an irrational actor. In fact, let us stop questioning the rationality of all our adversaries (e.g. Iran, North Korea). Putin’s decision to invade is rationally grounded and paralleled in history. This, however, is not meant to support his decision. Thousands will die and perhaps millions will be displaced. This is a tragedy not seen in Europe since the last century. If the West is to craft effective foreign policy in the foreseeable future, it must not insist that its adversaries are irrational. Instead, it must attempt to understand them to prevent future conflicts.