Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

What Caused the Ukraine War?

| Oct. 04, 2022

Amid heated debates about the factors that led Russia to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it helps to distinguish between deep, intermediate, and immediate causes. But while each can matter in their own ways, war need not be considered inevitable even when they are all present.

Russia's war in Ukraine is the most disruptive conflict that Europe has seen since 1945. While many in the West see a war of choice by Russian President Vladimir Putin, he says that NATO’s 2008 decision in favor of eventual Ukrainian membership brought an existential threat to Russia's borders, and still others trace the conflict back to the Cold War's end and the failure of the West to support Russia adequately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How can we discern the origins of a war that may last for years?

World War I occurred over a century ago, yet historians still write books debating what caused it. Did it start because a Serbian terrorist assassinated an Austrian archduke in 1914, or did it have more to do with ascendant German power challenging Britain, or rising nationalism throughout Europe? The answer is "all of the above, plus more." But war was not inevitable until it actually broke out in August 1914; and even then, it was not inevitable that four years of carnage had to follow.

To sort things out, it helps to distinguish between deep, intermediate, and immediate causes. Think of building a bonfire: piling up the logs is a deep cause; adding kindling and paper is an intermediate cause; and striking a match is a precipitating cause. But even then, a bonfire is not inevitable. A strong wind may extinguish the match, or a sudden rainstorm may have soaked the wood. As historian Christopher Clark notes in his book about the origins of WWI, The Sleepwalkers, in 1914, "the future was still open — just." Poor policy choices were a crucial cause of the catastrophe.

In Ukraine, there is no question that Putin lit the match when he ordered Russian troops to invade on February 24. Like the leaders of the great powers in 1914, he probably believed that it would be a short, sharp war with a quick victory, somewhat like the Soviet Union's takeover of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. Airborne troops would capture the airport and advancing tanks would seize Kyiv, removing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and installing a puppet government.

Putin told the Russian people that he was conducting a "special military operation" to "denazify" Ukraine and prevent NATO from expanding to Russia's borders. But given how seriously he miscalculated, we must ask what he was really thinking. We know from Putin's own writings, and from various biographers like Philip Short, that the intermediate cause was a refusal to see Ukraine as a legitimate state....

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For Academic Citation:

Nye, Joseph S. Jr."What Caused the Ukraine War?" Project Syndicate, October 4, 2022.