Three Reasons for Russia's War on Ukraine & the Cruel Lessons We Must All Learn
People have the power, until they don't.
(Photo credit: Ant Rozetsky)
In all my travels, and having lived in several conflicted countries, I've NEVER met a single ordinary citizen who wouldn't prefer to live in peace than in conflict. Ever.
Yet, here we are…. Russia warring on Ukraine.
The Ukrainian people didn't ask for this war. Their cities are being destroyed and their families torn apart because Putin decided it should be this way.
We watch families hide in bunkers, carry their children over broken bridges to escape, risking shelling in an attempt to avoid the hell that is approaching. The Ukrainian people always had their guard up but they never expected THIS.
It’s been so cruel to watch the demise of their lives from this side of the world…
Now let’s look at the other side. The Russian people didn’t ask for this war either.
It takes a lot for Russian’s to stand up against Putin. Yet they are doing so in the thousands. Valiantly protesting in the streets and at anti war rallies against the actions of their leader.
And because of Putin’s actions, Russian citizens are suffering sanctions from the West, social exclusion, stigma and economic hardship. Do they deserve this? Not in my opinion.
The ironic thing is that these sanctions are designed to bring Russia to a standstill so that Putin will stop and listen. The problem is that Putin doesn't listen - he never has. Why should this change now?
If anything, this war is a blunt reminder that what we consider to be 'our rights' are actually things we must continue to fight for. I believe we must be vigilant against any thing, person, organization or government that seeks to slowly remove them.
That’s why today I want to take a look at the reasons why Putin has started this war (which punishes even his own people), what this means for the rest of us, and what we can learn from it.
**Before I start though** I want to preface by saying I am uniquely unqualified to talk about this topic. But I followed my curiosity, did my research and wanted to share it with you so we can learn together.
This is quite a long piece so please grab a cup of coffee and make yourself comfy!
First, Some Context: The Perceived Threat from NATO
Putin fears the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
NATO was created in 1949, just after World War II. It is basically a big military alliance between the U.S., Canada and Europe. These countries initially came together to provide mutual defense against any future Soviet attacks.
But then the Soviet Union fell in 1991 - what’s been the goal of NATO since then?
In the years that followed, many of the countries that once made up the Soviet bloc either joined Europe or NATO. (Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Albania.)
Ukraine also considered joining NATO and even began the application process in 2008. NATO recognized them as a 'future' candidate for membership but Putin did not like this.
Each time Ukraine came close to joining NATO, Russia placed significant economic and political pressure on the country. That’s why, as it stands, Ukraine is not part of NATO.
So, why is Ukraine such a big deal for Russia? Here are three reasons why: geography, ethnicism and defense.
1. Ukraine as a Strategic and Geographical Asset
Russia is ENORMOUS. Like 17.13 million square kilometres enormous. Even crazier is that it spans over 11 time zones!
Despite being the largest country by land area in the world, Russia has two big problems.
First (and most importantly), Russia does not have a warm water port. Most of their ports freeze for some time of the year because it’s so close to the Arctic. Having a port that does not freeze all year-round would offer a economic and military advantage to Russia.
Ukraine, on the other hand, has a warm water port town (in Sevastopol), which is of huge strategic importance for Russia.
Secondly, Russia has a short agricultural season and uses only 10% of its land for this purpose. Meanwhile, Ukraine has some of the most fertile soils in the world. Again a hugely valuable asset.
“Ukraine is known as the region’s breadbasket thanks to its black “chernozem” soil, which is highly fertile and rich in organic matter called humus. Covering more than half the landmass of Ukraine, chernozem soil offers exceptional agronomic conditions for the production of a large range of crops, especially cereals and oilseeds.” (source)
The war in Ukraine will likely mean the world will experience a shock to the supply and cost of food, mainly because of the significant amounts of fertilizer produced in Ukraine (source).
It doesn’t take much to see why this might make Ukraine a valuable asset for Russia.
2. Ukraine and Russia as One People
Putin is captivated by Ukraine. In July 12, 2021, he said about Ukraine:
“Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.” (source)
His desire to see the two groups as one people comes from the fact that Ukraine used to be part of Russia. Since Ukraine became independent in 1991, Putin has been holding on to the hope of reuniting Ukraine with Russia.
Here’s a little more from the excerpt:
“We respect the Ukrainian language and traditions. We respect Ukrainians' desire to see their country free, safe and prosperous.
I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”
Vladimir Putin “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
Putin actually believes Ukranians and Russians are one people and is genuine in his belief that he is there to liberate the Ukrainian people from the seduction of the West.
The question is, does Ukraine want or need to be liberated? The incredibly relentless and courageous fight the Ukrainians have put up in the early stages of this war would suggest that, no, they do not want this.
They want to remain independent and free.
3. Ukraine as a Defense System
Today, Russia is surrounded by NATO, which Putin interprets as a MASSIVE threat to Russia’s sovereignty.
I found this weird… Why is Putin so worried about invasion when he seems to be doing all the invading?
That’s when I learned that in the last five centuries, Russia has been on the receiving end of invasion many times.
In the span of 133 years (from 1812 to 1945), Russians have been fighting an average of once every 33 years (source). Interestingly, all of these attempts have failed thanks to Russia’s physical geography.
The reason being that:
If you were to try to invade Russia from the North, well, you really can’t because there’s the Arctic.
If you were to attack from the South, you would have to overcome logistically difficult mountains and harsh climates. You’d also need insane medical, food and military supplies to penetrate the mountains, which is almost an impossible feat to accomplish.
And if you come from the East, you must first cross an ocean - again a logistical challenge.
Despite having some sort of natural defense on three sides, Russia has no natural defenses to the West. This, combined with Russia’s history, seems to fuel Putin's fear of invasion from the West.
Now how does Ukraine play into this, you might ask?
Well, Ukraine stands as the last geographical barrier between Russia and the rest of Europe. Like a buffer zone.
Ukraine is such a big deal for Russia’s “sovereignty” that Putin made three demands from NATO.
NATO stops expanding, in particular to Ukraine.
NATO to reduce military presence in Eastern Europe.
U.S. to vow not to protect its allies in Eastern Europe.
These demands were issued by the Kremlin back in December 2021. If they were not going to be met, then it would result in Russia advancing into Ukraine… which brings us to today.
War Has Begun
On Thursday, February 24, 2022, Putin striked Ukraine on the grounds of "demilitarisation and de-Nazification." (Remember, he sees himself as an important figure to liberate the one people he considers to belong to Russia.)
And on NATO he said:
“We have nowhere further to retreat to - do they think we'll just sit idly by?" (source).
He seems to forget that Ukraine is independent and allowed to want the things they did not have before: democracy, alliance and military support from a neighbour.
Plus, trying to “unite” a separated Russian people does not justify warring on millions of innocent lives. The end does not justify the means.
And what is he going to do with a country he’s bombing? He’s literally wiped out schools, buildings and infrastructure. What’s he going to have left when he “successfully” invades Ukraine?
One thing’s for sure, Russian citizens are going to pay the price (via taxes, inflation, labour, and emotional health) to rebuild a nation they did not choose to destroy. In a sad way, ordinary citizens are there to bail Putin’s governmental misdemeanors.
What we’re seeing today is a cruel reminder of how far things can go when absolute power is in the hands of a child-man tied with deep beliefs about the way the world should work.
Worse, when he believes he’s been wronged and now must play the hero in everyone's lives.
And yes, we must point the finger at Putin for his crimes against humanity, but more importantly, we should ask ourselves: How did he get there? Could he have been stopped this earlier? And could this happen to us?
For me, it’s becoming more and more clear that we need to look at how we vote and how we perpetuate systems of authoritarianism.
How many of us are truly engaged in our local communities, study the policies of our local representatives, government officials, sign petitions, attend rallies and demand a system that is free of corruption and lobbying, a system that represents US, the people?
Instead, we get angry on social media and fight against absolute power only when it’s too late. Like us now who are left dealing with this bombsite. Literally.
Putin is a stark reminder of the risks and consequences of our inactions, and what it looks like to have the carpet slowly pulled from under our feet.
The truth is that the people have the ultimate power, but only until they don’t.
We have the power to vote with our voices, with our money, our choices, our purchases, our ballots and our feet. Our leadership has a duty to act in the best interests of our communities. Make sure you demand it from them.
Remember the dangers of having centralized power. Even if your leader is charismatic, be careful. Hugo Chávez was charismatic and drove Venezuela to hell.
We have a responsibility, to our communities, and to our families to ensure our democracies never succumb to the absolute power of one man.
We must engage in local politics, and make sure that our views are represented in government. If they’re not, fight like hell so they are.
At the same time, study the way the world works: How is war funded? How is power established by leaders? How do societies become numb to power?