Illustration of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

“Europe is substantially less secure,” says Chris Miller. Photo: Shutterstock

What’s Behind Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, and What Can Be Done About It?

Sanctions against Russia need to be strong and focused on elites to be effective, say Tufts experts

Russian armed forces have attacked major cities across Ukraine, including the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. That area has been the site of territorial skirmishes since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fomented an anti-government insurgency in Donbas. In late January, more than 100,000 Russian troops massed along the border with Ukraine.

What’s behind the moves, and what can be done about them? Tufts Now spoke with two Fletcher School experts to learn more. Monica Duffy Toft is a professor of international politics and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School, and Chris Miller is an assistant professor of international history, and author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia (2018) and The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy (2016). 

“Putin is invading to show he personally is strong, and to amp up pressure on the West to accept the old Soviet formula of a Russian sphere of interest” in the region, says Toft. With Russia’s military moves, “Europe is substantially less secure,” says Miller. “NATO needs to take urgent steps to guarantee its security.”

Tufts Now: Why is Russia invading Ukraine?

Chris Miller: Putin’s speech on February 21 was an attack on the idea of Ukraine as an independent state. He appears intent on proving to Ukrainians and to the world that he won’t tolerate an independent Ukraine.

Monica Duffy Toft: After World War II, the Soviets made it clear they would not accept sovereign, democratic states on its periphery. Stalin felt strongly that after Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, the Western allied invasion—including the United States—in 1918, and Germany’s in 1940, the Soviet Union could never again tolerate any sort of security threat—physical, economic, and ideational—on its borders.

So “Finlandization”—keeping smaller neighboring countries compliant under threat of violence—became the Soviet lodestone, and the U.S.-led West made two key and controversial calculations. First, rolling back the USSR from Eastern Europe would result in World War III, and second, that Soviet ideological aims—in particular, expansion—could be contained and undermined by a U.S.-led collective security alliance, adhering to free trade, and information warfare.

Putin is invading to show he personally is strong, to amp up pressure on the West to accept the old Soviet formula of a Russian sphere of interest and the Nazi theory of ethnic stranding, in this case arguing that his invasion is legitimate because the Donbas contains ethnic Russians who are being systematically abused by Kyiv-supported Ukrainians.

How will sanctions against Russia affect its economy?

Toft: Russia has taken a number of steps to blunt the impact of the most recent tranche of U.S.-led economic sanctions since 2014, many of which will certainly reduce the impact of incoming sanctions.

The better question is “how will sanctions against Russia affect Putin’s personal wealth, and the personal wealth of his oligarch allies?” If the answer is “severely,” that may result in real leverage. Putin and his allies care deeply about Russians’ welfare in their heads, but whenever it is a choice between Russian welfare and their own personal fortunes, they defer to the latter in real life.

Miller: The sanctions imposed before February 24 will only have a marginal impact. The U.S. and EU could, and in my view should, take much stronger steps.

Are the military threats strengthening unity among NATO members?

Miller: Military threats are strengthening unity, but they leave Europe far less secure. Russian military forces will now be stationed in large numbers in Belarus, on the borders of Poland and Lithuania.

There are now tens of thousands more Russian troops, along with tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, short-range ballistic missiles, and other equipment, on Europe’s border than several months ago. Europe is substantially less secure. NATO needs to take urgent steps to guarantee its security.

Toft: So much depends on how the Western allies frame what’s happening. If they frame Putin’s threats in short-term material costs, these make it clear that although Russian leverage supplying energy to Western Europe will be costly, the costs of any NATO military response sufficient to deter future Russian aggression in its periphery will be much greater.

So Putin’s aggression has increased NATO unity, but that unity is purely rhetorical at this point.

If they frame Putin’s threats as another Munich Agreement, they’ll see that the long-term costs of purely rhetorical unity far outweigh the costs of acting now to stop Russia from Finlandizing Ukraine. Recall that in 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not convinced Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was merely a frustrated nationalist, but his military advisors were begging him to use any means necessary to stall for time.

NATO does not need to stall for time vis-a-vis Russia, though it is hardly clear that a military response in Ukraine would not result in disaster for all concerned.

Putin has taken over the most Russian-friendly parts of Ukraine. Would the cost be much higher to Russia if he tries to keep pushing the Russian border farther west into Ukraine, into territory that is ethnically Ukrainian?

Toft: This is a question of short-term versus long-term calculations. Interestingly, though Putin was trained to play the long game, he has not shown himself to be that adept at thinking several moves ahead in his strategic moves.

Short term, the costs of occupying all of Ukraine will be low. But long-term, as Colin Powell once warned about Baghdad, “you break it, you buy it.” It’s hardly clear there’s any long-term benefit to Putin’s occupation of all of Ukraine, except possibly the precedent: the lack of an effective Western reaction means that Putin will have succeeded in reestablishing the principle that Russian security concerns trump the right of independent states to sovereignty.

In Putin’s view, the value of that precedent may be worth the escalating costs of occupying and governing a recalcitrant ethnic Ukrainian territory—especially since Putin has no concern for the laws of war or human rights in territories Russia has occupied militarily. He will do as he did in Chechnya: pick a local ethnic Ukrainian and support him with cash, arms, and, if needed, Russian special forces disguised as disgruntled ethnic Ukrainians.

To what extent are Putin’s moves related to domestic politics in Russia, where he faces declining popularity?

Toft: His moves are very strongly related to his declining popularity. It shows him and by extension, Russia, to be militarily strong—a key Russian measure of leadership effectiveness and legitimacy since the time of the Czars. It gains Russia global attention as a superpower, even though it no longer is a superpower except in Putin’s desperate imagination. And it creates the strong possibility that—rhetoric and hurtful sanctions notwithstanding—the West will back down and accept the Finlandization of Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and later possibly Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Romania.

Miller: This isn’t driven by Putin’s short-term popularity. His speech on February 21 described his actions in the context of hundreds of years of Russian history. He wants to make Russia a great power again and he defines great power based on the amount of territory he holds and the ability to dominate Russia’s neighbors. 

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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