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BY JOSEPH DRESEN

The weeks and months of waiting to see what Russia’s President Putin will do with his troops massed at Ukraine’s border are over: He has declared war. This mass invasion has been years in the making, ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. And while he loudly protested the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO in the future, or the presence of NATO weaponry in Ukraine in the present, Putin’s real animus has always been that Ukraine must never escape Russian control. Indeed, the closer the date for invasion came, the more he dropped the NATO pretense and declared that Ukraine was not a country and, fantastically, that it was conducting genocide against Russian speakers. Putin and his circle seem to believe that each action they have taken, from the 2014 annexation of Crimea to today’s invasion, are all part of a smart, strategic long game to maintain Russian control over Ukraine. The truth is that each of these actions has driven an increasingly wider wedge between Russia and Ukraine—not just in terms of politics but in terms of civilization.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has swayed like a pendulum toward and away from Russia. Even as the pendulum swung back and forth, Ukraine slowly developed over the past three decades as a vibrant, contested democracy rather than a nation dominated by a single president. No one politician could ever consolidate total power, with each powerful faction checked by other powerful factions. All the while, Russia exerted outsized influence, both through normal economic ties and through covert corruption (principally though energy supply and transit). Even the 2005 Orange Revolution that led to the presidency of pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko eventually gave way to the election of yet another pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych.

In 2008, Putin told President George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not even a country.” That claim is the best guide possible for understanding Putin’s policies and aggression toward his neighbor. A longer guide, for those who can stand to read it, is his July 2021 article detailing his interpretation of the thousand-year shared history of the “single people” of Russia and Ukraine. Or, for those who can stand to watch it, his recent televised address to the Russian people. Russian government officials arguing today that the potential for Ukraine one day joining the NATO alliance is the casus belli behind Russia’s threat of devastating war against Ukraine are lying to us, and perhaps themselves: their concern over Ukraine is far more about identity and sense of national greatness than geopolitics. It’s not business—it’s personal.

The Ukrainian pendulum swung back toward the West in 2014. The Kremlin’s politician, Viktor Yanukovych, had spent his term in office trying to play the West against Russia in pursuing the best possible deal for Ukraine, and for him personally. When Yanukovych ultimately chose the Russian offer over the EU’s, much of Ukraine, but especially Kyiv, rose up in mass protest. Ultimately, Yanukovych failed to quell the “Revolution of Dignity,” and fled to Russia. A new national government came to power in Kyiv, promising to pursue closer economic integration with the EU.

Here is where Putin opted for a quick victory rather than wait for the next pendulum swing. With the fledgling government in Kyiv trying to gain its bearings, Putin directed Russian forces to seize Crimea and instigate separatist insurgencies in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Crimea’s annexation was quickly formalized, and Russian-supported insurgencies in the Donbas have quietly raged for the past eight years. Russia was quick to claim victory, and Putin enjoyed a surge in popularity at home. Yet in a single stroke, Putin managed to detach the most pro-Russian territories in Ukraine, transforming its neighbor from a roughly even pro-West/pro-Russian contested political environment to an overwhelmingly pro-Western orientation. And that was before he launched his unprovoked war on Ukraine.

Ever since the onset of hostilities 8 years ago between Ukraine and Russian-supported separatists in the Donbas, a conflict that has claimed over 14,000 Ukrainian lives, analysts have often argued that Putin is a master tactician, taking bold actions where his adversaries hesitate. If he isn’t playing chess while the West plays checkers, he is a master of judo punching above his weight. Conventional wisdom dictates that Russia cares far more about Ukraine than the West ever will, and Russia will be far more patient than the West. Some even argue that Russia’s interests in Ukraine trump Ukrainian sovereignty—if only in terms of realist politics.

The reality is that Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine signaled the start of Russia losing Ukraine for good. Part of Russia’s campaign included the construction of the Nord Stream I and II pipelines to transport gas and oil to Germany (its biggest customer in Europe) in order to bypass transit through Ukraine, and make Ukrainians less secure in energy. (That pipeline is now shuttered at the direction of Germany, the pipeline’s biggest advocate.) As Ukrainian stadiums rang out with a rather rude chant about President Putin (Google it), Ukraine pursued and won independent status for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, separating it from (and putting it in conflict with) the Moscow Patriarchate. Putin’s war will only accelerate that schism.

Ties between the nations weren’t just frayed by Moscow’s aggression and Kyiv’s reaction. Renewed interest in historical atrocities against Ukraine directed from Moscow, from Stalin’s famine in the 1930s to the Kremlin’s early cover-up of the Chernobyl disaster that put lives and health at risk, further entrench Ukrainian hostility toward not just Putin but Russia itself. Putin’s war promises to make these past atrocities feel like fresh wounds.

Each move Putin and his circle have made to claw Ukraine back to Russian control have only pushed it further away. Putin launching this war, unprovoked save only in his aggrieved mind, means that he has lost the long game. Russia may prevail over Ukraine’s military in the days to come, but Putin has irrevocably thrust the two nations on separate, hostile paths. That is how history will regard him: the man who lost Ukraine.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more