Why does Putin care so much about Ukraine, and what is he trying to achieve with the saber rattling and a potential invasion when it comes with such great risk and potential cost to Russia?
While I can’t get inside Putin’s head, I think the answer revolves around four key areas – political, security, economic, and cultural.
First and foremost, for Putin this is a political issue. I have no doubt that since the first day of coming to power, and likely before that, Putin’s singular strategic focus has been restoring Russia and rebuilding its Great Power status, after the breakup of the Soviet Union and what the country perceived as the humiliating defeat in the Cold War. In my long engagement with Russia, I have never met a Russian, young or old, or liberal or conservative, opposition or government, who thought that Ukraine and Belarus’ independence were anything more than a fluke of history and that they should be part of a greater Russian commonwealth or federation. You may be able to find a few brave Russian commentators out there who have a liberal, Western view or put a different political spin on Putin’s objectives, but they are few and far between. Putin understands this and believes that history will judge him on how well he restored the Russian commonwealth space and its greatness in the world, that is, according to his definition of “greatness.” Where in the US, it has always been “it’s the economy, stupid,” economics in Russia have never risen to the same level of pride when it comes to the political realm and views of the average Russians.