The Platform

Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is driven by its strategic culture, shaped by historical experiences, geography, authoritarian governance, anti-Western values, and the pursuit of strategic depth.

Jack Snyder defines strategic culture as “The total of ideas, conditioned emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behavior that members of a national strategic community have acquired through instruction or imitation.” This comprehensive definition includes geography, resources, and climate; historical experiences and practices; political culture and institutions; military organizational culture; beliefs, values, myths, and symbols; key texts and documents; elite and public opinion, as well as civil society; the role of technology; and global norms. These factors play a critical role in understanding Russia’s actions in its war against Ukraine.

By examining Russia’s history, one can assess its influence on contemporary Russian strategic thinking. This history can be divided into several key eras: Slavic Russia, Byzantine Russia, great power competition, and strategic depth.

Slavic Russia marked the installation of Russianness in the Russian people, alongside the development of the Russian language. President Putin often invokes the concept of ethnic Russians, asserting that Russia must protect ethnic Russians, including those in Ukraine.

During Byzantine Russia, Russian society shifted towards a religious and conservative phase. This influence is evident today, as seen when Patriarch Kirill of Moscow supported the invasion of Ukraine, framing it as a conflict that would determine “which side of God humanity [Russia] be on.”

From the early 19th century to the late 20th century, Russia expanded its influence and exercised hard power, particularly through World War II, the Soviet Union, and the Warsaw Pact. This period taught Russia the importance of a sphere of influence.

Post-World War II, Russia learned that engaging in conflicts beyond its borders was a strategy to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Putin believes Russia has a unique civilization and culture that must be protected, a view fundamentally at odds with Western perspectives. The status of “great power,” or derzhavnost, was firmly established when in 1993, Moscow set a foreign policy priority to uphold Russia’s role and position in the international system as a “great power.”

History holds significant importance for Russia. In 2014, Putin enacted a law criminalizing the “dissemination of deliberately false information on the activities of the Soviet Union during the Second World War,” highlighting the Soviet role in defeating Nazi Germany. History, in this context, defines Russia’s role in the international system and its identity.

Russia has always sought buffer zones and strategic depth due to its vast area and valuable borders. Historically, Russia has been an occupier of neighboring states’ lands. The democratization of nearby countries and their NATO membership increased Russia’s suspicions, prompting the rationale for territorial expansion to ensure security. Russian leaders view themselves as heirs of the Soviet Union, with Putin in 2014 and 2018 expressing that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a historical event he would change if he could. This sense of heritage means that the era of Soviet influence remains significant in Russia’s cognition and history.

Russia’s significant size, modern and well-equipped military, and status as a nuclear power keep potential adversaries, including the United States, in a state of caution. This military advantage has emboldened Russia to annex Crimea and invade Ukraine. After World War II, Russia has consistently used the rhetoric of denazification, applying it to Ukraine.

Media control plays a crucial role in this strategy, with around 62% of the news consumed by Russians coming from traditional media channels that align with government narratives. The prevailing grand narrative in Russia is that the country is surrounded by enemies and that the West hinders Russia’s and its people’s prosperity. This narrative legitimizes Russia’s security-centered state and the invasion of pro-NATO and pro-Western countries.

Russian culture emphasizes strict obedience to hierarchy, with authoritarian leaders rarely questioned. This cultural trait supports Putin’s narrative of protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine, a narrative widely accepted by the populace. The Russian people tend to believe and support their leaders, seeing the necessity of a strong leader like Putin, who they feel can secure Russia’s interests and protect its ethnic Russian population in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is deeply rooted in its strategic culture, which is influenced by historical experiences, geography, authoritarian governance, anti-Western values, the pursuit of strategic depth, information control, hierarchical structures, and the concept of Russianness. These interconnected elements collectively explain the motivations and justifications behind Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Muhammad Farooq Khan is a fifth-semester student at the National Defence University in Islamabad, Pakistan. Muhammad seeks to leverage his knowledge and research skills to make a significant contribution to the field of International Relations. With his strong foundation and unwavering dedication, Muhammad is a promising scholar poised to leave a lasting mark on the world stage.