“Why Russia Went to War: A Three-Dimensional Perspective”, James Sherr OBE and Igor Gretskiy (ICDS, Estonia)

Since Ukraine’s independence became a recognised fact in 1991, the spectre of war with Russia has arisen on several occasions, only to subside. To many outsiders, the war of 2014 was a ‘hybrid war’ launched by ‘separatists backed by Russia’, rather than a fully-fledged war, and the ‘Minsk process’ was defusing it. Until the United States presented details of Russian war plans at the end of 2021, very few observers expected Russia to transgress the bounds of coercive intimidation in its dealings with Ukraine. Once war broke out in February 2022, the pervasive question was ‘why?’

In this analysis, the authors seek to answer that question. First, they set out the distinctive but overlapping factors that shape Russia’s outlook: geopolitics, civilisational identity and internal governance. These alone show why the threat of war has been implicit in the character of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine: why, to the Russian mind, Ukraine’s independence is an aberration, why the West’s presence there is viewed in hostile terms and why Russia demands that it be the sole arbiter of what Ukraine’s independence means in practice.

But these factors are not sufficient to explain why Russia eventually concluded that the dangers of war were less than the dangers of peace. The authors therefore focus the second part of their analysis on the calculus of pressure, danger and opportunity that led to this conclusion.

The wisdom of this conclusion and its consequences are a different subject, and they play no part in the analysis that follows..

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