Why have Russian troops attacked Ukraine?

Russian troops are closing in on the Ukrainian capital, days after the Russian leader ordered a full-scale invasion from the north, east and south. In a televised address before dawn on February 24, he said Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist” because of what he said was a constant threat from modern Ukraine. Airports and military headquarters were hit first, then tanks and troops poured into Ukraine from Russia, Russian-annexed Crimea and allied Belarus.

In late 2021, Russia began deploying large numbers of troops near Ukraine’s borders, while repeatedly denying it was going to attack. Russia has long resisted Ukraine’s move towards the European Union and the West’s defensive military alliance, NATO. Announcing the Russian invasion, the Russians accused NATO of threatening their historic future as a nation.


How far will Russia go?

It’s unclear what Russia’s plans are for Ukraine, but it faces strong resistance from a deeply hostile population. In January, the UK accused Moscow of plotting to install a pro-Moscow puppet to run Ukraine’s government – a claim dismissed by Russia at the time as nonsense. An unconfirmed intelligence report suggested that Russia aims to split the country in two. In the days before the invasion, when up to 200,000 troops were near Ukraine’s borders, Russia’s public attention focused only on the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.


How dangerous is this Invasion for Europe?

These are terrifying times for the people of Ukraine and horrifying for the rest of the continent, seeing a great power invade a European neighbor for the first time since World War II. Recalling the Cold War days of the Soviet Union, Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine spoke about his country’s attempt to avoid a new Iron Curtain closing Russia off from the civilized world. Putin has even put his nuclear forces on high alert. Nor is it a war the Russian population was prepared for, as the invasion was approved by a largely unrepresentative upper house of parliament.

The invasion has repercussions for many other countries bordering Russia and Ukraine.


What can the West do?

NATO’s defense alliance has made it clear that it has no plans to send combat troops to Ukraine. So far, member states have sent weapons and field hospitals, and the EU will send and receive weapons and other equipment for the first time in its history.

NATO has deployed several thousand troops in the Baltic states and Poland and is mobilizing for the first time part of its much larger rapid reaction force. NATO will not say where they will go, but some may go to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia.

What does Putin want?

He complained that Russia has “nowhere further to retreat to – do they think we’ll just sit idly by?“.  He wants NATO to withdraw its military forces and infrastructure from member states that joined the alliance from 1997 and not to deploy strike weapons near Russia’s borders.

Last year, President Putin wrote a long article describing Russians and Ukrainians as “one nation”, and he described the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 as the “disintegration of historic Russia”.  He claimed that modern Ukraine was created entirely by communist Russia and is now a puppet state, controlled by the West.


What did Nato say?

Nato is a defensive alliance with an open-door policy to new members, and its 30 member states are adamant that will not change. The Ukrainian President wants a clear timetable, but there is no prospect of Ukraine joining for a long time, according to Olaf Scholz the German Chancellor.

Is there a diplomatic way out?

Russia insists that Kiev lay down its arms and demilitarize, and that will not happen. Russia wanted all US nuclear weapons banned beyond their national territories. Russia had backed a proposed “transparency mechanism” of mutual checks on missile bases – two in Russia, and two in Romania and Poland.

There seems very little chance for the moment, even if some form of talks is planned.

This is an abridged version of the article published on the BBC.