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I tried to find a clear answer from the media (too many examples to list here, search for Russia-Ukraine conflict in the news), but could not quickly find good, comprehensive answer with non-speculative analysis. Even the typically easy to understand political analysts such as Vitaly Portnikov do not provide a clear answer. Other sources, such as below or in comments, do not provide enough in-depth analysis and/or a clear answer.

REFERENCES:

See, for example, Vitaly Portnikov's videos here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCV0ZrOPCKzqx36rRiPHkwFg However, the ones on topic here are somewhat less clear than they could have been.

Is Russia preparing to invade Ukraine? And other questions - BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56720589 - on topic, but there is not enough analysis here, mostly facts without synthesis and discussion. Thanks to Jontia for the reference to this useful reference.

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    Based on the latest edit to the question, I'm not sure why this question is not on-topic (although the body of the question could use work, it's disjointed and reads like someone wrote a point-form essay and forgot to compile it into proper sentences). I voted to reopen.
    – Ertai87
    Dec 21, 2021 at 17:43
  • @Ertai87 (just my opinion) it seems to be still asking for opinions, though now it doesn't ask to predict the future. Dec 21, 2021 at 19:24
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    @EkadhSingh-ReinstateMonica "What does Russia have to gain from threatening to invade Ukraine" is a perfectly valid question, imo. Of course, nobody can know precisely what Putin is thinking, but there are plenty of answers that can be backed up by reports on the subject.
    – Ertai87
    Dec 21, 2021 at 19:40
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    None of the answers address this, but it's really about oil/gas, and water for Crimea to get more oil, prompted now by a declining fighting-age population. See youtube.com/watch?v=If61baWF4GE. Stuff about politics, heritage and the like address tangential excuses/reasoning; follow the money to see who benefits.
    – dandavis
    Mar 2 at 23:41
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    @dandavis Feel free to add references and post an answer. Thx. Mar 3 at 11:01

7 Answers 7

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Russia's stated goal in the Ukraine saga is to stop NATO from expanding to include Ukraine. This is in turn because Western leaders apparently promised Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War that NATO (which the Soviet Union, and Russia after the Soviet Union's dissolution, sees as an anti-Russian alliance) will not expand eastwards, and that promise was broken. NATO has already expanded to Russia's border (the Baltic states are part of NATO), although that came at a time when Russia was unable to stop the NATO expansion.

Ukraine was the second most powerful SSR in the Soviet Union both economically and politically, so Russia's government feels that Ukraine joining a hostile military alliance is unacceptable. Their response to this was to try to convince NATO not to accept Ukraine membership. NATO refused, so Russia took increasingly drastic measures, such as annexing Crimea in 2014. The current build-up is just the latest episode of this saga.

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    It is controversial if such a promise was made. Western sources agree that it was mentioned during negotiations, but it did not end up in the final text. So it could be understood as an informal side agreement, or as a rejected proposal. And if you look at the paragraph the sentence was in, it might be interpreted as covering East Germany only.
    – o.m.
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:11
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    @o.m. yes, there might not have been an actual promise (and there certainly wasn't a written treaty). Gorbachev apparently believed there was such a commitment though. So if one believes that there was no promise, then there presumably was some level of deception involved to fool Gorbachev. Either way, one might expect Russia to feel aggrieved and hence seek to stop NATO expanding to Ukraine.
    – Allure
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:19
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    @o.m. - at least according to Jack Matlock, US Ambassador to USSR 1987-1991, the promise was indeed made. He was a key participant when this commitment was made, and also testified to US Congress on the matter
    – Pete W
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:19
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    @Allure, you make a point. I comment that this point is controversial rather than being universally accepted, and I think that's a fair comment.
    – o.m.
    Dec 22, 2021 at 13:56
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    "NATO refused, so Russia took increasingly drastic measures, such as annexing Crimea in 2014." Taking actions that make NATO expansion more warranted is a rather odd strategy towards halting NATO expansion. Dec 24, 2021 at 20:55
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+50

Putin's important goal is to get some successes for internal Russian politics ("For one thing, Putin very much needs a distraction right now."). He needs to be seen as a hero, as someone who raised the faded glory or the Russian empire and of the USSR (and especially the Russian supremacy in the latter). The economic problems of Russia must be kept as a secondary topic.

However, the demands that Russia now uses are much wider. What they delivered to NATO is basically an ultimatum with intentionally unacceptable terms, not unlike some other ultimata the 20th century saw. They are trying to point at NATO as an agressor who encroaches on poor Russia and and meddles in its sphere of influence.

The terms include such stuff as not having any NATO forces beyond the NATO borders in 1997 (that means not even in Poland or Czechia, and not in Baltic countries). They also include demands for only US-Russian talks with the aim to seed distrust among the allies (will the US leave us to the Russians?, “There will be no talks on European security without our European allies and partners,” Psaki told reporters.). If they actually achieved what they demand, they would establish a new sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. But they know that even pronouncing this aloud can seed fear and distrust among the allies.

Another aim of the military build-up, or even actual invasion and occupation of Ukraine, is to deter other countries that have parts occupied by Russia (Moldova, Georgia) to ever fight back for those areas. If you will try to get it back, you will end up like Ukraine who tried to get back Donetsk or Luhansk. What happened in Nagorno-Karabakh (with the help of a NATO member - Turkey) is what frightens Russia.

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  • Thanks for the great answer! A note to readers: this answer is dated Dec 22, 2021. Since then: "On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014. Internationally considered a war of aggression, it is the largest assault on a European state since World War II. The invasion has caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe since that war, with over 3.4 million Ukrainians fleeing their country." See: 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine Mar 21 at 20:04
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There seem to be two aspects to this.

(1) On a local level, regarding the status of the primarily Russian-inhabited self-declared breakaway provinces/republics in Eastern Ukraine.

The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that it is their priority to preserve the status quo as of the Minsk agreements which structured the ceasefire following hostilities in Eastern Ukraine in 2014-2015.

In this context, the buildup of forces thus functions as a signal that if Ukraine attempts to re-fight the 2014-2015 actions, with or without western support, then the implication is that Russia has the ability immediately come to the defense of the self-declared breakaway republics in Eastern Ukraine.

The presence of these forces within Russia is widely interpreted as also presenting the possibility of an all-out invasion of Ukraine, e.g. to capture territory not already under Russian control. The same was said in 2014-2015, and not much has changed since then. The question asks what would be the benefit, and IMO, for a wider action, on balance there would not be any benefit, because Ukraine would not accept it without more serious fighting, while they did at the time grudgingly accept the relatively more limited outcome of 2015.

(2) On a larger level, in the view of the Russian side, all of this is happening in the context of NATO signaling expansion into Ukraine. Motivational context form the Russian side, on this topic, can be found in many statements to the press. Some of the most recent are linked and exerpted below -- from the Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Ryabkov and Grushko on 18 and 20 December 2021:

First interview [Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

Sergey Ryabkov: [...] The security situation in Europe, the Euro-Atlantic region and Eurasia has indeed greatly deteriorated recently. This has happened because of a series of concerted actions by the United States and its NATO allies, which, generally speaking, can be described as an attempt to undermine Russia’s security and to create a hostile environment around us. We cannot accept this.

Ukraine is in the focus of this policy. Ukraine’s decisions are not independent but are subject to change in the situation. When the West provides unconditional and unqualified support to Ukraine, certain quarters in Kiev play up to the worst Western objectives and formulas. And the possibility of Ukraine eventually joining NATO, which some Ukrainian officials keep talking about, is categorically unacceptable to us. We will do our best to prevent this.

Second interview [Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

Alexander Grushko: This situation did not just happen out of the blue. Even after 2014, when NATO almost completely curtailed cooperation with the Russian Federation and simply discarded the positive agenda that had been achieved with such difficulty, we proposed specific steps that could, if not improve the situation amid the destruction of security mechanisms, at least achieve some de-escalation. That was our response to NATO’s calls to take steps to lower tensions. We agreed. And where has that got us? The line of contact between Russia and NATO is extending. During the Soviet era, the contact was only along the Turkish and Norwegian borders. Who created this line of contact and now says they are concerned about Russia's activity? What, do we have to tighten our belt now? Pull our forces back to the Urals?

Our approach is well grounded and based on the new reality. Even if we compare it with 1997, when NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act, which included NATO’s pledge not to deploy additional substantial combat forces in the new member states on a permanent basis or change its nuclear strategy, configuration of nuclear weapons and infrastructure – these commitments are also in question now. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said the Alliance could deploy nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe. This is a serious challenge to the very foundations of European security. NATO used to play with phrases such as “temporary deployment.” Now they are talking about a fully sustainable and rotational presence. This, in fact, means a permanent presence. All of this directly affects our security. If you read the reports by the leading Western political science centres, they frankly admit that NATO has created new vulnerabilities for itself by moving its borders to the suburbs of St Petersburg. At the same time, the distance from Tallinn to St Petersburg can be covered by bike; NATO combat aircraft can reach St Petersburg in less than ten minutes. This factor cannot be neglected. It must be taken into account in military planning, and we will certainly do so.

NATO expansion has turned the Baltic region, which used to be one of the most peaceful regions, into a theatre of ​​military rivalry that no one needs, least of all Russia. During the Cold War, NATO believed it had one vulnerable spot – the Fulda Gap, a series of passes through the hills the Warsaw Pact tanks could hypothetically use to reach the English Channel. Now the alliance is concerned about the Suwalki Corridor, a 65-kilometre-wide strip linking Poland with Lithuania, squeezed between the Kaliningrad Region, a Russian exclave, and Belarus. It connects NATO with its Baltic members, which fear they could be cut off in the event of a conflict. Apparently, NATO’s eastward expansion has compromised the alliance’s own security. If NATO had remained within the borders our Western partners promised to Mikhail Gorbachev, who would they have to defend themselves from now? The whole expansion process was, in fact, a way to prove the alliance’s relevance. But today, it is affecting fundamental security interests. And when we talk with our Western partners, and they complain about military activities on the border between Russia and Ukraine, we reply: “Look at the map.”

In essenece, just as NATO views the encroachment of Russian forces with suspicion (and even alarm), the view stated by the Russian MFA is the mirror image.

One minor thing the drama did produce is statements from US and NATO that they would not, at this time, deploy their forces to aid Ukraine, if the 2014-2015 fighting were repeated. Establishing this may have been one of the goals.

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  • This answer is great. Although it is both long and well backed-up, I reached the end of it, and found that I want the answer to be even longer and have even more references at the end. This is in fact one of the answers I came to this site for. Thank you! Dec 22, 2021 at 18:00
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    Regarding point 2, I noticed that you only presented Russian sources to support "NATO signaling expansion into Ukraine". In what way is NATO actually expanding into Ukraine? To my knowledge, there's only the 2008 declaration which does not provide a timetable (which was a condition for German and French agreement).
    – JJJ
    Dec 22, 2021 at 18:07
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    @JJJ - not my intention to argue the merits here, but consider the pattern as seen form the Russian side. Also consider that previous similar declarations regarding limiting NATO expansion were made and abandoned. More recently (Dec 9th), The Biden Administration did present some reassurances to Ukraine Pres. Zelensky that the option is still open.
    – Pete W
    Dec 22, 2021 at 18:11
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    @JJJ - also edited to indicate that it is "in the view of the Russian side"
    – Pete W
    Dec 22, 2021 at 18:25
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    Yea, I agree that's how it's perceived on the Russian side. And I also agree that some statements by NATO members make it seem that way. Perhaps it'd be better worded as 'perceived NATO expansion into Ukraine'. It's also not clear to what extent the perception is genuine. For example, EUvsDisinfo documents some (unrelated) examples of weaponised victimhood employed by the Russian government.
    – JJJ
    Dec 22, 2021 at 18:25
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There are several reason's for Russia's actions. The first: Putin's popularity. Given that Russia has been hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic and the domestic economy has stagnated throughout the last decade, Putin's popularity within the borders of Russia is beginning to take a hit. Putin also has a history of making aggressive military plays when his popularity drops. He used the annexation of Crimea as a rallying point to build his approval. Another reason is that this will escalate tensions within Ukraine between Russian seperatists and Ukranian nationalists. This is a huge strategic win for Russia, because it wears away at the legitimacy of the pro-West government while decreasing the chance that the state is able to join NATO. Third, it allows Russia to gain security guarantees from NATO. Given that NATO member states are probably not going to be thrilled to be involved in an armed conflict in Eastern Europe, they'll likely be willing to bargain, even if it is not to the extent Russia's foreign minister demanded recently.

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Testing the waters. At the US-Russian Stockholm summit at the start of the month, Secretary of State Blinken said according to Reuters:

I made very clear our deep concerns and our resolve to hold Russia responsible for its actions, including our commitment to work with European allies to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine

"To impose severe costs and consequences" is a stark warning from one nuclear power to another. It's unspecific, the US doesn't say what measures it might use. It's not clear what measures the US can take in a proportionate way.

Of course the ultimate threat would be to threaten nuclear war, but that's not a very believable threat. The US isn't going to start nuclear war over a non-NATO country. So the nuclear threat isn't really on the table; Russia knows that. A similar reasoning goes for US boots on the ground. It's a possibility, but it's already a stretch that the US would sacrifice its service members to defend a non-NATO country. So what's left is really the threat of sanctions and an increase of military support to Ukrainian forces. Though annoying, it's not the end of the world from the Russian perspective.

So the current troop movement could be seen as an opening move in a game of chess. How is the opponent (NATO / the US) going to respond? Of course there's also (the possibility of) a prize at the end of the game. If NATO and the US (because who else is going to stop Russia?) don't prevent Russia from doing what it can do then Russia can basically do what it wants in the region (the non-NATO part). Given that there's not a lot that can be done to deter Russia (without overreacting), Russia tries to find out what price it has to pay to get what they want.

(The part below gets a bit more speculative, but it's included to illustrate why testing the waters is worth it from a Russian perspective. If you view the above part as opportunity, then the part below can be seen as motive.)

If Russia can push its luck then it can improve its influence in the region. Breakingdefense.com lists 5 scenarios in which Russia could escalate the situation. I'm not going to mention them all here, but one seems to be an outcome that is worth the current level of tensions: a land connection between Crimea and the Russian mainland. About that option, the article says:

More aggressive push for a land bridge to Crimea: Currently, the Russian Federation is connected to Crimea only by a newly built bridge across the Kerch Strait. Ukraine has also blocked Crimea’s main source of fresh water. Connecting Russia to Crimea along the coast would alleviate some of Russia’s logistical challenges, especially as it pertains to fresh water, while turning the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake. However, this would require a sizeable military force breaking through strongly fortified positions along the frontlines of the Donbas and the capture of Mariupol, Ukraine’s 10th largest city.

Further securing Russian control of Crimea is also popular in Russia domestically. As this article by the Moscow Times points out, it's a point of pride among many Russians:

Some 43 percent of Russians said that they took pride in "returning Crimea to Russia," making it Russia's second most celebrated achievement. It was beaten only by Russia's victory in the Great Patriotic War, which was named as a source of pride by 83 percent of respondents.

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  • Thank you for a great (as usual) answer, upvoted! What are the arguments against the Russian government simply planning to negotiate from a powerful position and "as equals" (in their view) with the West? That is, the threat of the invasion is 100% credible, but the goal #1 is mostly to negotiate, and #2 to invade only if the talks fail to achieve the non-negotiable objectives of the Russian regime? Dec 22, 2021 at 14:14
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    @TimurShtatland I'm not sure what kind of talks you refer to. So there have been talks between the US and Russia at the start of the month, that's what the first quote in my answer refers to. That didn't lead anywhere useful. In a real negotiation, Russia probably wants a promise that Ukraine cannot join NATO. That goes against the Western idea that nations have a say in their own future. More realistically, talks might lead to Cold War era security agreements but without the additional assurances Russia wants.
    – JJJ
    Dec 22, 2021 at 14:28
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    @JJJ - there were talks between US State Dept and Russian Foreign Ministry on 15 December 2021
    – Pete W
    Dec 22, 2021 at 17:14
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    "Russia tries to find out what price it has to pay to get what they want." Makes sense. If you're good in military and resources but not much else, then there will always be a temptation to use these assets.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 3 at 18:00
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What does Russia have to gain?

  • In a rather impolite statement, then-President Obama said that without Ukraine, Russia was a mere regional power. A figure of speech, but also referencing the fact that centuries of historical Russian expansion under the Czars had been rolled back by first the transformation of Imperial Russia into the Soviet Union and then the dissolution of that Union.
  • Putin said approximately that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest political disasters of the 20th century (translations vary).
  • Yet in the Budapest Memorandum, then Russia promised Ukraine independence, in return for Ukraine surrendering ex-Soviet nuclear weapons.

So it looks as if the current Russian government wants to take back concessions made by the previous Russian government in a moment of weakness. If it were successful, an invasion of the Ukraine would be a major step in rolling back the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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    Russia also perceives the West as weak (for example, not responding to its annexation of Crimea, its overtures in Belarus, and other aggressive military acts) and wants to maximize its gains at a time when Western response is less likely to be decisive.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 28, 2021 at 8:03
  • @ohwilleke. I believe that Russian elites are genuinely afraid that "the West" might be instigating a color revolution in Russia. That doesn't contradict a perception of "lack of guts" to carry things through, but it might also be a question of different stakes. "The West" would like to see a western-style capitalist democracy in Russia, while Putin is desperate to prevent another "sell-out" of Russia.
    – o.m.
    Dec 28, 2021 at 8:33
  • I learned a new phrase today: "Worldwide media use the term colour revolution (sometimes coloured revolution)[1] to describe various protest movements and accompanying attempted or successful change of governments that took place in several countries of the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia and People's Republic of China during the early 21st century." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colour_revolution "the origins of which can be traced back to the 1986 People Power Revolution (also known as the "Yellow Revolution") in the Philippines." see, e.g., Ukraine's Orange Revolution (2004).
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 28, 2021 at 16:42
  • @ohwilleke the Orange Revolution was already a long-forgotten memory when the event which actually shaped modern Ukraine and its relationship with Russia took place. Euromaidan(2013) was ~ 9-10 years after, and it changed everything.
    – grovkin
    Feb 12 at 23:38
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This question can obviously be answered with much more clarity now. On February 24th, 2022, the military of the Russian Federation began an unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.

What the Russian Federation had to gain by deploying on Ukraine's border was a position from which to begin its war.

This question appeared to be asking what, if anything, RF had to gain had it not attacked. But RF did attack. So the answer turned out to be much more straight forward.

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  • I upvoted, but I am hoping for substantially more detailed predictions. The war is a generic goal. What is the ultimate goal Russia is trying to achieve? See for example the answer that got the bounty. Apr 8 at 11:09

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