Comparing Russia's military options in 2014 and 2021, it seems that cost-benefit analysis of a large-scale military operation looked much more favorable in 2014. After all, Yanukovich was the recognized head of state, and he could have requested Russian troops to protect the country from the civil war. In this case Russia would have achieved the effective control of Ukraine at a miniscule fraction of the cost they'd have to pay today, since they would:

  • not be fighting an organized army;
  • face few if any international sanctions;
  • encounter little or no guerilla resistance afterwards;
  • face a much smaller risk of domestic pushback due to casualties;
  • contribute much less towards the unity of the NATO and the West.

If Yanukovich could not be persuaded to ask for the troops, Russia's costs would skyrocket, but they would still be much smaller than today because:

  • Ukraine's military was almost completely dysfunctional;
  • Ukraine was not on the Western political radar;
  • entering a country without a government and in the middle of an internal conflict causes much less resistance from the population.

What factors could have contributed to Russia's decision to not use its military to either preserve the Yanukovich government, or to install a new pro-Russian government in Kiev?

  • 3
    The whole conflict is about Ukraine's presence on the Western political radar since 1991. It just wasn't on the mainstream media agenda.
    – Therac
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 1:13
  • Perhaps, but the mainstream media has a huge impact on how strongly the West can afford to respond. After all, sanctions are quite bad for businesses, so the Western politicians imposing sanctions must balance the business interests, general public attitudes, and their personal ideological beliefs. In 2021 the general public shows a much stronger support for Ukraine, and thus tilts the scales of a typical politician's decision process towards the stronger sanctions.
    – MkV
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 6:26
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    This question assumes that the primary objective has always been the direct conquest of Ukraine. But it could easily be either that Putin would be content with just a pro-Russian government or that it would have been enough then but now it is not.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 9:06
  • 2
    I actually assumed Putin's goal with respect to Ukraine is exactly that, a pro-Russian government. I think my question still makes sense under this assumption? As in, today it would take an outright invasion against a reasonably stable sovereign state to impose a pro-Russian government. In 2014, protecting the pro-Russian Yanukovich in power (against what Russia might argue was an illegal coup!) would have cost far less.
    – MkV
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 9:18
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    I find all of your five points about why intervening in 2014 would have been more favorable to Russia than today demand a [citation needed] by the side. I can't see why sanctions, unity of NATO, guerrilla warfare or local pushback against casualities would had been any different, nor I think the ukrainian army was any worse or better organized than now. Why do you think the word of a president that was being outed by a coup d'êtat would had made things different in the eyes of NATO, the ukrainian army and citizens that supported that coup, or the russian people?
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 12:19

4 Answers 4


This article argues that Russia thought that Ukraine would go back to a pro-Russian government sooner or later, just like it did after the Orange revolution. A military action, even if approved by Yanukovich, would still require dealing with a lot of popular discontent, and so it will be more costly than simply waiting out the Ukrainian political cycle while putting some economic pressure.

If that argument is correct, Russia either (a) overestimated the chances of Ukraine returning to the Russian sphere of influence; or (b) judged those chances correctly but lost a reasonably safe bet through bad luck.

One could also argue that Russia harmed those chances with the actions it took in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine; but that would fall under (a) since Russia should have accounted for their own future decisions when estimating the probabilities.

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    The cycle of pro-Russian and anti-Russian governments was not broken by bad luck, it was broken by the Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of Donbas, which unified the Ukrainian population against Russia. It might have worked if they actually waited it out. Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 16:10
  • Ah good point. Edited the answer to add this option.
    – MkV
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 21:34
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    also: by occupying Russian-speaking areas (which were possibly more friendly towards Russia), they were removed from the pool of potential voters, which might have tipped the balance of power in Ukraine. i.e. Russia shot itself in the foot?
    – mystery
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 11:16
  • @Andrea "Russia shot itself in the foot" shot is right but itself maybe not. What you describe can and maybe already is corrected by occupying an even greater area to also include Ukrainian-speaking areas. Surely, in Eastern Ukraine didn't only live Russians (whereas in Crimea that was really the case with a very large majority). Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 11:24
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    @Trilarion it's about the proportion. if Russia occupies an area with 60% Russia-friendly voters and 40% non-Russia-friendly, and if the rest of Ukraine is in general less Russia-friendly, then the average in non-occupied Ukraine tips in the unfavourable direction and that will be reflected in election outcomes.
    – mystery
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 11:30
  • While the military was undoubtedly weaker, the Ukrainian military seemed to be in far worse shape (and the Russians might have avoided the fighting altogether by telling Yanukovich that he should invite them). The Russian reserves were 1.5x lower, but I don't know if this is really a big deal (you probably want this link btw: cbr.ru/eng/hd_base/mrrf/mrrf_m or tradingeconomics.com/russia/foreign-exchange-reserves). I suspect the level of sanctions for invading a sovereign state is orders of magnitude higher than helping the then government.
    – MkV
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 9:33

I agree with the most points made by OP with exeption of sanctions. It was very clear for Russia that the West would impose sanctions. There was some kind of request for help by Yahukovich Russia presented in security cancil, but the West has refused it as a fake and threatend with sanctions. At that point in time even smaller sanctions could heart Russia hard as there was huge economic dependance with the West. During the last years Russia tried to get rid of as much that dependancies as posible.

There is a historical example for Russia where an invasion started as a succes but turned later into the bigest disaster. I am tallking about Afganistan, the invasion itself was relative unbloody an took just 1 day, as far I remember. Than occupation of Afganistan started and this was very bloody. The situation with Ukraine was expected to go very similar way.

At the very begining there were uprisings not just in Donbass, but some other parts of south-eastern Ukraine, like Odessa and Kharkov. If this uprisings would be succesful, all this part of Ukraine could breack away. This breack away region could then become a pro russian country like Belarus or even part of Russia without a single shoot. Russia would not need to deal with the western part of Ukraine, which was always hostile to Russia. By invasion Russia would also loose suport in regions where it had such.

In the ruling party there were 2 factions, one of them is so called "pro western" faction, led by Putins best pal and former presiden Medvedev. This faction was interested in having some good relations with the West and intervention in Ukraine would negate it.

  • I think it's a good point that sanctions might have been more serious than I realized. Do we have any estimate of which of the 2014 sanctions might actually hurt Russia too badly? Presumably, Russia could still sell LNG to Europe and oil to everyone (at the ~$100 price at the time). Was it investments or imports that Russia was afraid to lose? About the pro-Western faction in Moscow: does it still exist? If not, why did it lose influence over the last 7 years?
    – MkV
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 21:49
  • Would Putin be satisfied (in 2014, and in 2021) with Donetsk, Kharkov, Odessa, Crimea and a few other eastern regions to serve as a buffer zone against the Western-leaning Kiev?
    – MkV
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 21:55
  • @MkV I´ve used quotes for pro-Western, as it´s not such pro-Western faction as you have in some neighbor countries. The ruling party United Russia was created from many parties, one of which was Yelcins party, which was the most pro-Western party Russia ever had. That faction still exists, but their position is much weaker then 2014.
    – convert
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 23:46
  • To answe the question if Putin be satisfied just wit the regions with big russian minority, which are in the sout-east of Ukraine, I would say yes. At least refering to his speech from Monday.
    – convert
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 23:50

What factors could have contributed to Russia's decision to not use its military to either preserve the Yanukovich government, or to install a new pro-Russian government in Kiev?

I can't give you a full list of factors, but one of them was a possibility to solve the situation with Donbas (DPR and LPR) people by mutual agreements.

Such an agreement has been developed and signed in Minsk on 5 September 2014 by Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine and leaders of Donbas. It failed to take effect and a new version of agreement has been signed on 12 February 2015. The main point of the agreement was ceasefire, but, unfortunately even 2nd version has never been fully implemented and territories of Donbas has been living at a state of constant bombarding for 8 years, which includes both the front line and civil areas, the bombarding has even reached Russian territory of Rostov Oblast recently.

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    I can see that it could be a factor against invasion after DPR and LPR were established (April 2014). But I am interested in why Putin didn't act earlier, while he could still save the pro-Russian government of Yanukovich. Yanukovich was the official head of state until he resigned in February 2014; and Putin's not acting in January or February could not be explained by any considerations around DPR / LPR (which didn't yet exist).
    – MkV
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 9:24
  • @MkV, the very possibility of making agreements has been existing even before DPR and LPR been established, and obviously Russia knew about such a possibility. This is the factor I'm talking about. One makes decisions and acts basing on predictions of the future, and if those predictions are proven to be incorrect one changes their decisions and acts differently. To learn whether your predictions are right or wrong you need time.
    – klm123
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 9:49
  • Ok, I see what you mean. But wasn't Russia's issue with Ukraine not so much Donbas, but the openly anti-Russian, pro-Western political forces that were trying to take power in Kiev (by overthrowing Yanukovich)? Even if the Russians thought that Donbas would somehow be given to them, that wouldn't keep Ukraine as a whole away from the Western alliances.
    – MkV
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 9:53

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