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What is an unbiased view of the causes and trigger of the armed conflict in Ukraine, that started on the 24th of February 2022?

With “trigger” is meant the most recent cause. The one that was like “the straw that broke the camels back”, as the old saying goes.

Besides the most immediate cause: the trigger; causes can also be long term and short term causes.

Wikipedia articles are on the whole very informative, but they are often too long and general in nature to easily draw specialized conclusions from.

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    Have you checked Wiki? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2022_Russian_invasion_of_Ukraine#Prelude
    – Allure
    Jun 9 at 12:09
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    I'm not keen to do your reading and summarize for you, sorry.
    – Allure
    Jun 9 at 12:14
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    The causes and triggers of armed conflicts are better discussed decades or centuries later, when the participants are dead, all documents are available, and the historians have no ax to grind against either side. In this sense, WW1/WW2 are already difficult subjects, wars in Vietnam or Algeria are even more so. The war in Ukraine stirs so many passions, and we have so little factual information that most we can do is guesses. It could be still a very interesting discussion... but it falls beyond the scope of the SE (I am not voting to close, but it won't take long before others do). Jun 9 at 12:58
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    Without asking this from some specific perspective, answers are going to be "opinion-based". Because Russia says one thing, Ukraine and West another etc. Furthermore, there was at least one prior question here about the Russian perspective, if you use the search function. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/71599/… ; politics.stackexchange.com/questions/70484/…
    – Fizz
    Jun 9 at 13:33
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    Shure ther is a consensus, there are at least even 2, one in Russia and an other in the West, so which one you are asking for.
    – convert
    Jun 19 at 11:57

3 Answers 3

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Knowing the true answer requires speculation about the internal motivations of President Putin. Such a thing is out of scope on this Board. One might talk about the published reasoning of various governments, think tanks, and journalists.

  • First, you have to decide if you give weight to the public justifications by Russia, either because you believe them or because you believe that the Russian leadership genuinely believes them.
    • Russia said that the current leadership of Ukraine are Nazis and a threat to the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine. There you might look at the war which had been ongoing between the Ukrainian government and the separatist regions. Of course it had been ongoing for years, but recent deaths might have been the proverbial straw.
    • Russia said that Ukraine was allied with NATO, notably the United States, and host to secret labs and weapons. I don't believe that Russia genuinely believes this, but they might have had (incorrect? correct?) intelligence reports. Remember how the US deceived itself regarding Iraqi WMD.
    • Russia says that the so-called color revolutions are actually a plot by the West, aimed at governments which do not comply with Washington's wishes. The West has been questioning President Putin's legitimacy for years. While I believe that Russia believes this, I do not see a proverbial straw here.
  • Or you look at the Western analysis of Russian motivations, and wonder what might have changed from 2018 or 2020 to 2022. There one might consider three aspects:
    • Russia obviously believed that it had sufficient military power for a swift victory. Russia had been pursuing military reforms for several years, they might have believed that they were good enough now.
    • Russia might have believed that economic and geopolitical trends go against it, and that a window of opportunity was closing if it did not act now.
    • The President Putin might have medical issues and feel that his likely successors might not complete his visions. Without more evidence, that is speculative.
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+150

To elaborate with specifics on a few of points that are only generally touched-on in o.m.'s answer:

  • LPR/DPR leaders (I forget exactly which one) did claim the discovery of over a hundred mass graves in their region, in the weeks before the invasion.

  • There was an intensification of the artillery exchanges on the border. (Ukraine blames LPD/DPR for this.) DPR declared all-out mobilization of their armed forces and reservists on Feb 19. Russia officially recognizes them (LPR/DPR) as independent countries on Feb 21. It says it received and answered a request for military assistance from LPR/DPR. Importantly, Russia recognizes the LDP/DRP claims to the entire Ukrainian oblasts that these republics derive their names from, even though LPR/DPR only control about a third of the territory they claimed, at that time. Thus the Russian claim for one of the war's aim being the "liberation" of the entire Donbas area claimed by LPR/DPR.

  • Zelensky's popularity was at a pretty low point before the invasion, with some infighting in his government etc. Even some Western analysis thought his government would do a poor job organizing the defense, and the resistance would more likely fall to volunteer forces outside the government (as had happened in 2014 to a good extent). Russian forces in contrast were deemed to have benefited from the experience of years of combat involvement in Syria, particularly against insurgent/volunteer-type opposition. (Given how things turned out in Mariupol, those assessments may have been correct to some extent.)

  • In a survey from Feb, 90% of Ukrainians polled said they did not believe Russia would invade, thus suggesting that a "shock and awe" campaign may be possible. (According to UK's RUSI, this survey had been paid for by the Russian FSB.) This may explain in part why Russia tried to quickly dispatch forces to Kyiv, leading with paratroopers etc.

  • In southern Ukraine a goal (that had certainly been aired in the Russian media before) was to secure the (fresh water) canal linking the Dniper to Crimea. Ukraine had blocked this canal with a dam after 2014, claiming unpaid bills by Russia; Russia said agriculture in Crimea had been severely affected as a result.

  • Another (fairlly certain) goal in the south was to secure a (larger) land bridge to Crimea via Mariupol, itself the location of fighting and a failed insurrection in 2014. (It's more debatable if Russia still intends to capture to Odessa, itself a major city and the site of some unrest in 2014, and that way also a land link with Transnistria, which Russian general (and president of Tatarstan) Minnikhanov suggested at one point. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the US says Russia does still intend that.)

As for [one of] the long[er]-term trends that might have worried Russia:

  • Ukraine was arming itself with Turkish drones. They even had a join-venture factory planned. Such drones are of limited use against a well-equipped adversary like Russia, but potentially much more effective against the lesser forces of the LPR/DRP, if the defeat of the Russian-backed Armenia in the recent round of war with Azerbaijan (backed by Turkey) is to be taken as relevant in that regard. Putin did explicitly complain about (the) one Ukrainian drone strike last fall on a LPR/DPR howitzer.
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This answer is setting out to pinpoint the main causes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The long-term cause of the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have been the failed promise of the Americans to not extend NATO past Germany which happened in 1999 when the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland became members.

A long-term cause that intensified in 2004 when seven other former Soviet Union countries became members, leading to Ukraine’s increased interest in joining NATO. For Russia to earlier have been given assurance that NATO would not expand towards the east, to now have NATO so close to its border was completely unacceptable, and Russia tried therefore to woo Ukraine to not jump onto the bandwagon but to stay neutral. Something that was not welcomed by Ukraine, who in February 2019 enshrined in their constitution the goal of becoming full fledged members of NATO.

The short term cause of the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to stem from about 2015 when they first could have perceived a potential biological weapons threat from the bio-labs of Ukraine. What seemed to have worried them most was that it was their old nemesis the United States that was funding these bio-labs. A real threat or not, having lived through the massive Chernobyl catastrophe first hand, Russia would have earned the right to be a bit paranoid in this area.

(A special caution to the Russians needs to be added here. As was hinted at in the airport customs scene, at the end of the film "12 Monkeys", deliberate shelling of a city could backfire, with similar or worse consequences than what the Chernobyl accident had. Because, frozen dangerous pathogens could thaw and escape from a damaged bio-lab, if freezer power is cut off. Indeed, the Geneva Protocol on just warfare (part 4) requires that only the military be targeted, not civilians.)

The trigger of the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have been the failed Minsk II Accord (12 Feb 2015 – 21 Feb 2022), which Russia had hoped would bring peace to the unstable Donbass region, where Ukrainian fighters were attacking the Russian-speaking separatist states: Donetsk and Luhansk. The failed relationship between Ukraine and Donbass may be summarized in the words of a novelist: “Donna filed for divorce from her abusive husband Kerry after eight years of unsuccessful counselling. She then also took out a restraining order against him with the local authorities".

Consequently, in order of importance, the causes behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have been: 1. The continuous bombardment by West and Central Ukraine of the Russian speaking separatists in East Ukraine. 2. Ukraine’s legislated aim to join NATO. And, 3. The reports about US funded, potential accidental biological spills, bio labs in Ukraine, alarmingly close to Russia.

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    Because everything the Russian state propaganda says is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, notwithstanding numerous contradictions in its narrative?
    – meriton
    Jun 19 at 12:33
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    And if "NATO not close to its border" was the objective, hasn't this backfired spectacularly with Finland about to join NATO, bringing NATO into direct contact with Russian territory along a 1340 km long land border? If NATO were the issue, shouldn't this be a more concerning than the 410 km long Ukraine/Russian border? Yet one was the pretext to a preventive strike, which the other seems to hardly bother Putin? The Russian narrative that NATO threatens Russia is not consistent with Russian policy.
    – meriton
    Jun 19 at 12:52
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    -1 -- This just repeats the Russian government's public statements, which is not a consensus view. It's reasonable to mention the statements, but calling them the consensus is a step too far. Consensus implies that the vast majority of people subscribe to the view.
    – cpast
    Jun 19 at 22:24
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    @Constantthin If you're claiming a consensus, I would expect one of a couple possibilities. If just about all notable sources have the same view, that'd show a consensus. If just about all notable sources agree "the consensus is X" (regardless of whether they believe X themselves), that'd show a consensus. Absent those, I'd expect some sort of polling data of the group that allegedly has a consensus, without there being polls that show the opposite views. With the Ukraine conflict, I would argue there is no global consensus.
    – cpast
    Jun 19 at 22:39
  • @cpast It's certainly the Russian consensus, at the very least.
    – nick012000
    Jun 20 at 13:14

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