How to justify a war: Putin’s arguments for invading Ukraine

The Russian leader has tried to present his attack on Kyiv as an unavoidable military operation, invoking long dead history and false arguments about Russia’s modern-day neighbor

Patricia R. Blanco
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks about authorising a special military operation, on February 24.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks about authorising a special military operation, on February 24.RUSSIAN POOL (via REUTERS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to justify Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine by constructing a narrative showing a military operation was unavoidable. According to this false and twisted reasoning, Moscow is seeking to protect Ukrainian citizens with “blood ties” to Russia from the policies of the Ukrainian government, which Kremlin propaganda labels a “neo-Nazi regime.” Putin also claims he is trying to defend Russia from the threat of Ukraine itself, which he terms an “artificial” state supported by NATO and the West.

These are some of the false arguments the Kremlin uses to justify its ongoing incursion into Ukraine:

1. Ukraine is a threat to Russia

In the days before the invasion began, the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics and the Russian authorities denounced attacks by Ukrainian forces. However, many of these appear to be false flag attacks, i.e. simulated offensives to fabricate an excuse against the enemy, according to EUvsDinsinfo, a European Union team specialized in combating Russian disinformation. On February 21, Russian security services reported alleged shelling by Ukrainian forces against a Russian border checkpoint in the Rostov region, according to Russian news agency TASS. An accompanying 37-second video showed a hut destroyed in a remote location, but it did not appear to be a military installation.

On the same day, Russian Telegram accounts were distributing another video allegedly showing Ukrainian saboteurs entering Russian territory, and the destruction of two armored vehicles. An analysis of both sets of footage by the Center for Information Resilience shows they occurred on the border between Russia and the Donetsk area under the command of pro-Russian separatists, not in an area controlled by Ukrainian forces.

With such “absurd” and easily dismantled narratives, there is a possibility that Putin intends “to laugh at Westerners” and caricature their hypocrisy in the Kosovo or Iraq conflicts, according to Russia expert Eric Pardo, professor of International Relations at the University of Deusto. Putin’s goal, he believes, may be to show off his power and “demonstrate that he too can do and say whatever he wants.”

2. Ukraine is committing genocide in Donbas

During the February 22 speech in which he announced the invasion of Ukraine, Putin denounced the alleged “genocide” being carried out by Kyiv in the Ukrainian separatist territories of Donetsk and Lugansk. While not new, this narrative draws on the language of international human rights to portray Kyiv as the worst of villains. According to an analysis by EUvsDisinfo, the accusations of genocide leveled against Ukraine by the pro-Kremlin media in the days leading up to the invasion have increased fivefold compared to the last six months.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch alleged in a 2016 report called You Don’t Exist that both Ukrainian authorities and separatist forces had illegally and arbitrarily detained civilians during the 2014 conflict and subjected them to torture and ill-treatment. However, although these crimes amount to a violation of human rights, they do not constitute a genocide, i.e. the systematic extermination of a specific population. There is no mention of genocide in either the Ukraine reports of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights or those of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Special Mission to the Ukrainian separatist region of Donbas.

3. Ukraine is a neo-Nazi regime

This Kremlin favorite has its origins in the involvement of violent right-wing extremist groups in the Ukrainian Maidan protests in 2014 and in the early days of the Donbas war. Putin avoids mentioning that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a Russian speaker and himself Jewish, and that his party promotes policies including a woman’s right to choose.

That said, the Ukrainian government does have historical ties with the far right. “To give an example, the G7 went so far as to address Ukraine during the 2019 presidential elections by denouncing the closeness of the then Minister of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, to the far-right Azov Battalion,” explained Pardo. Although Ukraine’s democracy is not the strongest in world — The Economist index rates the country with a score of 5.57 out of 10, where 10 would mean a perfect democracy — the former Soviet republic is far from being a Nazi regime.

Given Nazism’s place in Russia’s collective memory, it is very useful “to win over Russian citizens,” the expert added. “It is very easy to see Russia as a bully, but, from their point of view, the defense against a Nazi regime appeals to the suffering of the citizens of the former USSR against Nazi Germany, which caused the death of between 22 and 29 million [Russian] people” in World War II.

4. Ukrainians are our relatives

Putin has emphasized the historical ties between Ukraine and Russia on several occasions, although in his speech last Tuesday he was particularly explicit: “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country, it is an inalienable part of our history, culture and spiritual space. They are our comrades, friends and … moreover, relatives, people united by blood ties.” He went on: “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by the Bolsheviks, communist Russia.” From Putin’s perspective, not intervening in Ukraine would be like abandoning one’s own family.

Pardo explains that while Putin is trying to “defend the Russians in Ukraine,” he simultaneously stresses it is “a sister nation.” The Russian leader could tolerate Ukraine being a separate nation, he said, “as long as it does not lean too far towards the West, the European Union or worse, NATO.” He added: “One could enter into debates on the solidity of the historical arguments that each nationalist narrative expounds, but a nation is real as soon as a certain narrative is shared. This is clearly the case in Ukraine.”

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