Putin’s motivation behind the attack on Ukraine 

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Michael C. Horowitz, director of Perry World House, provides insight into Putin’s motivations, nuclear threats, and expansionist views.

A Ukrainian flag is shown in front of a spray painted image of Vladimir Putin with a red handprint on his face
Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine on Thursday, hitting cities and bases with airstrikes or shelling, as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee. (Image: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

With Russia’s large-scale attack on Ukraine, peace in Europe has been shattered. Russian President Vladimir Putin has shrugged off sanctions and condemnation from around the globe and warned countries that any attempt to interfere in the invasion would lead to “consequences you have never seen,” appearing to threaten nuclear war. What are his motivations and why did he act at this moment in time?

Penn Today spoke with Michael C. Horowitz, director of Perry World House and the Richard Perry Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to get his take on Putin’s shocking decision to invade Ukraine. Horowitz is the author of “The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics,” and the co-author of “Why Leaders Fight.”

Now that we know that Putin’s NATO complaints weren’t genuine, what do you think his motivations are to invade Ukraine?

The best evidence we have now suggests that Putin believes that an independent, democratic Ukraine is a threat to him and to Russia. Unfortunately, he’s decided that the only way to deal with that threat is through the use of overwhelming military force.

Why did he act now?

This is a crisis of Putin’s own making. The information that the Biden administration has released very clearly demonstrates the way that Putin, every step of the way, has manufactured this crisis to legitimize Russia’s invasion of a sovereign Ukraine. As for why exactly now, there doesn’t seem to be a firm reason, except it’s the winter in Ukraine and so the ground is relatively better for an attack featuring tracked vehicles like tanks, and the Olympics are over, so the invasion is not getting in China’s limelight.

Does he actually want to reestablish the Soviet Union?

Putin certainly appears to have some more maximalist goals of rebuilding Russia to where, in his mind, it was during the Cold War. He views Russia as having declined since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The speech that Putin gave to his National Security Council a few days ago even said that he thinks that all of the post-Soviet states are actually part of Russia. Putin has unleashed a horrifying and devastating war in Ukraine based on his desire to grow Russia's status and influence. It’s terrible.

What should we make of Putin’s apparent threat of nuclear war should other countries intervene?

The Biden administration has been clear that they aren’t looking to have U.S. military forces directly intervene in the conflict. Ukraine is not a NATO ally of the United States, meaning the United States does not have a treaty obligation to defend Ukraine. I think Putin certainly fears NATO getting involved in a way that would make his conquest attempt much more difficult. There does appear to be an implied threat involving nuclear weapons in his statement. That’s consistent with how a lot of people think Russia views its nuclear weapons, in that Russia thinks of itself as conventionally inferior to NATO, and certainly to the United States. There’s been theorizing that if a direct conflict with NATO forces occurred, Russia would leverage its nuclear weapons earlier in a conflict because it would worry about losing the conventional war.

The Ukraine case is a little bit different, in that Russia is trying to prevent intervention. There has been no real public sign that the Biden administration wants to deploy U.S. military forces in Ukraine. In fact, we’ve done the opposite of that—there are U.S. forces deployed around Ukraine in NATO countries, but that’s a very different thing.

This feels like a terrible throwback war, with visuals of tanks rolling into a European city. What is your reaction to these images?

It’s the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II and that pretty much says it all about the potential size, scope, and consequences of this conflict.

War never went away, but wars of conquests that involve going after entire countries have certainly been on the decline for about 75 years. What we’re witnessing now is naked aggression, and whether it comes from Russian weakness or Russian strength, in some ways doesn’t matter.

There’s a lot of uncertainty right now about what’s actually happening on the ground; you can’t believe everything you see on Twitter. The conventional wisdom is that the Ukrainians will fight hard and fight well, but that the Russians certainly have the capacity to take Kyiv given how close it is to the border with Belarus and Russian buildup of forces moving from Belarus into Ukraine.

What do you think will happen next?

We don’t know exactly what will happen next. Putin could try to consolidate control over the whole country, but then he will likely face a large insurgency; he could try to install a puppet government and then withdraw Russian forces to the eastern provinces, leaving the puppet government to deal with what will likely be an inevitable insurgency by the Ukrainians who wish to have their country back.

Perry World House has had a number of events on this topic over the last month—when even Alexander Vershbow, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO had questions about what Putin wanted; it shows how unpredictable and fast moving the situation has been.

It also suggests the importance of leaders in international politics. We have these models of what influences how countries behave that are very much based on the balance of economic, political, and military forces. But at the end of the day, especially in autocratic countries, leaders matter a lot. And as Putin has consolidated control over the Russian political system, Russian foreign policy increasingly operates at Putin’s whim. Democratic leaders are often more constrained than autocratic leaders by politics, and especially autocratic leaders that have more personalist control over the country the way Putin does.

Are these sanctions going to work? What should next steps be for the international community?

If what Putin wants is to take Ukraine, the Russian military certainly has the capacity to take Ukraine. Whether they can hold Ukraine at an acceptable cost over time is a different story. So, the impact of any sort of sanctions will depend on a lot of things: It will depend on what Russia does in response; depending on the severity of the sanctions, it will depend on the extent to which the world can adapt to make itself less reliant on Russian energy and wheat. The Russian economy is cratering and Putin in public seems relatively indifferent to the suffering that the Russian people will likely face as a result of this invasion of Ukraine. Putin probably hopes that the West will give up and back down before the pain in Russia reaches a point where he needs to back down. I think it’s a miscalculation on his part, but international politics is complicated.

What’s the most important thing people should understand about Putin right now?

People need to understand that the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II has started, and Russia is invading Ukraine because Vladimir Putin has decided he wants Russian influence to expand. There are lots of different explanations or justifications people could offer for why Putin felt like he had to engage in this behavior, but at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with Putin for invading Ukraine. Nobody forced him to do this. He manufactured this crisis out of smoke, essentially, and the results are going to be catastrophic for thousands or even millions of people.