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Why Did Russia Invade Ukraine

What is behind Russia's attempt to subjugate and eradicate the Ukrainian nation?

April 2, 2022

Image: The Siege of Kharkov. Johannes Roots, Estonia, 2022.

The reasons below are widely cited and we believe among the most significant.

What is at Stake?

Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine since 2014 has been regarded by many in the West as a regional conflict and “not our problem.”  Anne Applebaum observed that this is “no longer true” as Ukrainians “have made their cause a global one by arguing that they fight for a set of universal ideas—for democracy,” the “rule of law,” peaceful resolution of disputes, and “resistance to dictatorship.”  

She quotes Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: “This is not about Ukraine at all, but the world order. The current crisis is a fateful, epoch-making moment in modern history. It reflects the battle over what the world order will look like.” Applebaum notes the West must not succumb to fear in supporting Ukraine to victory. She writes: "in the case of a Russian victory...autocrats from Minsk to Caracas to Beijing will taken note: Genocide is now allowed."

A Free, Democratic Neighbor is a Threat to Autocracy

Former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev stated: “If Ukraine becomes westernised…Russian people will look over the border and they will say, how come our brothers are free and prosperous?” 

Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Threatens Russia’s Mafia State

Ukraine’s anti-corruption campaign is also perceived as a threat to Putin.  While Ukraine has struggled with its Soviet-era legacy, its efforts to confront and root out corruption conflict with its eastern neighbor.

US diplomats have noted in leaked cables that Russia is "a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy…in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a 'virtual mafia state'...the government [of Russia] effectively [is] the mafia.”

Researcher Stephen Blank noted in 2008 that Russia under Putin is "a state that European officials privately call a Mafia state" that "naturally gravitates toward Mafia-like behavior." Spanish prosecutor Jose Grinda Gonzalez wrote that Russia uses “organised crime groups to do whatever the government of Russia cannot acceptably do as a government."  The Guardian (UK) reported evidence based on more than a decade-long investigation by Spanish authorities that:

  • “Russian spies use senior mafia bosses to carry out criminal operations such as arms trafficking.

  • “Law enforcement agencies such as the police, spy agencies and the prosecutor's office operate a de facto protection racket for criminal networks.

  • “Rampant bribery acts like a parallel tax system for the personal enrichment of police, officials and the KGB's successor, the federal security service (FSB).

In the Berkeley Political Review, McIlvenna-Davis wrote:

  • “Soviet-era repression has given way to a marriage between kleptocracy and organized crime. Among industrialized nations, Russia’s relationship with crime is uniquely symbiotic. Organized crime in Russia has blossomed as an outgrowth of the political machine. Mafia cells have undertaken assassination attempts, facilitated coercion and acted as tools for the assorted and sundry dirty jobs the Russian elites require.”

Researcher Mark Galleotti noted that “Joseph Stalin incentivized the collaboration between criminals and the government during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.”  Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork The Gulag Archipelago documents the continuing collaboration between criminals and government during the Soviet period.

Nezvlin noted rule by siloviki (strongmen), widespread corruption, corruption of Russia’s legal system, and economic stagnation under Putin. The primary economic beneficiaries have been an elite group of oligarchs with personal loyalty to Putin, even as the broader Russian population - and victims of Russian aggression abroad - has seen little benefit.

Religious Liberty is at Stake

Ukraine’s freedom of conscience and religion is a threat to Russian autocracy, which uses religion as a means of popular control and to assert the legitimacy of its leadership. The Russian Orthodox Church was heavily infiltrated by the KGB, its highest leader was a KGB agent, and its current organization was even set up by the KGB.

In contrast, Ukraine has been called the “Bible Belt of Eastern Europe” with greater religious freedom and diversity, and many Ukrainians are suspicious of the Russian Orthodox Church’s attempts to exercise political power.


Applebaum, Anne. "Ukraine Must Win." The Atlantic, March 22, 2022.

Harding, Luke. "WikiLeaks cables condemn Russia as 'mafia state.'" The Guardian (UK), December 1, 2010.

Stephen Blank (2008): What Comes After the Russo–Georgian War? What's at Stake in the CIS, American Foreign Policy Interests, 30:6, 379–391.

Harding, Luke. "WikiLeaks cables: Russian government 'using mafia for its dirty work.'" The Guardian (UK), December 1, 2010.

McIlvenna-Davis, Dylan.  "Gangs and Gulags: How Vladimir Putin Utilizes Organized Crime to Power his Mafia State." Berkeley Political Review, December 16, 2019.

Nevzlin, Leonid. "The Result of 20 Years of Putin: Russia as a Mafia State." Institute of Modern Russia, January 24, 2020.

Meek, James. "Russian Patriarch 'was KGB agent.'"  The Guardian (UK), February 12, 1999.

Luchenko, Ksenia.  "Why Do the Russians Trust the Church Set Up By the KGB?" Newsweek, February 10, 2018.

Green, Lauren. “Putin's war against Ukraine may have spiritual, religious foundations: 'Good vs. evil.'” Fox News, March 20, 2022.

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