The Crisis in Ukraine, and the Russian perspective of the “Borderland”

by Bryan Rivas

Disclaimer: Almost the entire text was written prior to the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thus, it does not deal with the invasion itself, but rather the causes that ultimately led to it.


In the past couple of weeks, the biggest developments in Ukraine since the Euromaidan protests have occurred. Shells being fired into Ukrainian territory with some reports claiming that Ukraine is firing missiles into the Donbas and even Russian Territory. [1] [2] Cyberattacks that have hit critical infrastructure such as government websites like the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, and a multitude of Ukrainian banks. [3] Though the most compelling news has been Russia’s recognition of the Donbas rebel republics and the deployment of Russian troops into these territories. [4] [5] These events have brought the international community into a spiral over Russia’s actions and their intentions in Ukraine. Some questions that surfaced include what the Kremlin’s plans are and if they are planning an invasion in the coming days. Though some of the biggest questions include why would Russia invade if the stakes are so high?

The world did not have to wait long for an answer whether Moscow is ready to invade. Less than 72 hours after the recognition of Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic President Vladimir Putin announced the start of his so-called “special military operation” aimed at the „demilitarization and denazification“ of Ukraine. And now the whole international community is witnessing the first full scale military invasion in Europe since the end of World War II.

It is important however to answer some of these questions and understand what Russia’s motives have been over the past several weeks and why the Kremlin mounted an invasion despite the consequences of sanctions. To get a full understanding, one would have to look back into the history of Russia that spans over hundreds of years of complicated common social, cultural and political interaction with Ukraine. The history of both countries as well as the events that have occurred recently show that the Russian operations have been pre-determined and that nothing was going to change the Kremlin’s course.

And that course is what the world seeing unfold on the international stage.

The History:

To discover the full reasoning for why the Kremlin started an invasion, it is necessary to travel back to the 9th century and the creation of a state with which both Ukraine and Russia share common ancestry – Kievan Rus. This was a Slavic state that was centered around the city of Kyiv and is considered the starting point for both Russian and Ukrainian history. It started with what was known as the Rurikids, a dynasty of Norsemen who were chosen by a group of Northern Slavs to be their rulers. [6] This group would move south through the Dnieper River until they take over the city of Kyiv and in the next few centuries create a state encompassing much of Eastern Europe.

As the state grew, it would convert to Eastern Orthodoxy due to the influences of the Byzantine Empire to the South and would raise as a powerful political, economic and military factor until the Mongols Golden Horde led by Batu Khan invaded and took control of the region in the 13th century. This period in history would become a pivotal moment that tethered Russia to its perceived notion that Ukraine was an integral part of its nation and territory becoming hallowed ground as it was where the Russian nation was born. This is a common belief for many historians and has been stated by President Putin in multiple speeches and op-eds contributing to the overall state media propaganda. [7]

Though what many don’t say is in the last moments of the Kievan Rus, a divide was made between Ukraine and Russia. The Lands of Eastern Ukraine would be taken by the Golden Horde along with the modern lands of European Russia. Meanwhile, the lands of Western Ukraine would be taken by Lithuania, and later Poland under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. [8] This dynamic helped to create the personalities of the two regions of Ukraine. The western half was more oriented towards the west by its connection through Poland while the Eastern half shared commonality with its Russian kin in the struggle against the Mongols. This divide persisted throughout the centuries, as western Ukraine would remain in Polish hands while the east would be closer to Russia. In the Western portions of modern-day Ukraine, the Ukrainians would be encouraged to practice western ways by the Polish authorities and will help to orient them closer to Europe creating the basis of the Ukrainian culture. [9]

However, as the Russian state grew stronger it would move farther westward and meet those who believed in a Ukrainian nation making efforts to suppress the notions of a Ukrainian statehood or any nationality besides that of the Russian nation. This was evident during the days of Alexander III who used the Okhrana, Imperial Russia’s secret police to suppress nationalism from the multiple nationalities of the Russian Empire. [10] Part of this reason as well as their shared history as one country is why Ukraine is not considered a separate entity by the Russian elite. Russia has owned much of Ukraine’s territory over the past 500-600 years of history, and never was there considered the notion of Ukraine as a separate nation. Even the countries name Ukraine is indicative, as it comes from the old Slavic word of “Okraina” meaning borderland or frontier. This belief persisted in the post-Soviet framework as Ukraine has finally become a fully recognized state by the international community.

The Russian leadership does not see Ukraine as an independent nation or at least independent from Moscow’s influence. This is specifically stated in the thoughts of the Russian President Vladimir Putin who has written multiple articles and made many verbal comments on his beliefs about Ukraine. In one paper he expresses how both Ukraine and Russians are one people and uses history through a Russian lens to prove this theory. He would even state with the current events in Ukraine that “we will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia.” [11] 

As the West grows closer with Ukraine, Russia sees this as an encroachment of its sphere of influence and a region that it considers theirs even if not directly controlled by them. For this very reason is why we are seeing the current Russian actions in Ukraine.

Current Events:

Over the past couple of months, multiple flags have been raised over the Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border. There have been many scenarios like this such as in April of 2021, August of 2014, and January of 2015. Many of these scenarios have ended with Russian troops withdrawing or having a partial withdrawal from the Ukrainian border. Though in the current crisis there were differences compared to the other scenarios. This time the Russian buildup was so massive that social media has documenting the massive troop trains moving throughout Russia and even into Belarus, a country that for the most part has remained neutral in the events of Ukraine until recently.

The Russian build up near Ukraine was not just troops and tanks going to specific posts on the border, there have been artillery pieces, anti-aircraft systems, and most profound electronic warfare systems. Within some Russian convoys, Krasukha-4 electronic warfare systems have been spotted. These systems are known to jam as well as destroy enemy electrical equipment and they were placed near Russian SAM sites along the border with Ukraine. [12] Other abnormalities included the creation of blood banks, field hospitals, and logistic hubs near the border. [13] [14] In no other previous instances have the Russians done these measures, and since April 2021 the number of Russian troops has steadily grown along the border, and the amount of activity by the Russian government has been growing as well.

At the eve of the invasion, it was estimated that over 150,000 troops are on the Ukrainian border stretching from Belarus to Rostov na Don in southern Russia and into Crimea. This deployment was characterized as the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. [15] Russia on its part described its buildup in Belarus as a part of a joint military exercises, though far away from the training grounds there have been the construction of pontoon bridges, as well as further Russian troops arriving when Russia declared a partial withdrawal. [16] Furthermore, multiple warships arrived into the Black Sea as well as six amphibious assault ships for supposed exercises. Though what has been most troubling news came from the information realm.

Since January, there has been a surge of Ukrainian coverage on Russian State Media channels. Excluding the average reports of events unfolding in Ukraine, many of the news broadcasts tried to create claims that the events of Ukraine are western orchestrated. Some of these claims include the possibility of the US preparing to send chemical weapons into Ukraine and that the west is fueling the crisis for profit. [17] [18] Other reports included statements about mass graves found in territories that Ukraine shelled in the beginning days of the Donbas conflict despite no evidence for this. [19] From these reports, what has been most interesting is that they were spread to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with even marginal political commentators spreading disinformation following the Russian narrative. This in turn has helped to spin the Kremlin’s narrative to the populace of other nations.

This creation of disinformation is one of the main pillars of Russian Hybrid Warfare. Creating conflicting stories and false narratives to spread on social media for thousands if not millions to see gives Russia the ability to shape public opinion. The objective of Russian disinformation is to make the people question their leaders and their political systems. Russia has demonstrated this perfectly during the Euromaidan protests by making news stories with a narrative that divided the population, specifically between the pro-Russian and pro-Western parts of Ukraine.

Though compared to Ukraine in 2014, this strategy was aimed at the EU and the US. If there is anything Russia fears, it’s if NATO decides to intervene. This makes one of the objectives of the Kremlin to keep the West from contemplating an intervention. Thus, Russian media as well as Russian intelligence has placed information online that is being picked up by multiple people including prominent figures such as Tucker Carlson on Fox News. The more this information is disseminated, the further the population could either go against their government’s view or believe that they are being lied to which can affect public opinion and furthermore influences the decision-making process in western democracies.

Russian deception doesn’t end with just false narratives and information. There have been videos and photos reported by the Donetsk and Lugansk authorities trying to show Ukrainian aggression towards them. But much of the evidence they have provided has been proven false. An example of this is the official announcement from the Lugansk leader for his citizens to evacuate in what was supposedly a video made the same day as it was posted turned out to be a video created two days before the announcement was posted.[20] Other falsified information includes a supposed shelling of Russia by Ukrainian forces, which was also proven false by Ukrainian News who showed geolocation data proof that the shells were fired from rebel-held territory. [21]

In 1995, Russian General Makhmut Gareev said that “systematic broadcasting of psychologically and ideologically biased materials of a provocative nature, mixing partially truthful and false items of information […] can all result in a mass psychosis, despair and feelings of doom and undermine trust in the government and armed forces; and, in general, lead to the destabilization of the situation in those countries, which become objects of information warfare, creating a fruitful soil for actions of the enemy.” [22]

This is considered one of the first references to modern Russian disinformation and it defines how Russia uses its media and intelligence agencies to trick its audience.

Though these deception campaigns are not the main act for Russia. Former Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov has stated in his journal article “The Values of Science and Prediction” that the use of non-military means is more advantageous than using conventional warfare. This includes the use of Diplomatic, Economic, Political, and other non-military forces in the information and cyber domains in order to gain objectives instead of waging open war. He states in his idea that the advances of technology and the expanded use of information allow for reduced fighting as well as the ability to influence state structures as well as the populations of specific countries. [23] This is but a small portion of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine and we have seen how it has worked in the most recent days.

Other actions apart of Russian Hybrid Warfare include the cyber-attacks on February 16th. Cyber-attacks in general have been proven as a common method used by Russia to attack Ukraine shown in the hacking of a power plant in western Ukraine during the battles of Debaltseve in 2015. [24] But despite its usage to weaken an enemy’s infrastructure, it is used as a tool in Russia’s psychological warfare strategy. Gerasimov has signified its use in his article as an effective means to compel a nation. [25] One of the most recent examples are attacks against Ukrainian banks and government ministry websites just before the start of the invasion. If banks and their services are taken offline, this denies Ukrainians the ability to withdraw their money either for goods and services, as well to prepare to flee the country in case of a Russian invasion. As well this will create a panic among the population to disorganize them. This can be highly effective in Ukraine as in recent years they have upgraded their internet infrastructure with the help of countries like Estonia. [26]

As well the attacking of government ministry websites blocks the populace from being provided specific news as well as stopping the government from providing services to its people further creating instability. The Russians showed this tactics effectiveness in Estonia in 2007 by taking down the country’s internet for weeks as well as Georgia in 2008 by performing massive cyberattacks during the Russo-Georgian War. [27] [28] This recent cyber-attack is no different from what it considers a part of its military operations and with the intensification of the war, there will be more Cyber-attacks against Ukraine.

Though despite these tactics usually being used for non-confrontation, why is it important for a Russian invasion some may ask? The reason is that they have a potential to give Russia the best chance of success. The disinformation campaign is meant to tie the west from contemplating a military intervention that will allow Russian forces to almost act with impunity in Ukraine. And the cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s internet system and government apparatus help to destabilize the country so that it will be harder for the country to mount an effective resistance. These actions also represented the prelude to Putin’s invasion as well as to a casus belli for the Russian Army to intervene.


 All these events showed that Russia intended for an invasion of Ukraine for months before the actual attack. Despite Russian doctrine to use hybrid warfare as a means for non-physical confrontation, it has been used in the past as a prelude to invasion as the events in Crimea and Donbas in 2014 have shown. The Russian leadership’s historical perception of Ukraine binds them to the territory and keeps them from being able to believe that Ukraine is a sovereign nation. Putin’s speech recognizing the Donbas territories further proved this claiming that Ukraine is not a nation. [29] [30] Many of the events that have occurred in Ukraine are heavily connected to Russian Hybrid Warfare to further lower the resolve of Ukraine and its allies to pick a fight with Russia. Many have specified that Russia is acting in this manner because they feel they are threatened by NATO expansion after the Cold War. This is true, and it has been shown by many experts. Some experts or commentators have suggested that NATO’s expansion was a mistake and that maybe it should fall back from Eastern Europe and negotiate with Russia a new security system for Europe. [31]

Even with these concerns, it’s necessary to make one thing clear, just because Russia has concerns and fear that doesn’t mean that the fears of millions in Eastern Europe should be sidelined because Russia feels uncomfortable. NATO did not choose to take these territories arbitrarily – the countries in Eastern Europe took the sovereign decision to join the Alliance, some by overwhelming proportions. Even in Ukraine today over 58 percent are supportive of joining NATO and 62% want to join the EU.[32] These surveys include the figures from Eastern and Southern Ukraine, two regions that were believed to be more accepting of a Russian invasion. Another poll showed that 43% of those in South Ukraine and 37.2% of those in Eastern Ukraine would resist a Russian Invasion and are now mounting heavy resistances against Russian forces. [33]

Russia’s demands that NATO’s military forces should withdraw to the borders of the Iron Curtain as well as to stop its further expansion cause a serious threat not just for Ukraine but for NATO members in Eastern Europe. To commit to Russia’s demands for their version of security guarantees is to abandon millions not just in Ukraine but in all Eastern and Central Europe to a fate, these countries had during the Cold War, and this fate could create a dark age for the future of Europe.

Bryan Rivas is a master’s student at the Institute of World Politics with a bachelor’s degree in international relations. He is a Co-host with the George Kennan Roundtable of the Geopolitical Pivot podcast, and his main areas of interest are Russian grand strategy, Latin America, and Japan.

[1] Dettmer, Jamie. 2022. Shelling, Mortar Fire Intensify in Ukraine’s Donbas as War Clouds Gather. February 19. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[2] Guest, Layla. 2022. Russian guard post on Ukraine border hit by artillery shell – Moscow. February 21. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[3] Uberti, David. 2022. Ukrainian Defense Ministry, Banks Hit by Suspected Cyberattacks, Officials Say. February 15. Accessed Feubuary 16, 2022.

[4] DW. 2022. Russian Duma asks Putin to recognize Ukrainian regions as independent. February 15. Accessed February 21, 2022.

[5] Macias, Amanda. 2022. Putin orders forces into rebel eastern Ukrainian regions after recognizing their independence. February 21. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[6] Manaev, Georgy. 2019. Who founded Russia and ruled it before the Romanovs? July 08. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[7] Putin, Vladimir. 2021. Article by Vladimir Putin ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“. July 12. Accessed February 16, 2022.

[8] Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan. 2012. „Medival Ruthenia and the Mongols.“ In Intermarium, The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, 42. New York: Routledge.

[9] Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan. 2012. „The Commonwealth.“ In Intermarium, The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, 49. New York: Routledge.

[10] n.d. Okhrana: Secret Police in Imperial Russia. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[11] Putin, Vladimir. 2021. Article by Vladimir Putin ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“. July 12. Accessed February 16, 2022.

[12] 2022. Russian Krasukha-4 complexes first spotted in Belarus. February 2. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[13] American Post. 2022. Russia moves blood supplies near Ukrainian border. January 29. Accessed February 16, 2022.

[14] Amiel, Sandrine. 2021. Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine is different this time, say experts. June 21. Accessed February 16, 2022.

[15] Alexander Smith, Rebecca Shabad, and Shannon Pettypiece. 2022. Russia adds 7,000 troops to Ukraine border, despite claims it would withdraw some forces, U.S. says. February 16. Accessed February 21, 2022.

[16] Alexander Smith, Rebecca Shabad, and Shannon Pettypiece. 2022. Russia adds 7,000 troops to Ukraine border, despite claims it would withdraw some forces, U.S. says. February 16. Accessed February 21, 2022.

[17] Russian Today. 2021. American mercenaries preparing ‘chemical weapon’ incident in east Ukraine, Russia claims. December 21. Accessed February 20, 2022.

[18] Penn, Thomas J. 2022. The reason the US wants war in Ukraine is ultimately all about the dollar. February 16. Accessed February 20, 2022.

[19] Joffre, Tzvi. 2022. Russia claims mass civilian graves found in Donbas. February 16. Accessed February 20, 2022.

[20] Toler, Aric. 2022. Twitter Post: Head of the LNR posted a video about evacuation on the state news outlet, but the metadata shows that the file was created two days ago (Telegram retains metadata). Testing some other videos on the channel to see other creation dates, will p. February 18. Accessed February 21, 2022.

[21] InformNapalm. 2022. Twitter Post: #Russian territory was shelled from the #Russia-occupied territory. #OSINT Evidence. February 21. Accessed February 21, 2022.

[22] Rácz, András. n.d. Russia’s Hybrid War in Ukraine, Breaking the Enemy’s Ability to Resist. Helsinki: THE FINNISH INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS.

[23] Geramsimov, Valery. 2013. „The Value of Science in prediction.“ Military-Industrial Kurier.

[24] Zetter, Kin. 2016. Inside the Cunning, Unprecedented Hack of Ukraine’s Power Grid. March 3. Accessed April 15, 2021.

[25] Geramsimov, Valery. 2013. „The Value of Science in prediction.“ Military-Industrial Kurier.

[26] 2022. Ukraine – The Country That Defied Vladimir Putin on YouTube. Directed by Adam Something. Performed by Adam Something.

[27] 2007, Estonia: Cyber War, Dan Rather Report. Performed by Dan Rather

[28]Deen, Thomas. 2020. RUSSIAN EXPANSION AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF HYBRID WARFARE. November 24. Accessed April 11, 2021.

[29] Reuters. 2022. Extracts from Putin’s speech on Ukraine. February 21. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[30] n.d. Okhrana: Secret Police in Imperial Russia. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[31] 2022. On the Brink of World War 3 on youtube. Performed by Kyle Kublinsky.

[32] Ukrinform. 2022. Poll: 58% back Ukraines Accession to NATO, 62% want Ukraine to Join EU. February 22. Accessed February 22, 2022.

[33] Slipchenko, Sergiy. 2021. Poll: Over half of Ukrainians will actively resist Russian invasion. December 17. Accessed February 22, 2022.

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