Why Russia Invaded Ukraine, Really? The Ontological Insecurity of the Fragile Identity

By Milan Varda
Milan Varda is a PhD candidate and Junior Researcher at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Belgrade  

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On 24th February 2022, the world was turned into turmoil by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has had a direct impact on millions of lives in Ukraine, and it has indirectly affected many more people across the globe. The invasion has also incurred huge costs for Russia, the invading country. Russia has lost approximately around 10% of its GDP, thousands of military vehicles, the lives of about 200,000 soldiers, and the image of being the world’s second most powerful military, all while having the greatest brain drain in decades. Meanwhile, it has not fulfilled any objectively significant strategic goal during this time, as Russia did not capture Kyiv, and it did not ensure that Ukraine stays further away from NATO. Rather, the opposite has happened, as Ukraine is closer to NATO than ever before, and Finland, which shares a massive border with Russia, has joined the alliance. Why would any country risk so much without any measurable gain?

Russian invasion seems quite irrational, but most media and even political scientists are not exploring the irrationality of this strategic move. Rather, they remain rooted in rationalist explanations when examining the cause of the invasion. These explanations could be grouped into realist and liberal explanations.

Realism generally focuses on the balance of power between great powers; realist explanations are often echoed by Russian official and semi-official narratives. Realist explanations usually focus on Russia’s need to reestablish the balance of power by protecting its sphere of interest in Eastern Europe. According to these claims, a country that is a great power will seek to dominate weaker powers in its region. This could not have been a reason behind Russia’s invasion, simply because there is a presence of far greater power (US/NATO) within the same region. If anything, the invasion has proven that the difference in power is much greater than initially thought.

One could support this argument by claiming that Russia has just misperceived its own power. While that is indeed plausible and likely, there was no objective reason to invade Ukraine. By having control over Crimea, as well as militants in Donbass, Russia had effectively secured Ukraine from joining NATO, as NATO would not accept membership of a country that has disputed territory with Russia and that is already in a conflict. Russian invasion could not have helped with keeping Ukraine outside of NATO in any significant manner. In the long run, this invasion has guaranteed that Ukraine will be much closer to NATO. Furthermore, due to feeling threatened, Finland has joined NATO, thus exponentially increasing the NATO-Russia border. Not very rational if somebody’s goal is to protect his security, is it?

There is also an emerging group of liberal explanations often coming from Western media. According to these approaches, authoritarian Russia is trying to prevent the spread of democratic Western influence. While the rivalry between Russia and US or NATO could potentially be conceived in these terms, this conflict cannot really be.1 Neither Russia nor Ukraine is not really functioning like liberal democratic countries, making this a conflict between two hybrid regimes. If both are hybrid regimes, then this explanation is inadequate for this conflict. If the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not rational from the perspective of objective security, all while not being based around the democratic and authoritarian divide, then why on Earth would Russia do this? My claim is that Russia has invaded Ukraine because of its own ontological insecurity.

The term “ontological insecurity” seems theoretically complex (perhaps even is), but it can be explained in a much simpler and still quite accurate manner. Take, for example, regular people who have some self-images that they seek to reflect through their behavior. However, sometimes, those images do not reflect reality (as do the emperor’s new clothes). Likewise, countries have some sense of the continuity of the identity they seek to reflect through behavior. When identity is different from objective reality, irrational things happen. Countries will be ready to forsake their objective security to attain ontological security.

Russia has been very ontologically insecure since the 1990s. With the dissolution of the USSR, Russia has lost most of its power and prestige, which has led to the questioning of its purpose, its status, and, thus, uncertainty regarding the continuity of its identity. Such identity is extremely ontologically insecure. Let’s remember ontologically insecure actors will seek ontological security through behaviors that can provide a mentioned sense of identity’s continuity. Russia seeks to mimic USSR’s relations with the West in order to seek ontological security, despite its objective power loss. Russia will thus act as in the past, despite having no means to truly match the US. This, in turn, is likely to lead to irrational decisions that are detrimental to Russian national security. However, the situation in Ukraine has been particular and is of great importance for Russian ontological security.

The territory of Ukraine is of major importance for Russian ontological security. After all, Russian narratives claim that the core of its own civilization and empire is Kyiv Rus. However, the territory of the former Kyiv Rus is not controlled by Russia nor by an allied regime. Rather, it is under the control of a regime that is being perceived as unfriendly. While both nuclear weapons and previous strategic moves in Ukraine (such as the Crimea annexation) more than guarantee Russian objective security, maintaining the superpower identity under such conditions is impossible. How could a great power have its civilizational core under the influence of its main rival? That is a massive cognitive dissonance between the objective reality and the perceived state of the world. The only way ontological security could be achieved under such conditions is through regaining control over that very territory. Now that hasn’t been objectively rational nor necessary for securing the country, but it was necessary to secure the fragile identity. As such, the only way Russia could regain ontological security and thus protect its fragile identity is through invasion in order to maintain control of the perceived civilizational core. So what does such behavior tell us about how we should engage Russia?

Russian actions in Ukraine seem to be driven by its identity, not rational strategic calculus, meaning that it should not be engaged only rationally. Therefore, attempts to affect Russian behavior should be more formal than substantive. Sanctions do further change the relative power between the West and Russia, as well as the relative power on the battlefield, which certainly does make them useful. However, those sanctions cannot change Russian behavior. They are instead being used as proof of Russia being able to engage the collective West (while the objective reality is far different, this rhetoric is extremely effective in convincing the public), thus reinvigoration Russian efforts. Using harder measures is, of course, impossible, given the nuclear deterrence. Rather than focusing solely on the substance (i.e., territorial demarcations), peacemaking attempts should also focus on the form. If status-seeking is a major concern for Russia, giving Russia a formal stake in the matter is much more important than the objective outcome. For example, giving Russia recognition of being a superpower in an agreement could prove to be more significant for Russia than gaining something substantive from the deal.

1. Charnysh, Volha. 2018. “Analysis of current events: Identity mobilization in hybrid regimes: Language in Ukrainian politics”. Nationalities Papers, 41 (1): 1-14.
2. Ejdus, Filip. 2017. “’ Not a heap of stones’: material environments and ontological security in international relations”. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 30 (1): 23-43.
3. Ejdus, Filip. 2018. “Critical situations, fundamental questions and ontological insecurity in world politics”. Journal of Internaitonal Relations and Development, 21 (4): 883-903.
4. Jervis, Robert. 1976. Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
5. Mearsheimer, John J. 2014. “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin”. Foreign Affairs, 93 (5): 77-89.
6. Mitzen, Jennifer. 2006. “Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma”. European Journal of International Relations, 12 (3): 341-370.
7. Simola, Heli. 2022. “War and sanctions: Effects on the Russian economy”. Vox, 15th December. https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/war-and-sanctions-effects-russian-economy Accessed 18th April 2022.
8. Szulecki, Kacper and Tore Wig. 2022. “The War in Ukraine is all About Democracy vs Dictatorship”. Review of Democracy, 9th April. https://revdem.ceu.edu/2022/04/09/the-war-in-ukraine-is-all-about-democracy-vs-dictatorship/ Accessed 18th April 2022.

1 The overall West-Russia confrontation does not follow the “democracy vs. authoritarianism” pattern due to both blocks sides having more fluid alliances. In the context of the crisis, ambiguous positions of India and Israel on the democratic side, and numerous MENA countries (perhaps even China) on the authoritarian side are not following the pattern.

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Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

One thought on “Why Russia Invaded Ukraine, Really? The Ontological Insecurity of the Fragile Identity

  1. Hi, interesting post, thanks. Do you think the answer to why Russia invaded Ukraine could, at the end of the day, be multi-causal or, in other words, a combination of these three factors/perspectives? I think the Russian elite definitely have identity insecurity and an urge to “retake/prove their greatness”, but at the same time, they must have made power-related calculations that were apparently greatly mistaken, since I cannot imagine they would enter into a conflict they knew would ruin them. Since we cannot know for sure how “insane” Putin really is, shouldn’t we always assume that the elite are at least “trying” to be rational?

    What are you doing your dissertation on, by the way, if it’s ok to ask?

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