Ukraine as Russian Imperial Action: Challenges and Policy Options

Imperial legacy: Russian ruler Peter the Great (1682–1721), who Vladimir Putin is known to be inspired by. Image: Sergey Tokarev / Adobe Stock

The inherently imperial motivations behind Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine and its approach to the war have significant implications for Western support to Ukraine and the prospects for a just peace.

At the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s motivations for embarking on the conflict are worth reconsidering in light of the current strategic and operational environment in Ukraine. Although Russian propaganda – and those that enable it – falsely and unconvincingly claims that Russia’s genocidal war of choice was somehow a rational reaction to NATO enlargement, the Kremlin’s decision to commit to a full-scale invasion does reflect genuine (if illegitimate) security perceptions that are rooted in Moscow’s deeply imperial, and expansionist, strategic culture. This imperial identity is so central that the Russian leadership is content to suffer horrendous losses in Ukraine almost indefinitely, particularly when the human losses are primarily ‘expendable’ ethnic minority and penal populations, in the belief that Russian mass can outlast Ukrainian courage and Western arms. This prism is crucial for understanding the Kremlin’s rationale for launching its misbegotten war against Ukraine to begin with, but also to illuminate policy options for a just conclusion to the war and to win a stabler post-war architecture.

Strategic Anxieties

Russia’s invasion in early 2022 was not primarily a means to punish perceived Ukrainian belligerence, to solidify its control over Donbas, to manifest Novorossiya, or even to conquer the entirety of Ukrainian territory, per se – though one or more of these may have been secondary or tertiary objectives. Instead, Russia’s invasion was a pre-emptive military action against the potential or even expected growth of Ukrainian power – which could dramatically curtail Russian power in the region – in the medium time horizon (2025–2030) or beyond. As such, in early 2022, Russia – seemingly at the height of its powers, while Ukrainian strength was yet to be fully realised – had ‘no choice’ but to move immediately to decapitate this budding and increasingly capable rival. This hypothesis, if true, helps to explain the apparent irrationality of the full-scale invasion and accounts for the Kremlin’s continued obstinance in persecuting its war despite extended setbacks and devastating attrition of its forces.

Russia’s motivations appear aligned with the so-called Thucydides Trap – the theorised tendency for a great power to make war based on worries over a competitor’s rise. In this case, the evident emergence of Ukrainian power threatened to upset Russia’s long-calibrated and painstakingly tended regional hegemony. In more practical terms, the combination of Ukraine’s basic strategic potential – a large Europeanising country of 40 million people, rich in natural resources, human capital and industrial strength – and the arc of its recent military and economic development meant that it would soon have the combat power and capabilities not only to threaten – if not entirely regain – its lost territories, but also to project power across the region and stymie Russia’s imperial pretensions in Eastern Europe. Imagine, for example, a Ukraine with an assortment of long-range munitions and cruise missiles that could threaten Russia’s most strategic assets in occupied Crimea, the Sea of Azov, Rostov-na-Don, Bryansk, Belarus and even further afield. Even without NATO membership, Ukraine possesses the latent power and potential to be a credible regional power with the ability to constrain Russian power, perhaps even radically.

The Kremlin’s operational obstinance is directly linked to its strategic goal of protecting and policing its imperial position at all costs

However, while Ukraine in 2022 was seen as having this potential, it was a potential yet unrealised and several years at least from basic viability. By contrast, Russia saw itself – and was largely (and incorrectly, as it turns out) regarded internationally – as being in peak military and strategic condition following years of high-budget modernisation and a seeming track record of successful, if more limited, military adventures in Georgia, eastern Ukraine and the Middle East. These dynamics appeared to present Moscow with an urgent but genuine window of opportunity to address the ‘Ukrainian question’ for the long term. This was why Russian negotiations and demands before the war appeared so outlandish; no tactical bargaining could address broader Russian strategic concerns. Only a diplomatic nonstarter like a return to a Cold War-era, Yalta-style paradigm that surrendered Ukraine and much of Eastern Europe to violent Russian revanchist colonialism might have addressed the Kremlin’s strategic anxieties.

Operational Obstinance

Viewing Russia’s full-scale invasion from this perspective – as a decisive action in pursuit of a favourable imperial strategic equilibrium – also helps us understand the manner in which Russia has prosecuted its war in Ukraine even amid severe loss, territorial setbacks and general military exhaustion. After mostly abandoning early-phase efforts to employ RMA-style strikes relying on precision, mobility and battlespace awareness, the Russian military has reverted to funnelling human and material mass in pursuit of operational or even minor tactical objectives – at a breathtakingly grievous cost in casualties and materiel. While this approach is routinely derided in the analytical community as merely the ‘Russian way of war’, it speaks to a kind of desperation on the part of the Russian leadership to overwhelm and outlast the better-led, more purposeful and increasingly better-equipped Ukrainian armed forces. The Kremlin’s operational obstinance, in this sense, is directly linked to its strategic goal of protecting and policing its imperial position at all costs, including through broadly unpopular ‘partial’ mobilisations that harvest disproportionately non-ethnic Russian colonial populations and penal battalions for the meat grinder.

As such, an operational stalemate and even moderate, incremental gains by Ukrainian forces continue to benefit the Kremlin, despite evidence of material and moral exhaustion in the Russian military. The Russian political leadership is gambling that this exhaustion can be managed without leading to a general military or societal collapse, particularly through fresh injections of ‘expendable’ colonial and penal populations – while those in the physical and social imperial metropole are largely institutionally spared, or afforded egress to Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and elsewhere. Over time, this thinking suggests, Russian mass can and will overcome Ukrainian courage and Western arms.

If Russia’s leadership believes that time is on its side, anything approaching a just permanent settlement would be a concession too far

The Russian leadership’s gamble may or may not succeed, but in the interim it is certain to lead to extended death and destruction for both militaries and among ordinary Ukrainians. It also suggests that a Russian appetite for anything more comprehensive than ceasefire-as-operational-pause is unlikely, if not impossible, under such conditions. If Russia’s leadership believes that time is on its side – confident of Iranian and potentially Chinese equipment and the availability of virtually inexhaustible, ‘costless’ and ‘expendable’ colonial and penal populations – anything approaching a just permanent settlement is a concession too far.

Line Breakers

This has potentially significant implications for Western assistance to the Ukrainian war effort. Whether due to strategic caution or training and maintenance concerns, the flow of Western arms and military platforms has been largely incremental, lagging battlefield needs and varying in quality and quantity – not to mention variegated in make, origin and complexity. These deliveries have undoubtedly assisted Ukrainian combat power, but not yet necessarily decisively. The exceptions prove the rule: M777 howitzers, a common platform provided in volume and in relatively short order, offered the Ukrainians massed and long-armed fires that had an almost immediate effect; the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), though provided in smaller quantities, was a ‘line breaking’ precision platform that gave Ukrainian forces the premier capability in theatre to deliver exceptionally devastating ranged fire; and Starlink afforded Ukrainian forces a persistent, low-latency, high-bandwidth and relatively secure command and control and information network. The latter’s reported degradation by SpaceX, in turn, has sharply stymied Ukrainian counterattack and offensive operations.

In a similar fashion, Western partners should provide Ukraine with additional platforms that can either afford superiority in high-volume, massed fires in quantity – even from simpler, tactical systems such as 120mm mortars – or line-breaking systems that can both facilitate breakthroughs and pose a conventional deterrent to Russian forces. Outfitting HIMARS with sufficient quantities of the Army Tactical Missile System’s (ATACMS) long-range strike capacity might fulfil this requirement, as it would threaten Russia’s staging, logistics and rally points deep behind its lines and render essential major facilities in Crimea, Belarus and even Russia vulnerable to Ukrainian counterstrike. The recently announced US provision of Ground-Launched Small-Diameter Bombs (GLSDBs) to Ukraine could fulfil a similar need, though it is unclear if they can be delivered in the time and quantity needed to make a near-term difference. Similarly, Typhoon, F-16, F/A-18 or other Western fourth-generation (or better) tactical aircraft could introduce game-changing dynamics – if and when they are fielded, and provided that they are supplied in sufficient numbers.

To achieve the conditions for a just peace, Ukraine urgently needs line-breaking capabilities in the near term – well before the six-month-plus horizon – as may be the case with GLSDBs, large numbers of main battle tanks, and almost certainly tactical fast-jet aircraft. ATACMS may be worthwhile in this regard, as would a means to accelerate deliveries of GLSDBs and other capabilities of the same type already in Western inventories, as well as large quantities of unmanned combat aerial vehicles and, of course, the full use of Starlink or a comparable system. While this would likely provoke a heightened Russian military response, it is precisely Ukraine’s ability to go on the offensive sustainably, shorten the kill chain and neutralise Russian military infrastructure that is most likely to force the conditions for a true and defensible peace agreement.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Michael Hikari Cecire

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