Cover: The Limits of Russian Manipulation

The Limits of Russian Manipulation

National Identity and the Origins of the War in Ukraine

Published Nov 29, 2023

by Clint Reach, Ryan Bauer, Alyssa Demus, Khrystyna Holynska


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Research Questions

  1. Why did Russia seek to manipulate and control Ukraine beginning in the 1990s and ultimately invade the country?
  2. Why did Ukraine resist Russia’s persistent efforts to influence its domestic and foreign policy?

Russia’s manipulation of Ukraine in the post-Soviet period, which culminated in a large-scale invasion in 2022, demonstrated that Russia was willing to resort to all means necessary to secure a regional sphere of influence that included Ukraine. But events could have turned out differently. Russia and Ukraine share historical, cultural, religious, and interpersonal ties. Russia in the early 1990s appeared to be on a path toward democratization and constructive relations with its neighbors and the rest of Europe. Many Ukrainians also saw their future as an independent country that was part of a greater Europe in some form. Given the alignment of national interests in the early days of the post–Cold War era, conflict appeared far from inevitable. How did things go so wrong?

Using the concept of national identity as a starting point, RAND researchers developed a framework in an effort to illuminate the underlying causes of Russian manipulation, Ukrainian resistance, and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Key Findings

  • In building policy toward such great powers as Russia (or China), officials should understand the origins of their political culture and national identity.
  • External factors, such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) enlargement, were probably not the primary drivers of Russian behavior toward Ukraine.
  • Despite some cultural and historical similarities with Russia, post-Soviet Ukraine formed a national identity that was fundamentally at odds with Russia's self-image.
  • Despite attention in the West to Russian prowess in manipulation, Russia seems to have significantly misjudged the robustness of Ukrainian national identity.

This research was prepared for the U.S. European Command and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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