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What Caused the Ukraine War?

Amid heated debates about the factors that led Russia to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it helps to distinguish between deep, intermediate, and immediate causes. But while each can matter in their own ways, war need not be considered inevitable even when they are all present.

CAMBRIDGE – Russia’s war in Ukraine is the most disruptive conflict that Europe has seen since 1945. While many in the West see a war of choice by Russian President Vladimir Putin, he says that NATO’s 2008 decision in favor of eventual Ukrainian membership brought an existential threat to Russia’s borders, and still others trace the conflict back to the Cold War’s end and the failure of the West to support Russia adequately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How can we discern the origins of a war that may last for years?

World War I occurred over a century ago, yet historians still write books debating what caused it. Did it start because a Serbian terrorist assassinated an Austrian archduke in 1914, or did it have more to do with ascendant German power challenging Britain, or rising nationalism throughout Europe? The answer is “all of the above, plus more.” But war was not inevitable until it actually broke out in August 1914; and even then, it was not inevitable that four years of carnage had to follow.

To sort things out, it helps to distinguish between deep, intermediate, and immediate causes. Think of building a bonfire: piling up the logs is a deep cause; adding kindling and paper is an intermediate cause; and striking a match is a precipitating cause. But even then, a bonfire is not inevitable. A strong wind may extinguish the match, or a sudden rainstorm may have soaked the wood. As historian Christopher Clark notes in his book about the origins of WWI, The Sleepwalkers, in 1914, “the future was still open – just.” Poor policy choices were a crucial cause of the catastrophe.