AS the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second month it is worth reflecting on its origins and speculating on Russia’s fundamental aims.

Information on the conflict has been disseminated in unprecedented volume and intensity by outlets ranging from the Ukrainian Government and British Ministry of Defence to the world’s media and social media channels.

Yet there is still very little agreement either on the longer-term sources of the conflict, or the motivations, and objectives of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

What seems clear is that the war has not unfolded according to plan. The Russian military has suffered enormous human and material losses and its morale appears very low. Ukrainians’ defence of their homeland has been fierce, well-organised and has benefited from crucial military and intelligence assistance from the United States, in particular.

Whatever Putin’s objectives were at the outset of the conflict, they have not been achieved and will not be achieved without a much wider mobilisation of Russian society. It seems Russian war aims have contracted from regime change in Kyiv to control of the Donbas region and Black Sea littoral.

But why did Putin opt for war? How far back should we range in search of the origins of this conflict? Unsurprisingly, it depends on who one asks.

For those who call themselves ‘realists’, the war is a consequence of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to the frontiers of Russia itself in the two decades after the Cold War.

The aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union witnessed former Russian allies like Poland, Romania and Estonia being admitted into what was traditionally an anti-Russian alliance. These moves, according to realists, were interpreted as an existential threat in Moscow.

The 2013 expulsion of the pro-Russian president of Ukraine and the expressed desire of the new government to join both the European Union and even NATO, was the last straw.

But it is rather bewildering to see self-styled voices from the left blaming NATO for Russia’s aggression and, still more, to argue that Russia has the right to a strategic buffer on its western marches. These voices denounce “NATO aggression” as the cause of the Russian invasion. One cannot help wondering if these figures on the left realise what a profoundly anti-democratic argument they are making.

An alternative explanation of the origins of this Ukraine conflict sets current Russian policy within the longue durée of the history of Russian nationalism and imperial expansion. Putin, according to this view, is a classic a Russian nationalist seeking to restore Russia to its past power and glory.

This line of argument is more persuasive in explaining the current context as well as the long-term sources of Russian conduct. Putin is on the record stating that the Soviet collapse was the seminal catastrophe of his lifetime. He has made clear his ambition to lead his country into a new era of greatness.

Neither of the above accounts of Russian motivations can answer the crucial questions “why now?” and especially “what is at stake?”.

To understand why Moscow has chosen this moment to make war on its neighbour it is essential to consider the present geo-political situation. There can be little doubt that Putin and his advisers did not expect the unity and resolved showed by NATO and the EU. They were especially caught off guard by the superb performance of Ukraine’s leadership and armed forces.

It is very likely that early 2022 seemed like a very good moment to smash Ukraine and challenge the western powers. Energy prices are high, which is a boon to Russia with much of Europe dependent on a steady flow of Russian gas and oil. What is more, Russia seemed to be in a relatively strong financial position to adsorb any economic or financial sanctions imposed.

It is easy to see how Putin might have viewed this moment as a window of opportunity that might not come again in the foreseeable future. Fossil fuels are unlikely to remain a reliable source of riches for an economy in dire need of diversification. Added to this is the fact that Russia’s population is declining at an alarming rate, falling by nearly one million between October 2020 and September 2021 in the largest peacetime decline in recorded history.

At the same time, Russia’s chief adversaries seemed weaker than at any point since the Cold War. NATO’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan in the context of Brexit and Trumpism left the impression that Russia’s chief adversaries were riven by ideological discord and incapable of mounting a determined response.

As added insurance, Russian diplomacy cultivated China assiduously in recent years. Putin’s visit to Beijing during the Winter Olympics seemed to cement a close relationship between the two countries. The hope is that Chinese purchases of Russian energy and foodstuffs can alleviate the effects of western sanctions and provide Russia with strategic cover.

The closer alignment by both Russian and China is especially important because illuminates the true motivations for Russian aggression against Ukraine. The fact is that Russia could have obtained reassurances of Ukrainian neutrality that it desires via diplomacy.

It is much more likely that Putin and his advisors are pursuing a much more ambitious objective: to sow discord among the states of EU and to deal a potentially fatal blow to the North Atlantic Alliance by driving a wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe.

Russia is seeking to overthrow the post-Cold War international order.

Putin gambled on a quick and successful end to operations in Ukraine, the installation of a Moscow-sponsored successor to the current pro-western regime and the swift destruction of all pockets of Ukrainian resistance. The rest of the world would then be presented with a fait accompli.

This violation of international law would leave the post-1990 world order fatally compromised. The aim was to replace it with by a system based on the balance of power and the primacy of great powers of roughly equal standing. Putin was seeking to go back to the 19th century.

This bid for a new political order has not paid off. Russia is now faced with a very different and much more difficult geo-strategic situation.

If the prevailing international order has so far withstood the Russian challenge, the future remains fraught with uncertainty. The reality of economic sanctions is that they also inflict harm on the states imposing them. Germany, for example, appears already to be wavering in its stated resolve to rearm and to punish Russia financially.

It remains to be seen, therefore, whether the unified response to Russia will endure. We may after all be witnessing the death of the international political order that emerged after the Cold War.

Professor Peter Jackson is Director of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs

* Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald