One little-discussed reason for Putin’s obsession with conquering Ukraine is his desperate need to acquire more ethnic Russians to keep Russia Russian. The 2020 Russian census showed that the percentage of ethnic Russians had declined from 77.78 percent to 71.7 percent since 2010, even though it defined the two million Ukrainians (many ethnic Russians or Tatars) in Crimea as Russians because Putin had unilaterally declared that occupied (since 2014) Crimea was now part of Russia. International law, the UN and most of the world disagreed.
The decline in ethnic Russians is largely because of a low birth rate and a growing number of ethnic Russians leaving Putin’s Russia. Over seven million ethnic Russians have left Russia since Putin took power in 1999, The birth rate fell because Putin mismanaged the economy and turned democratic Russia back into something like the failed Soviet Union. Putin believes that reviving the Soviet Union would be a good thing. It’s not enough to turn democratic Russia back into a police state with a corrupt and inefficient economy. The Soviet Union was an empire which lost half its population and much of its territory when it fell apart in 1991. Putin prospered as a citizen of the Soviet Union because he was a KGB officer. The KGB was a secret police/CIA type organization that was well paid and immune from arrest by anyone except another KGB officer. KGB officers were one of the few groups in the Soviet Union who had power and prosperity.
The KGB saw the collapse of the Soviet economy coming but was unable to stop it, or the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. There was a last minute coup attempt by the KGB but it failed and the Soviet Union (and the KGB) was no more. There were no reprisals against the KGB or other Soviet era officials, which was seen as a wise move to help the new Russia (or “Russian Federation”) adapt to democratic rule and a market economy and media freedom.
Putin and many of his fellow former KGB officers missed the Soviet Union and state-controlled economy and media. Putin brought back all of that and it is not working. As in the Soviet Union, the many ethnic groups that are not Russian, but learned to speak Russian, tend to still consider themselves members of their original ethnic group. This included those living in Belarus and Ukraine. While many people can’t avoid being conquered by the Russians, that does not result in many of the conquered wanting to pretend they are Russian even if, like Ukrainians, Belarussians, Latvians and Lithuanians, they look like Russians. Putin’s delusion that most Ukrainians would welcome absorption into Russia proved very wrong. The Ukrainians fought to defend their independence and defeated what was believed to be the second or third most powerful armed forces on the planet. Putin learned little from that and attributed the resistance to NATO manipulation. This was seen as part of a secret NATO plan to weaken and destroy Russia.
Ukrainians believe Putin is delusional and self-destructive. Ukraine wants to join the European Union, not be absorbed by the Russian Federation. A growing number of Russians still living in Russia are coming around to agree with the Ukrainians. Saying so in Russia is a crime that can get you sent to prison (or “hard labor” camp. Not all dissatisfied Russians have the skills or resources to leave Russia. The only alternative is to remove Putin and his fellow KGB or pro-Soviet Union associates from power. Easy enough to do in a democracy but rather more difficult and dangerous in a Soviet-style police state.
Russia is having another uncertain and dangerous “time of troubles” and the fix is often not permanent, just a momentary interruption in the autocratic rule that has prevailed in Russia for centuries.