An Ontological Security Analysis of Ukraine Crisis

In recent years, the world has witnessed a significant event that has had far-reaching consequences ‚Äď Russia‚Äôs invasion of Ukraine. This aggressive act of territorial expansion and power assertion sent shockwaves across the international community, raising concerns about principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, beyond the geopolitical implications, it is essential to delve deeper into the underlying motives and psychological factors that may have influenced Russia‚Äôs actions. This brings us to the concept of ontological security, a concept that explores how individuals and states seek to maintain a sense of order, stability, and identity in the face of perceived threats. By analyzing the invasion through the lens of ontological security, we can gain valuable insights into the motivations and fears that drove Russia‚Äôs actions, shedding light on the complex dynamics at play in this conflict.


Ontological Security: Concept & Significance

Ontological security refers to an individual’s fundamental need for a sense of stability and continuity in their social, cultural and political surroundings. The concept was initially introduced by sociologist Anthony Giddens and has since been widely explored and expanded upon by scholars in various disciplines. Ontological security is rooted in the idea that individuals seek to maintain a coherent and predictable sense of self, and this desire extends to their understanding of the world around them (Mitzen, 2006). It encompasses both subjective and objective aspects, as individuals not only strive to feel secure within themselves but also seek reassurance from their external environment. In this context of international relations and conflict studies, ontological security becomes particularly relevant. Understanding how individuals and states strive to maintain a sense of security can shed light on the root causes of conflicts, as well as potential avenues for conflict resolution.

The concept helps to explain why individuals and states may resist change or feel threatened by external factors that challenge their existing belief sets and identities (Krickel-Choi, 2022). Moreover, it provides insights into how individuals and groups may respond to insecurity, whether through defensive actions, aggression, or seeking alliances. Ontological security is closely linked to broader discussions on identity and the construction of self. It recognizes that individuals derive a significant portion of their identities from their cultural contexts, and any disruptions to these contexts can result in feelings of insecurity. This understanding has profound implications for international relations, as it highlights the importance of recognizing and respecting diverse identities and ensuring that individuals and communities feel secure in their cultural, religious, and political affiliations.


Overview of Russia’s Key Ontological Insecurities

The ontological insecurities of Russia are deeply rooted in its historical, geopolitical, and cultural context. These insecurities stem from a perception of vulnerability and fear of existential threats to its national identity, territorial integrity and global influence. One key aspect contributing to Russia’s ontological insecurity is its historical experience of invasions and territorial losses. From the Mongol invasions in the 13th century to the Napoleonic invasion in the 19th century, and more recently, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia has endured traumatic events that have shaped its collective memory and reinforced a sense of insecurity. Furthermore, Russia’s geopolitical position as a vast country spanning across two continents has also contributed to its ontological insecurity. It borders numerous countries, each with its own interests and alliances, which creates a sense of vulnerability and potential encirclement (Narozhna, 2022). Culturally, Russia has a strong sense of national identity and a belief in its exceptionalism. The Russian people often see themselves as a distinct civilization with a unique historical trajectory. However, this belief is often accompanied by a fear of Western influence and a desire to protect their traditional values and way of life. This cultural dimension further exacerbates Russia’s ontological insecurities, as it sees the West as a potential threat to its national identity and values.


Russia’s Actions in Ukraine

  • Chronology of Events

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is certainly a culmination of several key events that unfolded in the years leading up to the conflict. One of the significant events was the Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014, which stemmed from widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to abandon an agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. The protests ultimately led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych and the subsequent installation of a pro-Western government. This shift in power stirred tensions between Ukraine and Russia, as the Kremlin viewed it as a threat to its influence in the region (Mankoff, 2022).

Another pivotal event was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Following the Euromaidan protests, Russia capitalized on the political instability in Ukraine and swiftly moved to annex Crimea, a region with historical ties with Russia and a significant population of ethnic Russians. This move was widely condemned by the international community and resulted in economic sanctions against Russia, as well as heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

In the years following the annexation, pro-Russian separatist movements emerged in Eastern Ukraine, particularly in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. These movements, fueled by Russian support, aimed to break away from Ukraine and establish independent pre-Russian territories (Jonathan, 2023). The Ukrainian government responded with military operations to regain control over these regions, leading to a protracted conflict that claimed thousands of lives and displaced many more.

The situation further escalated in 2022 when Russia accused Ukraine of planning a military offensive against the separatist-held territories. Amidst mounting tensions, Russia amassed troops and military equipment along its border with Ukraine, raising concerns of an impending invasion. Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation failed and on February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine (Westbrook, 2023)


  • Ontological Security Analysis

The ontological security analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine involves a comprehensive examination of Russia’s perceived threats to its identity, how these threats influenced decision-making. One of the major perceived threats that Russia faced was Ukraine’s potential membership in Western institutions like the NATO and EU. For Russia, this prospect posed a direct challenge to its security and geopolitical interests. The possibility of Ukraine joining these institutions implied a significant shift in balance of power in the region, potentially encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence (Ryan, 2023). The perceived threats played a crucial role in influencing Russia’s decision-making. The fear of encirclement and the erosion of its influence led Russia to adopt a defensive stance in order to protect its identity and security.

Russia’s identity of a great power with historical ties to Ukraine and a sphere of influence in the region was deeply intertwined with its ontological security. The perceived threats to this identity triggered a response aimed at restoring and preserving Russia’s sense of self and its position in the region as well as on the global stage, Hence, the invasion of Ukraine can be seen as a strategic move to safeguard Russia’s ontological security by reaffirming its dominance and deterring any challenges to its identity.


Lessons Learned

The above discussion has certainly provided valuable lessons about how the West’s misperception of Russia’s position and the intense political contestation surrounding the invasion has shaped the course of events. Some key lessons learned are as follows:

  • The analysis emphasized the subjective perception of threats. To comprehend how Russia perceived NATO or EU expansion in its immediate neighborhood and the potential influence of Western values in Ukraine is important. It shows that security threats are not solely based on objective conditions but also on how actors interpret and make sense of events.
  • Understanding and acknowledging the significance of a state‚Äôs identity and self-image is crucial for predicting its behavior on the international stage. States may act defensively as well as offensively when they perceive threats to their identity, and these insecurities can influence decision-making.
  • The study has also demonstrated the limitations and challenges of traditional security paradigms in fully capturing and understanding the complex motivations and dynamics behind the state’s actions. It is made evident that alongside traditional geopolitical factors, aspects like ontological security also act as a motivational force for invasions and conflicts.
  • Given the complex nature of ontological security and identity-based conflicts, multilateral approaches are often more effective in addressing underlying issues. International organizations and alliances should be leveraged to promote dialogue and conflict resolution.



Revisiting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from an ontological security perspective sheds light on the underlying motivations and justifications behind Russia’s actions. Ontological security refers to the need for states to maintain a sense of order, stability, and identity in the face of perceived threats. In the case of Russia, the invasion of Ukraine can be seen as an attempt to protect its perceived ontological security, particularly in relation to its historical sphere of influence and its status as a global power. By intervening in Ukraine, Russia aimed to assert its dominance in the region, safeguard its strategic interests, and prevent the potential expansion of NATO or other Western influences on its doorstep. From an ontological security perspective, Russia’s actions can be understood as a response to the perceived erosion of its identity and the need to protect its core values and interests. However, this analysis does not justify or excuse Russia’s actions but rather seeks to provide a deeper understanding of the underlying forces at play. Ultimately, the ontological security perspective offers valuable insights into the motivations and behaviors of states in the international arena, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of complex geopolitical conflicts.




Mitzen, J. (2006). Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma. European Journal of International Relations, 12(3), 341-370.

Krickel-Choi, C. N. (2022). State Personhood and Ontological Security as a Framework of Existence: Moving beyond Identity, Discovering Sovereignty. Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

Hansen, S. F. (2016). Russia’s Relations with the West: Ontological Security through Conflict. Contemporary Politics 22:3, 359-375.

Ryan, K. (2023). Russia’s search for ontological security and the Ukraine invasion. Australian and New Zealand Journal of European Studies.

Mankoff, J. (2022). Russia’s War in Ukraine: Identity, History and Conflict. Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Narozhna, T. (2022). Misrecognition, Ontological Security and State Foreign Policy: The Case of Post-Soviet Russia. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 76:1, 76-97.

Jonathan, M. (2023). Ukraine: Conflict as the Crossroads of Europe and Russia. Council on Foreign Relations.

Westbrook, L. J. (2023). The Russian Playbook ‚Äď Using History & Path Dependence to Analyse How Russia Operationalises Grand Strategy in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. DIVA Portal.


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