The most immediate issue is that Russia invaded Ukraine. But, of course, that is not the beginning of the story. I am very sympathetic to the Ukrainian people in this war, but I will try to give a balanced perspective from the study and knowledge at my disposal.
I am not going to defend the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were significant errors made there, and their morality is highly questionable.
However, there are in one fundamental difference. The current war in Ukraine is an attempt by Russia to seize territory to be incorporated into Russia and wipe Ukraine off the map as a nation and as a culture. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there was no intention to permanently seize territory or destroy those countries as nations or as cultures.
I do not expect any reader of this text to believe that Russian aggression was justified. My aim is simply to provide pushback against the idea that Putin is entirely deranged and divorced from reality. As a way of background, let me highlight the following:
- When the Cold War ended a generation ago, the West expected Russia to permanently accept matters as they were settled then. Russia became a laughingstock, seen as a backwater only respectable for its possession of nuclear weapons. It was called “Nigeria with Snow” or “Burkina Faso with nuclear weapons.” What security interests and concerns it might have were deemed to be utterly irrelevant. Nations that had been part of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union’s more coercive answer to NATO, rushed to join the EU and/or NATO. It was a moment of weakness for Russia, and there was nothing they could do but protest. Here, it is important to add something. No one forced these nations to join the Western orbit. They did so both because they believed it to be in their economic interest and because they understandably wanted protection from the country that had coerced them into an economic system and military alliance with scant popular support for decades.
- That said, to someone who subscribed to a diplomatic worldview based on the balance of power.
- rather than national self-determination, the end result was that the West, with its economic system, political values, and military alliance, was expanding at Russia’s expense. It is not necessary to agree with this worldview in order to understand why someone who holds it might feel aggrieved at various changes in the status quo, especially if those changes are perceived to have arisen from underhanded tactics.
- The current line in both the EU and the US is that NATO is a defensive alliance and that Russia needs only be concerned about it if it intends to attack one of its neighbors without provocation. From the Russian perspective, NATO appears rather like an instrument of American aggrandizement whose main goal is to provide a patina of multilateralism to American imperialism. Russia would point out the Libyan and Kosovo interventions as acts of American imperialism camouflaged by the idea that it was NATO rather than the US that was intervening, even though NATO would never have become involved if the US hadn’t desired it.
- Another thing that needs to be understood is that many people in Russia view Ukraine’s current borders as having been unfairly obtained at their country’s expense, a case of an unwise generosity that was later repaid with only ungratefulness. It is not in dispute that there have been people for centuries living around the Dnieper River speaking a Slavic language distinct from both Polish and Russian. But before the Russian Revolution, there had never been an independent Ukrainian nation. The roots of modern Ukrainian nationalism go back only to the 19th century. This doesn’t mean that we need to accept the notion that Ukrainian identity is artificial and, therefore not real. After all, an analogous process gave us modern Italian and German identities. You could even make the case that French identity, such as it exists now didn’t exit 250 years ago. Human beings have been around a lot longer than nation-states. That said, because the nation of Ukraine as it exists is such a recent phenomenon, there is room for reasonable people, including within Ukraine, to disagree about what its borders should encompass. For a primer on the different regions of Ukraine, along with their cultural and political outlooks, see here:
Understanding the Other Ukraine: Identity and Allegiance in Russophone Ukrainein In the traditionally Russophone regions of Ukraine, political conflict arises whenever the legitimacy of Russian culture is challenged.
- What you will note in looking at the above is that most of the territories outside of Central Ukraine—roughly the area encompassing the historically seemingly ill-named Left-Bank Ukraine and Right-Bank Ukraine
- —were added while Ukraine was under the control/domination of Russia. Much as I oppose wars to redraw national boundaries, it is not hard to understand why a Russian nationalist might feel that these territories rightfully belonged to Russia. As long as Ukraine remained firmly within the Russian orbit, this issue of which territories belonged to which nation-state was largely academic for Russian nationalists. But with the arrival at the helm of Ukrainian leaders choosing the EU and NATO over Russia, the territory issue again became salient.
So, this is Putin’s baseline, as I understand it. And this is a good starting point to understand the events that have unfolded since 2013.
- In 2013, Ukraine had at its helm Viktor Yanukovych, who has been in power for three years and has pursued a pro-Russia policy. The country finds itself wooed by both Russia and the EU:
- Russia is proposing a customs union to draw the country into closer economic cooperation with itself, Belarus and Kazakhstan. To agree to this would be to move firmer into the Russian camp and away from the EU.
- The EU is proposing a free-trade and political association agreement. This would commit the country to reforms that would gradually orient its laws and economy towards the EU in exchange for economic assistance.
- Yanukovych rejects the EU proposal. The country is divided, but in and around Kyiv, the pro-EU position is more popular. This led to protests and civil unrest starting in early December 2013. Two months later, the protests have become more and more violent. There are clashes with the police in which almost 100 people are killed in Kyiv throughout February 2014. I will pause here to mention that some protestors were inspired by or affiliated with Pravy Sektor, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist party with a paramilitary wing. Pravy Sektor is not very popular—they have no seats in the Ukrainian parliament—but they have been involved in fighting pro-Russian groups in the Donbas. This is the source of Putin’s claim that he is fighting to denazify Ukraine.
- Before the end of February 2014, in a procedure that violated the provisions of the Ukrainian Constitution, the Ukrainian parliament deposed Yanukovych.
- The 1996 Constitution, to which the country had returned in 2010, was still in effect, Yanukovych having not yet signed a measure that would have returned Ukraine to its 2004 Constitution.
- The constitution gave the parliament to right to initiate impeachment proceedings if the president “commits treason or other crime.”
- The process was supposed to be reviewed by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court and three quarters of the members of the parliament. The majority that voted to depose Yanukovych was 10 votes shy of this threshold.
- In spite of the irregularities in these proceedings, the EU was quick to bless the change in government, which quickly ratified its economic cooperation agreement. Meanwhile, Putin saw the whole thing as a Western-backed coup. He warned that all options, including the military, were on the table.
- It is one month after these events that Putin made his move in Crimea, organizing a referendum that was seen as illegal and illegitimate by the West. But although the procedure couldn’t be called free or fair, there is little doubt that the residents of the area preferred to be attached to Russia rather than to a pro-Western Ukraine.
- A month after this, in April 2014, separatists backed and armed by Russia started a war in the Donbas, a region in Eastern Ukraine home to coal reserves and heavy industry, and the steel and raw materials source for the Russian military. This war has been going on since then, punctuated by peace agreements that have been violated almost as soon as they have been signed.
- In November 2014, the separatist eastern regions held elections and elected their own presidents. One month later the Ukrainian Parliament voted to start the process of applying for NATO membership. It is taken for granted by many in the West that this would never happen. Such an assumption was not made in Moscow.
- In June 2020, NATO recognized Ukraine as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Without admitting Ukraine as a member, this step nevertheless deepens military cooperation. Supposedly, “Ukraine’s status as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner does not prejudge any decisions on NATO membership,” but Zelensky, president by this time, desires just that. And from the Russian perspective, it appears that this is where things have been inexorably going since 2014.
- In April 2021, Russia started massing troops on its border with Ukraine. Zelensky publicly comes out in favor of joining NATO, which he sees as “the only way to end the war in Donbas.”
- In September 2021, Ukraine held joint military exercises with NATO.
- In December 2021, Russia held more military exercises along the Ukrainian border. Putin proposes an agreement with NATO that would guarantee, among other things:
- That Ukraine would never be granted NATO membership.
- That NATO does not deploy troops in countries that joined the alliance after May 1997.
- The establishment of a hotline between NATO and Russia to defuse tension.
- The creation of a NATO-Russia Council, similar to what NATO itself had proposed before.
- The banning of deploying intermediate-range missiles in locations where they could reach each adversary’s territory.
There was some genuine basis for negotiation and agreement in the above, but some things on which NATO would not budge, which Russia knew. How they were presented and the subsequent tenor of the negotiations made Western leaders wonder whether Putin was serious about negotiating or whether he was seeking to use the rejections of some of his proposals—some would say demands—as a pretext for a war that might enable him to keep Ukraine in the Russian orbit forcibly.
We will probably not honestly know for a few decades when exactly Putin decided to launch his invasion. But I hope I have shown, even with my necessarily incomplete narrative, that he didn’t just wake up one day and decide that he was going to invade Ukraine because he was mentally ill or bored or trying to become a cartoon villain.
It is possible to believe that:
- Ukrainians have the right to chart their destinies and join economic and military alliances of their choosing,
- Western governments are selective and often hypocritical in their adherence to the principles of self-determination,
- The West ought to render a more realistic accounting of its military capabilities and willingness to fight, and not mindlessly expand an alliance system to include countries that citizens of the US, Germany, France, and the UK are not truly willing to shed their blood for,
while at the same time recognizing that there is some logic guiding the actions of one’s adversaries.
I believe that whatever legitimate grievances Russia may have had over the events that have transpired since 2014, it lost any moral high ground it had—assuming it had any—the minute it launched an attack on a country that had not attacked it and was not on the verge of attacking it.
It also appears that Putin badly miscalculated. Even if he emerges victorious from this conflict with Ukraine, his country will have been exposed as much more economically and militarily vulnerable than previously believed. The war might leave him more territory, but he will paradoxically be in a weaker situation than if he had never started it.
But I maintain that what animates Vladimir Putin is not madness but a different historical and ideological perspective.
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