As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches and an escalation in the conflict on the ground seems likely with the passing of winter, it is appropriate to begin to think about the terms of a possible settlement.
In the very unlikely event of overwhelming military victory for either side, real negotiations will have to be undertaken if a lasting and stable peace is to be achieved. But such negotiations will have to rest upon a recognition of the realities of the conflict, not the sort of mythic construction that has been peddled all too often in the West.
The Ukrainians, and in particular President Zelensky, have done a brilliant job of framing the conflict in terms designed to present an image favourable to the Ukrainian side. This framing has been enthusiastically taken up by much of the Western, including our, media and by most Western political leaders, again including ours. In many cases it looks as though the lead item on the news was written in President Zelensky’s office. This is all very well if your aim is to consolidate and expand support for Ukraine, but if you are trying to understand the conflict and its sources, such an approach has clear limitations. In no war situation can you rely on one side’s account if you want an accurate and objective understanding of what is happening.
Acceptance of the Ukrainian framing is clear in most of our reporting and commentary. One aspect of this, which clearly demonstrates the danger, is the frequently-made assertion that the Russian military action was “unprovoked”. How real is this claim? Certainly from Moscow’s perspective there was significant provocation. In understanding this, we can divide the roots of the conflict into background and proximate.
The context for this lies in the failure to construct Europe-wide security architecture following the fall of the Soviet Union. When communism in Eastern Europe collapsed, the infrastructure of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Treaty Organisation and Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), also disappeared. However the parallel infrastructure on the Western side, principally NATO, remained in place. In principle, Western decision-makers had two choices: to abolish NATO and construct a more inclusive Europe-wide security system or retain NATO. They chose the latter, even though the rationale for NATO’s foundation, confronting the Soviet Union, had disappeared. With Russia being informed, as they were under both Yeltsin and Putin, that Russia would never be a member of NATO (the only European country except Belarus to be told this), the obvious conclusion was that NATO remained an anti-Russian institution. This view was not changed by the establishment of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council in 1997 because this never gave Russia a seat at the decision-making table.
The perception of NATO as a hostile force was strengthened by the continued expansion of NATO eastwards. Ignoring the undertakings (but not formal agreements) given to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the advice of leading figures in Washington (including George Kennan, the architect of the containment policy directed against the USSR in the Cold War), NATO embarked on a program of expansion that embraced former Soviet allies in Eastern Europe and three former republics of the USSR itself (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). In 2008 membership was also mooted for Ukraine and Georgia, although this was not proceeded with. Such expansion occurred generally over Russian protests.
This perception of hostility was reinforced by NATO’s attack on Serbia (a long-standing Russian ally) and recognition of Kosovan independence despite a UN resolution guaranteeing Serbia’s territorial integrity, and by NATO’s pursuit of regime change in two other long-standing Soviet/Russian allies Libya and Syria. The colour revolutions that broke out especially in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004 (Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 colour revolution is less relevant here) fuelled this perception, because although these were essentially domestic movements, they were supported by the West. Alongside an open program of supporting democratisation in the region – indeed, Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, openly stated in his memoirs that one of his tasks in Moscow was to promote democratic forces, which implicitly meant Russian regime change – it was hard to escape the conclusion that regime change was a major aim of the West.
Ukraine was always central to this because of its geostrategic location, and Russia was therefore always sensitive to developments in that country. When the Euromaidan rising occurred in 2014, it was another instance of a mainly domestically-generated revolt, but it gained significant open support from the West. With the flight of the pro-Russian Ukrainian leader Yanukovich, it seemed that illegal regime-change had been engineered in this most important of Russia’s allies. The fear of Ukrainian entry into NATO and the consequences this would have for the Sebastopol naval base where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was moored, was a major factor in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which then led to the outbreak of a pro-Russian insurgency in the Donbas, directly supported from Moscow.
What this crude listing of developments highlights is how the security environment for Russia has not been benign throughout virtually the entire post-Soviet period. The expansion of NATO and the programs for regime change have transformed what was a secure buffer for the USSR into a region of danger and uncertainty for Russia. It is essential to appreciate this geostrategic reality, shaped overwhelmingly by Western action, to understand the background to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Some have sought to argue that NATO was irrelevant and that the invasion was caused not by the geostrategic environment but by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hatred of Ukraine. They point to some speeches given by Putin over the past couple of years where he argued that Ukraine was not a real state and that the Ukrainian people were really Russians. It is easy to show that Putin is a bad historian and his view of Ukraine is inaccurate. But a more moderate statement of the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians – that they are historically and culturally closely allied – would have been accepted by most members of both countries, at least before the war broke out. The essence of what Putin was arguing in an extreme form is that Ukraine is part of the Russian patrimony. Recognition of this heightens even more Russian concerns about Ukraine being dragged into the Western orbit. This is not a country like, for example, Lithuania whose historical and cultural links with Russia are not visceral in the way that Ukraine’s are, but a region and a people closely bound to Russia’s sense of identity. This view of Ukraine and Ukrainians intensified the alarm felt at the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and moving into the Western orbit.
Against this background of a threatening security environment there are a number of more immediate factors which fed into the invasion. The Minsk Accords signed in 2015 were meant to bring about an end to the fighting in Donbas and included a provision that steps would be taken in Ukraine to grant some form of regional autonomy to Donbas. No such steps were undertaken. This is because the Ukrainians signed the accords (as they admitted towards the end of last year) only to pause the fighting in order to gain time to retrain and re-arm their military forces. Such retraining was undertaken under NATO auspices and carried out in such a way as to enable the Ukrainian military to be integrated into a larger NATO force. This seemed to reach a formal conclusion with the 10 November 2021 signature of the US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership. This document criticised Russian “aggression”, committed the US to help Ukraine recover Crimea and the Donbas, endorsed the “interoperability” of Ukrainian and NATO forces, and supported Ukraine’s right to seek to join NATO. This must have looked to Moscow like the early steps of a Ukrainian entry into NATO.
Soon after this, with Russian forces gathering on the Ukrainian border, Putin was asked what it would take to avert armed intervention. His answer was, inter alia, the neutralisation of Ukraine, meaning that Ukraine should never become a member of NATO, instead having its security guaranteed by the major powers. US President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg both immediately ruled that out and declared that it was not a subject for negotiation. Interestingly the neutralisation proposal was also part of the agreed framework for negotiations concluded by Ukrainian and Russian negotiators in April 2022 before being rejected by Kyiv following a visit by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In the immediate lead-up to the invasion, Zelensky threatened to develop nuclear weapons. He also deployed more Ukrainian forces to the Donbas demarcation line, and there was a sharp escalation in the level of fighting along that line.
All of this is not an argument that the Russian invasion was justified. Nor does it purport to be a full explanation of why that invasion took place. It is to suggest that to argue that that invasion was “unprovoked” is both wrong and simply reaffirms the propaganda coming from Kyiv and from NATO headquarters. It also stands in the way of any negotiations that could hope to bring a stable and lasting peace. Such a peace can only be achieved if the genuine security concerns of all countries in the region, including Russia, are part of the discussion. Anything less is likely to bring a transitory peace, a continuation of tension, and future military conflict.