Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.
President George H W Bush to the Ukraine parliament, August 1991. Quoted in Lawrence Freedman, Ukraine and the Art of Strategy, Oxford 2019, p53
That was close to the time of assurances by the US and NATO to Russia that NATO would not be expanded beyond Germany. A time when the United States saw strategic virtue in Ukraine remaining part of the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union was dissolved on 31 December that year. That was between a journal article and a book by notable American political scientist Francis Fukuyama advancing the notion that we were seeing
“..not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
How naive, but how real a foundation for the combination of rampant economic liberalism, yet to have its Lehman Brothers moment, with recovery provided to the banks by the Obama administration, and the evolving expectation that the world could be steamrollered into discipline, industry grown to enable but lessons not learned from wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen (by proxy)… and Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait (three quarters of the width of Bass Strait between Tasmania and the Australian mainland). History is far from done. Military adventurism is not done. In the same period Russia has been militarily involved near its borders in the Caucasus and in support of the Government of Syria in putting down extremist insurgents. In support of the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine (Donbass, including Luhansk and Donets) from 2014, when Russia occupied and after a referendum annexed the Crimea peninsula. Russia did not involve itself widely in response to racist atrocities in Ukraine, for example in Odessa.
It is useful to look at a summary of the modern history of Ukraine in map form….
…and compare that with a map of the state of war 10 August 2022.
You can see how recently the eastern areas and Crimea were added to the Ukraine republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [aka USSR, Soviet Union].
This area was important to the economy of imperial Russia, the USSR and now Ukraine, as a major centre of resources and industry. Rebuilt after two world wars, run down somewhat under oligarch ownership in independent Ukraine, since 1993.
Crimea was host to the Russian then Soviet Black Sea Fleets, now again Russian.
In 2013 the elected government of Ukraine, based on a party with substantial support in the east, was presented with offers of economic association with Russia and the CIS, on the one hand and on the other the EU, which attached somewhat more onerous conditions on governance, human rights, and economic management. The Ukraine government chose the Russian offer. This led to an increase in activity by western intelligence agencies and the US National Endowment for Democracy and its Republican companion organisation, working to overturn the elected Ukraine government. This was achieved by coup after a period of lawlessness in central Kyiv. The new government in Kyiv removed Russian language from schools and shut down opposition as mentioned in a previous essay.
This led to war with the Russian minorities in what have now declared themselves to be the Republics of Luhansk and Donets, which are preparing to hold constitutional referenda. Civil war for eight years from 2014, with significant damage done more by Ukraine forces reported by OSCE, see their reports here. Russia also recovered Crimea back then, but Ukraine bulldozed closed the canal providing water to Crimea, something of a human rights offence (now reopened in the Russian offensive of 2022).
The Russian position had been clear from the time of discussions before the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991. The Warsaw Pact had been formed in 1955 after West Germany joined NATO. There was prospect of continued detente and inclusion of Russia in a post-cold-war Europe. The US, UK, and NATO tossed aside notions of change from a posture of hostility. The fundamentals of Russia’s security concerns were spelled out by President Putin at the 2007 Munich Security Conference.
Most specifically, following discussion between Presidents Biden and Putin in December 2021, Russia offered publicly two new draft treaties on security issues between the US and Russia, copy also to NATO. This paper from a Yale think tank describes the days immediately thereafter, including rejection by NATO. This Zoom discussion hosted mid-February by the Arms Control Association in the US reveals some differing opinions, this extract from a former US presidential adviser is sensible but out of step with the rising tide of hostile opinion on both sides:
THOMAS GRAHAM: From the Russian standpoint, this is really a question that concerns the post-Cold War settlement back in the 1990s that Russia now believes was imposed on it at a time of extreme strategic weakness in Russia. Of particular concern has been the expansion of NATO eastward across the continent, beginning with the initial invitations issued in 1997 and threatening core principles of Russian security going back decades if not centuries. Russia has sought its security in strategic depth and in buffer zones. They don’t like the idea of a military-political alliance, created to contain the Soviet Union, pressing up against its borders. So while in the United States we talk about a Ukraine crisis, from the Russian standpoint this is a crisis in European security architecture, and the fundamental issue they want to negotiate is the revision of European security architecture as it now stands to something that is more favourable to Russian interests.
All such common sense had been rejected.. They called Putin’s bluff not understanding that you can’t do that.