Triggers for war: Why and how did the Ukraine war occur?

Jul 29, 2022
Ukrainians grieve, attend funerals
Image: Flickr / Manhhai

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 burst onto the international scene and has, within a few short months, upturned much of what international politics was thought to be about, at least in the developed West.

Despite the elevated rhetoric – it is neither the first armed conflict in Europe since the end of the Cold War (the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s) nor the first time a nuclear-armed country has invaded a non-nuclear country (Libya, Syria, Afghanistan), and it does not appear to be considered with the same gravity by what was formerly called the “third world” as it is in the developed West – this is a serious challenge to the world going forward. So how did it come about?

The usual explanation is that it is all attributable to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This explanation is often accompanied by the claim that there is no one in Putin’s circle who would dare to contradict him and therefore this decision was made by him alone. If this is the case, it is very different from the decision-making style he followed throughout his previous 20 years at the top. He was always consultative within a limited circle, seeking the views of those he trusted and some who had relevant expertise. Given the long lead time of preparation for the invasion (troop build-up was reported from spring 2021), are we really to believe that the reasons for this were not discussed at the top levels in Russia? Nevertheless Putin was the major player, and his words do give us some guidance to the thinking behind the invasion.

In seeking to understand the war and Putin’s outlook, it is useful to recognise a major lesson from the twentieth century: the roots of one war are often to be found in the terms of the settlement of the previous war. No one seeks to explain the second world war without reference to the Versailles peace ending the first world war, and the Cold War was a direct product of the way in which the second world war was wound up. Similarly, the end of Cold War settlement fed directly into the current conflict. Two aspects of that settlement are most salient:

  1. The break-up of the Soviet Union resulting in the independence of the former union republics, of which Ukraine was the second most important after Russia; the Soviet political union was shattered.
  2. The decision not to introduce a new pan-European security architecture but instead to expand the Cold War institutions, principally NATO, while rebuffing any idea that Russia could become a full member of this.

These are crucial to Putin’s thinking leading into the Ukraine war.

Much has been made of Putin’s argument that Ukraine does not constitute a bona fide state nor did Ukrainians have their own sense of national identity. Putin has been of this view since at least 2008, but it was given much more prominence in the eight months before the invasion, with Putin arguing that Ukraine was nothing more than a false entity created by the USSR. He argued that the Ukrainians, along with the Belarussians, were essentially Russian; they were all one people living on a common land with a common culture, language and values. The development of these ideas was propelled by the increasing influence that seems to have been exercised over Putin since the early 2000s by right wing nationalist forces in Russia; Aleksandr Dugin, the late Ivan Ilyin and the Orthodox Church seem to have been important here. This development is reflected in the increasing importance Putin has placed on the notion of Russia as having its own unique path of development, separate from the West and from Asia, and his determination to revive a “Great Russia” which can achieve its destiny.

This view with regards to the Russia-Ukraine relationship is quite tendentious. He is correct in the sense that the boundaries of an independent Ukraine were established in the Soviet period, and that many of the institutions and the political culture were emanations from the Soviet Union. Historically Ukraine was not a formal constituent element of the Russian Empire (although its provinces were), but there had been an independent Ukrainian state before its incorporation into the Russian Empire. Also Ukrainians clearly had a sense of national identity, forcefully expressed at the time of the Soviet collapse in their support for an independent Ukraine rather than association in some larger grouping.

But ultimately whether Putin was right or wrong historically was irrelevant to his beliefs. His view that Ukrainians and Russians (and Belarusians) were one was what counted. And it was this view that was crucial to his understanding of what was occurring in Ukraine over the past twenty years, since the colour revolution of 2004. If Ukrainians were the same as Russians, sharing the same values and beliefs, how could Ukraine pursue a path that was at variance with Russian interests? The answer had to be that control of the state had been seized by a group that was intent on ripping Ukraine away from Russia against the wishes of its own people. But who were these people who had seized control of Ukraine, the “fascists” referred to in the official explanations of the “special military operation” undertaken by the Russian army? This is where the second aspect of the post-Cold War settlement comes in.

NATO was always seen as a hostile, anti-Russian alliance. Even if many in the Russian elite may not have shared Putin’s view of the Ukrainians, there has been unanimity over the view of NATO. How could it be seen as anything other than hostile when it has seemed inexorably to advance eastwards to the very edge of Russia while at the same time maintaining that Russia itself could not become a member? Feeding into the conviction widespread in leading circles in Moscow that the West had sought to exploit Russia’s weakness in the 1990s, the incorporation into NATO of the former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and former allies in eastern Europe confirmed the conviction of those around Putin that NATO was intent on weakening and opposing Russia. Ukrainian flirting with joining the EU and NATO around the time of the Maidan revolution (2014) and subsequent to that, seemed to add substance to the fear that Western leaders sought to attract this “part of Russia” away from the homeland.

Some have sought to argue that NATO had nothing to do with creating the conditions that led to the invasion, saying it was only Putin’s view of Ukraine that was relevant. The problem with this view is Belarus. Conceived as part of the single Russian civilisational bloc, it has not been subject to the same treatment as Ukraine. This is because Belarus is firmly aligned with Russia, formally part of a so-called “supra-national state”. It is the relationship with NATO that is the difference between Ukraine and Belarus in Russian eyes.

But if ultimately it was the NATO factor that underpins the invasion, why now? Extreme right wing groups have been active in Ukraine for some time, but they have never been close to power, and while there have been policies that have been prejudicial to predominantly Russian-speaking parts of the country and there had been exchanges of fire across the Donbas ceasefire line, there is no credible evidence of genocide against Russian speakers in Ukraine. The assault seems to have been opportunistic, designed to take advantage of perceived American weakness. Obama’s drawing of a red line about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the failure to act when they were used, the foreign policy of the Trump presidency, the confrontation with China, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, could all be interpreted as evidence of declining American power. In addition, Putin under-estimated the capacity of the West to mount a united and decisive response; he also under-estimated the capacity of the Ukrainians to resist and he exaggerated the capacity of the Russian army to win a quick victory.

Finding a peaceful end to this will be difficult, but central is the role of NATO and the West. While they continue with a policy designed, in the words of various Western leaders, to weaken Russia, the conflict is unlikely to end. Such a policy will only continue the fighting and devastation. Only discussions between Russia and Ukraine can end the conflict because it is only those two parties that have any hope of resolving the on-ground situation. However given the relationship between Ukraine and NATO, such a resolution would need to be ticked off in Washington and Brussels. And only NATO can take the sort of action that would meet Russia’s larger geopolitical concerns. Both aspects, on-ground resolution and broader geopolitics, constitute a difficult enough task. It should not be made any more difficult by Western attempts either to punish Russia or to weaken her.

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