How we got here: the origins of the Russo-Ukrainian War

Source: Pixabay.

Introduction – what is going on

For more than two months now, Ukraine has been waging a defensive war against the Russian Federation. Whether Moscow wants to admit it or not, its Special Military Operation which was supposed to take a few days and be met with low resistance has turned into a fully-fledged war of national defence, seen by Kyiv as key to reaffirming and reassuring that the Ukrainian State continues to exist as an independent country in the future.

Although most of the western world was taken by surprise by the invasion, looking back with hindsight the warning signs were there: the massive build-up of forces, the number of forward operating bases being built not only in Russia but in Belarus as well, etc. The fact that we were taken aback indicates a general lack of understanding of Russia, or a lack of will to understand it.

That is to say that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine was not decided upon on a whim by Putin and his inner circle in Moscow: it was a calculated move, based on a set of assumptions and on a certain worldview. Understanding the reasons that lead to this calculated move is key to understanding why the conflict erupted, and therefore making sure that the mistakes made in the leadup to the War in Ukraine are not repeated in the future.

Liberal illusions: the West’s responsibilities

The end of the Cold War marked a huge shift in the West’s approach to foreign policy, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the Soviet Union was no more, and China looked like a strong partner in perspective, so a foreign policy aimed at countering communism throughout the globe, like that of the Reagan times, was no longer fit for purpose. This meant that NATO had to be repurposed and that the US needed to shift attention and resources away from Europe. Finally, the end of the Cold War effectively meant the end of realism in foreign policy on the part of the West, with a firmly liberal stance taking its place; after all, it stood to reason that foreign policy at the time of the end of history (a term used by Francis Fukuyama to describe a time when, following the defeat of totalitarian ideologies, the ideological and political evolution of mankind had effectively ended and western liberal values were soon to become universal) be less focused on the practical question of the preservation of countries and their power, and more on fostering democracy and the liberal values that would mark the end of history.

Consequently, the international environment changed.

The US embarked on a programme of disengagement from Europe, with the number of American servicemen and women being stationed in the old world falling sharply from 315,000 in 1989 to 107,000 in 1995 and eventually less than 100,000 by 2005. Prior to 2001, these changes to the number of US personnel in Europe were mostly due to the American intention to reduce engagement in the continent, while following 2001 (and 2005 in particular) they were also related to growing American commitments in the Middle East.

The US’ drastic reduction of troop numbers in Europe did not come out of the kind heartedness of the Clinton and Bush administration, however. It must also be noted how the reduction in the number of US personnel deployed to Europe came together with NATO’s enlargement: starting in 1999 and continuing in 2004, 2009, 2017 and 2020, the alliance has now welcomed all former non-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries, as well as four out of six former Yugoslav countries (Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro).

NATO’s expansion is precisely one of the many aspects of the last 30 years of western foreign policy which may have led Moscow to the conclusion that their Special Military Operation was needed. Not only is that the possibility that this is the case, but we also have proof that it is: in his address to the country on February 24, 2022, Putin mentioned NATO nine times, eight of these being related to the Alliance’s eastwards expansion of the last 30 years.

None of the countries that form NATO’s eastern flank was forced into the Alliance: whenever called upon to vote on the matter, the population of former Warsaw Pact countries voted overwhelmingly in favour, with Hungarians voting 85% in favour, 66% of Slovenians supporting joining NATO, and a staggering 95% of North Macedonians supporting joining NATO and the EU (although the North Macedonian referendum was about changing the country’s name, the question explicitly mentioned this would be done to enable the country to join NATO and the EU).

However, staunch support for NATO membership in CEE (Central and Eastern European) countries does not equate to reluctance on part of the alliance’s “core” of western European countries plus the US to sponsor such enlargement. In fact, the two go hand in hand: in particular under the Bush Administration, starting already in 2002 and even at the end of his presidency in 2008, the US expressed strong support not only for former Warsaw Pact countries joining NATO, but also for former soviet states bordering Russia to do so. In particular, the 2008 summit was pivotal because of the expression of the desire to see Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO by the US had alarms bells ringing in the Kremlin.