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.
During the Bush presidency, in less than a decade the relationship between Russia and NATO had, as a result of both NATO’s acceptance of former Warsaw Pact states and its eastward push, gone from President Putin openly stating that, substitute for the abolishment and replacement of NATO with a new unified security mechanism, Russia would be open to joining NATO, to Lavrov and Baluyevsky vowing Russia would “do all we can to prevent Ukraine's and Georgia's accession into NATO” and “take unambiguous action toward ensuring its interests along its borders […] not only be military steps, but also steps of a different character”, respectively. It must be noted how this was not the sole “fault” of the Bush administration, but the result of by then almost 20 years of Russia perceiving the West as having violated its promises with regards to eastwards expansion.
The issue lies in the West’s different answers to the end of the Cold War: NATO had historically been an instrument of US foreign policy, one which guaranteed peace and security in Europe for the better part of a century, but an instrument of US foreign policy nonetheless. The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the very conflict which brought NATO into existence made it difficult to argue that a need for the alliance still existed: therefore, the alliance shifted from a purely anti-Soviet bloc to a coalition of countries formed around common values and principles. Not only that, but to ensure that the EU would not take the place of the US in the European arena, the influence of the Union’s most important members had to be curtailed – in other words, if CEE countries were to join the EU, Germany and France’s political and economic influence had to be counterbalanced by the security guarantees offered by the US through NATO membership. NATO expansion was a fundamental tool of US foreign policy in a post-cold war world: both to prevent Russian assertiveness in the CEE region, and to ensure American influence would not wane. From the perspective of the US’ European partners, NATO enlargement was not necessarily advisable. The first round of expansion, accepting the V4 countries minus Slovakia, was well-received, but the later rounds were more contested. In particular, although France and Italy were eager to expand NATO to the Balkans to ensure their own influence in the region, all major European countries were opposed to Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO, resulting in the 2008 Bucharest summit ending with a declaration of NATO’s intent to include the two former Soviet states eventually, but no Membership Action Plan being proposed for the two post-Soviet republic The difference in opinion on NATO enlargement between the US and its European partners can be traced back to a few factors: firstly, Europe’s growing, at the time, energy dependence on Russia; secondly, the presence in power of parties historically sympathetic towards Moscow in some European countries (Germany and Italy in particular); thirdly, the growing willingness of European countries to reduce their reliance on the US. One cannot, however, excuse Europe of responsibilities: just as much as NATO enlargement, the EU’s eastwards expansion posed a threat to Russia – although economic, instead of military, in nature.
The reason why the West’s approach to NATO-Russian relations has effectively provoked Moscow, however, lies both in the folly that is the liberal approach to international relations and the way it has shaped Western foreign policy in the last 30 years, and in a profound misunderstanding of Russia.
The West’s liberal approach, based on the well-meaning notion of the expansion of democracy and liberal values, has indeed failed to take into account was a more realist approach would have considered as the very foundation of foreign policy: that Russia is, first and foremost, preoccupied with securing itself and its position in the global arena. As Mearshmeier put it: “Great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.” This logic is particularly true when it comes to Russia and its former Soviet brethren, with the geography of the region making NATO’s eastward expansion an even more salient issue. One may contest whether Russia actually is a great power, especially in light of their performance in Ukraine, but Moscow certainly still views itself as a great power, and will act as such: it did in 2008, when the invasion of Georgia crystallised a conflict which would ensure the country would be unable to join NATO for the foreseeable future, as well as in 2014 when it did the same with Ukraine, and it has done so now.
What Russia witnessed was, from Moscow’s perspective, a gradual and steadfast enlargement of NATO aimed at encircling it, EU expansion taking Ukraine and its resources away from Russia’s sphere of influence, and a West-sponsored coup d’état in Kyiv in 2014. Faced with this situation, Russia reacted accordingly – but the reaction has far-reaching roots that must be understood.
Understanding Russia’s reaction: economic, political, and cultural factors
The West did not, however, simply adopt a wrong foreign policy stance, based on principles that were guaranteed to alienate Russia: it also ensured the Kremlin would be alienated because it did not understand Russia and its interests.
In The Great Chessboard (1997), former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian Empire. [It] can still strive for Imperial status, but it would become a predominantly Asian Empire. […] if Moscow regains control over Ukraine […], [it] automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state.”
But why? Azerbaijan and the Caucasus also have sizable populations, as do Belarus and the Baltics. Why Ukraine? Why does Kyiv need to be under Moscow for Moscow to be a Eurasian, although I dare say European Empire once again?
The reasons for this are multiple: economic, geopolitical, and cultural (or historical).
First of all, Ukraine is a rich country. This does not mean that the GDP per capita is high (in fact, World Bank data puts Ukraine’s GDP per capita at roughly 1/3 that of Russia in 2020, despite average wages as of January 2022 being only slightly lower in Ukraine compared to Russia), but that the country is blessed when it comes to natural resources.
To begin with, Ukraine has vast mineral reserves: it is the 7th largest extractor of iron, 8th largest of manganese and graphite, 6th largest extractor of titanium and 10th largest of uranium – not in Europe, but in the world. It is also a substantial extractor of coal. The country’s domestic supply of uranium is estimated to be such that not only would Ukraine be able to entirely satisfy the country’s demand by 2026 (despite a planned increase in the number of nuclear reactors), but also enough to, given Ukraine’s know-how and faced with low likelihood of NATO accession serving as security guarantees, allow the country to seek nuclear rearmament if it so wished.
In addition to mineral reserves, Ukraine is also rich in natural gas and oil, with the country having gas reserves second only to Norway in Europe (if Russia’s Asian deposits are not counted), as well as close to a billion metric tonnes in oil reserves.
Finally, Ukraine still is what it has traditionally been: the breadbasket of Europe. Ukraine is now the largest producer of sunflower oil in the world, the second global producer of barley, the third producer of wheat and rapeseed, as well as the fourth largest producer of corn (with corn exports being as much as half as those of the US). Except that Ukraine’s agricultural exports now also reach the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, accounting for 15% of wheat imports in Egypt, 20% in Morocco and close to 50% in Tunisia, as well as 23% of imports in Turkey. Other than the MENA region, Ukraine also exports to Europe: although Kyiv supplies only 4.9% of the EU’s agricultural imports overall, the EU is heavily dependent on Ukraine for specific imports, such as corn (with Kyiv forecast to supply close to half of the EU’s corn imports in 2021-2022), as well as non-palm and non-olive vegetable oils and oilseeds excluding soybeans (26% and 18% of EU imports in these two sectors come from Ukraine, respectively). Additionally, the fertility of Ukraine’s soil makes it able to allegedly produce food products for up to 600 million people, enough to satisfy the needs of the EU, Ukraine and non-EU European countries combined (excluding Russia).
In addition to Ukraine’s richness in natural resources, the country also has a strong defence sector, with expertise coming from soviet times, as well as a sizable aerospace industry.
Controlling Ukraine’s natural resources and industrial expertise, coupled with the country’s ample human resources (its population, though on the decline due to ageing, low birth rates and emigration, was at around 40 million people on the day the war broke out), would significantly increase Russia’s importance on the world stage, and its ability to influence Europe in particular.
On the contrary, an independent Ukraine would weaken Russia because it could be a source of differentiation of natural resource imports for EU countries looking to reduce their dependency on Moscow and its partners for strategic resources such as oil, gas, and uranium.
How geopolitics, culture and history intertwine
To comprehend the situation, an understanding of the Russian geopolitical situation is needed.
Russia has, for the better part of the last 30 years, found itself in a dilemma: its interests run contrary to those of the West in the CEE region, but they are also at odds with China’s recent nationalist push and attempt to strike at the legacy of the century of humiliation. In this situation, Russia had initially opted for a middle of the road approach, cooperating with both the West and NATO on the one hand, and Beijing on the other.
This, however, came crashing down as the West’s eastward push continued. Russia had clearly defined Ukraine and Georgia as its red lines in its cooperation with Washington and its partners, yet NATO clearly stated its intent to include the two in the alliance at the Bucharest summit of 2008.
More than a buffer between itself and the West, Moscow considered, and still does, Georgia and Ukraine to be part of its natural sphere of influence – its empire, if you will (they may be independent countries, but subject to Russian control).
This, however, leads to a conundrum: why Ukraine and Georgia, and not the Baltics? That is to say, why did Moscow go so far as to invade both Kyiv and Tbilisi to prevent them joining NATO, but did not do so with the Baltic states?
Although the argument can be made that the Baltic states are viewed by Moscow as part of Russia’s rightful sphere of influence, Georgia and Ukraine are different, Kyiv in particular, even if one does not consider economic factors.
Georgia, for instance, is an orthodox country with a relatively small Russian minority, only accounting for 6% of the population of the country when the USSR dissolved, but where the tension between ethnic groups on the border with Russia and the central government could be exploited to weaken Tbilisi, especially given the threat it would have posed if it were admitted to NATO, given the presence of large ethnic minorities on the border between Moscow and Georgia. The same could not be said about Estonia or Latvia, two countries with sizeable Russian minorities but whose NATO membership posed less of a threat. It is also worth noting that the Russian army had significantly worse capabilities at the time the NATO accession process started for the Baltics, compared to 2008.
Ukraine is, however, a whole different beast altogether. 2001 census data reports close to 20% of the population as ethnic Russian, with Russian being the native tongue of close to 30% of the population. Recent polls (which, for obvious reasons, exclude the heavily Russian-speaking areas of Crimea and Donbas) indicate that around 22% of Ukrainians declare Russian as their native language while 36% speaks it regularly at home. Although most Russian speakers identify as Ukrainian, the bonds between Moscow and Kyiv are much stronger than those between it and Tbilisi or Tallin. A fully independent Ukraine where Russian is not an official language would pose a threat for two reasons: first, it could reduce the amount of people in Ukraine identifying as Russian and speaking Russian even further, therefore reducing Russian influence in the country; secondly, it could, by doing so, reduce Russia’s soft power outside of Ukraine (as the amount of Russian speakers decreases, so does the appeal of studying and learning Russian, and therefore the importance of Russia on the world stage, similarly to how China’s economic boom has catapulted Mandarin into being one of the most studied languages in the world and has therefore increase Beijing’s soft power). Furthermore, up until 2019 the orthodox church in both countries answered to the Patriarch of Moscow, before the Ukrainian church defected and was granted autocephaly by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
The bond between Russia and Ukraine is not the same as those between Russia and the other countries on its periphery. Georgia, for instance, was an independent state until the end of the 15th century, and various Georgian polities existed until their conquest by Russia in the 19th century. Similarly, Russia fully incorporated the Baltics for the first time in the mid-late 18th century. The same can be said about the Stans, the conglomerate of central Asian post-Soviet republics, which was only annexed by Moscow in the 18th and 19th centuries.
That is not the case with Ukraine: for Russia, Ukraine is incredibly important from a historical viewpoint. Kyiv, the Mother of all Russian Cities, was the centre of the Kievan Rus, the first Russian or east Slavic state, and its princes were the leading east Slavic princes until the Mongols subjugated the Rus and for a long time after then. Eventually, as the Golden Horde weakened and after Kyiv was conquered by the Lithuanians, Moscow would emerge in the 14th century as the leading Russian city together with Novgorod, taking Kyiv’s place. Russia and Ukraine, in short, had been united under a single polity for the better part of a thousand years, except for the 300-year period when Ukraine was either under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or governed by the Hetmanate. Russia and Ukraine, in short, have almost always been part of a single political entity, from the days of the Rus to the end of the Soviet Union.
These historical facts inform the view which Putin expressed in an essay titled On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians, as well as in his February 21 address: “I would like to emphasise again that Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”
Almost always is, however, different from always. Ukraine is a clearly separate nation from Russia, with its own different, although similar, history, traditions, culture and most importantly language. As Serhii Plokhi notes, while, due to the centrality of Ukraine in defining what Russia is or is not, “Russians today have a difficult time imagining Kyiv being not part of Russia or Russia-dominated space and Kyivan Rus' not being an integral part of Russian history”, a clearly separate Ukrainian identity developed first under Imperial and then under Soviet rule.
However, Putin clearly thinks differently. As I outlined in an article on March 16, his opinion is also not likely to be his own only. Instead, given the similar upbringing and experiences he shares with most of his inner circle – Russia’s so-called Siloviki (силовики́, meaning strongmen) élite – it is likely to represent the attitude towards Ukraine of Russia’s “real” élite, those who inform Putin’s decisions and his closest advisors.
This idea, the one which is being pushed by the Kremlin and by Putin himself, is reminiscent of the Imperial Russian idea of the Russian Nation – the so-called Triune Russia or All-Russian Nation (Триединый Русский Народ or Общерусский Народ, respectively). The idea of the Triune Russian Nation is a concept which emerged during the time of the Tsars and sees Russia, and therefore Russians, as divided into three groups: Great Russians (Russians), White Russians (Belarusians), and finally Little Russians (Ukrainians).
Culture, history and geopolitics all play into one another and reinforce each other: looking at the ties that exist between Russia and Ukraine, and looking at the historical importance that Ukraine has for Russia, and Russia’s élite in particular, it is no wonder how Moscow reacted to perceived Western encroachment in its own sphere of influence.
Once again recalling Mearshmeir, Russia acted the way it did because it was sensitive to potential threats on the border of their home territory. This was true in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria, as well. However, economic and geopolitical factors all plaid into one another and led Russia to the violent actions it has taken. Ukraine is more than Georgia: to Russia, Ukraine isn’t simply part of its rightful sphere of influence – it is Russia, whether it likes it or not.
Having analysed the causes of the conflict, it is time to draw conclusions.
First, the West is not to blame, but it does have significant responsibilities for what has come to be. To begin with, because of its approach towards Russia and NATO expansion, and also because of its lacklustre, at best, security guarantees to Ukraine, especially considering Russia’s multiple violations of the Budapest memorandum. Secondly, because it has systematically failed to understand the Russian point of view about its actions and what Russia would do if faced with what it considered an existential threat.
Second, Russia is the party at fault. Yes, as already touched upon, the West does have its own fair share of responsibilities, but this does not excuse Russia’s own indiscriminate use of force against civilians, its systematic violations of international law, nor the pressure it exercised over Ukraine in the years before 2014. However, there are reasons for Russia’s actions, which must be understood to properly grasp the situation.
Finally, it is important to maintain clarity of judgement when the conflict ends. Russia is a large country, with vast natural resource deposits and with interests going against not only those of the West, but of China, too, although in different ways. Any resolution to the conflict which emboldens Russia would make the situation for Europe and NATO’s eastern flank worse, but so would any resolution which would severely weaken Russia, fostering revanchism and anti-Western sentiment in a country already plagued by 20 years of anti-Western propaganda which would then probably become an economic colony of China in all but name. Instead, a conciliatory ending to the conflict which safeguards Ukraine and allows Russia to save face, would be preferable, considering that, in the long term, China is the real security threat to the West, Europe included.
The plight of civilians in Ukraine today is Russia’s fault. But, just like in 1938 with Czechoslovakia and in 1939 with Poland, those who enabled the aggressor country and gave it pretexts for aggression ought to shoulder part of the responsibilities, to recognise them and to reflect upon their role in the situation, drawing the necessary conclusions to avoid the same mistakes being repeated in the future.