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.

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.