The war in Ukraine has been devastating on all sides. In Ukraine, human casualties, the insufferable physical and mental effects of violence, the destruction of entire cities and infrastructure, and the forced deportation of Ukrainian children by Russian authorities; in Russia, families have lost thousands of relatives many of whom were sent unwillingly to the war front, allegedly including untrained recruits and prisoners; people have had to suffer deprivations due to sanctions and domestic reallocation of resources; support among NATO countries have witnessed fragmentation, vast amounts of financial resources have been diverted from pressing domestic needs and weaponry from national security, and there is consternation of whether their forces may have to step in. The conflict also has caused dissension among governments not partaking in the war, some of them allies of the U.S. and the E.U. If anything, the uncertain peril that awaits illustrates that this war has dramatically manifested the failure (or absence) of effective diplomacy, likely because of ideological blind spots, self-induced distrust, and insecurity on both sides.
In an age when major powers are aware of the risks that violent conflicts among them entail, casual observers may reasonably think that their governments would act more responsible in solving problems surrounding their security. It seems sensible to believe that most people, if presented with a choice, would opt to live peacefully. Yet, warfare is not always an irrational act; in many instances it is quite rational (according to the psychological definition of the term) even if humanly and morally repugnant.
The objective in this essay is to trace and analyze events that led to this war. This piece, however, is far less than impartial. There is in it a predisposition towards the democratic process as understood in modern liberal/Western political philosophy; a distaste for wanton violence; and the realization that warfare may be necessary at times either to defend oneself from gratuitous or unprovoked violence or to protect the lives of those who cannot defend themselves.
At the outset, it must be acknowledged that the Russian Federation attack against Ukraine, its infrastructure, and above all its people has been deplorably merciless and at times vicious. From the standpoint of international norms/laws, Vladimir Putin’s actions appear to have contravened the United Nations Charter. In the relativistic political/moral climate of current international politics, however, Putin may have felt that his actions were justified because the security of his nation, his ambitions, or his geographical sphere of influence were at stake. As Western democracies have had their share of serious misdeeds in the past, it is difficult for either side to claim the moral high ground. Since all parties in this war are bent on seeking a military victory or allowing increased devastation and hardship to lead to an indiscernible resolution, it is difficult to see a prompt end to the conflict. Still, establishing a modest framework may allow us to understand how military conflicts occur with particular attention to Ukraine and the interaction between NATO and Russia.
If a public opinion poll on warfare (that includes political leaders) were to be conducted, the overwhelming majority of respondents probably would concur with the belief that wars begin when an event(s) takes place that is deemed aggressive by opponents because it endangers human life or creates a state of insecurity among their people, i.e., wars begin when shots are fired. Although visible threats often precede warfare, these do not always lead to military conflict. Yet advancements in weaponry, including nuclear arms, have led to a systematic review of military tactics and strategies shortening the interval between threats and the beginning of armed hostility. Only sixty years ago, the idea of cyber warfare against a major city’s power grid or intelligence gathering facilities would have made for interesting Jules Verne novels. Today, cyberwarfare, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), is fast becoming the next frontier in military conflict for which questionable stabilizing mutual assured destruction strategies do not yet exist.
At any rate, the view that wars begin when the first shots are fired is not only simplistic; it tends to overlook wars as complicated processes that often find their origins and/or causes in capricious or calculated actions by political leaders or in historical, socio-economic, religious, and political events that may have taken place and conditioned human behavior for a long time. Once examined, history provides formidable evidence that wars do not begin with opening shots or when physical areas are suddenly occupied or attacked. Wars undergo evolving processes, a concatenation of spontaneous or deliberate short or long-term events happening throughout years, decades, or centuries whose historically linked antecedents are often disregarded by political leaders and policy analysts. All too often premeditated behavior resulting in armed conflicts is shaped by ideologies, misperceptions and misconceptions, flawed intelligence, and human desires disguised as moral behavior and acted upon vague and subjective notions such as national interests and national security.
Using a medical analogy, we may say that wars evolve like cancer. We know that cell mutation, invisible to the naked eye, is initially responsible for what eventually develops into a tumor that may or may not become malignant. We also know that some benign tumors may go undetected and become malignant as they begin to spread through the bloodstream. Often, initial physical symptoms that ought to dictate medical scrutiny are willfully or foolishly ignored as insignificant ailments that occur to human beings throughout their lives such as colds, allergies, muscle aches, or mild cases of gastritis. We also know that not all malignant tumors metastasize, although once cancer reaches that stage it becomes exceedingly difficult to cure.
Transposing the above analogy to the political world suggests that not all political conflicts, i.e., invisible tumors, inevitably lead to combat. On the other hand, it would not be historically accurate to say that World War I began immediately in the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand while overseeing decades of preventive military buildups in Europe; insecurity that led to defensive alliances under the belief that a balance of power theory invariably would create stability; a deliberate disinterest in avoiding warfare among nations that considered wars a risk worth taking to attain national goals; and nationalism or the mutual dislike of nations based on their cultural differences and/or desires. Likewise, World War II cannot be seen as commencing with Germany’s forced unification of Austria or its invasion of Poland while ignoring the impact of WWI, Germany’s imperial and militaristic attitudes, and a revengeful Treaty of Versailles on the rise of a megalomaniac individual along with a vindictive type of Nazi nationalism that fed on its long desire to avenge German humiliation.
The origin of wars, then, occurs way before actual combat begins. Colonialism, empire building, dogmatic religious views, slavery, economic and military imperialism, unmitigated political ambition, and resentful ideologies can unleash vindictive forces by victims against their oppressors centuries or decades later.
There are other types of politically cancerous mutations that eventually lead to military conflict. Violating established international norms of conduct can be among the most malignant modes of political behavior. It allows opposing parties to justify acting in the same manner later, on the basis that not following through would weaken their security, or by relying on the rationalization that if others break the rules of the game anyone ought to be able to do it too. When nations establish conditions dictating that warfare is considered a casually acceptable norm in international politics, a state of insecurity sets in leading to and reinforcing a law-of-the-jungle type of behavior leading to the most nefarious type of armed conflict: preventive warfare, in which political leaders seek to eliminate perceived enemies to prevent them from the possibility of initiating an attack at a latter day. Historically, the casual reliance on war has been among the preferred instruments to conquer and dominate peoples.
Preventive warfare, unfortunately, is not only practiced by autocratic and dictatorial regimes; government leaders who eulogize democratic virtues have relied on preventive warfare too as means to justify what they consider their national interests. Under these circumstances it is difficult for any government to ever claim the high ground since they act in a similar fashion as their counterparts.
In international politics, critical attitudes and their corresponding behaviors are often disregarded leading to malignant political mutations. For example, self-righteousness is a self-deceiving trait that considers one’s behavior to be upright and principled while judging opponents’ actions as evil. Such an attitude sidesteps an attempt to understand one’s adversaries’ feelings and intentions because they are deemed to lack validity. From an intelligence standpoint, analysis becomes one-sided, concluding that since leaders cloak their actions as honorable, an opponent’s behavior must be self-serving. This attitude provides legitimacy to armed hostility while forgetting that all major powers have been responsible throughout their histories of the worst conduct humanity has exhibited.
Another cancerous mutation in politics occurs when seemingly innocuous misconceptions or misperceptions lead to rigid postures and risky confrontations. These occur when we disregard our opponents’ motives when they conflict with preconceived notions that are unchecked or when insecurity seeps in and clouds our judgements. Rejecting an opponent’s claims of threats or national insecurity tends to be driven by the belief that only “bad guys” use this rationale to justify their actions. The problem is that no nation labels itself as a bad actor. Hence, the tendency is to justify our insecurities asserting they are real, thus acceptable, while our enemies’ concerns are pretexts to take aggressive action. These situations are best understood when we realize that lacking universally enforced legal norms, and political and moral consensus, each nation believes that only its causes can be justified.
Often, rigid misconceptions or mindsets are regarded as political assets since policymakers do not wish to be considered indecisive or irresolute. If we acknowledge that human behavior is often unpredictable and that human motives remain hidden no matter how deep we look into our opponents’ souls we ought to conclude that an inflexible mindset can be dangerous.
For example, the famous Missile Gap that led to the nuclear arms race in the early 1960s was probably due to misconceptions. In the words of historian Tim Naftali, the U.S. argument those days was, They [Moscow] hate us. They will work 24 hours a day to build as many missiles as they can. And you can’t prove that they can’t. Indeed, the Soviets were in competition with the West; both sides felt insecure; and Moscow disliked the U.S. immensely. Nonetheless, what led to the inordinate increase in U.S. missiles that fueled an arms race was our fearful misconceptions and lack of adequate intelligence. The Vietnam War, among the greatest U.S. military tragedies of the twentieth century, was based, according to Robert McNamara, on the supposition that Hanoi was a rigid ideologically communist ally of Russia as opposed to a country fighting off anti-colonialism to remain an independent nation. Years later, he admitted that the war should have ended in 1963, but a Cold War mentality may have prevented us from viewing North Vietnam’s actions differently. Many in the West repeated the mistake when colonialism and apartheid intransigence transformed Nelson Mandela into the most famous non-communist communist to be revered, Gorbachev-style, by the West. Lastly, terrorist attacks by rogue Muslim groups and religious ideologies, particularly after 9/11, led the West to view Islam as the enemy. Going after Al-Qaeda was not enough. We looked for enemies everywhere, eventually creating a vivid image of a “mushroom cloud” menacing the U.S. Washington’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses and flawed, ideologically driven intelligence discredited our institutions and led us into a misconceived preventive war whose effects tripled our insecurity.
Implementing the Framework – Perceptions of Russia and Vladimir Putin
Does the past remain the same or can it evolve? In the case of Russia some may want to argue that given its autocratic history it should not come as a surprise that Vladimir Putin acts the way he does; Russian DNA flows through his veins, thus the past explains his attack on Ukraine. This is not to say that under some circumstances individuals and countries find it difficult to overcome historical socio-economic, cultural, and political conditions that have severely impacted their conduct. But a variety of cultural and/or religious and secular beliefs, tragic events, or new group attitudes, like peace movements, wars, natural disasters, or individual or group ideologies, can force change to happen. European colonial nations and an imperialist Japan, for example, evolved into democracies. The U.S. too, is vastly different from the nation its Fathers founded.
Moreover, if we contend that Russian history explains Putin’s behavior, how do we explain Mikhail Gorbachev’s political transformation or Boris Yeltsin’s conversion? All the European great powers, Spain, England, France, Portugal, and others had been authoritarian regimes for most of their histories before their conversion. Hence, is it reasonable to contend that given its absolutist and totalitarian past Russia will continue to be governed by imperial desires? What happens if someone like Alexei Navalny, who is adored in the West despite being known for altering his domestic and geopolitical views, comes into power? So much for accepting the historical thesis to explain Vladimir Putin’s behavior.
Therefore, we have no other alternative but to delve into the study of political human behavior. What makes human beings act the way they do when their aggregate values and desires intersect with politics at the domestic and international levels? Are there clues that may confirm what led Vladimir Putin to attack Ukraine?
To answer the previous questions, we need to widen our perspective. Several reasons have been suggested to explain Vladimir Putin’s actions: historical revisionism, geopolitical realignment driven by Russian ethnic sentiments in eastern Ukraine, sheer egoistic imperialism, national insecurity, or desire for international respect. There is, however, one basic feature that characterizes Russia’s attack against Ukraine: its attempt to attain its objectives through ruthless military force. Moreover, it is widely accepted that Russia’s Vladimir Putin and no one else is spearheading the conflict.
The predominant view in the West is that regardless of Putin’s motivations, his behavior is deemed to be evil, vicious, or wicked because he seeks to extract demands through military power. Yet he is not the first political leader to rely on such methods. The creation of nations throughout history has been chaotic, often unnecessarily cruel, and inhumane regardless of the morals of the epoch.
Prior to the creation of the modern state in the seventeenth century, force was the favorite means of subduing peoples. Among these ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’ conquerors history recognizes (among others) strange bedfellows such as Greek King Alexander (known as the Great), Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, possibly Charlemagne, Pope Urban II and other crusading popes, Genghis Khan, and Mohammad and Sultan Süleyman to a lesser degree.
Following the creation of the modern state, political leaders have relied on two coercive methods to attain their geopolitical objectives, annexation of territories (or their creation in international waters) and what is known today as regime change that does not involve annexing territories whether in land, sea, or air. History recognizes numerous personalities in the Modern and Postmodern era who have exceeded themselves in the use of gratuitous or unprovoked military force to a higher or lesser degree. Establishing a hierarchical order in this respect, though difficult, may include the number of people killed and the level of long-term deprivation and hardship people had to endure. This category includes Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Shaka Zulu, and to a lesser extent Louis XIV, Peter the Great, the European and Asian colonial powers, Otto von Bismarck, Wilhelm II, and perhaps Simon Bolivar despite being known as the Great Liberator.
There also have been dictators who exceeded themselves in the use of force within their countries such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, or Fidel Castro. And we may even find democratically elected leaders too, such as U.S. Presidents James K Polk, Andrew Jackson, and George Washington, if we consider their ruthless actions against Native Americans as well as annexation of territories. Additionally, modern terrorism relies on force to attain its objectives, the most notorious perhaps being Osama bin Laden. Nonetheless, even though there is no universal definition of terrorism during acts of war, the term (by U.S. criteria) involves at the very least the maiming or killing of innocent civilians as a means to attain a group or a state’s political objective. Accordingly, U.S. President Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japanese civilians possibly fits the definition.
Hence, if attaining geopolitical objectives through the use of ruthless force that includes territorial annexation, subduing, and killing peoples is deemed to be evil, where would history place Vladimir Putin?
To attempt to understand what might have prompted Putin’s attack on Ukraine we need to do so within a historical context. Establishing a timeline of events between the late 1980s and February 2022 allows us to focus on political mutations that went unnoticed or willfully ignored. As we connect these mutations, we notice how each one fed into the next one until the tumor grew to be inoperable, or in political terms, when war became inevitable.
A U.S. State Department timeline on Soviet and Russian relations with the U.S. from 1990 to 2007, for example, shows how following the dissolution of the Soviet Union the U.S. was steering and hoping to transform Russia into a Western democracy. The report provides a glimpse of an almost idyllic marriage up to 1994 centering on its affectionate aspects while disagreements were being considerably played down.
The Boris Yeltsin/George H W Bush/Bill Clinton Years
Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev had been making constant strides to implement his reforms at home. His foreign policies were geared towards improving Russia’s relations with the U.S., an example of which was a significant strategic military treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. When Boris Yeltsin became president in 1991, George H W Bush continued to engage Russia. The Kremlin cooperated with U.S.’s initiatives including mutual limitations on nuclear and conventional forces. There were trade agreements and scientific exchanges, and U.S. economic aid flowed to Russia to support its floundering economy. The H W Bush Administration kindled ‘affectionate’ acts to entice Russia into accepting a liberal-style democracy similarly to when the U.S. and its allies succeeded in transforming the Axis powers, Japan, Germany, and Italy into formidable allies at the end of WWII.
Yeltsin had indicated that Soviet forces would soon withdraw from the Baltic countries. START II was signed in 1993 seeking to impose mutual reductions and limitations on strategic weapons. Moreover, both countries agreed to cooperate in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes; both declared their support for U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts in Bosnia. The U.S.-Russian Trade Agreement, approved by Congress in 1991, arranged for reciprocal Most Favored Nation tariff treatment; and through its Overseas Private Investment Corporation the U.S. promoted private investments in Russia.
Disagreements Begin to Surge
The honeymoon period did not last long. Soon following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, countries under Soviet domination moved towards closer military relations with NATO. Several of them became full partners while others chose limited relations through NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme, including Russia. President Yeltsin, however, strenuously objected to incorporating former Soviet republics into NATO believing it constituted a form of intimidation at a time when Russia was turbulently evolving into a primitive stage of democracy. He was unsuccessful, realizing that Russia was in no position, militarily or economically, to prevent these events.
The first expansion of NATO, the initial political mutation (relying on the cancer analogy) with possibilities of becoming malignant took place under the Clinton administration. Clinton did not consider NATO’s enlargement a great obstacle to U.S. relations with Moscow. He perceived Russia as a weakened country that had little choice in having Washington lay down its policies almost at will. Clinton did not realize that Russia was a failing economy unable to provide military aid to its satellite republics while maintaining parity with the West.
There being no real military threats to NATO at the time (1994), one would have thought that if the West’s idea was to deepen democratic roots within the newly liberated countries, embedding them within the E.U. and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) would have been a more logical move. In order not to alienate Moscow from its democratic path, Clinton downplayed Russia’s human rights violations in its war in Chechnya (as the lesser of two evils) regarding it as a domestic matter.
Clinton’s rationale to expand NATO was that it will help address the security challenges that arise including threats outside Europe’s borders such as the spread of weapons of mass destruction and long-range delivery systems. The U.S. even floated the idea that an expanded NATO could provide protection against the possibility that Russia could abandon democracy and return to the threatening behavior of the Soviet period, while adding, we see such a turn as unlikely.
Notable political surgeons perceived a potentially serious tumor that Clinton did not foresee. His Secretary of Defense nearly resigned. Even George Keenan, the most respected expert on the doctrine of Soviet containment remarked that it would be a fateful error because it could lead to a surge of nationalism, and anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion. At a time when the Warsaw military pact had disintegrated, Yeltsin viewed NATO’s expansion as an incoherent public slap in the face.
In 1997 an ebullient Clinton and a resigned Yeltsin met in Paris to sign the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations Cooperation and Security. Its preamble had an astonishing statement: NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries. NATO and Russia would overcome the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition stressing instead the need to strengthen mutual trust and cooperation. Was the statement delusional or did the U.S. truly feel that Russia had changed its old imperialistic ambitions?
A year later, prodded by charges of ethnic cleansing and public pressure President Clinton bombed Serbia and Montenegro to end the conflict between the predominantly Islamist/Albanian people and Christian Serbs in Kosovo. Initially, Yeltsin was opposed to a unilateral, illegal, non-U.N. authorized military campaign partly because the Serbs were led by Slobodan Milošević, a Russian ally. However, and much to Washington’s surprise, Moscow brought pressure on its Serb ally to withdraw its troops and surrender. Inside accounts show that Yeltsin was willing to overlook NATO’s violation of the U.N. Charter to salvage Russia’s relationship with the U.S. If so, it indicated how much significance Moscow attributed to its new partnership with the West. As a reward for its cooperation the G7 Group, made up of the richest industrialized and democratic nations, extended formal membership to Russia despite Moscow being neither wealthy nor as democratic as its counterparts. It was a productive move for both; Washington was influencing Russia into adjusting to a new type of political system while Moscow felt it had regained international stature.
The Clinton administration failed to recognize that the U.S. and NATO were proceeding on parallel yet opposing tracks: one seeking to incentivize Russia to adopt democratic reforms by revitalizing the private sector and establishing democratic institutions; the other one, perceiving Russia as still having imperial desires, thus the need for NATO’s enlargement. Washington was hedging its bets, but was it possible that the U.S. believed that Moscow would not notice the contradiction? The U.S. did not notice the inherent contradiction that deterrence is a policy to contain adversaries, but according to the NATO-Russia Founding Act Washington and Moscow were no longer enemies.
The George W Bush and Vladimir Putin Years
In 1999, as the Second Chechen War had begun, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned the Russian presidency allowing Vladimir Putin, then the Prime Minister, to become acting president. Putin was subsequently elected in 2000 having earned recognition for his assertive though ruthless leadership once Russia established control in the region. Putin was reelected to the presidency in 2004 being perceived by citizens as a resolute and charismatic leader.
During his first years in office Putin focused on bringing stability to a nation on the brink of becoming economically, politically, and socially dysfunctional. At home he enjoyed broad political support having increased the living standards of the population. Gradually, he extended his control over the media and adroitly consolidated his rule. Under Putin Russia underwent a dramatic change from Soviet totalitarianism. Democratic reforms were being implemented and the private sector showed considerable growth. Russian citizens were noticing modern individual freedoms they had never experienced.
The highly respected and independent Russian polling organization, The Levada Center and the U.S.-based Gallup Inc. reported that Putin’s popularity at home since taking over oscillated between 62 percent and 86 percent, the envy of Western politicians. Bringing the Chechen Republic under control enhanced Putin’s image as a heavy-handed strong-willed leader.
Putin came to power almost simultaneously with the election of George W Bush. Other than dealing with a rogue Chechen Republic (a domestic matter), Putin’s main concern, as Yeltsin’s, was NATO’s eagerness to extend its alliance by incorporating former Soviet republics. In January 2000, Putin took notice of NATO’s Secretary General Lord Robertson when he said during his visit to Kyiv that a self-confident, democratic Ukraine is a strategic benefit for the whole of this continent. We share a common interest in making Ukraine strong, stable, and secure. Was NATO angling towards Ukraine? The words were cryptic to the average citizen, perhaps not to Putin.
Russia had accepted a neutral Ukraine because at the time it did not represent a threat to its security. Kyiv had relinquished its nuclear weapons through the Budapest Memorandum in 1994; Moscow had signed a Friendship Treaty with Ukraine in 1997; and NATO and Ukraine had agreed to a Distinctive Partnership, all of which provided a modicum of security to a watchful Putin. At the very beginning, relations between Bush and Putin appeared to be on solid footing as suggested by Bush’s exuberant remark once he looked into Putin’s soul and saw a straightforward leader who was interested in the wellbeing of his people.
Viewed from Putin’s perspective, relations may have taken a turn for the worse when at a Summit Meeting in Slovenia (June 2001) Bush brought out an American initiative to develop a missile defense system capable of intercepting incoming offensive space weapons. Throughout discussions leading to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 1972 between the Soviet Union and the U.S., a mutual view had already been accepted that acquiring this system to ensure unilateral protection would destabilize the security of both nations; such was the reason for signing the ABM Treaty. Nonetheless, by December 2001, the U.S. announced it would withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty because it felt it constrained development of the new weapon system. Since no full-proof ABM system has ever been devised such a unilateral decision could have led to an increase in the number of ICBMs on both sides to overcome the enemy’s defenses, i.e., another round in the nuclear arms race. Like Clinton, Bush was certain that his decision would not jeopardize U.S.-Russia relations. Putin, however, was highly critical of Washington’s withdrawal from the treaty since it posed a potentially existential threat to Russia if the U.S. ever succeeded. Realizing that the U.S. was decades from developing a successful ABM system, both leaders focused instead on reducing their nuclear stockpiles under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) that was signed in 2002.
From ‘friends’ to … less than friends
Putin’s worst nightmare, NATO expansionism, became a reality in 2004 when six former Warsaw Pact countries and Slovenia were integrated into the alliance. Previously, in 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary had already become members. And in 2009, the accession of two more countries, Albania and Croatia, was ratified. The U.S.’s and NATO’s rationale for expanding the alliance was to meet terrorist threats. Reluctantly, as Yeltsin had done, he accepted NATO’s enlargement, but added, ominously perhaps, that each country has the right to choose the form of security it considers most effective. Bush failed to notice that NATO expansionism could become a serious political mutation.
Amid NATO’s enlargement, Washington and Moscow continued to cooperate in areas that were in both countries’ interests. In 2006 both leaders announced the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. In February 2007 they agreed to energize international engagement in support of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and progress in accordance with the Roadmap (that eventually went nowhere).
But in October, President Bush announced a greater effort to develop a ground-based midcourse defense system (GMD) in Central Europe, a primitive short range version of the ABM system. Despite Bush’s assurances that it was to be used to repel threats from Iran, Putin became skeptical believing that new technology could be reoriented and/or retrofitted and aimed at Russia. His reasoning might have been misleading but distrust was to be expected following Bush’s decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty to develop a potentially larger system.
In February 2008, the U.S. acted unilaterally to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Russia was infuriated. After all, Moscow had played a significant role in ending hostilities in the past by persuading its own ally to retreat its troops.
Then, with only months left in his presidency, Bush floated the idea of welcoming Georgia and Ukraine into NATO saying, in the case of Ukraine, that it could advance security and freedom. Bush was aware that his decision would displease the Russian president, nevertheless added that no matter Putin’s objection he would reject all opposition to his decision. Bush’s statement along with his disregard for Putin’s security interests likely became a critical mutation since it would place NATO closer to Russia’s borders. Was there new NATO intelligence that justified such a threatening remark? Had Bush misjudged Putin’s soul, or was he being led by pugnacious or anxious advisers? Was Bush aware that in 2008 Ukrainians did not consider NATO membership a priority?
‘Goodwill gestures’ notwithstanding, such as calling Bush during 9/11 and extending the use of air bases in Central Asia to aid in the upcoming war against Afghanistan, tipping the FBI concerning potential terrorist connections of one of the Boston massacre perpetrators, Putin’s ‘acquiescent’ behavior were no longer appreciated. Like Yeltsin, Putin was seeking to ingratiate himself with the U.S. looking for commonalities that would serve his objectives. Bush, however, was operating on a mindset that did not consider how his policies might wreck whatever constructive relations he supposedly had been trying to attain. His behavior revealed the same self-induced fearfulness and a false sense of insecurity that drove him to invade Iraq in 2003. At the time, Bush not only changed the rules of international politics unilaterally; he misleadingly conflated the terms preventive and preemptive warfare to boost his moral legitimacy. Mainstream media, sadly, continues to use Bush’s erroneous terminology.
Relations worsened early in 2008 as Bush decided to extend an invitation to Georgia to join NATO. Viewing it as an uncalled incursion on his backyard Putin began to support Russian-prone separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, regions bordering southern Russia. Russian troops went into Georgian territory displacing hundreds of thousands. Subsequently, he extended the two regions diplomatic recognition and eventually proclaimed themselves independent republics. The events appear to have been Putin’s replay of the West’s support for Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008 and Russia’s payback for NATO’s encroachment. Once the rules of the game had been altered, it meant that others could do it as well. As an epilogue to Bush’s policy, NATO decided to shelve Georgia’s membership. Incredibly, and perhaps forgetting his ill-advised adventure in Iraq in 2003, President Bush was critical of Russia’s intervention in Georgia, claiming bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.
Democratic elections in Ukraine
Of all the former Soviet republics Ukraine was by far the most hotly contested country between NATO and Russia. Its sheer size and vast resources in addition to sharing nearly fifteen hundred border miles with Russia made it quite attractive to the West while posing a potential threat to Moscow. Despite differences, Ukraine and Russia share ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds as well as controversial historical stages not always to the liking of Ukrainians. About 17 percent of Ukraine’s population identifies itself as Russians. If Washington insisted on bringing Ukraine into NATO, Moscow could weaponize Ukraine’s and Russia’s histories to its advantage.
In 1994, Kyiv became a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Nuclear Treaty and surrendered its nuclear capability in exchange for an agreement that would guarantee its independence and sovereignty. In December 1994 the U.S., the U.K., Northern Ireland, and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum by which all parties agreed to refrain from threatening or using military or economic force in a manner that would infringe upon Ukraine’s independence.
It might be prudent to review how previous elections had taken place in Ukraine to examine how they relate to the Euromaidan protests that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
There had been seven democratic presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine since attaining independence in August 1991 through 2014. For two decades Ukrainians were able to openly and directly participate in choosing their own leaders to guide the country’s future. Irregularities, including fraud, abounded at times but the democratic institutions that were in place along with the presence of thousands of international monitors and some public pressure were able to correct them without civil unrest or foreign intervention. Particularly important was the role of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and the European Parliament. Amid the extent of divisiveness that existed in the country, they were the eyes of the world and the guarantors of the legitimacy of electoral results.
In 1991, citizens were called on to vote on a referendum on Ukrainian independence and the election of a president. Ninety percent of voters supported the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, including in Crimea and the eastern regions that were heavily populated by ethnic Russians. Leonid Kravchuk, former head of the Ukrainian SSR who supported Gorbachev’s reforms, was elected with over 61 percent of the vote against prominent Soviet dissident Viacheslav Chornovil. Voting procedures met democratic standards. International observers, the Soviet Union, the U.S., Canada, and members of the European Parliament, among others, accepted the results. Even Freedom House, a Washington-based entity advocating democracy and political freedoms, urged recognition of the new democratic state.
Kravchuk’s foreign policy chose to remain neutral with regards to NATO. Ukraine had applied and was admitted into NATO’s Partnership for Peace Plan (PfP), but so did Russia. In 1994 Kravchuk was defeated by former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, primarily because of his inability to curb corruption in the newly created private sector and stabilize the economy. To Putin’s delight, Kuchma had appealed mostly to the Russian-speaking sectors of the population promising closer relations with Russia. Kuchma, however, was no better at clamping down on corruption. Nonetheless, he was reelected against Communist Party candidate Petro Symonenko (who openly favored stronger ties with Russia) while making smaller gains in the Russian-sided eastern and southern regions. Despite violations of electoral laws, international observers concluded that they were not decisive in the outcome given Kuchma’s high vote margins in both elections. As in previous occasions both Russia and NATO’s democracies accepted the results.
Kuchma held a delicate balance between the West and his Russian neighbor. He signed a Distinctive Partnership with NATO in 1997 and extended military support to the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. NATO, however, turned down Ukraine’s admission largely because of the magnitude of corruption and domestic problems.
Despite Ukraine’s importance within NATO there was no consensus among some of its academic fellows. For example, Ukrainian professor Grygoriy Perepelitsya concluded that while continuing to develop cooperation with the E.U., Ukraine should consider as its prime strategic task entry into the system of Euro-Atlantic security. Expressing an opposing view, Professor Özlem Tür at the Middle East Technical University, in Ankara, Turkey, indicated that Russia would perceive a possible Ukrainian accession to NATO as an attack on her national interests …. and lead to instability of the whole continent.
Prior to the 2004 presidential elections Kuchma’s allies in the Parliament ousted his own prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, along with Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with the likely intent to undermine Yushchenko’s plan to run for the presidency. Yushchenko had become ill having been poisoned, allegedly by pro-Russian Ukrainians a month prior to the election. Voting took place while he was in recovery.
Ukrainian politics still reflect a European version of ethnic tribalism that tends to lead either to separatism or allegiance to neighboring countries. Yushchenko came from the northeast part of the country and closer to the West. His opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, had strong ties with the heavily populated ethnic Russian peoples in the southern and eastern regions having lived and studied in Donetsk.
It took three rounds of voting before final results were recognized by the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), a joint undertaking of various European institutions including OSCE. It issued a harsh critique of the first round indicating that there were far more irregularities than ever before, mostly favoring Yanukovych. At the conclusion of the second round the Central Elections Commission’s (CEC) announced that Yanukovych had emerged victorious. President Putin called Yanukovych, his preferred candidate, to congratulate him. However, the IEOM concluded that the second round also failed to address election irregularities and lacked transparency. Yushchenko called on his supporters to lead a protest in Kyiv and other cities, and the Orange Revolution began, which at that time consisted of peaceful protests by hundreds of thousands in the hope that either the Parliament or the Court would issue a final ruling.
Weeks later, following IEOM recommendations, the Ukrainian Parliament called on President Kuchma to dismiss Yanukovych’s government. On December 3, 2004, Ukraine’s Supreme Court annulled the decision of the CEC’s November 21 election results due to evidence of systematic fraud making it impossible to determine the will of the voters. The CEC complied and set December 26 as the date of the re-run.
The third round was monitored by over a thousand observers in all 225 election districts according to the IEOM. The IEOM concluded that the conduct of the December 26 election brought Ukraine substantially closer to meeting OSCE election commitments and Council of Europe and other European standards, extending its seal of approval and guaranteeing that Viktor Yushchenko would become president. Protests had been peaceful while the legislative and judicial institutions performed their functions properly.
Putin did not attempt to (or could not) tilt the election in his favor although he went on Ukrainian television and subtly praised Yanukovych’s role as prime minister. Likely, he was not overjoyed with his candidate’s loss; Yushchenko’s victory went against Putin’s geopolitical interests. Nevertheless, the Kremlin accepted the electoral results.
Like his predecessor, Yushchenko was fully aware of the need not to upset relations with Russia. His first foreign policy decision the day after being sworn into office was to travel to Moscow to meet with President Putin. The Russian president repaid the visit weeks later. If there were signs of animosity on either part, they were well hidden. During this meeting they pledged fuller cooperation on border issues. President Yushchenko then visited the U.S. in May telling President Bush that he was reiterating his pledge to withdraw Ukrainian troops that President Kuchma had sent during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It seemed to be a sign that Ukraine wanted to establish a middle ground between Russia and the U.S.
Throughout his term in office Yushchenko was unable to extract trade normalization with Washington, investments from Japan, or European support for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union. Domestically, his administration self-destructed. He dismissed his own leadership and made compromises with his old rival Yanukovych and with oligarchs. A year later his party lost Parliamentary elections further undermining the principles of his Orange agenda. In a bizarre turn of events, Yushchenko nominated Yanukovych, whose party had engineered the 2004 fraudulent electoral results triggering the Orange Revolution. Bickering over institutional responsibilities, Yushchenko’s image dropped dramatically leaving him with no choice but to call for early parliamentary elections. Voters who were against Yanukovych in 2004 this time rewarded his followers in Parliament. Additionally, Yushchenko feuded with Yulia Tymoshenko, his closest ally in 2004 and his former prime minister. He lost renomination to the presidency, and his inefficacy led his nemesis-turned ally-turned opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, to win the 2010 elections.
Yushchenko went into political oblivion blaming the West, namely the U.S., for their lack of support. His assessment was not entirely wrong. Ukraine was in urgent need of a mini–Marshall Plan at the time that did not materialize. The West’s main objective had been to politically and militarily isolate Ukraine from Russia while resisting pressure to pump money into a dysfunctional socio-political and economic system.
Despite being acclaimed by the West, the spirit of the Orange Revolution did not last long. Moreover, it failed to solve the NATO-Russia question that would come to haunt Russia and the West a decade later. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer in 2005 reportedly said that it will be a major challenge for Ukraine to move toward Europe without antagonizing Russia, especially concerning NATO membership.
The Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin Years
Considering the Bush years a failure that resulted in increased tension between Washington and Moscow, Barack Obama intended to change course. Seemingly eager, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered her Russian counterpart the opportunity to reset relations and attempt to solve problems in a more amicable way. In effect, by June 2010, the State Department outlined a whole array of accomplishments between the two nations. By early 2012, an election year in the US, over 1000 Western companies had invested in the Russian economy, an indication that the RESET button was doing its magic and that both sides were interested in improving relations further. Russia was not then the U.S.’s main geopolitical foe that Mitt Romney suggested early that year.
It may be argued that these accomplishments happened while Dmitry Medvedev had been president, suggesting that Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 accounts for the deterioration of relations later. Such an interpretation might be correct only if we believe that Vladimir Putin has never been the ultimate decision maker in Russia even during his years as prime minister. Obama’s open mic suggestion to Medvedev in March 2012 on nuclear weapons cooperation indicated who called the shots in Russia. Regardless, it was in both countries’ self-interests to seek nuclear weapons reductions. On the surface it appeared that both governments would intentionally do their best to improve their relations. Certainly, Putin needed it badly.
Something uneventful, however, already had poisoned relations between the two governments making the Obama-Medvedev meeting three months later awkward. Russia had held parliamentary elections in December 2011 and had invited various OSCE institutions to monitor the process. Despite keeping control of the State Duma Putin’s party showed considerable loss of support. Publicly, he acknowledged the citizenry’s grievances. His attitude, however, changed dramatically when the OSCE and the independent Russian NGO Golos issued reports that the elections were marred by fraud including ballot stuffing, sparking the largest protests during the Putin years.
The protests were started by opposition parties, but two days later Secretary of State Clinton voiced a severe personal critique based on the reports, saying she had serious concerns about the conduct of the election. She even called for a full investigation, adding that the Russian people deserve … free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them. Putin pushed back blaming Secretary Clinton and the U.S. for instigating the protests. Reportedly, Clinton was simply calling a spade a spade but the Kremlin saw it as the first signal from the State Department [that] they’re really very serious in their attempts to interfere in our internal political life.
Putin’s past work in the KGB likely has never endeared him to the West. At the time, his transparent authoritarian personality was seeking to enhance Russia’s poorly tarnished image in world affairs. But it is difficult to understand in retrospect what Washington was looking to accomplish by Clinton’s tirade. The Iran Deal was on the line; the New Start Treaty too. Improved relations had been a plus for Americans wanting to invest in Russia and vice versa.
Throughout the dissolution of the Soviet Union the U.S. had chosen not to become involved in their domestic politics. Even Bill Clinton had opted to refrain from making harsh comments on Russia’s violations of human rights in Chechnya to prevent antagonizing Moscow while keeping it on the path towards democracy. Was the U.S. using the protest to engage in regime change in Russia? Did Washington believe that Secretary Clinton’s comments would not create serious repercussions? Why would Obama ask Putin to give him space after his elections when he chose not to give Russia any space in 2011? By all accounts, the objectives behind the olive branch Secretary Clinton had given to her counterpart backfired.
It appears that someone within the Obama administration perceived Putin differently and proceeded accordingly. Michael McFaul, who directed Russian policy during the first years of the Obama Administration, later becoming U.S. Ambassador to Russia, claimed years later (2018), after relations had become sour, that Putin never had been interested in resetting relations. The reasons McFaul gave were surprising if not preposterous. He pointed to Putin’s move toward greater autocracy, NATO expansion, the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the war in Iraq, and Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008. In other words, these were actions Obama had blamed on George W Bush’s policies for exacerbating relations, but now had become motives to set aside the Reset button and confront Putin.
McFaul said that Putin’s first reaction to these demonstrators was anger. Was he expecting anything different from an authoritarian personality? Even Hillary Clinton became furious at Russia’s cyberattacks against the U.S. during the 2016 presidential elections. McFaul admitted in his piece that decisions to provide additional funds to Golos, the NGO operating in Russia during the electoral process, and Clinton’s tough statement on Russia were his, and that he had not cleared them with Obama. Although the president seemingly approved these decisions afterwards, he reminded McFaul that the U.S. still had to deal with Russia for five more years, suggesting that Washington had to be more careful in its dealings with Putin. It was a serious Washington misstep, another mutation that expanded the political tumor. Relations between the two governments soon evolved into a series of hostile tit-for-tat confrontations, and by then not even Obama followed his own advice.
Putin’s personality is not the type that forgives and forgets. Months into the protests he took legal action against the international NGOs operating in Russia characterizing them as foreign agents. The U.S. has a similar law aimed at curbing political activity on behalf of a state or other entity; Russia’s law, however, is quite stringent and was meant to suppress most NGO activity. Either Putin had no idea of what some NGOs were doing in the country, or he ‘earnestly’ thought these entities could assist in instituting civil society and the rule of law. McFaul acknowledged that the Obama Administration had been asking Congress to approve a $50 million program through USAID to address human rights in Russia under Putin. The U.S. was not trying to hide anything, said McFaul; they were openly using Facebook and Twitter among other tools to conduct public diplomacy, the same sources that Russia used during its misinformation campaign in the 2016 U.S. elections. But as he would see it, the U.S. was working in the open while Russia had not. Those were strange words in which naivete was being obscured by candor.
There are hundreds of thousands of NGOs throughout the world helping to address issues from health care to agricultural development, to care of the environment or to call attention to injustices such as human trafficking and violations of human rights. Overall, NGOs are characterized by their non-violent nature. They tend to be particularly good at what they do. However, their work is effective when they are welcomed into countries and transparently disclose their intentions. Governments often welcome them because NGOs allow them to surrender what are essentially the state’s responsibility. However, the moment a government notices that a particular NGO is interfering with their domestic policies, which usually happens in authoritarian countries, their activities encounter opposition. The point Washington had failed to notice was that NGOs working to overtly promote human rights or the rule of law entail making citizens aware of what constitutes human rights abuses and illegalities, which eventually means educating them to openly become critical of their governments when such situations arise. This is what happened in Russia. Eventually, Moscow closed down over one hundred NGOs in 2012.
Politically-oriented NGOs, those with specific ideologies such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, or even Freedom House tend to be more closely observed. It is said that no one can be blamed for trying their best to do good. Good, however, is in the eye of the beholder and distrust contributes to opponents not agreeing completely. Spreading democracy with a U.S. tilt may be considered virtuous in Washington, but to expect that there will not be opposition by governments that dislike our values goes beyond credulity. This view does not mean that Washington should abstain from standing and defending democratic principles; on the contrary, it means that we need to do so judiciously.
Despite Putin’s anger, he played a key role following Syria’s use of chemical weapons that killed over a thousand civilians in August 2013. It was Putin who rescued Obama from a domestic and international crisis following Obama’s ‘red line’ against Assad if Syria used chemical weapons. Not being able to get Congressional support at home or from its allies for an attack, Obama brokered a deal with Putin by which Moscow would compel Syria to surrender its stockpile of chemical weapons thereby averting further conflict. Obama attained his objective without military hostility although it allowed Russia to step into the political vacuum in the region and gain access to air and naval bases in Syria.
Euromaidan – A success for the West or a failure for democracy?
Unrest began to brew in Ukraine in 2013 as Russia and the West competed openly to bring the country under their respective spheres of influence. Russia promised to purchase $15 billion of Ukrainian Eurobonds, (and more importantly) to sell its gas at a considerably lower price (from $400 to $268.50 per 1000 m3) while terminating informal blockades on Ukrainian exports to the Russian Federation.
The E.U.’s financial deal it had avoided for over a decade due to endless corruption within Ukraine was much less promising. Moreover, the E.U. made it a prerequisite that Ukraine had to submit itself to a series of judicial and economic reforms that would allow it to join the union in the distant future. The E.U.’s deal also required that Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he had imprisoned, be released. The Russian deal, presuming Putin would follow through, was far more advantageous to Ukraine in the short run and turning it down would have meant financial suicide. Surely, the time had come for the West to dispense with political niceties and prevent Ukraine from joining the Russian orbit. As it was, neither the E.U. nor the U.S. ever came up with a coherent financial plan of their own that would rival Russia’s.
A foreign tug of war landed Yanukovych in a critical dilemma. Despite its 1991 referendum opting to free itself from Soviet domination, the country had become quite divided in twenty years. Western Ukrainians wanted to be aligned with the West, eastern Ukrainians with Russia, so either decision would have split the country along ethnic and cultural lines. As soon as rumors had spread that Yanukovych would not sign the agreement with the E.U., signifying his intention to accept Russia’s deal, protesters and opposition party leaders who preferred Ukraine’s relations with the West gathered on Independence Square resolving not to let the deal with Russia go through. In December 2013, in the middle of the protests, the Research & Branding Group had conducted a poll with a possible margin of error of 2.2 percent indicating that fifty percent of Ukrainians did not support Euromaidan while forty-five percent did.
Initially, it appeared that a reenactment of the 2004 Orange Revolution in which citizens protested fraudulent presidential elections was taking place. The difference, however, was that in 2010 Viktor Yanukovych had been elected president in a run-off with Yulia Tymoshenko in which according to OSCE’s Final Report the presidential election met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections. The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views. Joao Soares, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE confirmed that the election was an “impressive display of democracy” and called on politicians to honor the outcome. As in previous occasions, the E.U., the U.S., and Russia accepted the electoral results.
It is important to bear in mind that according to Western observers the people’s will had been ratified and Ukraine’s seven consecutive presidential elections, each offering opposing foreign policy trajectories, had taken place. Considering Ukraine’s history, it appeared that basic democratic institutions and processes were taking roots. If anything, Ukraine’s political experiment offered promises that a youthful nineteen-year-old democracy was able to withstand serious political and cultural shortcomings. In 2010, members of the E.U. and the U.S. accepted the voice of the people and offered Yanukovych their congratulations.
Corruption was not at the center of the protests. Corruption had been endemic throughout the country since 1991, and continues under President Zelensky. Had corruption or charges of illegal authoritarianism presented crucial problems during Yanukovych’s first years, the opposition and the media had institutional mechanisms within their reach to rely on (in the same manner as Western democracies do). The primary issue motivating the protests was Ukraine’s deal with Russia.
What occurred during Euromaidan
It would do well to revisit what took place between 21 November 2013 and 23 February 2014 since ideological views representing both sides have impaired how events transpired on the ground. Russia had claimed the presence of neo-Nazis clashing against the government while Western officials insisted that protesters had behaved peacefully throughout. Most of the information on Euromaidan comes from The Kyiv Post, (KP) a small, intrepid, and credible group of journalists who physically followed the demonstrations round by round with hours and minutes of reporting. KP’s accounts seem quite unbiased despite observing a slight tendency towards the end of Euromaidan to view Western opposition in a favorable light. Accounts appearing on KP can be verified by reading hundreds of reports issued and looking for the date in which they occurred or the day after.
The initial gathering at Independence Square on 21 November 2013 was peaceful. This was a situation not unlike what other Western democracies have faced. As history shows, some mass protests end up being quite peaceful while in others minor incidents of violence erupt. In some instances, protesters attempt to provoke a government response; in others the government initiates a crackdown, leading opponents to retreat to avoid violence or to engage the authorities and fight. If violence occurs the tendency is for each side to blame the other and in the absence of evidence, it becomes difficult to assign culpability.
There are also differences between public acts of violence. Modern riots rarely target government buildings. Instead, enraged people set fire to private businesses and residential units, including their own neighborhoods, block traffic, or engage in looting. As it has happened in Western democracies, death and bodily injury occur mostly among citizens when security forces attempt to quell down disturbances that threaten destruction or bring harm to human life and indiscriminately fire into the crowd or when protesters strike back. At other times, governments initiate a violent crackdown if protesters lack permits to assemble or violate thresholds for arrest warnings and breaching designated zones for protests. There may be cases in which protesters instigate the government’s security forces by firing weapons, launching hard objects, Molotov cocktails, or tear gas. Moreover, in organized protests the use of provocateurs by either side allows them to blame each other for fomenting violence. Altogether, it must be remembered that a peaceful opposition movement is not supposed to ever become violent. To prevent violence from ensuing protesters passively await their arrests or leave the premises when confronted. Once demonstrators engage in violence, they can no longer be referred to as peaceful protesters.
The majority who participated in the Euromaidan protests were not violent according to KP and other news sources. Many even turned the protests into festivities. Thousands of others, however, were combative and clashed violently against government personnel. At Euromaidan Western political leaders, however, were not making distinctions and kept accusing the government of being the only source of violence against ‘peaceful protesters.’
For example, the 12 November 2015 report on the protests by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court blamed most of the violence causing deaths and serious injury as well as other forms of ill treatment as being actively promoted or encouraged by the Ukrainian authorities, noting that some of the acts of violence [attributed to the protesters] appear to have been extemporaneous and incidental to the situation of unrest. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) detailed that 108 protesters and 13 law enforcement officers were killed. The OHCHR did not investigate injuries so even though it is likely that thousands had been injured their numbers could not be confirmed.
Given the number of protesters that died as opposed to security forces there seems to be no doubt that the government relied on deadly force far more than the opposition. This is usually the case in most violent demonstrations whether in authoritarian or democratic countries since government forces tend to be better armed. However, at Euromaidan not all of those who died were killed by government personnel. There was a case of one protester killing another one. Another protester died when he was hit by an unknown car; two died of cardiac arrest; one died of hypothermia; another’s death was caused by pancreatic disease not related to bodily injuries; two died of pneumonia; one died of chronic heart disease; two committed suicide; and several deaths were found to be unrelated to the protests either in Kyiv or in other places or their causes had not been established.
Considering the OHCHR’s conclusions, it is worth asking what were these extemporaneous and incidental acts of violence by protesters? KP indicated that on 21 November around 5,000 demonstrators had a brief conflict with about 500 Berkut anti-riot police officers nearby the Presidential Administration. Protesters shot flares and threw empty plastic bottles at the police although no injuries were reported. In the afternoon, they were throwing smoke bombs and stones at police officers blocking their path to the Cabinet of Ministers and shouting “Revolution!”
On 22 November, opposition leaders listed their first demands (that would become more radical as time went by) on Facebook: 1) the president is to sign an association agreement with the European Union; 2) orders to suspend Ukraine’s deal with Russia are to be canceled; and 3) legislation needs to be adopted to proceed with European integration. There were no calls to mediate the conflict, rely on the judicial institutions, or await the next electoral process in 2015. Since protesters did not demand the president to resign, he would have remained in power had he signed the deal with the E.U.; otherwise, protests would continue.
According to KP on November 26, realizing there were not enough votes in the Parliament to impeach Yanukovych, opposition leader Arseniy Yatseniuk addressed the crowd saying that what could not be obtained legally would be taken through popular uprisings. He misinformed protesters saying that Ukrainian President Yanukovych has to know he does not have any mandate from the Ukrainian people to sign an agreement on Ukraine’s membership with [Russia’s] Customs Union. While imprisoned, Yulia Tymoshenko declared through her representative that Yanukovych had lost legitimacy as president. In her view he had become a tyrant because of his decision to sign the deal with Russia. Opposition UDAR party leader Vitali Klitschko also chose to ignore the 2010 presidential elections saying we are defending our right to live in a free country. Opposition leaders’ words created the idea that a properly elected president, as corrupt as he may be, loses his legitimacy and can be ousted by a mass coup without proper adjudication.
On 30 November, according to a police spokesperson the police resorted to force to break up a larger protest at Independence Square that was interfering with preparations to decorate a Christmas tree. Protesters refused to abandon the site when asked and began to throw stones and burning logs. Dozens were injured.
Euromaidan and the West’s intervention
On 13 February 2014, The Kyiv Post issued a description of all organized groups involved in Euromaidan. A quick read lends perspective to the inevitability of violence given the radical attitudes on both sides. Given the composition and ideologies of the opposing groups, and their willingness to engage in clashes with security forces, violence was to be expected. It is not known how much information Western observers and their political leaders may have had about the opposition. Nonetheless, by treating all demonstrators as peaceful protesters, and actively supporting and encouraging them, their message incited the various groups to go beyond a peaceful resolution.
For example: following reports of initial clashes on 21 November between protesters and riot police, KP reported that the European People’s Party called on Ukraine’s president and government to refrain from using force on Euromaidan protesters. On 24 November Jan Tombinski, the European Union Ambassador to Ukraine, posted on Facebook that he wished to stress his belief that the future for Ukraine lies in a strong relationship with the E.U. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt went even further expressing their delight that so many Ukrainians are braving the cold to protest their president’s abrupt decision to withdraw from signing the Association Agreement with the European Union. European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, Rebecca Harms, a German politician and Member of the European Parliament, and Stuart Markesh, a member of parliament from Portugal, were among those who tweeted their support for Ukrainians who wished to join the E.U.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius issued critical remarks of the actions of the police against peaceful protesters and trusted that the European aspirations of the Ukrainian citizens will be fulfilled. Moreover, while being critical of the police use of force, the top E.U. diplomat, Catherine Ashton, despite her role to mediate the conflict, told protesters that she was impressed by their determination to prefer a European path.
Notwithstanding her backroom machinations to remove Yanukovych while holding talks with him to mediate the crisis, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland indicated that the only way to resolve the escalating political crisis in Ukraine was to join the E.U. since Ukrainians have chosen and deserve a European future. U.S. Senators Bob Menendez, and Ben Cardin expressed public concern over the use of violence by Ukrainian authorities against peaceful demonstrators. Other members of Congress were supportive of the path Ukrainians had chosen to join the E.U. Moreover, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to address the concerns of peaceful protesters.
Freedom House, a non-profit group with roots going back to Eleanor Roosevelt and known for its activism in favor of democratic systems also deliberated. Its CEO, David J. Kramer, seemingly ignoring how Yanukovych was elected, called on the president to resign so that new elections may take place. He added that he did not support rule by mob, but Yanukovych created a crisis by rejecting the path toward integration with the E.U. and ignoring protesters’ demands. The international community must stand with the democratic aspirations of those brave Ukrainian people who have taken to the streets. In other words, he justified rule by mob because Ukraine’s duly elected president made a decision that many people, including Western leaders, did not favor. (According to Kramer’s criterion French President Macron’s Western counterparts ought to have called for his resignation too because of the domestic crisis he created early in 2023 through his decision to increase retirement age; also U.S. President Trump should never be allowed to hold office for his role during the 6 January assault on the U.S. Congress by his followers).
While U.S. Assistant Secretary Nuland was distributing pastries to protesters, U.S. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy addressed a crowd of over 200,000 on 15 December telling them that America supported their resistance. Murphy said: In America we stand in awe that despite the violence on this square (that you faced from police) you have remained peaceful toward change. McCain followed up with, We are here because your peaceful process and peaceful protests are inspiring your country and the world. We are here to support your just cause. The sovereign right to determine its own destiny freely and independently and the destiny you seek lies in Europe.
Days later, on 19 December, the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine published a statement asking official representatives of foreign states to restrain themselves in their public judgments, go by fundamental principles of international law and respect Ukraine’s right to independently resolve issues of its inner development. Yet, still oblivious to what was happening in Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, speaking on 25 January at the World Economic Forum said we are pressing the government of Ukraine to forgo violence, to address the concerns of peaceful protesters, to foster dialogue, and promote the freedom of assembly and expression. While adding that U.S. diplomats were on the ground working with President Yanukovych to try to achieve calm and help move in this direction, he was publicly saying, We will stand with the people of Ukraine. And just before the worst deadly clashes were to occur in February 2014, Secretary Kerry met with opposition leaders Vitali Klychko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Petro Poroshenko and told them that they have the backing of the United States.
Although both sides had reported injuries during violent clashes throughout the first two months no deaths had taken place. The first casualties occurred on 22 January 2014 when three (or five) protesters were killed during a police assault on the crowd.
Before the final days of Euromaidan, however, protesters had already stormed and seized Kyiv City Hall, the Trade Union Building, the October Palace, the Ministry of Energy and Coal Industry, the Agriculture Ministry, the Ukrainian House, and the Justice Ministry. They were close to seizing the Parliament and the Presidential Administration, although no parliamentary business could be conducted due to the violence. Furthermore, ten regional councils in Central and Western Ukraine were taken over by protesters while more than a dozen others were under siege as of 25 January. It was clear that opposition leaders had lost control of Euromaidan and instead relied on the protests to propel their demands with the full support of E.U. and U.S. leaders.
KP informed that protesters outfitted themselves with armor, charged the police with iron gates, used crowbars, clubs and stones, burned tires and police cars, and erected barricades. There were strong probabilities that some protesters had firearms given that they had assaulted a police station in the city of Lviv close to Kyiv. Indeed, according to an academic study on the role of violence during Euromaidan, protesters had use of Makarov pistols, Kalashnikov rifles, and hunting rifles, which led to the killing of thirteen police officers and injuries to seventy-nine more between February 18 and 20. The study concludes that only after the start of violent clashes with the police in mid-January [implying deaths] did the authorities offer tangible concessions and ultimately yielded power. It adds that violent protests succeeded in driving Yanukovych from power because they had gone beyond the cost-tolerance threshold of the regime.
Days after Yanukovych fled it had become obvious that many protesters had become violent since the beginning of Euromaidan; that violence by protesters, which included the seizure and destruction of government property and attacks against the government’s security personnel, were crucial in Yanukovych’s decision to abandon the country; and that in the last month of the revolt Western leaders relied on the protests, not to force Yanukovych to agree to the E.U.’s deal but to oust him from power.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission investigated cases of seizure of government buildings, destruction of government property, and hooliganism by protesters. Additionally, the investigation into the killings of 13 law enforcement agents could not be conducted because of the law of 21 February 2014 (requested by the opposition) providing that people who participated in mass protests and were suspected or accused of crimes, including violence, or killing of a law enforcement officer were exempted from criminal responsibility.
At this time, it might be useful to consider how the U.S. Government and its citizens (or any of the traditional Western democracies) might react if foreign leaders were to show up physically in Washington DC or send messages encouraging hundreds of thousands of citizens to protest decisions made by an American president? Could we ever have imagined the presence of German and Japanese representatives joining pacifist or fascist protesters in the UK during WWII; Russian officials in Washington D.C. rallying anti-war protesters against Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War; or agents of Saddam Hussein’s government publicly spurring American protesters who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq? How would the U.S. Government and the people react if Mexican leaders were to instigate protests within the U.S. to force the government to adopt a complete open-border policy? The above instances are examples of Western democracies aiding and abetting a popular uprising in a foreign country against a president who had been duly elected by its citizens, regardless of his lack of integrity, in an electoral process whose results had been accepted by the E.U. and the U.S.
The OHCHR report belies the reality that so-called occasional acts of violence that appear to have been extemporaneous and incidental to the situation of unrest shut down the national and local governments in Ukraine for three months. Opposition leaders would accept nothing other than the president’s abdication from power. As of 1 June 2016, the OHCHR stated that 55 government personnel, including ten hired thugs (titushky) were charged in relation to the deaths of Maidan protesters, but only one Maidan protester and five other (unidentified) persons from the opposition were arrested or charged.
Presuming the OHCHR report reveals an accurate description of events, who then was responsible for storming government buildings, burning police cars, erecting barricades, using clubs, spraying teargas, throwing stones at the police while killing eighteen of them? This narrative is not presented in defense of riot police, some of whom appeared to have acted criminally, or Yanukovych’s initial intractable and corrupt administration, but to establish the fact that the democratic process in Ukraine had been subverted by a people’s mass insurrection with the support and encouragement of Western democratic leaders.
For comparison purposes it is useful to review information regarding the 6 January 2021 assault on the U.S. Congress to impede the peaceful transition of presidential power. The U.S. Department of Justice released provisional information on 6 March 2023 according to which, in less than four hours since President Trump asked his supporters to stop the transition of power proceedings to the moment he asked them to stand down and leave the U.S. Capitol grounds:
– Approximately 140 police officers were assaulted on January 6 at the Capitol, including about 80 from the U.S. Capitol Police and about 60 from the Metropolitan Police Department.
– Approximately 919 defendants have been charged with entering or remaining in a restricted federal building or grounds. Of those, 101 defendants have been charged with entering a restricted area with a dangerous or deadly weapon.
– Approximately 326 defendants have been charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees, including approximately 106 individuals who have been charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer.
– More than 306 defendants have been charged with corruptly obstructing, influencing, or impeding an official proceeding, or attempting to do so.
– Approximately 61 defendants have been charged with destruction of government property, and approximately 46 defendants have been charged with theft of government property.
– Approximately 55 defendants have been charged with conspiracy, either: (a) to obstruct a congressional proceeding, (b) to obstruct law enforcement during a civil disorder, (c) to injure an officer, or (d) some combination of the three.
– Approximately 518 individuals have pleaded guilty to a variety of federal charges, many of whom faced or will face incarceration at sentencing.
Plainly spoken, Euromaidan was like the 6 January assault on the U.S. Congress on steroids. Those who justified violence or failed to denounce it during Euromaidan may have to ask themselves if they could also be inadvertently justifying the 6 January 2021 assault. Euromaidan involved hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, peaceful and non-peaceful, that brought the Ukrainian government to a standstill for months. Yet only one protester and five other unknown individuals were arrested. Western leaders may want to agree that President Yanukovych was the counterpart of American President Donald Trump, each, however, on opposite sides of the protests with one exception: Yanukovych was resisting demands for resigning the office to which he was duly elected while Trump was seeking to keep his illegally.
Throughout the protests opposition leaders were operating on two contradictory tracks. Having rejected the democratic process, they called for protests whose violence they condoned and could not control while urging the crowds to persist until Yanukovych resigned the presidency. Circumstances surrounding Euromaidan begs the question, how would the U.S. Government (or any of the traditional Western democracies) react if citizens had shut down seven square miles in Washington DC with a radius of 1.5 mile beginning at the Federal Triangle? The area would include the buildings of the three branches of government, the Treasury, State, Agriculture, Labor, and Commerce buildings among others, the FBI, the Mall, main museums, all three main bridges from Virginia, and major incoming roads from Maryland.
The Euromaidan protests constituted the critical political mutation that precipitated Russia’s confrontation with the West. The results likely persuaded Putin that war against Ukraine had become almost unavoidable. While NATO countries failed to foresee how events that began decades ago would eventually lead to war, Putin realized that relations with the West after Euromaidan would have to change drastically if he were to preserve his credibility on the world stage and before his own people. On the verge of being politically and militarily cornered, Putin had nothing to lose. Whether his plans include complete occupation of Ukraine, as difficult as it may seem to accomplish, or a protracted war of attrition that may force a resolution involving NATO, Ukraine, and Russia, Putin was replicating what the U.S. had done in Iraq in 2003, i.e., unilateral interventionism, except that he regarded the stakes in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia.
The Euromaidan protests originated because of the determination of a sector of the Ukrainian population to oppose Yanukovych’s decision to sign an economic deal that would tilt the country towards Russia’s orbit. In effect, the Euromaidan opposition had forgotten that liberal democracies do not always guarantee that the results some people prefer will be fulfilled. At the time, the democratic process in Ukraine required the use of its legislative and judicial institutions while the opposition reorganized in anticipation of the next round of elections. The essence of Western democracies is limited to free and independent elections, civil and peaceful transitions of power, reliance on its institutions, and the continuation of the rule of law. It is upon these that civil society is built.
It is understandable that many Ukrainians did not like Yanukovych’s decision to sign the Russian deal. But by failing to abide by democratic norms the Ukrainian opposition tarnished the accomplishments they themselves had attained in over two decades. They allowed new groups to come to the forefront creating the perception that Right-wing thugs are hijacking Ukraine’s liberal uprising. Western leaders succeeded in keeping Ukraine away from Russia without concern for the damage being done to the democratic process and the long run consequences for which they were completely unprepared.
Although expected, Ukraine had become somewhat dysfunctional since its origins. A brief biographical portrait characterizes Yanukovych’s administration as being similar to that of his predecessors, suggesting that it endured the features of post-Soviet Ukrainian politics: an unsettled constitutional playing field; an impulse towards the ‘strong hand’ of superpresidentialism; shadowy links between politics, business, and organized crime; predation, kleptocracy, and corruption; and all this against a background of recurrent economic crisis.
From a democratic standpoint, Euromaidan smeared Ukraine’s institutions and the process itself; the movement lost its political dignity, which according to its definition means the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. Those who opposed Yanukovych acknowledged that Ukraine had made a mistake in electing him in 2010. If Ukrainians make another mistake, should they rely on another Euromaidan to correct it? Contrasting Euromaidan with the way the U.S. Government and its people behaved towards the end of the Trump years allows a proper evaluation. After encountering a serious bump on the road on 6 January that might have given the impression of liberal democracy’s impracticality, the American people, its elected officials, and the judiciary, worked through obstacles to right the ship. In Ukraine, the people failed the system, and Washington and the E.U. had a hand in sinking it.
It is likely that Putin felt disrespected and humiliated by Euromaidan as any leader occupying the world stage would feel when their vulnerabilities or failures are exposed. In the past he had accepted the results of Ukrainian elections even when they were averse to his interests. Losing Ukraine to a mass coup with the encouragement of the West probably became intolerable. It may be recalled that Putin had reluctantly acceded to NATO’s expansion in 2004 indicating that each country has the right to choose the form of security it considers most effective. These words, even while enclosing a grain of truth when it comes to one’s country, implies the rejection of the U.N. Charter, suggesting that in an international system that cannot govern itself political leaders must decide how best to ensure the security of their peoples. What was Putin to do if NATO’s rationale for continued expansion included its perception that Russia was a serious potential adversary? Putin was left with two choices, to retaliate, or to accept additional encroachment into Russia’s borders. Following Euromaidan Putin borrowed from the pages of Western democracies by resorting to a replay of the South Ossetia/Abkhazia scenario when George Bush extended Georgia an invitation to join NATO.
Putin believed that nothing Yanukovych would do short of resigning would appease the opposition. In effect, the West had changed the rules of the game. Putin reluctantly acquiesced to the prospect that while the West would get the lion’s share of the country, he would take its tail, Crimea. Yanukovych’s removal through a violent mass coup unchained multiple political mutations that were rapidly transforming themselves into an action-reaction-counter reaction mode of conflict.
Following the annexation of Crimea, the West imposed sanctions on Russia. Ukraine then renounced its non-aligned status and called for joining the NATO Alliance. Putin retaliated by revising Russia’s National Security Doctrine focusing on increasing non-nuclear military forces as a deterrence to NATO. Moreover, he actively encouraged Russia’s separatist sentiments within the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine that led to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions declaring their independence. To justify his policies, he relied on the U.S. precedent used to declare Kosovo’s independence. Putin continued his political offensive by interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections (and later in 2020).
In April 2014, NATO suspended all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia except for the NATO Russia Council established to discuss security issues. As relations continued to decline Russia kept taunting NATO by conducting aggressive military and civilian incidents and violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces. Although both sides continued to engage in a low-key arms race, both conventional and nuclear diplomatic talks became useless as NATO and the U.S. were persuaded that they could only deal with Russia from a position of military strength. As a contending nuclear power Russia would not allow Western military supremacy. Soon it began to issue veiled nuclear threats to respond to what it perceived to be NATO threats.
An October 2017 meeting of the NATO/Russia Council revealed the gap that separated both powers in Ukraine. Each side emphasized that military exercises would continue, and NATO would strengthen its eastern flank following the annexation of Crimea. In October 2020, in a rebuff to Washington, the Kremlin granted permanent residence to Edward Snowden who had leaked classified information on global surveillance by the U.S. and Britain.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 may have been a considerable–if temporary–victory for Putin. Acting under congressional pressure Trump had no choice but to expel 60 diplomats as punishment for Russia’s behavior in poisoning a former spy in Britain. Putin struck back by ousting the same number of U.S. personnel. Nonetheless, Putin may have found an inadvertent ally. Certainly, a Hillary Clinton presidency would have been undesirable. Trump’s defense of Putin’s election interference against information provided by U.S. intelligence institutions in July 2018; his degrading remarks about NATO and his threats that the U.S. could pull out unless it increased its monetary contributions shook up the alliance’s trust in the U.S. To this date, it is uncertain what Trump wanted to achieve. His desire to improve relations with Russia did not constitute another RESET button in the name of world peace, at least not in the eyes of the two political parties in the U.S. and much less in the E.U.’s. His policies were practically inconsequential with regards to minimizing the elevated level of hostility Russia had encountered during the Obama administration. His preeminent desire to win in 2020 led him to attempt to besmirch democratic candidate Joe Biden by relying on Ukraine’s newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky who rejected Trump’s request.
Why war became imminent and then inevitable
In December 2019 the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a publication titled 10 facts you should know about Russian military aggression against Ukraine. Seeking the moral high ground, one of the ten facts said that by launching military aggression against Ukraine, Russia violated fundamental norms and principles of international law, bilateral and multilateral agreements. The statement, pertaining to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its troop incursions into the Odessa region, suggested that Moscow had violated the U.N. Charter as well as the Budapest Memorandum.
The first clause in the memorandum committed the U.S., the UK, Northern Ireland, and Russia to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine. The second clause, however, was somewhat problematic and ambiguous. It reaffirmed the obligation of the signatories to refrain from the threat of the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. The U.N. Charter prohibition against preventive wars in which the aggressor engages in hostile action despite not being overtly threatened by its victim, was designed precisely to avoid the likes of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, its intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the U.S. invasion against Iraq in 2003, and countless others. Nonetheless, given NATO’s continued acceptance of former Soviet allies into the coalition, could Russia claim that it was acting in self-defense when it decided to annex Crimea and the Donbas region? Did the U.S., the E.U., and Ukraine give Putin reasons (or excuses) that their actions presented a reasonable threat to Russia?
Setting aside international norms for the moment, Russia could have argued that the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq gave it political cover to behave similarly in its annexation of Ukrainian lands to stave off NATO expansionism. In Ukraine, the West had encouraged and supported a violent mass coup, then invited Kyiv to join NATO once it renounced its non-aligned status, in effect adding over 1,400 miles of land and sea border with Russia. Another 560 miles could be added if Georgia, which has been promised NATO membership, joins the alliance. Finland, which has already become a member, represents an additional 800 miles of shared borders with Russia. From the standpoint of what existential security implies, was it politically and militarily unreasonable for Moscow to protect its borders from additional encroachment? Did the U.S. not engage in regime change and interventions in Iran, South Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq (among others) as well as unsuccessful attempts in other countries far away from its borders or supported dictatorships when it suited its national security objectives? Once a government decides to upset international norms it is tacitly endorsing similar behavior by its opponents.
Joe Biden, NATO, and Russia – a last chance for peace
The election of Joe Biden in 2021 did not seem to make much difference to U.S. relations with Russia. Biden had been caught in the escalation mode of the Obama administration and Washington was in no mood to change its course. On the contrary, given Russia’s underhanded activities and inimical overt policies, Biden, despite political rhetoric regarding his desire to improve relations, began to punish Putin’s past and current behavior. His policies (along with Putin’s) resulted in a continued series of escalating tit-for-tats that have yet to see its ending.
It appears that Biden’s image of Putin influenced his policies. According to his public admission he once told the Russian leader to his face that he probably had no soul. It would seem inescapable that neither government was noticing that their relations were rapidly worsening. And yet, it did matter much since so-called diplomatic talks were being handled from each other’s perspectives and based on their interests as opposed to focusing on avoiding war. For there to be peace the U.S. and NATO demanded that Russia’s aggression ceases, and lands be returned to the status quo ante (2013). Meanwhile, Russia had been demanding tangible guarantees to protect its security since words would not be enough.
In April 2021, Biden imposed a whole array of financial and non-financial sanctions. Ignoring the history of U.S. misdeeds, among the reasons spelled out by the White House were Russia’s efforts to undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections and democratic institutions … [among] its allies and partners, and for violating well-established principles of international law, including respect for the territorial integrity of states.
Months later, both leaders held a summit meeting in Geneva, which despite their optimistic comments, in retrospect had to be considered a failure. Biden had to realize that injecting discussions of human rights, Alexey Navalny, and electoral interference into issues about nuclear arms control and cybersecurity would lead nowhere. Both countries were engaged in open political confrontation. As a result, there were no new areas of agreement.
According to the public record neither the U.S. nor NATO paid attention to Putin’s requests for tacit guarantees (not spheres of influence) to ensure Russia’s security. Sensing that his policies in eastern Ukraine had not put enough pressure on NATO as it did during his Georgian incursion, in March and April 2021 Putin began to mobilize troops towards Ukraine’s northern, southern, and eastern borders.
Putin reminded himself of NATO’s policy that its enlargement is not directed against Russia. Why, however, would the Russian president believe those words? NATO, like Putin, had agreed that every sovereign nation has the right to choose its own security arrangements. In other words, NATO was indicating that countries surrounding Russia could become members of the alliance if they wished, although Putin should not take their membership as a threat to his country. NATO’s subtle invitation to other countries hides its own incredulity. Applied individually, it suggests that any person may demand the right and the freedom to walk into any crime infested areas believing he/she will not be assaulted. No one could deny this individual his rights to go where he wishes, but would it be prudent to do so knowing the existential risks it entailed?
The behavior of the U.S. and other NATO members have demonstrated that in the absence of self-restrictions and multilateral agreements, governments will take matters into their own hands to ensure the security of the people they choose to defend, cavalier platitudes notwithstanding. In 1990, NATO members attacked Iraq to liberate Kuwait. In 1995, NATO bombed regions in Bosnia and Herzegovina to prevent massacres and protect U.N. personnel. In 1998, NATO bombed Yugoslavia (Serbia) without U.N. authorization to force an end to the regime of Serbian leader (and Russian ally) Slobodan Milošević. In 2003, the U.S. again invaded Iraq, this time seeking regime change. And in 2011, NATO forces bombed Libya to attempt to bring an ongoing civil war to an end and pressure the exit of Muammar Gaddafi.
In his 2005 speech to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation Putin said, I consider the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be our main political and ideological goal. He was critical of corruption, an inefficient bureaucracy, and the need to enhance and protect individual freedoms. In effect, his address could have been written by speechwriters from any of the two U.S. political parties.
Instead, the West paid more attention to his initial statement acknowledging that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century, suggesting that he lamented the dissolution of the Soviet empire and was looking forward to gaining what had been lost. The two views were in contradiction with each other. Which one should the West have believed? Reasonable people would likely have answered, I’ll believe it when I see it to Putin’s wishes to establish democracy in Russia. The problem with the expression I’ll believe when I see it is that it works both ways. If we accept the principle that insecurity breeds skepticism among opponents, accepting anything Putin says as truthful entails as much risk for the West as Russia’s president being asked to take NATO’s words seriously. Throughout decades, the West chose not to rely on Ronald Reagan’s dictum, trust but verify, to test Putin’s intentions. Instead, it began to implement a series of policies that throughout the years created distrust and eventually led to military hostilities.
In a talk with Biden two months prior to Russia’s attack on Ukraine (Dec 2022), Putin again demanded security arrangements for Russia. If met, they could conceivably have prevented the war. By far the most important demands would have to include an end to NATO expansionism along with a commitment that Ukraine, Georgia, or any other border country would not join NATO. Instead, these countries would maintain a vigilant independence while observing the degree of neutrality required to prevent misperceptions from taking place. Amid Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, the U.S., the E.U., NATO, and Ukraine instead focused on intensifying Ukraine’s security while paying little attention to Putin’s demands.
At stake for Putin was nothing less than a vital principle that all nations desire: security guarantees that its territorial sovereignty would be ensured. NATO’s expansionism did not provide such guarantees. The coup de grâce likely was NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s words asserting that, It’s only Ukraine and 30 (now 31) NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto, Russia has no say, and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbors. Stoltenberg’s rhetoric amounted to a pointless and bellicose truism on the verge of hostilities breaking out. Diplomacy had been left in the attic. Putin, from his perspective, did not need any more evidence to persuade him that NATO posed a threat to Russia’s security.
NATO’s refusal to negotiate guarantees with Russia forced Putin to move ahead with troop movements. Two months later, on 24 February 2022, the inevitable occurred: Russia invaded Ukraine. NATO’s decades of ill-conceived policies dictated their continuation. During the last hours prior to Russia’s attack, and presumably since the Clinton years, a perception problem arose that contributed to war: since NATO and the U.S. had long perceived Russia as its opponent, having to negotiate security guarantees with the Kremlin would have created the image of appeasing the enemy on the world stage; seeking peace through diplomacy was looked upon as a cowardly act that Western virility would not condone. It was too late; the political cancer had metastasized. The result has been an ongoing and uncertain war of attrition that may end when either side runs out of ammunition, gets tired of burying people (unlikely) or when either side succumbs first, presuming that NATO is not forced to physically enter the war to prevent Ukraine from losing and/or that nuclear weapons are not used.
A caveat on NATO’s expansionist policies
It should be noted that NATO’s Article 10 providing an “open door policy” could eventually impair the effectiveness of Article 5. Generational changes on account of unanticipated international events such as migrations, persecutions due to religious, ethnic, or political issues may have domestic repercussions in NATO countries bringing to the fore embarrassing types of illiberal or authoritarian political leaders as we are witnessing today in some NATO countries.
Democratic institutions and values in the former Soviet republics and allies are far from becoming deeply rooted. Even more important, statistically speaking, the consent of all members as required by Article 5 would become more difficult to attain among 31 members, each with their own constituencies, values, and problems, than among a lesser number, thereby weakening the essence of Article 5 when need arises. Moreover, how would the alliance react if one of its members were to attack another? NATO’s Articles do not address such a scenario, yet the possibility exists that given specific national interests, mini alliances may develop within NATO regarding their national interests.
The past, the present, and the future
What can be said about the West’s policies regarding Russia? And how may Vladimir Putin’s behavior be considered given the circumstances he faced? The world cannot wait for autobiographies to reveal how diplomacy was conducted; there are no such things as candid memoirs, and historians take their time to ruminate before the past can be explained. It seems though that each side was demanding that diplomacy be conducted on their own terms rather than finding common grounds. NATO’s insecurity or its desire for exploiting Russia’s weaknesses had been the motivating factor behind its expansionist drive, believing that it could once and forever check a potentially imperial Russia. Instead, its cautious policies led to war. Once NATO ignored Russia’s security guarantees that each nation is entitled to, it was not difficult to understand Putin’s actions. Moscow and Washington were telling each other that each one is responsible for its own security arrangements as best as each sees fit. This is among the best definitions of a self-induced preventable war.
Were Putin’s actions legally or morally justified? Having won control of Ukraine’s destiny for the foreseeable future, and even adding to the possibility that Kyiv may join NATO along with Georgia, does not mean, theoretically, that NATO would eventually attack Russia or curtail its political or economic development. This means that there is no legal or moral justification for Russia’s attack. Nonetheless, there is no such term as ‘theoretical’ in world affairs. As each nation chooses to justify armed conflict whenever its vague security interests dictate them, this war is likely to continue. NATO is not yet putting boots on Ukrainian ground, but Putin has resolved that member nations will bear the cost of supporting Ukraine; he will force industries to divert resources to fill out their donated supplies thereby pressuring increased budget deficits or raising taxes should the war expand in time and space. He will attempt to make life as intolerable as it can against the E.U. and the U.S. Moreover, it is possible that NATO may experience fragmentation. Russia, of course, will inevitably suffer as well to the extent that Putin’s image deteriorates at home and abroad. He may realize, however, that authoritarian leaders have far more power to inflict privation among its people while democracies tend to lack determination overall.
Were Russia’s military actions appropriate? The question is best answered by putting oneself in Putin’s shoes and asking, what were his alternatives? Either do nothing and allow NATO’s encroachment to pose an increasing threat to Russia’s security or draw a line in the sand to be taken seriously and prevent his credibility at home and abroad from taking a toll. It is also understandable that fear, insecurity, and an inordinate desire for supremacy often dictate states’ policies. In the case of the U.S. and NATO, it appears that a desire to ensure worldwide supremacy is based on the view that it is necessary to prevent opponents from ever catching up. This attitude, however, triggers a true catch-up game among nations that wish not to remain far behind or attempt to surpass the West. It is impossible not to notice that the outcome implies the continuation of veiled arms races and proxy wars. In a political environment in which the law of the jungle predominates there are no guarantees, and no conventional deterrence that cannot be overcome by disruptive operations in the domestic politics of allies, cyber attacks, or nuclear weapons if it becomes necessary.
The war in Ukraine became tragic regardless of republican or democratic, liberal or conservative leaders. They all contributed to a self-fulfilling prophecy that backfired horrendously. The unwillingness to be cautiously receptive to others’ needs; to self-righteously misperceive motives; to arrogantly express the willingness to prefer war as an inherent right rather than to be mindful that preventing it may bring higher returns; democracies that refer to themselves as exceptional seeking to teach authoritarian leaders how to behave while uprooting a viable and weak democratic country to deny it to the opposition. These were the features that made the war in Ukraine inevitable.
Since WWII NATO has played a significant, indeed necessary role in world affairs. The alliance is not made of authoritarian personalities but of millions of citizens who are able to democratically elect their leaders. That is why sometimes it elects a Charles De Gaulle or a Donald Trump. As originally conceived, it served as a pivotal deterrent force; it withstood the test of time because of its common democratic values. Thoughtless expansionism degraded those values, its political and military worth diminished by superfluous numbers that may expose intrinsic vulnerabilities during critical times. In effect, NATO has become a military country club with no established purpose outside of Europe despite its need to assume a more international role. Its biggest obstacle eventually will be to maintain internal cohesion amid increased numbers that have created an artificial sense of security with small return expectations.
Meanwhile, having Russia as an enemy does not bode well for the world, and that is no trite remark. Exacerbating rivalries with Russia or China can only upset the international order at a time when a shrinking planet needs to focus on global challenges. Attempts at world supremacy will only lead to continued arms races and unnecessary chaos. To pretend that even a modest degree of order can prevail without the cooperation of world powers–and yes, Russia is a world power–is illusory.
As it is unlikely that governments will acknowledge their mistakes, there is no motivation for the war to end. When national egotism and self-righteousness on both sides precede compromise, an irrational form of rationality sets in suggesting that the war must go on; the West needs to continue to defend Ukraine’s ‘sovereignty’ and Russia will not cease hostilities until concrete security guarantees are established. The conflict calls for honest third-party brokers that do not include demands to unilaterally disarm or a truce designed to prepare for an even heightened conflict. Instead, there must be a clear and conscious disposition on all sides to recognize that the war in Ukraine was the outcome of self-induced policies by the West that in turn unleashed Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine.