Russian invasion of Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 Feb 2022 was the result of folly by the political leaders involved. President Putin’s stated reason for it (which does not justify his actions) is that he was responding to what he saw as a threat from the West: the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and the EU. Both these Western organisations have been spreading eastward since the end of the Cold War, promoting liberal democracy as the ideal system of government, defending the ‘right’ of Ukraine to join them, and apparently failing to understand why this has provoked a crisis.
It isn’t clear whether Putin was genuinely frightened by the expansion of America’s sphere of influence, or just angry at what he saw as the humiliations heaped on Russia since the end of the Cold War, but neither paranoia nor injured pride can justify his invasion of Ukraine.
Thousands of people have died and many more are leaving their homes as a result of political failures. Russia’s behaviour has been appalling – but America, the EU, and Ukraine itself deserve some criticism. Their positions are briefly described below, followed by a summary of the possible outcomes and a look at what changes are required to prevent a recurrence.
The authoritarian governments of both Russia and China prioritise collective well-being ahead of individual freedom, seeing liberal democracy as a recipe for conflict and as a threat to their regimes. They suppress internal dissent in order to maintain political stability, and neither of them wants a revolution that would cost many lives. They do not accept that American values should be imposed on them, so they have pledged to work together to prevent NATO from expanding any further.
President Zelensky and his many supporters in the West believe that Ukraine has the right to choose its own alliances, and that this is a principle worth fighting for. This principle though, however attractive it may seem, does not excuse the West from a responsibility to avoid needlessly provoking conflict. The EU and NATO recklessly ignored Putin’s concerns about the expansion of America’s sphere of influence towards Russia’s border.
Ukraine is a country whose borders have shifted throughout its history. It is deeply divided between a larger Ukrainian-speaking West (which is strongly anti-Russian) and a Russian-speaking east which has close commercial and cultural ties with Russia. It declared its independence from the USSR in 1991 and it initially tried to have good relations with both its eastern and western neighbours, but it was politically unstable. When President Yanukovych (who was pro-Russian) was overthrown in the 2014 Maidan revolution, Putin saw this as an illegal anti-Russian coup. He promptly annexed Crimea and supported separatists in a civil war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (which comprises the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, as illustrated below).
The civil war dragged on despite the 2015 Minsk 2 agreement, which would have required each of the parties to make concessions. Its main provisions were as follows:
Ukraine would recover all of the Donbas, including the parts that had been under Russian control since 2014, but would grant it substantial autonomy.
Ukraine would agree not to join NATO and the EU.
Russia would withdraw its forces.
As Anatol Lieven observed, “Realistically speaking, Minsk II’s basic terms—an end to the war and autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine—are the best deal that Ukraine is ever going to get”, but 14,000 people died (before the Russian invasion) because Ukraine refused to accept it.
The concessions that Ukraine was required to make under the terms of the Minsk 2 agreement were policies which it should have pursued without the need for military pressure. It had a duty to take account of the needs and wishes of its Russian-speaking population and it was very unwise to apply for membership of the EU and NATO. Its repeated calls for more Western support were always unrealistic, since NATO members must avoid starting a third World War.
America has pursued a neoconservative foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, encouraging the spread of democracy and individual freedom across the world. This sounds attractive to Western ears, but countries should be allowed to develop in their own way. Attempts at rapid political change brought chaos with the Arab Spring revolutions and the failed attempts at regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There have been moments when the West appeared to be adopting a friendly stance towards Russia, as for example in the 2002 Rome summit: “In the NATO-Russia Council, NATO member states and Russia will work as equal partners in areas of common interest”. This was almost immediately followed, however, by America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq despite vetoes by Russia and other members of the UN Security Council. The subsequent expansion of NATO into Poland and the Baltic states could not be seen as friendly either, and President George W Bush’s call in 2008 “for Georgia, Ukraine and Macedonia to be allowed to join” (which was vetoed by France and Germany) met with a very angry Russian response because it looked like a military threat. The Western narrative is that countries should be free to make their own foreign policy decisions and join NATO if they want to, as if Russia’s concerns could be just brushed aside. The West’s refusal to yield on this point has cost lives.
Putin has behaved very unwisely. After Ukraine’s failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement he waited until he perceived the West as weak and divided (notably following America’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan) before attempting to use a display of military strength to force it to change. Having assembled his troops around Ukraine’s border, and having failed to achieve his objectives by negotiation, there was no way of retreating with dignity. Instead, he attempted to impose a regime change.
He completely underestimated the strength of Ukraine’s resistance, which was partly caused by past suffering under Stalin and by the fact that Putin’s own style of government is brutally repressive. The invasion has consequently been less easy than he had expected, and he has resorted to increasingly desperate tactics that are further strengthening Ukraine’s resolve. As Professor Michael Clarke observed, his bombing of hospitals is “an attempt to create terror in the population and to break civilian morale”; and “deliberate targeting of civilian areas is a war crime”.
Although Russia has no right under international law to make the demands it is making, it would be a grave error for NATO to become more involved in trying to make Putin give up and go home. That would result in escalation of the conflict, as he would become more desperate for his own survival.
It is also unlikely that Russian public pressure will force Putin into a change of strategy. An increase in Russian nationalism is a more likely response to conflict with the West, and many Russians believe everything that Putin tells them. “Although many Russians are against the war, others are barely aware of it”, as reported by the Guardian, and his regime has “stifled anti-war protests”.
This costly war will probably be followed eventually by a negotiated solution to restabilise the region. It would have been very much better for everyone if negotiations had been able to prevent a war, and it is worth asking how to avoid a recurrence.
A costly war
Russia’s strategy of forcible regime change was doomed from the outset, since it would lead to years of instability and guerrilla warfare from those who prefer the West. There is an obvious parallel with America’s failure to achieve a permanent regime change in Afghanistan in 20 years of occupation.
All the actors are suffering. Russia is experiencing crippling economic sanctions and it has become a pariah state; thousands of its soldiers are dying. Ukrainians are suffering horribly, with great damage being inflicted on people’s lives and the country’s infrastructure. The economic sanctions have pushed up prices in the West, and it is having to accommodate a huge number of Ukrainian refugees until they are able to return to their homes.
These pressures are all strong motivations for negotiating a peaceful solution, but negotiations cannot be meaningful unless all the participants are prepared to make concessions. This hasn’t yet happened.
Meaningful peace negotiations
A successful peace negotiation would have to allay Russia’s concerns about the expansion of America’s sphere of influence, and it would have to satisfy the populations of both eastern and western Ukraine. The Minsk 2 agreement would have enabled Ukraine to retain its independence as a separate country, having made the necessary concessions, but this solution may no longer be viable given the increased Ukrainian hostility to Russia as a result of Putin’s actions.
An alternative outcome would be the permanent partition of Ukraine into a Russian-speaking east, dominated by or absorbed by Russia, and a western part that might be required to sign up to military neutrality. The western part might also be allowed a trade relationship with the EU, but probably never full membership.
The need for a new world order
International institutions were unable to prevent or resolve the crisis. The UN was designed on the basis that the five Permanent Members of the Security Council (America, Britain, China, France and Russia: the P5) would never attack each other and would ensure peace elsewhere. It was designed to provide a political forum, to facilitate negotiation between the major powers, but it has repeatedly failed to keep the peace because America and Russia have ignored it when they found it convenient to do so. The invasion of Ukraine could, if allowed to escalate, bring war between NATO and Russia – with a risk of nuclear weapons being used. The UN needs to be reformed, to make it more rules-based and more able to enforce collective agreements. There is already popular support for such a change, if there were the political leadership to introduce it.
America must accept that it isn’t the sole superpower, and it should accept voluntary limits on the expansion of NATO.
The EU must reflect on what it is for, how big it should be, and its foreign policy. The Euro zone has already suffered from a crisis, due to disparities in the economic performance of its members, and it should probably not be expanded further. The EU’s foreign policy should lean towards having friendly relations with its neighbours, upholding both the letter and the spirit of international law, and developing trade agreements with other countries rather than expanding its membership. Ukraine would complicate its trade relationship with Russia if it became a full member of the EU.
America and Russia should agree boundaries on their respective spheres of influence, from the perspective of international security. The shape of such an agreement could emerge from the peace negotiations for resolving the Ukraine crisis and it could bring stability.
When the UN was founded, it was envisaged that the great powers would co-operate. They need to do so, for their own sakes and to protect the planet. A much higher calibre of political leadership is needed, though, to realise this vision.
Clearly written, simply and directly expressed, and understood.
However, is it true that eastern Russian-speaking Ukrainians were (and accepted, now never could be) pro Russian? Russia’s actions in the Crimea made their aims evident in the Donbas, and were disliked far more than otherwise. Zelensky is himself first Russian speaking.
How could the UN reform realistically to ‘enforce’ its decisions? Would not this lead to more of the same.
Hugh Winter’s suggestions for a less greedy and self serving EU tight membership is good. Hopefully this is already being sensed, and is attainable for the future.
I have long been in agreement that non democratic states should have their cultures respected enough, to evolve in their own path; rapid alteration is doomed to fail, but we have all been overtaken by media-vaunting of Western ‘benefits’; and this is unlikely to change unless attitudes do. A conscious effort would be needed to de antagonise dictator or authoritarian leaders and cease condemnation of their systems. How likely is this, and how truthful could respect be?
We are in a maelstrom of conflicting ideologies, identifications, and irresponsibilities Yes, in multiple wrenching ways the planet is at risk.
We need forceful clear sighted leaders.
As I understand it, Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine felt a kinship with the Russian people and in many cases have family connections. Many of their jobs depended on commercial links with Russia. This is quite different from wanting to be governed by Putin, though, especially after his atrocities during the invasion. A neutral Ukraine that had good relationships with both Russia and western Europe would be an ideal solution for them.
Reading this blog some time after it was first published illustrates how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only served to escalate the mutual distrust between Russia and NATO. This blog establishes that Putin feared that the strengthening of European and American ties to the Ukraine had become a security threat to Russia and that the Russian inhabitants of the Donbas were being abused and undermined by their neighbours in West Ukraine. A few weeks on, NATO is expanding and being revitalised and the European Union, which was dragging its heels in negotiations for the possible inclusion of Ukraine seems to have offered a ‘Fast Track’ encouragement to Ukraine to apply for membership in an address by Ursula von Der Leyen on April 8th. The inhabitants of the Donbas have suffered unbelievable atrocities at the hands of Russia and have probably been permanently alienated from any voluntary alignment with their Russian neighbours.
Meanwhile, China, who originally abstained from UN motions to censure Russia are now supporting the Russian cause and India, likewise will not speak out against Putin.
Minsk 2 seems to have been such a desirable and peaceable outcome in comparison to anything that can now be negotiated. Political posturing and intransigence have caused unbelievable suffering to Ukraine, have cost Russian soldiers their lives and undermined the healthy and necessary global interactions on trade and finance. The costs to a World already weakened by Covid and threatened by climate change have been immense.
I fail to see how the UN can have any meaningful input whilst its P5 members stand totally at odds with each other.
Is it possible, in these circumstances, to guess at all about the possible outcomes of the Russian attack on Ukraine?
Several writers have offered opinions about the possible outcomes, although few have accepted the basic premise of this blog post: that this is a clash between idealism and realism on the part of America, the EU and Russia.
What we read in the West seems to be imbued with American thinking, which assumes that everybody wants ‘freedom and democracy’ and that a military solution could give Ukraine everything it wants. NATO members are gradually escalating the military confrontation, by increasing the weapons supply, but Russia is responding by putting Ukrainian civilians under more pressure to try to induce a surrender.
The EU, which also assumes that everyone wants ‘freedom and democracy’, is intensifying economic sanctions in the belief that Russia can be forced to back down – yet its dependence on Russian gas cannot be quickly eliminated.
Russia appears to believe that the West is inherently weak, and that it can achieve its nationalist vision of having a compliant ‘near abroad’ by ratcheting up the military pressure until the West blinks first. The reverse seems to be happening, though, and western resistance to Russian domination is increasing.
I believe that this war will continue until all three parties – America, the EU and Russia – accept that they cannot have everything that they want and that they will have to make concessions. The Ukrainian government is showing heroic resistance to Russia, in the belief that it will be unconditionally supported by NATO and the EU, and an offer of fast-track EU membership encourages it to persist on its current course – despite its people’s suffering. This entire conflict is currently intensifying, so I agree that it is not possible to predict it coming to an end. If realistic negotiations are going on in the background, we are not hearing about them.
My attention has been drawn to this post long after it was published, however it has stood the test of time well and its main conclusions and “recommendations” are as valid as ever. Of course, it is dispiriting that it in no way follows that that those recommendations will be acted on in practice. In late August positions seem to have hardened as much as ever, and the evidence is that both sides are resigned to a long-drawn out conflict entailing protracted suffering for the parties directly involved, and considerable pain for everyone else, for a long time to come. I hope I am proven wrong on that and that a path to real negotiations exists somewhere, but there appears to be little evidence for that at the moment.
My one reservation with this post and with some of Hugh Winter’s comments in the ensuing correspondence is the strong hint of complacency – as I see it – towards authoritarian regimes. ‘Freedom and democracy’ are put in inverted commas as if they were one choice amongst others, and it was perfectly acceptable and maybe entirely desirable for other countries to go down different paths.
For all the weakness and faults of Western-style democracy, and for all the current fragility and many failings of Western society, I do not believe that democracy is just one cultural option amongst others, and that it is OK for states like China and Russia to lock up their citizens and brutally suppress free thought and free speech, if that is the choice they have made (whoever the “they” in that sentence is taken to refer to). I believe that freedom of conscience and of belief are important universal -not exclusively Western – values, that need to be upheld – though obviously not by invasion, or other forms of hard power.
This does not mean we in the West have nothing to learn from other cultures or regimes, nor that we should be smug or complacent about a supposed superiority in any way. But complacency about the better aspects of our societies when those are threatened is equally dangerous.
‘Freedom and democracy’ were put in inverted commas because it is a commonly used phrase. Francis Fukuyama’s term was “Western liberal democracy”. It is worth disentangling the different threads of the Patterns of Power argument – and it has now been clarified in response to your comments:
1. On this website, at https://www.patternsofpower.org/patterns/political/systems/ideal/, it is argued that:
“Fukuyama’s “Western liberal democracy” isn’t just a simple formula that can be applied to any society, and there is no “one best form of government” that would suit all societies and circumstances. All political systems have weaknesses. Whilst it might sound reasonable to Western ears to argue that everyone wants to be free, authoritarian political systems can justify themselves on a Utilitarian basis by offering peace and stability: avoiding the open confrontations and the short-termism associated with democracy. And however attractive democracy might be, when working well, it may be an unattainable vision for some countries if there is no practical route to implementing it without bloodshed and prolonged instability.”
2. Democracy, https://www.patternsofpower.org/patterns/political/systems/democracy/, is easy to defend: “Democratically elected governments enjoy considerable political legitimacy: they are seen as having an unquestionable right to govern. An unsatisfactory government can be replaced at the next election.” It is a fragile system, though, and it may be an unattainable vision in some circumstances. its introduction to Iraq vividly demonstrates the dangers of trying to implement it in a country where there are no established political parties as such and there are deep ethnic divisions. Iraq is still in chaos nearly 20 years after its first election.
3. Authoritarian political systems (https://www.patternsofpower.org/patterns/political/systems/authoritarian/) do not necessarily work badly for their populations: China has lifted many millions of people out of poverty, for example. It is legitimate to criticise its record on human rights, but not its preference for a one-party system. And it should not be forgotten that the West has a far from spotless record on human rights.
4. It is surely inappropriate to couple “free thought and free speech”. It is impossible to stop people believing what they want to: it is only their words and actions that can be constrained. No country can allow unlimited free speech: a well-trodden path of philosophical debate, discussed at https://www.patternsofpower.org/patterns/political/service/influence/speech/. Incitement to murder is a crime even in America, for example. Political dissent is a more complicated issue: it is an essential component of democracy, but more care must be taken in a one-party system. Ideally it should be possible to allow criticism of specific government decisions whilst avoiding calling for a revolution – and it must be remembered that China’s Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century “led to the deaths of more than 20 million people” according to history.com.
5. The Patterns of Power view on foreign policy, at https://www.patternsofpower.org/patterns/political/issues/foreign/, is that governments should aim for peaceful coexistence – accepting that all countries are entitled to make their own choice of political system.
Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed comments. I have replied at length above, but I can see that there is endless scope for further discussion. Hopefully we can understand each other’s point of view even if we do not ultimately agree.