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.