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How We Got Here: Ukraine

The events leading up to Putin's invasion of Ukraine suggest there's much more to this story than raw power expansion.
(Asatur Yesayants/Shutterstock)

The current bloodshed in Ukraine is a true 21st-century tragedy. Much like the violence in recent Middle Eastern wars, those with cultural and historical ties have picked up arms against one another. Many have speculated about how these cultural and historical ties provide context for the conflict, presenting various interpretations and denouncing alternative narratives as re-writing history or misrepresenting events.

For the purposes of this article, I will not speculate on the historical accuracy or cultural divisions that are potentially inflaming tensions over the fight in Ukraine. Rather, this essay will attempt to look at several key 21st-century events in the post-Soviet space from the national security perspective of Russia.

As such, this article treats Russian President Vladimir Putin as a rational actor, and not an unhinged madman. While in the current media environment this is enough to get accused of repeating Kremlin talking points or of spreading Russian propaganda, that is somewhat the point: Attempting to understand the view from Russia is essential to predicting where the current conflict can go and how to present viable resolutions.

In the past, Putin has gambled on major international moves only when he perceived the odds to be in his favor, as well as an imperative need for action to secure Russia’s national interests. The latter includes the survival of his regime. For better or worse, he has subsequently been able to secure limited strategic objectives in previous foreign policy excursions.

To briefly recount developments immediately preceding Russian combat operations in Ukraine: After initial U.S. intelligence reports of a likely invasion, the point of confirmation for impending hot war was likely the announcement that the Kremlin now recognizes the sovereignty and independence of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), two geographic areas in the southeast of the country bordering Russia. This was followed by a decree that Russian troops would be sent into Ukraine on a “special military operation” to stop a potential genocide of ethnic Russians in the separatist held east. A campaign to “denazify” Ukraine by unseating what is perceived as a Western installed puppet regime in Kiev (put in place during the Euromaidan movement) was also announced. The unfolding military engagement ensued.

The LPR and DPR have been autonomous from Kiev since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the coinciding separatist conflict that cost the lives of around 14,000 Ukrainians in the following 8 years. The ethnically Russian Donbas region has for all intents and purposes been free of Kiev’s control for the entirety of this time. Moscow has ensured that the lights have stayed on for the region’s residents and has provided humanitarian aid and economic relief. The Kremlin previously went so far as to issue a decree making it easy for residents of the LPR and DPR to obtain Russian passports and citizenship. According to Russian state media outlet Tass, more than 700,000 Donbas residents had already claimed their right to become Russian citizens.

Still, Moscow refused to officially recognize the independence of the two zones for the past 8 years. The press conference in which Putin made the announcement indicated how monumental a decision this was. Whether purposefully or not, the Russian president conveyed an aura of exasperation as he addressed the room. Frequently sniffing and appearing to be somewhat teary-eyed, a visibly emotional Putin laid out the situation. Claiming that Russia has been prevented from reaching any acceptable security guarantees by the United States specifically, Putin declared that the present situation was no longer tenable.

“At the end of the day, we must decide what we will do next and how we should proceed in view of the current situation and our assessment of these developments,” he told government officials and press gathered in the room.

Putin reiterated the standard fears over Ukrainian ascension to NATO and the Article 5 privileges that would accompany such a development. He pressed the point that it is written into the current Ukrainian constitution that Crimea remains a part of the country. The document explicitly denies the 2014 Russian annexation as an illegal extraterritorial move, making it clear that Kiev will never accept Moscow’s land seizure. Should Ukraine join the alliance and forcefully try to retake the peninsula and invoke the collective defense clause found in Article 5, Russia would subsequently find itself fighting the entire NATO alliance.

“The use of Ukraine as a tool for confronting Russia presents a major and serious threat to us,” Putin said. The Kremlin contends that the Euromaidan uprising was no revolution, but rather a coup to overturn a legitimately elected administration. It continues to view the government in Kiev as an illegitimate Western puppet.

Putin cited the role of “NGOs and special services to nurture their clients in Ukraine and bring their representatives to the seats of authority [in Kiev].” Moscow frequently blames U.S. funding through aid organizations and various civil society groups for working to undermine established government authority in post-communist Europe. A more recent example of this was seen in Kazakhstan in early January. Both China and Russia decried the protests-turned-riots against Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as exacerbated by the United States.

Up to this point, the above Russian narrative has stayed consistent: At the end of the Cold War, a predatory United States smelled blood in the water and sought to capitalize on Moscow’s relative weakness to encircle, constrain, and economically exploit Russia. It did this by not only moving NATO eastward, but also by facilitating regime change in the countries surrounding Russia. The eventual goal is to force the downfall of the Putin government in Moscow. The Russian president believes that halting this process is therefore his geopolitical imperative.

To further add credence to his claims, Putin mentioned the 2008 Bucharest Summit as proof of the malicious expansion of the transatlantic alliance aimed at encircling and enfeebling the Russian Federation. The 23rd point of the official declaration by the heads of state and government present at the summit declared that, indeed, “[Georgia and Ukraine] will become members of NATO.” Bucharest came on the heels of Putin’s 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference. This has often been referred to as the occasion when the Kremlin clearly laid out its revisionist claims for Moscow’s perceived sphere of influence—namely, halting any further NATO expansion into the post-Soviet space.

Western audiences perceived this as Putin’s declaration to reconstitute the USSR. The latter has become a common refrain in transatlantic analyses of all Russian geopolitical moves since this speech. At the conference, Putin decried the unilateralism of American military force in international relations. Citing reckless NATO expansion eastward despite guarantees that it would not move beyond its 1991 borders, the Russian president made the claim that the United States had ignored international law and increased the likelihood for conflict around the world.

The Bucharest statement was one of main catalysts for Russia’s incursion into Georgia in 2008. Rebel forces in the break away region of Ossetia engaged with the Georgian army on the first day of the Beijing Summer Olympics. Russian military forces were already stationed in Abkhazia, another disputed territory in the region, and moved into the area under the auspices of peacekeeping. Moscow’s forces remain in the area, and the frozen conflict has removed the possibility of Georgia joining the ranks of NATO countries in the foreseeable future. Additionally, Russia maintains a presence in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh, another Eurasian land dispute exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The notion that the Munich statements were evidence of Putin’s illusions of grandeur over reconstituting the Soviet empire, and further came to fruition in his Georgia excursion, misses the view from Russia. The Russian president’s moves should be examined in the context of other important events in 21st century post-Soviet politics.

Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 resulted in the ouster of a Russia-friendly politician and the rise of a decidedly pro-Western government in Tbilisi. Moscow declared that this was heavily influenced, if not directly orchestrated, by Western forces (“CIA” is often used a catch-all term for perceived Western meddling, including the work of various aid organizations and NGOs). Mikheil Saakashvili subsequently became the president of Georgia.

The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine once again threatened the position of a Kremlin-friendly administration. After public unrest over election results that saw the victory of pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych, a re-vote led to the election of a more western-oriented Viktor Yushchenko. The same type of aid organizations decried by Moscow in the 2003 Rose Revolution were reported to have provided the funding and training of many activists who participated in the Ukraine protests—if not actively funding the unrest itself.

By the time of the 2013-14 Euromaidan movement, the previously defeated Yanukovych had won the Ukrainian presidency back in the 2010 election. Russia has subsequently held firm in its belief that the United States was the direct agent behind Yanukovych’s ouster and the rise of an anti-Kremlin government in Kiev. Leaked audio of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland provided support for the Russian contention that Washington was the one actually pulling the strings in Ukrainian politics.

The move into Crimea came as a response, to secure Russia’s key naval interests in the warm-water port at Sevastopol. The coinciding uprisings in the Donbas were additionally a response to the situation in Kiev. Whereas the pro-European western parts of Ukraine perceived a revolution, many in the Russian oriented east really did see only an illegal coup. This was especially true in Lugansk and Donetsk. The official position of the Kremlin has subsequently been that these ethnically Russian citizens should not be forced to live under the rule of an illegitimate rebel group that illegally came to power by overthrowing the duly elected government. The now failed Minsk agreements were meant to resolve this dispute by allowing the LPR and DPR to operate as largely autonomous areas while protecting Russian language rights across the country.

Western attempts to dismiss what is reported on Russian media as conspiracy theories pushed by pro-government propaganda does not negate the fact that it is the accepted narrative for many Russian citizens. While many also share the wish to restore a semblance of the great power status previously enjoyed by the USSR, this desire is tied to the belief that the United States has wrongly intervened in Russia’s sphere of influence. The notion that the fall of communism in Moscow was a mandate from the Russian population for unbridled expansion of U.S.-backed power into the former Soviet Union is a belief held only in Washington (and maybe Brussels). This fact is evidenced by the swell of popular support that arose around Putin following past military moves. This was especially true of his skyrocketing approval rating post-Crimea annexation. Notably, Putin’s approval ratings have continued to drop since that point.

As unthinkable as it is to the Western conscience, a significant segment of the Russian population may actually support the effort to unseat what is perceived as an illegitimate government in Kiev and secure the rights and safety of Russian speakers in Ukraine. While the separatist conflict left U.S. television screens as soon as the next geopolitical event turned our attention, audiences in Russia have been exposed to constant coverage of the ongoing warfare in the LPR and DPR. The Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts have remained divided between separatist forces and Ukrainian military forces since 2014. There have been resurgences in fighting at various points, and the most recent was a renewed push by Ukraine’s forces to retake the rebel held areas upon the ascension of Joe Biden to the U.S. presidency. Kiev’s military forces renewed combat operations against separatists in more than 12 areas across the Donbas.

Russian media have presented the perspective that Kiev has terrorized the residents of these regions over their Russian ethnicity. Putin has subsequently presented military operations as a move to stop the impending annihilation of residents in the Donbas. In a recent speech following the commencement of the current military operation, Putin mentioned the potential for “genocide of the almost four million people [living in the Donbas]” at the hands of Kiev. Regardless of the veracity of these claims or the motive behind these predictions, this is not necessarily a fringe belief in Russia.

Kiev’s renewed efforts have coincided with a steady government campaign to reduce the use of the Russian language—or at least to give prominence to Ukrainian. Prioritizing one national language is not an absurd notion to Americans, but it was an important point of contention that the Minsk agreements were designed to address. As I have written in this publication previously, Washington should have been dissuading Kiev from further military actions to retake rebel held areas, while simultaneously pushing for all parties involved (including through the Normandy Format) to revisit the Minsk agreements.

Negotiations over the status of the LPR and DPR were the only way to avoid conflict between Russia and Ukraine. That’s not to discount Kiev’s worries that a largely autonomous Donbas would guarantee Russia outsized influence in Ukrainian politics; however, if the United States’ priority is an end to the bloodshed and a lasting resolution in the region, it must be supporting compromise while avoiding any type of greater provocation. This is not a surrender to Vladimir Putin, or weak acquiescence to tyranny. It is realistic. Some 93 percent of the residents in Crimea reportedly voted to join Russia, and even though this number is likely inflated, the majority of residents were probably in favor of the move. A vote in the LPR and DPR would return similar results.

It is of course impossible to know Putin’s psychological state with certainty. If he has stepped outside the bounds of rationality then the situation is largely unpredictable, and the potential for escalation much more worrisome. The United States must be preparing measures for such a scenario that include all means at its disposal: military, economic, culture and media, as well as—for those of us who still believe in the power of prayer—spiritual.

But if he is indeed still a rational actor, as this article has understood him, then he knows that occupying territory in Ukraine outside of the LPR and DPR would result in bloody and protracted guerrilla warfare. Slavic Orthodox fighting Slavic Orthodox would quickly lose any public support in Russia—the sustained use of Chechen “Kadyrovites” would play even less well. There is a high likelihood that it would spell the downfall of the Putin regime. However, there are plenty of factors on the table that can be used for leverage in negotiations, including: the Russian language issue, the status of the LPR and DPR, recognizing Crimea as Russian, Ukrainian neutrality, and the potential for E.U. membership.

The Ukrainians have raised the stakes for Russia through their tenacious resistance. An all-in gamble by Putin would likely result in years of continued bloodshed and his fall from power. In order to support a viable peace agreement, the United States—while preparing for all contingencies—should continue to treat all parties involved as rational actors until proven otherwise.

Dominick Sansone has had articles on the Russia-Ukraine relationship published at the National Interest, the Epoch Times, the Euromaidan Press, and The American Conservative. His work has additionally been reposted at the Kyiv Post. Subscribe to his new Telegram channel at https://t.me/dominicksansone.