A Catastrophe Decades in the Making: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine
by John Whitehead
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a monstrous injustice. Russia’s blatant aggression of 2022 recalls such similar infamous episodes as the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, repression of a rebellion in Hungary in 1956, and annexation of the Baltic states in 1940.
How many people have been killed since the invasion began on February 24th is unknown; as of this writing, there are hundreds of Ukrainian civilian deaths, including children. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Ukraine. Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has warned that “The humanitarian consequences on civilian populations will be devastating . . . countless lives will be torn apart.” Perhaps most worrying, Russian President Vladimir Putin has apparently placed Russian nuclear forces on heightened alert. How this conflict will end is anyone’s guess, but more people will die before it does.
The primary responsibility and guilt for this invasion lies with the Russian government, especially Putin. Putin’s decision to order this invasion of another country is wholly without justification.
While the Russian invasion may be unjustified, it was not unpredictable. That events would come to this could have been foreseen, even before the build-up of Russian troops close to Ukraine began in fall 2021. This invasion is the end result of a long sequence of events stretching back over 20 years.
Putin and other Russian policymakers bear the primary responsibility for this war, but they do not bear it alone. Other people, including policymakers in the United States, helped bring events to this point. This outbreak of war in Europe is an occasion to remember how events got to this point and to consider what to do next.
NATO Expansion and the Seeds of Conflict
While Putin no doubt has multiple motives for invading Ukraine, a significant motive is the desire to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Putin has repeatedly expressed his view that Ukrainian NATO membership would pose a threat to Russia. If Ukraine becomes part of NATO, the country could become a gateway for a future western invasion of Russia or a base for US nuclear missiles capable of reaching Moscow quickly.
Fear of a NATO threat to Russia was a major theme, along with other grievances, in Putin’s speech of February 21, in which he said that “Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the subsequent deployment of NATO facilities” would mean “the level of military threats to Russia will increase dramatically, several times over. And I would like to emphasise [sic] at this point that the risk of a sudden strike at our country will multiply… Ukraine will serve as an advanced bridgehead for such a strike.”
Such fears of future threats are not a moral justification for invading another country. Nevertheless, such fears are the kind of realpolitik security concerns one might expect a nation’s leaders to have. In the western hemisphere, the United States’ policies toward Cuba, for example, provide a parallel to Russian policy.
A prudent US and NATO policy would have anticipated Russian security concerns and avoided provoking a military intervention such as the one currently unfolding in Ukraine. However, prudence has been sadly lacking in this area since the 1990s.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe, NATO expanded to include nations that had previously been in the Soviet sphere of influence and even former Soviet republics. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in 1999; followed by Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 2004.
Many prominent US policymakers warned about how Russia would react to NATO expansion. William Perry, who was secretary of defense when the expansion was being pursued, commented in 1997 that the Russian reaction “ranges between being unhappy to being very unhappy…This is not just one or two or a few officials expressing a view, this is a very widely and very deeply held view in Russia.” Years later, Perry reflected that in the post-Cold War period, the Russians “were beginning to get used to the idea that [NATO] could be a friend rather than an enemy…but they were very uncomfortable about having [NATO] right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”
William Burns, who was serving in the US embassy in Moscow in the 1990s (and is currently CIA director), cautioned at the time that “Hostility to early NATO expansion…is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum [in Russia].”
George F. Kennan, a US diplomat who had played an important role in making US Cold War policy, said of NATO expansion: “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake . . . Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia.”
In 2008, when George W. Bush’s administration was pursuing NATO membership for Ukraine, Burns, who by now had served as US ambassador to Russia, offered a new warning:
Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin) . . . In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.
Burns also prophetically wrote that the pursuit of Ukrainian NATO membership would “create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
In 2014, when Russia was fulfilling Burns’ prophecy by annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote that “if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either [Russia or the West’s] outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” He also flatly stated “Ukraine should not join NATO.” Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski similarly commented that Ukraine could have “no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself.” During the Cold War, both Kissinger and Brzezinski were associated with hawkish US policies, yet they did not advocate Ukrainian NATO membership.
Fear of NATO is not necessarily the only reason Russia has now invaded Ukraine. (Nor, for that matter, is NATO expansion the only reason the Russians might understandably be suspicious of the United States and its allies.) The prospect of NATO including Ukraine has played a role in creating the current crisis, though, as demonstrated by the Russians’ repeated emphasis on this point during the lead-up to the invasion.
Granted, Russian actions over the past few months made preventing Ukrainian membership in NATO far more politically complicated. The United States and other NATO countries would understandably refuse to make such a major concession in the face of apparent military threats. A concession would be rewarding aggression. (For my part, I argued against such a concession earlier in this crisis.) In retrospect, however, maybe an unyielding stance was not the correct one to take. Compromise in the face of a threatened invasion would have been bad, yet failure to compromise may have led to the far worse outcome we are seeing today.
Avoiding any escalation in the war is imperative. If another nation gets directly involved in the war, the violence might only worsen; if the United States or NATO gets directly involved, then World War III becomes a possibility. US President Joseph Biden’s repeated statements that American troops will not intervene in the Ukraine-Russia war are encouraging. The United States and other nations should remain committed to non-intervention.
While not as perilous as direct involvement, the United States or other nations continuing to send weapons or military equipment to Ukraine could be very dangerous. More weapons could mean longer and bloodier fighting and greater loss of life. Rather than send more weapons to Ukraine, the community of nations should make every effort to keep additional weapons out of Russia’s hands.
Economic sanctions on Putin and other Russian elites are a reasonable response. Also, the Ukrainians should seriously consider using nonviolent methods of resistance to defend their independence. Compared to violent resistance, such methods are more likely to succeed in at least limiting Russian rule over the country and are far less likely to provoke extreme violent repression.
Giving refugees from the fighting a safe haven and getting humanitarian aid to those affected by the war is essential. Please consider giving to Catholic Relief Services, Mennonite Central Committee, and other groups working to help people in Ukraine.
Above all, diplomatic efforts are needed to bring about a cease-fire. The actions of peace-minded Russians who have protested the war in spite of state repression are encouraging. Let’s hope their voices and those of others opposed to war prevail.
For our posts on similar topics, see:
Seeing War’s Victims: The New York Times Investigation of Civilian Casualties in Iraq and Syria