The West and most of the media have characterised the ongoing war in Ukraine as an “unprovoked” attack by Russia on a sovereign peace-loving nation. In his speech following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, United States President Joe Biden used the word “unprovoked” while describing the invasion. The media and politicians in the West have wilfully chosen to ignore the history of provocative behaviour towards Russia since the end of the Cold War three decades ago, especially with regard to Ukraine.
Russia’s biggest grouse is directed at the rapid expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) towards its borders within a decade of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. U.S. historians and commentators acknowledge that their government had given a solemn assurance to the Soviet leadership that NATO would not expand after Moscow agreed to the reunification of Germany and end the Cold War. James Baker, the U.S. Secretary of State in the George H.W. Bush administration, told the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, that NATO would not move “one inch eastward”. Before agreeing to the reunification of Germany, Gorbachev told the American, French, British and West German leadership that the expansion of NATO “was unacceptable” to Moscow.
Baker assured the Soviet leader that neither he nor President Bush wanted “to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place”. Reporting to Bush on his talks with the Soviet leadership, Baker said that he assured them “that the process would not yield winners or losers, instead it would produce a new legitimate European structure—one that would be inclusive, not exclusive”. For the past two decades, Russia has been asking for a new security architecture in Europe and has been constantly rebuffed.
As a gesture of goodwill, the Soviet Union had dissolved its own military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, and had hoped that Washington would reciprocate by dissolving its military alliance, which was formed solely with the intention of challenging the Socialist bloc of nations in eastern Europe. French President Francois Mitterrand told Gorbachev in 1990 that he was “personally in favour of dismantling the military blocs”. With the collapse of the Socialist bloc, it was believed that the rationale for the existence of NATO had ceased to exist. However, with pro-West leaders coming to power in most of the former Warsaw Pact countries, Washington did not waste much time in backtracking on its commitments despite warnings from many serving U.S. officials and security experts.
Initially, many of the leaders of NATO countries did not entertain the requests of Poland and Bulgaria for entry into the military alliance. Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, gave an assurance to Gorbachev that NATO would not be expanded. Moscow had agreed to the German leader’s request for NATO forces to be allowed to be stationed in former East Germany after reunification.
But after Bill Clinton became President in 1992, the U.S., seeing a weak and diminished government in Russia under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, decided to forget the pledges made on NATO expansion. Leading figures in the Clinton administration such as Robert Gates, who was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), were against the expansion of NATO. In 1997, U.S. foreign policy veterans who had served in the Democratic and Republican administrations wrote a joint letter to Clinton arguing that the U.S.-led expansion of NATO “was a policy error of historic proportions”. Among the other signatories were Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and CIA Director Stansfield Turner. The letter emphasised that NATO expansion will be “opposed by the entire political spectrum in Russia” and will bring Russians “to question the entire post-Cold War political settlement”.
George F. Kennan, a former Ambassador to Russia and the architect of the first Cold War, had also cautioned the U.S. government against NATO expansion the Russian borders. “I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War. I think Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else,” Kennan told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in 1999. “Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then (the NATO expanders) will say that we always told you that his is how the Russians are—this is plain wrong.”
Clinton and the U.S. security establishment, dominated by liberal interventionists, did not heed the warnings. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted into NATO in 1999. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia were admitted in 2004. The three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were part of the Soviet Union. St. Petersburg is less than hundred miles from the Estonian border.
WikiLeaks released a cable titled “Nyet means Nyet: Russia’s Red Lines on NATO Enlargement Redlines” from William Burns in 2008, when he was the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow warning that any move to include Ukraine in NATO would touch a “raw nerve” in Russia. It was in 2008 that NATO announced that membership of the military alliance was open to Ukraine and Georgia.
“Not only does Russia perceive encirclement and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region but it also fears uncontrolled and unpredictable consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests,” the Burns memo read. “Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried about the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership with much of the ethnic Russian community against the membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence, or worse civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to face.”
NATO’s resolve to include Ukraine
Crimea was part of Ukraine at the time. The strategic Russian Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol is situated in the Crimea. Ukrainian membership of NATO would have meant the loss of Russia’s all-weather port and access to the Black Sea. One of the reasons why Russia reincorporated the Crimean Peninsula back into the Russian Federation was because of NATO’s resolve to suck Ukraine into its orbit. When President Vladimir Putin was seeking assurances until the beginning of the year that Ukraine would not be a NATO member, the military alliance’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, reiterated the 2008 commitment given by Brussels to Ukraine about membership.
Biden repeated the tired cliché about “Kyiv’s right to choose its own security arrangements and alliances” after Putin demanded that Ukraine remain a neutral country. Putin while agreeing that in principle each country has the right to choose its partners also stressed, in a December 2021 speech, that “international documents expressly stipulate the principle of equal and indivisible security, which includes obligations not to strengthen one’s own security at the expense of the security of other states”. Putin had warned that Ukraine joining NATO poses “a direct threat to Russia’s security”.
For all practical purposes, Ukraine had become a de facto NATO ally in the last couple of years. Putin pointed out that NATO military units were “constantly present” on Ukrainian territory and the country’s troop command system had already been integrated with NATO. “This means that NATO headquarters can issue direct commands to the Ukrainian armed forces, even to their units and squads,” Putin stated in the speech.
It was after Euro Maidan colour revolution in 2014 that relations between Moscow and the West began to deteriorate rapidly. The so-called Maidan Revolution was led by neo-Nazi and ultranationalist groups with the open backing of Washington and Brussels. President Viktor Yanukovych was elected as President of Ukraine in 2010 with overwhelming support from the Russian-speaking part of the country. It was his decision to steer a neutral course for the country and not join the E.U. that angered Ukrainian nationalists and their supporters in the West. Concrete proof has emerged that the Barack Obama administration had played a key role in effecting regime change in Kyiv with the sole purpose of reorienting the country’s political trajectory.
The Russian-speaking regions in the east of the country rose in revolt after the 2014 coup that put in place a right-wing nationalistic government. The Ukrainian nationalist and neo-Nazi paramilitary groups such as the Azov Battalion along with the Army were sent to subdue them. The 2014 massacre in Odessa of Russian-speaking activists trapped in a trade union building was a decisive moment in the country’s history. It happened a week before the referendum on self-rule in the Donetsk and Lugansk provinces situated in the Donbas region.
The “Ukrainian Nazis” led by the Azov Battalion were responsible for the incident. In one of his recent speeches, Putin said that Russia had a list of the people who organised and participated in that incident and pledged that they would be brought to justice. The Ukrainian authorities had failed to prosecute 22 people who were initially arrested for the crime.
The war that broke out between the separatist in the east and the Ukrainian Army and nationalist forces in 2014 led to the deaths of thousands of people and destruction of civilian infrastructure on a large scale. The fighting paused for a short while after the signing of the Minsk accord in 2015. Under the terms of the accord, the Ukrainian government agreed to grant “limited autonomy” to the governments in Lugansk and Donetsk in exchange for their commitment to reintegrate with the rest of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government, however, soon backtracked on this key commitment. The major reason why the government in Kyiv refused to implement the accord was because the Donbas Republics would have objected to Ukraine’s entry into the E.U. and NATO by using their constitutional prerogatives. The Ukrainian security chief, Oleksiy Danilov, said in January that it was evident from the outset to all “rational people” that the Minsk agreement was not going to be implemented. “It would have meant the destruction of Ukraine,” he claimed.
Another important reason for Russia deciding to bite the bullet in Ukraine was the threat posed by the newly armed and trained Ukrainian Army to the Crimean Peninsula. After the region rejoined the Russian Federation, one of the first things that the Ukrainian Army did was to cut off its water supply. In the first week of the Russian military action, the dam that was built on the Dnieper river to stop the water supply was demolished. Russian forces have also secured the area around the mouth of the river so that the supply to the Crimea is never threatened in the future.
In the second week of the war, Putin issued a warning to Ukraine after it called for the establishment of a “no-fly zone” over the country. “The current authorities must understand that if they continue to do what they are doing, they are putting in question the future of Ukrainian statehood. And if this happens, they will be fully responsible,” Putin said. NATO has rejected the request for the establishment of a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. Putin said that such a move was tantamount to a declaration of war and projected “colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but for the world”.
The U.S., according to reports, is considering the Ukrainian President’s request for the supply of Russian-made fighter jets still in the arsenal of former Soviet Bloc countries like Poland and Bulgaria. The Poles, who are acting as the main conduit for the supply of NATO arms and military contractors to Ukraine, have, however, refused the U.S. request to transfer their Soviet-era warplanes to Ukraine, knowing full well that such a move would risk the expansion of the conflict. Washington authorised another $350 million in military equipment for Ukraine in the first week of March as the fighting raged.