Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: a tragedy foretold?  

There are, as Ronald Suny points out, two contending narratives on the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian catastrophe that it has created. The dominant version familiar to many in the West is that Ukraine is the hapless victim, and perhaps the first of many, of Russian neo-imperialism. The architect of neo-imperial intent is Vladimir Putin. Such a narrative is enunciated as a morality play, with a cast of characters that range across victims, villains, and heroes. It is a story in which the victim, a morally righteous David (in the form of President Zelensky of Ukraine), is pitted against a vile and villainous Goliath (manifested in the Russian President Putin). US-led Western heroes of NATO are aiding and abetting David with weaponry, financial assistance, moral support, UN-led condemnations, and crippling sanctions on Russia. They are protecting liberal democracy in Ukraine in particular and East Europe in general. They are defending a ‘rules-based’ global order.

At the same time, the US and its Western allies are exercising restraint because they are ruling out any attempt to engage in a direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia. The expectation is that this strategy will pay off as Russia concedes defeat and decides to end its invasion of Ukraine. Any attempt to seek a negotiated settlement with Russia is seen as appeasement which will only embolden Putin. It will entail a betrayal of the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to remain a sovereign nation and embrace the liberal democratic West through eventual EU and NATO membership. 

The alternative view is that the perfidious Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy foretold, especially by foreign policy experts and scholars of international relations in the US. Its roots lie in egregious errors of US foreign policy, and it has to do with NATO.

It was under President Bill Clinton that the project to expand NATO ‘eastward’, that is, to incorporate the ex-Soviet Republics in Eastern Europe, gathered pace. Bill Clinton and his cheerleaders celebrated such expansion. Then-Senator Joe Biden played a pivotal role in this cheerleading exercise proclaiming that ’50 years of peace’ was within the grasp of humanity. Much more knowledgeable observers were alarmed.

On June 26, 1997, a group of 50 prominent US foreign policy experts that ‘..included former senators, retired military officers, diplomats, and academicians, sent an open letter to President Clinton outlining their opposition to NATO expansion’. They considered a ‘…US-led effort to expand NATO (to the former Soviet Republics) ‘ as a ‘…policy error of historic proportions’. They highlighted the fact that ‘In Russia, NATO expansion…continues to be opposed across the entire political spectrum’ which will ‘…bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement’. They proceeded to argue that Russia, struggling to recover from the political and economic calamity of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ‘…does not now pose a threat to its western neighbours and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe are not in danger’. This warning was duly ignored and the US Senate ratified NATO expansion starting with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in April 1998. 

In the same year, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, the late George Kenen, widely regarded as the doyen of the US foreign policy establishment, and the architect of the ‘containment strategy’ pursued by the West during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, observed:  

‘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. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.’

In 2007, Vladimir Putin gave a much-noted speech at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) where he expressed his clear disapproval of a US-led ‘unipolar model’ that emerged after the end of the Cold War proclaiming that ‘I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world’. Most importantly, he observed:  

‘NATO expansion … represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today?’

Yet, in April 2008, the US and its NATO allies welcomed Georgia and Ukraine to be members of NATO, although when it was likely to happen remained unspecified. The irony is that, as Stephen Walt points out, Ukraine was a non-aligned country until then.

One could argue that Russia’s response to the ‘serious provocation’ (Putin’s words as uttered in 2007 – see above) of NATO expansion entailed the use of military force and the use of pro-Russian proxies to protect its security concerns. The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 is consistent with this interpretation. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a grinding conflict in Eastern Ukraine led by pro-Russian separatists might be seen as responses to the so-called Maidan revolution that led to the ouster of a pro-Russian Ukrainian President. Sadly, in this contentious affair, the US was not an innocent bystander. As Ted Galen Carpenter notes, US politicians openly aided and abetted the progenitors of the Maidan revolution in which unsavoury far-right political forces played an important role. 

Those who support the view that NATO’s reckless eastward expansion and its offer to incorporate Ukraine as a member of NATO at some point in the future provoked Russian aggression also point out that the US would react in much the same way if faced with similar circumstances. Suppose Mexico was to seek a security alliance with Russia or China and allowed its territory to host foreign army bases. The US would react aggressively. This, Peter Beinart explains, would be a re-affirmation of the Monroe Doctrine formulated nearly 200 years ago in which the US states that it has the unique right to exercise its sphere of influence in its own hemisphere and any attempt by ‘foreign powers’ to tamper with this right will be perceived as ‘dangerous to its peace and security’. Hence, Putin’s 2007 proclamations appear to be a Russian version of the Monroe doctrine. 

It is impossible to prove the veracity of this interpretation of the historical context to the current tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine today. It is entirely possible that Russia would have invaded Ukraine even in the absence of NATO enlargement. This counterfactual cannot be dismissed, but those who subscribe to it do not have a tangible solution other than seeking the comprehensive defeat of Putin’s Russia. Short of this seemingly unattainable goal, what is a way forward?  

Sanctions are certainly likely to cripple the Russian economy, while indirect military support to Ukraine would sustain this highly uneven conflict between David and Goliath. Despite sanctions, Russia will probably continue its brutal military interventions in Ukraine simply because sanctions, while causing a great deal of pain borne by ordinary people, do not lead to changes in the core strategy of a particular regime (think of Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and similar examples). As the IMF has warned, the longer the crisis in Ukraine persists, the greater the adverse consequences on the global economy. This is primarily because of adverse energy and food price shocks caused by further disruptions to supply chains already reeling under the impact of COVID-19. The poor and vulnerable in parts of the world far removed from Ukraine are likely to bear the brunt of adverse price shocks.

Those who subscribe to the view that NATO’s eastward expansion is a central part of the narrative on the war in Ukraine suggest it ‘could really be ended with a diplomatic solution in which Russia withdraws its forces in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality’ (Jeffrey Sachs). There are small, prosperous countries in Europe, such as Finland, that peacefully co-exist with Russia without being members of NATO. Henry Kissinger, perhaps the personification of the US foreign policy establishment and leading scholars of international relations – such as Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and others – fully concur with this prescription of ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine.

Micheal Mandelbaum, one of the 50 who raised formal objections to the NATO enlargement project in 1997, has wistfully reflected on an alternative scenario. ‘Imagine, he says, a different global configuration, with Russia aligned with rather than opposed to the United States’. Indeed. Imagine!

Durable global and regional peace is likely to happen when the US and its Western allies move away from treating Ukraine as a morality play in which they, and they alone, are the defenders of a rules-based international order in a multi-polar world. Will they have the humility to acknowledge that the NATO enlargement project has probably led to unintended, but tragic, consequences? Will they embark on the delicate task of persuading the current regime in Ukraine that its best future lies in being a non-aligned nation buttressed by mutual security guarantees from Russia and the US and its allies? Will the West, in cooperation with Russia, be prepared to offer a massive reconstruction package to enable Ukraine to move beyond the ruins of war? Only time will tell.