Russia’s war on Ukraine: a tragedy for Ukrainians, a disastrous miscalculation by Putin, and the bitter fruit of the unipolar moment
I haven’t written about Ukraine yet largely because I’m not sure who I should write for — American and European liberals who think this war could never have been averted by any differing Western policy choices, or self-proclaimed “anti-imperialists” who are deluding themselves into thinking this is anything other than an aggressive, criminal war of Putin’s choice. There’s no doubt that the former group is infinitely larger in number, but since I spend time in the dark leftist corners of the internet, I get a fair bit of exposure to the latter.
Another reason I haven’t written on this until now: there is little that we in the US can do about this crisis in the immediate future, because not only does the Russian government not care about US public opinion, but even the US foreign policy apparatus has little concern for US public opinion. As usual, we can and should accept refugees if it gets to a point when they want to come to the US. Poland, Moldova, and Romania seem to be stepping up to the plate— it would be great if they would accept non-European refugees too, but I digress. That’s about the limit of what we can do for now. I’m not opposed to well-targeted sanctions in this case, but they’re not going to turn the Russian military around. The dearth of opportunities for constructive action contrasts with situations like the ongoing disasters in Yemen and Gaza, fueled by American weapons, the suffering caused by senseless US sanctions in Venezuela, Cuba, and elsewhere, and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan caused by not only 20 years of US war, but perpetuated by ongoing sanctions and Biden’s recently stated intent to outright steal $7 billion in Afghan central bank assets. While Ukraine is an urgent crisis and one that I am following with a great deal of emotion, I am always thinking about what could be accomplished if crises caused directly by our government and its allies were met with the same outrage as the crimes of official enemies.
That being said, while the current war is Putin’s war, there are US and European policies going back 30 years that have overwhelmingly shaped the situation in Eastern Europe at political, economic, and military levels, and I want to talk about how those policies have led us here. There are also takes I see floating around social media that misunderstand the situation in ways that will lead to confused political responses. I’ll also address some of the arguments justifying the Russian attack, because while Medium readers buying those arguments are small in number, I believe it’s important to fairly and soberly assess the claims of all sides in international conflicts.
We need to go back to 1991 to understand the current crisis. When the Soviet Union dissolved, there were many options for what the new international order would be and how Russian and how post-Soviet societies would operate. During perestroika, some people thought Mikhail Gorbachev would bring about a true democratic socialism, that the international order would henceforth operate on the basis of international law and diplomacy rather than force and great power competition, and that the capitalist and socialist worlds would learn from each other, fusing the economic rights (aspired to if not always realized) of Soviet socialism with the democratic freedoms of liberalism. But the organized mass movements that would have been required to bring this world about did not exist.
Another view — the view that was adhered to in policy— saw the post-Soviet world being absorbed into the existing global capitalist system dominated by the United States and the international ruling class centered in the developed Western economies. This absorption occurred at an economic level and a security level.
At the economic level, Russia’s extensive state assets were privatized and seized by an already-existing beaurocratic elite — the people now referred to by Western media as Russian oligarchs. Under the guidance of the IMF, Russia was subjected to economic shock therapy. Price controls were abolished. Russians quickly lost the basic state guarantees that structured their way of life, culture, and ideology. The excitement of the freedom of expression that had been increasing for several years, and of the new opportunities to travel and consume culture from around the world, was soon overshadowed by an economic catastrophe that few Americans are fully aware of. Reading accounts of Russian life in the 1990s helps one understand how that widespread misery set the stage for Russia’s authoritarian nationalist turn.
At a security level, there was an obvious potential to move beyond the division of Europe into two hostile blocs. The Warsaw Pact broke up. NATO, even though it had been created to contain the USSR, did not break up. Gorbachev agreed to the reunification of Germany on Western terms because he was promised verbally that NATO would not expand eastward. (Gorbachev was naive to think a verbal promise behind closed doors could be counted on.)
In the wake of this expanded US hegemony, Russia mounted no substantial opposition to US dictates. With the help of US “advisers” and Russia’s business elite, a pliant, inept, and increasingly unpopular Boris Yeltsin won reelection in 1996. Russia was not consulted in major international decisions, and its government largely went along.
In 1997, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were invited to join NATO. The US foreign policy establishment did not consider Russia to be a threat to those countries at the time, but the decision conformed to the imperial ideology of the 1990s —absent any opposition, why not extend US domination into every nook and cranny of the world where it wasn’t already?
In 1999, the US and NATO bombed Serbia, using violence against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and a secessionist movement in that territory as pretexts to break Kosovo off from Serbia, despite having no international mandate and therefore no legal right to do so (sound familiar?). Russia was adamantly opposed, but its protests were ignored. That same year, NATO issued “membership action plans” for Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Baltic states, Albania, and Macedonia. All but the last two joined NATO in 2004, and the last two joined in 2009 and 2020 respectively. From 2004 on, NATO was on Russia’s western border and surrounding the Russian enclave Kaliningrad.
Vladimir Putin came to power for the first time in late 1999. According to an ex-chief of NATO, he privately expressed interest in NATO membership. Asked about joining by a BBC journalist in 2000, Putin said “Why not? I do not rule out such a possibility . . . in the case that Russia’s interests will be reckoned with, if it will be an equal partner. Russia is a part of European culture, and I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe and from . . . what we often talk about as the civilized world. Therefore, it is with difficulty that I imagine NATO as an enemy.”
Could Russian integration into NATO have worked? We can’t know. It wasn’t pursued. I’m not saying it would have, but it does illustrate how things have changed. George W. Bush famously said in 2001 that he looked in Putin’s eyes and saw his soul, adding “I wouldn’t have invited him to my ranch if I didn’t trust him.”
In my view the ideal outcome would have been, rather than expanding NATO all the way to Russia, replacing the two Cold War blocs with a pan-European security framework. That could still be done someday, but now it’s a distant dream. It wouldn’t have been in 1991.
The second Bush administration took US unilateralism to new heights, launching two disastrous ground wars in the Middle East, one of them illegal. In 2004, a pro-democracy, pro-Western popular movement in Ukraine replaced its government, with US backing (not to say a genuine desire by Ukrainians to get in on the relative prosperity of Western Europe wasn’t also present). This markedly increased Putin’s suspicion of the US. Still, he was not perceived as a menace by Western officials, journalists, and policy elites. Read American articles about him from this time period — you will not find the portrayals of him as a psychopathic Hitlerian figure, as you have in recent years.
Meanwhile, Russia’s economy rebounded from the devastation of shock therapy. Whether this was due to Putin’s economic policies is unclear, but either way, his presidency coincided with the recovery, so he got the credit. This, along with Putin’s resurrection of Russia as a formidable player in world affairs, is at the root of the sustained popularity he has enjoyed.
In 2008, the Bush administration initiated NATO membership action plans for Ukraine and Georgia, another state bordering Russia. Russia made it clear that it would never accept NATO expansion to these countries. (It would be strange to expect Russia to react differently.) It was in that context that a mutual escalation along the Russia-Georgia border occured. Russia invaded Georgia, recognizing two secessionist regions with Russia-oriented populations, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but also attacking undisputed territory in Georgia. While Bush’s NATO membership action plans for Ukraine and Georgia were later shelved, US-Russia relations have never recovered from this episode.
In 2011, NATO intervened in Libya to overthrow its government, on the basis of a UN Security Council resolution that Russia only agreed to under the impression that it did not authorize the regime change operation that followed. Eleven years later, Libya is still in a state of low-level civil war with competing governments. So while Americans view NATO as defensive, in reality, every war it has fought has been a war of choice. NATO is not going to start a war with Russia for no reason, but Russia has every reason to expect NATO to intervene in regional conflicts with or without international sanction. And if there ever were a non-nuclear US-Russia war, the existence of NATO in its enlarged form ensures it would be fought on or near Russia’s borders, not the US’s.
In 2013, after a pro-Russian Ukrainian government nixed economic integration into Europe in favor of integrating into Russia’s economic sphere, another popular movement emerged, with many Ukrainians demonstrating in favor of democracy and a Western orientation. Right-wing Ukrainian nationalists also played a role, as did support from the US. The government was toppled and replaced with a pro-Western one. Russia viewed this, not entirely without reason, as a US-backed coup.
In the wake of that, Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on the basis of an illegitimate referendum for accession to Russia. However, one should understand that Crimea’s population is mostly Russian-speaking and culturally oriented to Russia, as a result of its history in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. What most Westerners don’t realize is that even though this referendum lacked international legitimacy, it is overwhelmingly likely that a majority of Crimeans did want to be part of Russia, especially in the wake of the 2014 coup/revolution. That’s why Western governments don’t propose a new referendum under international observation as part of a peace process — they know they can’t expect the result they want.
For the first time, polls showed a majority of Ukrainians supporting NATO membership, even as it was clear that NATO membership would not happen anytime soon (NATO is not going to onboard a country in an ongoing conflict or on the verge of one). Russia has been under sanctions for this annexation since 2014.
Since 2014, there has also been a mostly frozen conflict in southeastern Ukraine, in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Russia has been materially supporting the secessionist insurgents for 8 years as they have fought the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian militias (yes, some of them are far-right). The Obama administration refrained from selling “lethal” arms to Ukraine, but the Trump administration began doing so in 2017 (please try to incorporate that into your Russiagate conspiracy theories).
This has all occurred in parallel with tensions over Russian minority language rights in eastern Ukraine, the promulgation of nationalist historical narratives by both sides, Ukraine’s further steps into the Western political-economic orbit, and other internal conflicts in which the Ukrainian government has sometimes played a problematic role. The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 was designed to end the conflict with Russian noninterference and autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk, but the two sides have competing interpretations of the agreement, so it has not been implemented.
Russia has portrayed its attack on Ukraine as a humanitarian intervention to prevent the “genocide” of the civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk, and to “denazify” Ukraine. It’s astounding to see Russian officials making these claims with a straight face. It’s true that civilians in Donbas have suffered from the low-level war over the past 8 years, but Russian interference has contributed to their suffering, and some (admittedly fewer) civilians on the other side of the front line have suffered too. This Russian-backed insurgency has also hurt Ukrainians across the country for the past 8 years by scaring off capital and hobbling its economy.
Russia’s borders exhibit the same features that virtually all hard international borders exhibit to varying degrees: they bisect communities with cultural, linguistic, and familial ties. It’s absolutely true that eastern Ukraine has Russian-oriented populations, as does Georgia. That leads to tensions. Those tensions are then exploited by powerful states as pretexts for acts of aggression.
The “denazification” propaganda is equally absurd. There are Ukrainian nationalists who are the ideological heirs to fascists who supported the Nazis in WWII and who use fascist symbols. The Azov Battalion has been a very problematic force in all of this, and far-right forces in Ukraine are something I have been concerned about since I started following this crisis several years ago. But allow me to make a few points that should be obvious:
- The Ukrainian government, which is the force Russia is making war against, is not remotely akin to neo-Nazis. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a liberal Russian-speaking Jew. The far right has a relatively small foothold in Ukraine’s parliament — smaller than in several other European countries.
- It could hardly be more obvious that Russia’s intervention, seeing as it is now pursuing a regime change operation that will almost undoubtedly require some period of occupation, is going to strengthen Ukraine’s far right. If we have learned anything from Iraq and Syria, it’s that reactionary extremists benefit from these situations.
- Russia is aligning itself with far-right forces in multiple European countries.
As I have outlined above, Russia does have a long-term interest in preventing NATO expansion, and would stop at nothing to keep Ukraine out of the alliance. But that has not been a real near-term issue since 2010. Portraying NATO expansion as the single cause or even a proximate cause of Russia’s attack is incorrect. It is a background cause. Ukrainian EU membership has been a bit more of a live issue in recent years, but Russia has no legitimate grounds for blocking a neighbor from joining the EU.
Those are the background causes. Here are more proximate factors that I think are relevant:
- Russia wants to keep Ukraine in its economic sphere. In 2012, Ukraine sent a quarter of its exports to Russia and a quarter to the EU. Since then, even with EU membership a distant prospect and NATO membership all but unforeseeable, Ukrainian exports shifted overwhelmingly toward the EU.
- Putin is espousing an increasingly virulent Russian nationalist ideology and operating with an imperial mindset. He does not recognize Ukraine as an independent nation, but as a periphery of the “Russian world,” artificially separated from Russia by the Bolsheviks. That doesn’t mean he wants to annex the whole of Ukraine; he would probably be satisfied with Ukraine as a pliant pro-Russian regime like Lukashenko’s in Belarus. I also want to clarify, because I am hearing pundits make this mistake: Putin’s idea of the “Russian world” is not the whole former USSR. It’s Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. He may want a sphere of influence encompassing the former USSR, but only those three countries form a unitary “people” in Putin’s worldview.
- Russia wants to prevent the US from stationing a missile defense system on Ukrainian soil. This system would be a grave threat to Russia, making nuclear war more likely. This might sound strange to laypersons — isn’t “missile defense” just defensive? — but this is a widely held view among defense systems analysts. (If a nuclear-armed state thinks it can shoot down the other side’s nukes, then it loses its deterrence from launching its own.)
All that being said, there’s a reason why so many people were skeptical of the US intelligence claims that this invasion would occur. It wasn’t just people like me who are instinctively skeptical of US intelligence. I have heard numerous journalists on the ground say that everyone they talked to — Ukrainians and Russians, both laypersons and experts— doubted this outcome a week ago. Many experts insisted that the most Putin would do would be to recognize the breakaway republics and occupy those, maybe expanding their territory a bit. I believed them.
The reason is this: what Putin is doing is kind of insane. This is not the first time Putin has done something aggressive internationally, but this is the first time he has made a major foreign policy decision that is downright stupid. Say what you will about the 2008 war with Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but those actions did not significantly backfire. They turned out well for Putin, as has his air war in support of the Syrian government.
This war is likely to end in a disaster from Russia’s point of view. Here’s why:
- The sanctions imposed are serious. I find it hard to imagine that Russian elites, in the long term, will be happy with Putin’s actions. These sanctions will also hurt the global economy, driving up already-high energy prices, but Western leaders appear willing to make the tradeoff (even as sustained inflation is spelling a midterm election disaster for Biden’s party). Fears of rebound effects have thus far stopped Russia from being kicked out of the SWIFT banking network, but it remains a possibility.
- Putin has few friends in this. Syria, Belarus, and maybe Kazakhstan are with him — not exactly a formidable crew to roll with in the international arena. China is fence-sitting, as are a few other countries, but not supporting Russia outright. Putin’s international reputation is on the ropes.
- There is a non-negligible amount of dissent within Russia itself. Media outlets always play up dissent in enemy countries, and we need to be wary of that, but by Russian standards, the antiwar protests we have been seeing in Russian cities are no joke. Numerous Russian celebrities and journalists, including some working for state media, have spoken out against the war. This is a stark contrast to the reaction in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and enjoyed all-time highs in his highest favorability ratings. To be clear, I strongly suspect that the majority of Russians are in support of this war so far. But to have any significant dissent, not just after a war has gone sour but at the start of it, in a relatively authoritarian country like Russia, is something to be remarked upon.
- The Ukrainian military is not rolling over. They won’t be able to prevent a regime change if Russia wants a regime change, but they seem to have some ability to slow Russia’s advance and inflict casualties. (However I do suspect the numbers of Russian casualties put out by the Ukrainian government are grossly inflated.)
- Assuming Russia occupies Ukraine for a significant period of time, which it will probably have to do to effect regime change, it will face an insurgency, and it’s very possible that that insurgency will eventually receive arms from outside. Putin probably knows this, and that’s likely part of why Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine has so far been much more careful than its brutal bombing campaigns in Syria. Still, I highly doubt that Putin can win many “hearts and minds” in western Ukraine, or even in Kyiv. I think if anything we will see previously pro-Russian populations turning against Russia.
In my opinion, Putin has changed. Longtime Russia hawks are seizing the opportunity to say they were always right about Putin being the next Hitler, but this is clearly not the same Putin that ascended to the presidency 22 years ago. He has always been a rightist and a nationalist to some degree, but his foreign policy has been rational and well-calibrated (this is not to say moral). Putin psychoanlysis is a cottage industry that probably shouldn’t exist, so I don’t want to speculate on his thinking too much, but I find it hard to see this act as consistent with the Putin of yesteryear.
I believe the US could have prevented this crisis, up until some recent point in time when Putin decided to wage this war (exactly when is not clear). The best time to prevent the crisis would have been 1991. But if we take NATO expansion to its current size as a given, then it’s likely that an official agreement of neutral status for Ukraine — no NATO membership, no US military assets stationed on its territory, and some form of devolution for Donetsk and Luhansk — still could have averted war six months ago, if not more recently. It’s all well and good to say that Ukraine should be able to democratically choose its own economic and political alignments — a good reason to support a pan-European security framework. But people like George W. Bush, believing that fully incorporating NATO into a hostile military-political-economic bloc on Russia’s western border would go down peacefully, if they actually did believe that, were deluded.
I think the historic mistakes I outlined above — the decision to subject Russia to economic shock therapy and try to keep make it just one more subject in the US imperial order, rather than trying to integrate it into a cooperative security framework and implement, at the very least, a Keynesian rescue plan for its economy— created the Russia and the Putin that exist today. Liberalism imploded in Russia, well before its ongoing post-2008 implosion worldwide. With liberalism and Soviet Communism both discredited, Russia needed a replacement ideology. That ideology is nationalism. Nationalism is poison, and when it takes hold in a military power like Russia, turbocharged by great power competition, this is what happens. Nationalism is on the rise globally, and great power competition is escalating in east Asia (under admittedly quite different economic circumstances). Ukrainians are paying the price for this dangerous cocktail today, but it will be someone else tomorrow.