We present two different expert opinions on why the war in Ukraine is happening. These opinions provide some context to the short-termist speculations of Western journalists which currently saturate the information ecosystem.
Corporate media is currently taking the ‘Iraq line’, namely: Russia is an evil, autocratic empire, Ukraine is a democracy, and if Western policy has played a part in the creation of this conflict then it is by appeasing a dictator. The opinion pieces below cast doubt on this view from two different perspectives.
The authors wish to emphasise that the views below are their own personal opinions, and both disagreement and debate are welcome. Ukraine Observatory encourages you to do your own research before believing any of the conjectures below.
Putin’s Russia is a Dying Empire
The war in Ukraine might have officially started this Thursday morning, but in another sense, it had already started a long time ago. Back in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, there were people who believed it would not stop there. Alongside taking the peninsula, the Russian government also supported militant groups in Ukraine’s easternmost breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. While things went quite smoothly in Crimea, not so much in the east. Putin continued to prop up the pro-Russian side, even to the point where the administration of the local governments was effectively in Russian or Russian-oriented hands; but full and official annexation — Crimea-style — never came.
Now, the angle of the present war has caught many, including me, by surprise. I thought Putin would finally sweep into the Donbas and proclaim the two breakaway regions parts of Russia. I did not think he would resort to waging war against the rest of Ukraine, too.
This makes me think that the war did not actually begin in 2014 but in 1989. Today’s Russia never recovered from misplaced nostalgia of the supposed glam and glory of the USSR. When the empire fell, it did so in a very different way than, say, Nazi Germany. In the case of the latter, the regime was thoroughly weeded out and the ground salted. There was no chance of any Nazi sympathies returning to Germany anytime soon. Not so in Russia. Putin has repeatedly said that the worst thing to have happened in the world in his lifetime is the dissolution of the USSR. And a lot, a lot of people agree with him; more so now than right after the Union fell. Many of them would like to return to the past when Russia seemed to be contending for the position of the preeminent world power.
1989 was a huge blow to Russian self-confidence. Suddenly, their ‘mother’ country became just a mid-level power in world affairs, plagued by poverty, decay, and rampart base gangsterism that replaced the hitherto mythical and grandiose gangsterism of the politburo. Since then, Russia seemed to be stuck in the past, growing ever poorer, ever rustier, ever sadder, while elsewhere the world has carried on and the power and influence of Russia’s geopolitical rivals kept increasing. The expansion of NATO into the former Eastern Bloc is only a cherry on top in the whole tale of relapse and decline.
This is the backstory that I see behind the scramble for the reclamation of lost territories in Georgia, Azerbaijan/Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine. It looks like a blatant attempt to claw back some of the imperial losses suffered at the end of the Cold War. The doctrine of self-determination has been a useful tool in this effort, which Putin has been using in front of international onlookers to claim that what he was doing ‘was not actually that bad when you think it through’. Now, he has decided to go one step further and instead of nibbling away at parts of other countries, for the first time he directly attacked the centre of one.
Russia seems weak. An unambiguous invasion in which there isn’t even a pretence of acting in self-defence is a scene from centuries past. It is something that we inhabitants of the modern world are simply not used to. It is a strange, bizarre sight that most people have simply no framework of dealing with, and therefore they resort to labelling Putin a lunatic who must have completely lost it. To those who don’t think he is crazy, such a straightforward act of aggression is simply a sign of weakness — of a dying empire lashing out at others in a last-ditch but hopeless attempt at saving itself from being devoured by the wheel of time.
Putin is not too old yet, but he is getting there. Perhaps part of the reason for starting this war is his personal desire to make a mark on history before he goes; to feel like he has been part of something grandiose and glorious too, like his predecessors from times past. If history tells us anything, it is that wars are often not fought for reasonable causes but the personal vanities of rulers. I would not be surprised if something like that was a partial reason for the undertaking of the present war, too.
Finally, I don’t know Putin. I don’t know his motivations or intellect, his dreams or his aims. It seems to me, however, that whatever has made him make the decisions that he has, this will not end well for him. Gorbachev is a hero for letting the USSR go without deploying the tanks. Putin might be remembered as the villain who could not let the Russian Federation go, causing untold despair, suffering, and destruction in the process. This will end badly for Ukraine; it will also end badly for Russia, and the future misery of his own country will be Putin’s fault. The question now is whether it will end badly for a lot more countries and a lot more people, and how to avoid such a scenario. As to that, unfortunately, I have no answers to give you.
America’s Arrogance Has Pushed Russia Too Far
The author of this piece has asked to remain anonymous.
This conflict did not start in 2022. Ukraine was a keg of dynamite that loomed large in 1989, and the fuse has been sizzling loudly since the Euromaidan putsch of 2014.
When the USSR collapsed in 1989, the West squandered a golden opportunity to bring Russia into the global community of nations. We often forget the egregious corruption and economic exploitation that ravaged Russia throughout the 1990s, bringing misery to many ordinary people. During Yeltsin’s regime, the ex-USSR’s state monopolies were stripped down to create multi-billionaire oligarchs out of ghastly individuals. The USA aided and abetted these developments, delighted to see its own corporations hustle in for a piece of the profit.
Then there is the geopolitical question. After the USSR’s fall, what possible reason did NATO have to exist? Retaining this military alliance and laughing off Russia’s attempts to join merely guaranteed that Russia would once again be a strategic enemy of the West. Was this the secret desire of an American military-industrial complex that felt robbed of its chance to beat the Russians in war, fair and square? Did these moneyed interests simply need an enemy to justify their own existence? Watching the USA’s subsequent behaviour, it seems that the only difference they saw between the USSR and Russia is the relative weakness of the latter. When this perspective was briefly challenged by Donald Trump’s attempts at rapprochement with Russia in 2016, the entire American political establishment went into meltdown — even now, there are many Americans who seriously believe Donald Trump was a Russian spy.
Returning to the 1990s, we find that NATO neither shrank nor abolished itself, but instead gobbled up the new territory afforded by the retreat of Communism. In three waves of major expansion, NATO incorporated most of the former USSR, moving troops and missiles ever-closer to Russia’s borders.
This disastrous scene provided the backdrop for the rise of Putin, whose authoritarian rule was widely seen as an improvement on the chaos of the 1990s. In Putin, the USA saw all the justification it needed for a hardline stance towards Russia. The country had gone from autocracy, to oligarchy, and back to autocracy.
During the 1990s and the 2000s, the USA engaged in numerous foreign military adventures to achieve regime change in selected countries. Neoconservatives and neoliberals combined forces to wage war in Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Zaire, Serbia, Iraq (again), and Afghanistan. In the 2011s, the American-backed ‘Arab Spring’ caused the collapse of nations across much of the Arab world, while creating the most bloody conflicts of modern times in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
When Russia intervened in Syria to preserve the regime of its ally, the dictator Bashar al-Assad, NATO very nearly involved itself in a direct war with Russia. This is not a story of Russian aggression, but of American exceptionalist adventures in the name of ‘democracy’ which have destabilised much of the world and brought misery, suffering, and death to many millions.
In February 2014, Western-backed revolutionaries overthrew the democratically-elected, pro-Russian president in an illegal coup, prompting the Russian takeover of the Crimea and the conflict in East Donbass. This proxy war has simmered for 8 years. During this time, NATO has poured billions of dollars into Ukraine’s military, training hundreds of thousands of troops and equipping them with the latest military hardware, including drones and anti-tank weapons. Similar action on the part of Russia would be universally denounced, yet Western media was overwhelmingly supportive of the militarisation of Ukraine by Western governments — even as it brought the continent closer to war.
That utterly predictable and entirely avoidable war became reality last Thursday. It is a result of the characteristic arrogance and exceptionalism of American foreign policy.
Arrogance, in seeking to impose America’s highly specific cultural values as global universals. Exceptionalism, in assuming that NATO deployments are fundamentally ‘defensive’ and never ‘aggressive’ or ‘threatening’ — even when engaged in unilateral invasions or subversion of foreign states — while these same presumptions are reversed for Russian deployments.
In 2019, the pro-Western regime in Ukraine introduced a clause in its constitution binding the nation to future integration with both the EU and NATO. This was followed by an election in which the pro-EU Poroshenko regime was overwhelmingly voted out in favour of Volodymyr Zelensky, who ran on a platform of peace and rapprochement with Russia — yet no such thaw took place. The constitution retained its integration clause, and Western weapons and advisors continued to flock to Ukraine. For Putin and many Russians, this was the last straw. Large-scale military deployments in regions bordering Ukraine began in 2021.
Unless the conflict goes nuclear, the big winners in this conflict are NATO and potentially China. NATO is taking advantage of the unique opportunity to wage war against Russia without losing a single soldier’s life, by having the Ukrainian people blow up hundreds of Russians with NATO weapons. In the event of a Ukrainian capitulation, China might take advantage of the distraction to strengthen its position concerning Taiwan, while the destruction of yet another American client state would undermine the USA’s international hegemony further in the wake of last year’s Afghanistan withdrawal fiasco.
Russia did not want this war. It is ruinous to Russia’s economy, Russia’s people, and Russia’s regime. Putin shocked the world by launching Thursday’s invasion. Many commentators who are new to geopolitics have thus concluded Putin must be a madman. An alternative explanation is that NATO has pushed Russia so far that it is forced to take drastic action.
The West has ignored Russia’s legitimate security concerns for decades. “It is like a mute talking to the deaf” said Sergei Lavrov after a fruitless meeting with the British Foreign Secretary on February 11th, 2022. Ukraine is now paying the price for our inability to listen.
Featured image courtesy of Kyiv City Council, CC 4.0.
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