On February 24th, 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine and since then both warring parties are still at war, with neither side gaining any discernible victory. The roots of the conflict trace back to history. Ukraine has never been a sovereign state and for the most part of its existence has remained under the subjugation of the Soviet Union/Russia. With the conclusion of World War II and the subsequent outbreak of the Cold War between two great giants of that time, almost the entire world was bifurcated into two blocs: on the one hand, was the United States of America with the Western hemisphere under the purview of NATO, and on the other hand, was the Soviet Union with the Eurasian region under its sphere of influence through Warsaw Pact. It was an era of tight bipolarity and both states were trying to undermine the influence of each other. The tectonic plates of geopolitics shifted when the Soviet Union got dismantled in 1990 owing to its incessantly deteriorating economy. The Soviet Union was dismembered into 15 independent states; Russia and Ukraine being one of these newly independent states. With the dissolution of the USSR, Warsaw Pact also came to an end but NATO remained intact. In the latter half of the 1990s geo-political dynamics began to take a new turn. NATO under the umbrella of the US and its founding members started a new ‘Eastward Encroachment Drive’ and gradually majority of erstwhile Soviet states became members of NATO. This eastward expansion of NATO started in 1999 when the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland became members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The second wave of expansion took place in 2004 when Estonia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania became part of the Western security alliance.
Moscow viewed all these attempts by the US and NATO as a direct threat to the core strategic interests of Russia. In the 2008 Bucharest Summit of NATO, the United States and other members of NATO considered the proposal to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia. This was an event that Russia viewed with extreme suspicion as if both states were part of a Western security alliance, Russia’s own survival would be in danger. Thus, Russia in retaliation invaded the separatist regions of Georgia in August 2008 when the Georgian President tried to integrate them. Putin kept Abkhazia and South Ossetia from being integrated into Georgia as it would strengthen Georgia and would make it firmer to join NATO. This event elucidated in a crystal clear way the Russian commitment to preventing its border states from joining the Western security alliance. But the West in general and the United States, in particular, did not categorically refute the possibility of membership of Georgia and Ukraine.
The chaotic situation in near abroad Russia got intensified when the pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown in a US-backed coup and a pro-Western leader was installed instead.
Right after this coup, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula and annexed it in a bid to prevent it from becoming the US naval base in the Russian neighborhood. Furthermore, it fueled the irredentist movements in the eastern Ukraine region, particularly in Luhansk and Donetsk, and made these states quasi-independent. The situation remained intense between Russia and Ukraine over the course of time since 2014. In 2021, Vladimir Putin refused to initiate a bilateral dialogue proposed by Ukraine and declared it a “vassal” state of the US and Europe. In the month of July of the same year, the Russian President put forth an essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” and reasserted the merger of Ukraine with Russia. Later on, Russia demanded that the United States of America and NATO promulgate a framework that would eliminate the possibility of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO once and for all. Furthermore, Russia also demanded that NATO should withdraw its forces from its East European member states. There is no denying the fact that these demands for US and NATO were non-viable. Russia tried to make it crystal clear before the West that if NATO tried to extend membership to Ukraine, Russia will eliminate Ukraine from the very map of the world. Russia threatened to pursue military means if NATO continued its policy of expansionism. Finally, on 24th February 2022, Russia started its military operation in Ukraine and declared it as ‘demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.’
A significant factor that sensitized Putin vis-à-vis Ukraine is that in 2008 European Union launched its Eastern Partnership Project that aimed to integrate states of the Eurasian region by providing them with economic support.
Europeans contemplated this initiative as a flagship project that will stimulate economic development and induce prosperity within Eastern European states, particularly Ukraine. Under the purview of this initiative, European Union started providing financial assistance, and trade barriers were gradually eliminated, as a result, the bilateral trade volume of Eurasian states with the EU began to increase. Russian then-Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov viewed this approach of the EU as an unambiguous attempt to create its own ‘sphere of influence’ at the expanse of Russia’s vital interests. Furthermore, for Russia, this attempt of the European Union to integrate Eurasian states was a stalking horse for NATO’s advancement. In response to the EU’s expansion plan Russian leadership warned European Union to stay away from its strategic backyard but its successive warnings were being ignored.
Besides that the inadvertent policy of Western states in general and the United States in particular that fomented Putin to attack militarily on Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine in recent times was the democratization drive whereby they were aimed to promulgate democracy and Western values among Eurasian states to keep them out of Russian orbit. In this regard, the United States of America along with European states which acted as aide-de-camp provided billions of dollars in economic assistance. The United States of America also established the National Endowment Fund for Democracy and under the purview of this initiative United States invested massively in more than fifty projects in Ukraine alone that were aimed to strengthen civil society. Moscow viewed these initiatives of the West as social engineering drive that is designed to confine Russia within its own borders.
Finally, another significant factor that Russia used as a pretext to invade Ukraine is linked with history. Putin propounded that when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990s, then Secretary of State James Baker assured Mikhail Gorbachev that once a reunified Germany joined NATO, the organization would not advance eastward, “not even one inch.” But with the passage of time, the Western Security Alliance not only expanded but also extended membership to European states that were part of the Soviet Union.
The strategic significance of Ukraine for Russia has increased manifolds in contemporary times due to the Eastward expansion of NATO where almost all except a few have come under the security alliance of the West.
Thus for Putin, if Ukraine becomes part of NATO the strategic loss for Russia would be incalculable as it cannot afford to have a hostile security giant right at its border. These strategic fears due to NATO’s encroachment within Russia’s strategic backyard provoked Putin to back up its verbal warnings with the robust military operation that it started in February 2022.
While the West was adhering to the policy dictates of liberal ideals that aimed to promote democracy, enhance economic interdependence, and make eastern European states a Western bastion; Moscow was analyzing each successive event from a pure geo-strategic lens guided by realist ideas. Thus, the arguments put forth by John Mearsheimer, father of offensive realism, corroborate that it is West’s inadvertent policies guided by so-called liberal ideals that provoked Putin to engage in War with Ukraine.
Whatever may be the causes behind war; the ultimate sufferer at the hands of great power politics is humanity, as evident from human history.
The Author is an IR graduate from NUML Islamabad and currently working as Research Associate at South Asian Strategic Stability Institute. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. He Tweets: @Danishraja982