Richard Sakwa writes: In his speech of 24 February 2022 justifying the invasion of Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin singled out two key aims – the ‘demilitarisation’ of Ukraine and its ‘denazification’.1
These goals have been the subject of much ridicule, some of it deserved, yet the formulation of Russian war aims in these terms represents the culmination of a long period of conflict-gestation, which finally spilled over into a reckless and brutal conflict. The struggle quickly turned into a proxy war between Russia and the West, with the Ukrainian people suffering the brutal effects of the assault. The war will shape Ukraine, Russia and the West for generations to come.
The purpose of this paper is to explain how we arrived at this point. It should be stressed that to explain the logic does not mean its endorsement. In fact, analysis of this sort over many years has tried precisely to avert this tragic outcome. The war was predictable, predicted and, most tragic of all, avoidable. Instead, we have a collective West mobilised to the highest degree since 1945, far more even than at the height of the First Cold War (Cold War I). The Second Cold War (Cold War II) in Europe turned out to be far shorter than anticipated, and very quickly turned into the sort of hot war that had been avoided throughout the entire postwar period on the continent. How did we get into a position of a war between a nuclear-armed Russia and the collective West?
To answer this question the paper will examine Putin’s war aims, and assess the logic underlying them. It assumes that Putin is a rational actor, and although quite possibly mistaken he was motivated by more than what some simplistic analysis suggests is his desire to recreate some sort of Soviet or Russian empire. Equally, the view that Putin took the decision to invade because he was in some way mentally unbalanced is dismissed. The balance within the regime was disrupted and from late 2019 the hardline view predominated, resulting in the attempt to crush the last embers of the independent political opposition and critical thought, the 2020 constitutional amendments and finally escalation of the confrontation with Ukraine. It is clear that in the final period before the war Putin was under enormous mental strain. The strategy of coercive diplomacy was generating few dividends, and the implicit threat of violence was counter-productive. The decision to go all-out with a military offensive, possibly taken as early as August 2021, could not have been more high-risk, threatening to destroy two decades of domestic development.
The tension was evident in his late-night speech of 21 February announcing that Russia would recognise the independence of the two breakaway republics in the Donbass, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). In an emotional and long-winded speech he recounted his idiosyncratic version of how Lenin and the Bolsheviks created the modern Ukrainian state, and why Russia would recognise the independence of the two republics.2 His speech was preceded by a bizarre, televised meeting of the Russian Security Council in which each member was invited to approve the measure, thus rendering them all complicit.
We will return to the immediate events before the war but first we will examine the tensions and contradictions in the post-cold war peace order, and how in the end they exploded into conflict.
The peace that was no peace
Two peace systems – new world orders in the jargon of the time – were on offer when Cold War I ended in 1989. The first is the one that the United States, the Soviet Union, China and other victors helped constitute at the end of World War II in the form of the United Nations system and its associated body of international law, norms and practices. This is the international system based on the UN Charter which combines state sovereignty, rights of national self-determination and human rights. The UN Charter of 1945 banned war as an instrument of policy and provided a framework for the peaceful resolution of international conflicts. The Charter peace order was given backbone by the creation of an internal ‘concert of powers’ represented by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the P5 group comprising the US, Russia, China, France and the UK. It was to this international system that the Soviet Union appealed as the model of civilisation and development as it launched into reforms at the end of the 1980s. This peace order is based on a modified form of great power politics, with its associated lexicon of the balance of power, buffer states and spheres of interest. However, it is modified by the type of international politics that it advocates, which tempers the great power logic. This is a model based on sovereign internationalism, where the respective interests of all the powers, great and small, are respected. The assertion of sovereignty is tempered by an internationalism based on the Charter system yet it remains within the realist tradition of international relations.
The second ‘new world order’ was the one more narrowly created and led by the US, also at the end of the war. In the nineteenth century Great Britain acted as the champion of free trade and open navigation, a role assumed by the US after 1945. This is a model based on liberal internationalism consisting of two key elements: the open trading and financial system created within the framework of the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944; and the military arm that took shape as Cold War I intensified, culminating in the signing of the Washington Treaty on 4 April 1949 to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The term ‘liberal’ in the cold war largely signified ‘anti-communist’ rather than ‘liberal democratic’, yet it provided a powerful and ultimately successful framework to overcome the Soviet adversary. This was a ‘hegemonic’ peace order dominated by the US and its allies. After the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 it proclaimed not only its victory but also its universality – there could be no separate ‘spheres of influence’ since the leadership of the US-led hegemonic peace was proclaimed as a global and universal project. In effect, a global Monroe Doctrine was applied. Cold war bipolarity was gone and in the subsequent unipolar years there was no-one left to contest the assertion. Moscow grumbled but post-communist Russia was in no position to challenge US leadership, while China used the opportunity to engineer its ‘quiet rise’. This model cannot be called ‘idealist’, in the classic international relations sense of the term, because of the expansionist power system at its core. Hence this expansive system (perceived as aggressive to outsiders) is usually described as liberal hegemony.3
The two models of post-cold war order – the Charter and the liberal peace systems – were not entirely incompatible since both drew on the postwar settlement. This explains why the two ordering principles were incorporated into the various documents at the end of the cold war. Indeed, the tension between the declared sovereign right of nations to choose their own security alignment and the indivisibility of security was present in the founding document of what was to become the new era, the Helsinki Final Act of August 1975. This contradiction was then repeated in all the fundamental documents of the post-cold war era. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe, adopted on 21 November 1990 heralded ‘a new era of democracy, peace and unity’, stressing that ‘Europe is liberating itself from its past’.4 The focus was on the temporal challenge – overcoming the past; but the new spatial order entailed the logic of enlargement. The tension between these two logics, each rational in its own terms, contained the seeds of later conflicts. The Istanbul OSCE meeting in November 1999 adopted a Charter for European Security, restating the fundamental principles of the Paris Charter.5 The seventh OSCE heads of state in December 2010 adopted the commemorative Astana Declaration, which talked in terms of the establishment of a security community. Meeting 11 years after the Istanbul summit, the leaders recommitted themselves ‘to the vision of a free, democratic, common and indivisible Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security community stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok, rooted in agreed principles, shared commitments and common goals’.6 Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly stressed that both declarations committed member states ‘to indivisible security and their pledge to honour it without fail’. The freedom of states to choose their military alliances was balanced by the ‘obligation not to strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states’.7
A modicum of good will and trust could have allowed some sort of reconciliation between these two models. However, the tension between the two was reinforced by the geopolitical contest between two divergent spatial visions. On the one side, the Euro-Atlantic alliance system, created to fight Cold War I, did not dissolve after 1989 but instead enlarged into the area vacated by the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. Even one of the most passionate advocates of NATO enlargement, Zbigniew Brzezinski, understood the implications of splintering European security, contrary to the promises of ‘indivisibility’ in the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter and other acts. He argued that Russia should have been offered ‘a deal it could not refuse’, namely ‘a special cooperative relationship between Russia and NATO’.8 His idea was to ‘create a new transcontinental system of collective security, one that goes beyond the expansion of NATO proper’.9 This would have been a genuine expression of the ‘mature partnership’ between the US and Russia much lauded at the time and could have avoided Moscow’s sense of betrayal. NATO enlargement would have been mediated by some sort of robust pan-continental framework, thus removing the creation of a hard edge of enlargement with Russia placed firmly on the other side. This is in keeping with the alternative post-cold war spatial vision, the pan-continentalism espoused by Mikhail Gorbachev in his ‘common European home’ vision and which was later taken up in the ‘greater Europe’ (bol’shaya Evropa) idea.
Two normative models contested and the contradiction was reinforced by divergent geopolitical representations of the appropriate spatial configuration of the region. The failure to reconcile the two visions of post-cold war European order generated growing distrust that grew into outright hostility. Both sides believed that truth and justice was on their side, thus prompting the denigration of the alternative and even demonisation of the opponent. Classic cold war Manicheanism was reproduced to a degree that even surpassed that of Cold War I. By 2022 Moscow assumed that the contest would be a rather more equal one. US power had relatively declined and faced not a USSR in crisis and a barely surviving Russia, but a country that had recovered economically and was led by a wily and experienced politician. Russia sought to change the NATO-centric peace order with a more multilateral one in which Russia would become an equal partner. This ambitious attempt to reforge the post-cold war settlement was unlikely to find much support among those whom the existing settlement worked well, placing Russia in the position of a demandeur state. Its demands had been ignored for 30 years, so it was unwarranted to believe they would be accepted now. For at least a year Russia had been open in its contempt for its European partners, above all the EU, but perhaps it believed that some sort of opening could have been forced with Washington – unless the whole treaty exercise was an elaborate charade whose failure would justify more forceful action.
A New European Security Treaty
The question now was how these demands would be advanced. In November 2021 Russia cut diplomatic ties with NATO after the bloc expelled eight Russian diplomats from its mission to the alliance in Brussels. Against the background of Russian military deployments adjacent to Ukraine, on 17 December 2021 Russia submitted two draft European security treaties repeating some of the themes of Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal in 2009. One was addressed to the US and the other to NATO. The documents contained three key demands: no further NATO enlargement, covering in the first instance Ukraine as well as Georgia; no deployment of weaponry or military forces on the border with Russia; and NATO’s return to the force posture of May 1997, when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed. This would entail removing forces from the countries that had joined since then, including the multinational battlegroups from the Baltic republics and Poland. Subsidiary demands included the removal of INF-range nuclear strike weapon systems from Europe and the end of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. The NATO document focused on the danger of military exercises, with three (1, 2 and 7) of its nine draft articles raising the issue. Article 1 called on NATO and Russia to ‘exercise restraint in military planning and conducting exercises to reduce risks of eventual dangerous situations in accordance with their obligations under international law’.
The combination of military and diplomatic initiatives forced a substantive US-Russian dialogue on European security for the first time since the negotiations over German unification in 1990, which already signified a major Russian achievement. Putin had long signalled Russian dissatisfaction, dating at least from his Munich Security Conference speech in February 2007. For the first time in 30 years Russia’s security concerns were being discussed at the highest diplomatic levels, although that did not mean that they were being taken seriously. Russian force deployments along Ukraine’s borders increased, with a contingent in the north conducting exercises with Belarus, and the garrison in Crimea was significantly strengthen. Coercive diplomacy may have a place in the armoury of international politics, but no one likes to negotiate with a gun held to the head.
Russia was effectively demanding veto rights in European security matters, something that had never been granted since 1990. This was crisis diplomacy of the first order. As far as the western powers were concerned there was nothing to discuss since the fundamental principles had been established. The liberal peace order promised freedom and prosperity, and in any case presented itself as defensive. The US worked with European partners and NATO to expand its model of the post-cold war peace order, and between 1990 and 2021 effectively suppressed the existence of the second model. Critics argued that there was no need to revisit the Helsinki principles as developed in the Paris, Istanbul and Astana documents, hence rejected the idea of a Helsinki II conference. Worse, the fact that the main dialogue was conducted between Washington and Moscow, with at most consultations with European powers (the EU was entirely marginalised) reeked of some sort of Yalta II, where the fate of small states was decided by the great powers. The problem was that many of the small states were irreconcilable in their hostility to Russia and contemptuous of its security concerns. There could be no negotiated resolution to the crisis with their participation, but any agreement without their participation would lack legitimacy and smack of the logic of Yalta. In the absence of a reconvened Helsinki II conference, unless Washington and Moscow came to some sort of agreement the impasse was complete. In presenting its draft security treaties, Moscow promised a ‘military-technical’ response if negotiations failed, but did not specify what form they would take.
The response when it came on 26 January was disappointing for Moscow although hardly surprising. The demand of a written guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO was rejected, insisting on ‘the right of other states to choose or change security arrangements’. The NATO response offered general transparency and confidence building measures, such as briefings on each other’s military exercises, consultations, establishing a civilian hotline, and re-establishing respective missions in Brussels and Moscow. The US response insisted on maintaining the ‘open door’ policy on enlargement, but it was ready to discuss ‘reciprocal commitments by both the United States and Russia to refrain from deploying offensive ground-based missile systems and permanent forces with a combat mission on the territory of Ukraine’. As for returning to the force status of 1997, Washington insisted their current deployment was ‘limited, proportionate, and in full compliance with commitments under the NATO-Russia Founding Act’.
Continuing dialogue was promised, although Russia needed to ‘de-escalate’ its forces on Ukraine’s border. The US was ready to continue arms control discussions with Moscow, including limits on the deployment of ballistic missiles and nuclear-equipped bombers. A new idea was a ‘transparency mechanism’ to verify the absence of Tomahawk missiles, capable of reaching Russian territory, at the two NATO Aegis ballistic missile defence (BMD) sites in Romania and Poland, in return for which the US would be offered access to two missile sites of its choice in Russia. The main difference with NATO’s response was that the US was ready to accept the concept of ‘indivisibility of security’, the principle that had been reiterated in the Astana Declaration in 2010.10 In sum, the US response offered limited concessions – arms control of medium range weapons, confidence-building, transparency, and verification measures along the NATO-Russia borderlands. It was not as much as Moscow wanted, but it was more than the West had been willing to offer for a generation. The question of European security was once again on the agenda, something that Moscow had long been pushing for.
Putin was not satisfied, even though the door to continued diplomacy was kept open. He noted that ‘It’s already clear now … that fundamental Russian concerns were ignored’. Worse, he believed that the US strategy was to lure Russia into a conflict that would weaken its power, just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had done a generation earlier:
I still believe that the United States is not that concerned about Ukraine’s security, though they may think about it on the sidelines. Its main goal is to contain Russia’s development. This is the whole point. In this sense, Ukraine is simply a tool to reach this goal. This can be done in different ways: by drawing us into armed conflict, or compelling its allies in Europe to impose tough sanctions on us like the US is talking about today.
He outlined a scenario in which Ukraine was admitted to NATO and then tried to recapture Crimea: ‘Let’s imagine Ukraine is a NATO member and starts these military operations. Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone given that any thought? Apparently not’.11 Various ideas were advanced to stabilise the situation, including a lengthy moratorium on Ukraine joining NATO (membership was not an immediate prospect in any case), the provision of weapons for Ukraine to defend itself but accompanied by a pledge not to establish bases or deploy troops, missiles and other strike weapons on Ukrainian territory. Ukraine declared itself neutral on independence in 1991, and although this had been rescinded by the radically pro-western presidency of Viktor Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution of autumn 2004, it had been restored following Viktor Yanukovych’s election in 2010. Ukraine’s official stance until December 2014 had been neutrality, and thus the idea was part of the Ukrainian tradition. Above all, there had to be some sort of resolution of the Donbass conflict if a balance in European security was to be restored.
This bitter, disappointed and uncompromising tone permeated the official Russian response of 17 February 2022, handed to the US ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan. The 11-page document roundly criticised the US and detected ‘no constructive answer’ to Russia’s key demands, including a guarantee of no further enlargement and a return to the force deployments of 1997. Amid a deepening confrontation on the Ukrainian border, ‘The package nature of Russian proposals has been ignored, from which “convenient” topics have been deliberately chosen, which in turn have been “twisted” in the direction of creating advantages for the US and its allies’. The text stressed that there would be no ‘invasion’ of Ukraine, but reaffirmed the principle of the ‘indivisibility of security’. The US insistence on NATO’s ‘open door’ policy was characterised as running against the alliance’s own principles, which at its foreign ministers’ meeting in Copenhagen on 6-7 June 1991 resolved ‘not to gain one-sided advantage from the changing situation in Europe’, not to ‘threaten the legitimate interests’ of other states or ‘isolate’ them, and not to ‘draw new dividing lines in the continent’. The door was kept open to further diplomacy, noting that ‘We propose to work together to develop a new “security equation”’. The document threatened that if Moscow fails to receive the requisite ‘legally binding guarantees’ it would react with ‘military-technical means’.12 The nature of these means was left unspecified. There was some room for negotiation, including over arms control and risk reduction, but Russia’s main concerns had been left unaddressed. The issue was then forced by military means, which may have been the plan all along.
War in Europe
It appeared that everything was leading to war. This was long anticipated, but when it actually started with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, it came as a surprise. All the warning signs were there, yet a full-scale invasion in the heart of Europe in the twenty-first century appeared inconceivable. However, as we have argued, the logic of conflict was inherent in the failure to establish an inclusive and indivisible security order in post-cold war Europe. However, up to 2022 Russia had limited itself to short and usually reactive interventions such as in Georgia in August 2008, where the possibly of marching on to Tbilisi was rejected, Crimea in March 2014 and then, to a degree unwittingly, in the Donbass from April of that year.
A flurry of diplomacy followed the western response to Moscow’s security treaty proposals, with numerous western leaders visiting Moscow. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, was particularly active, but in his final meeting with Putin in Moscow on 7 February he was unable to offer much. The Normandy Format leaders (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) met in the run-up to the war, but it was clear that Ukraine was in no mood to fulfil the Minsk-2 agreement of February 2015, which provided a formula for the return of the Donbass to Ukrainian sovereignty. There are good reasons why Kiev may not have wished to fulfil its terms, which effectively amounted to a transformation of the polity, but some version was the only way of resolving the conflict peacefully. The two sides had very different representations of what it meant and neither fulfilled its obligations. Worse, in the days before the invasion the two breakaway republics were subjected to massive artillery bombardment from the Ukrainian side. This was in keeping with the long-term pattern, with over 80 per cent of the civilian casualties caused by active hostilities since 2018 coming on the separatist side.13 The central government in Kiev had long been passing laws prohibiting the use of the Russian language and even Russian culture from official usage, education and the mass media. By 2022 not a single school or university in Ukraine offered an education in Russian, even though some 18 per cent of the population were designated as ethnic Russians and over 60 per cent had earlier used Russian as their primary language. The history of the country was rewritten to present a favourable picture of Nazi collaborators and to negate any positive representations of traditional Russo-Ukrainian ties. Russian-language newspapers and TV channels were closed, and the opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk placed under house arrest.14
Russian concerns were augmented by the flood of weapons pouring into Ukraine, with the distinction between defensive and lethal weapons long abandoned. It appeared that all the trend lines were running against Russia. Moscow was almost certainly aware that since 2015 the CIA had been training Ukrainian special forces and intelligence officers in the art of guerrilla warfare.15 Russia’s concerns were heightened by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he not only repeated his opposition to Minsk-2 but also stated that Ukraine was considering withdrawal from the Budapest Memorandum and reviewing Ukraine’s non-nuclear status. He argued that the security guarantees promised by the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994 in return for Ukraine giving up the Soviet nuclear forces stationed on its territory was no longer valid. In normal circumstances such a statement, violating Ukraine’s commitments to the May 1992 Lisbon Protocol to the 1991 Strategic Arms Security Treaty and associated accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, would have been met with condemnation. Iran and North Korea have been severely sanctioned as a result of their real or putative nuclear ambitions, yet Zelensky’s statement encountered an eloquent silence.
In an emotional and tangled speech late at night on 21 February, Putin warned that Russia’s enemies were using Ukraine as a platform to threaten the country’s existence. He reprised some of the argument of his article the previous year that Ukrainians and Russians were one people, although he did not argue that they should be one state.16 Some of his historical analysis was mistaken and tendentious, although his main point that the Soviet Union gave form to the modern Ukrainian state was correct, with land added from Russia and Ukraine’s western neighbours. However, the polemical tone suggested that Ukraine was not a real nation and that Ukrainians were not a real people, which was quite a different and plainly wrong proposition. He stressed that the delivery of offensive weapons would ultimately make Russia’s defence impossible, and it was irrelevant whether that day arrived in one year or twenty. The silence that greeted Zelensky’s hint at the Munich Security Conference a few days earlier that Ukraine could develop nuclear weapons was interpreted as approbation in Moscow.
It is clear that in launching the invasion Putin miscalculated in at least four ways. The first is that he underestimated the scale of Ukrainian resistance, and over-estimated the capacity of the Russian military. It seems that he believed that a light-touch blitzkrieg would force Ukraine to capitulate. Instead, Zelensky turned out to be an inspirational wartime leader, Ukrainian forces put up stiff resistance, and the population certainly did not welcome Russian troops with bread and salt. At first there was the clear intention to avoid civilian casualties, but this was soon dropped. Instead, Russian forces got bogged down in siege warfare around Kiev, Kharkov, Mariupol and other towns. The very idea of trying to seize Kiev, a city of three million people, by force in the twenty-first century was a reckless and cruel ambition.
The second miscalculation was the scale of the Western response. Moscow claims that it had evaluated all the risks, but it soon became clear that it had under-estimated the intensity of the response, prompted in part by the appalling human suffering of Ukrainian civilians in the path of Russian forces but also generated by resentment at Russia’s long-term refusal to play by the rules of liberal hegemony. Moscow was comforted by the quasi-alliance with China, latterly enshrined in the Joint Statement signed during Putin’s visit to Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics on 4 February.17 Nevertheless, the coherence and intensity of the Western response must have come as a surprise. Germany under the new leadership of Olaf Scholz immediately froze the regulatory approval process for Nord Stream II, which effectively killed the project. This was followed by wave upon wave of financial sanctions by the US, EU and UK, including unexpectedly against the Central Bank of Russia, thus freezing at least two-thirds of Russia’s ‘war chest’ amounting to some $630bn in reserves held in dollars and other currencies abroad. An extensive list of ‘oligarchs’ were also sanctioned, many of whom had had nothing to do with Putin for years if not decades.
The Russian economy was just beginning to recover from the pandemic and the earlier Ukraine-related crisis, and had been forecast to grow by some 2.5 per cent in 2022. Instead, the economy will see a contraction of at least 10 per cent, amidst a plunging rouble and a severe fall in living standards. Western companies withdrew sales in Russia, and the light manufacturing sector ground to a halt. For example, Lada production in Togliatti ground to a halt for the lack of German components. The West waged full-scale economic warfare whose goal it appeared was no longer limited to stopping the war but now potentially sought to achieve regime change. The last time such sanctions had been applied to a major power was the energy war launched by Franklin Roosevelt against Japan in August 1941, with the result seen in December at Pearl Harbour. This is not to suggest that the sanctions against Russia are not appropriate or necessary, but to warn that they do not come cost-free. Apart from energy exports Russia is a relatively minor global economic player, although there will be damaging economic effects on Europe (almost none on the US), but the political costs could be high. With its back to the wall, the Putin regime could be tempted to take the Götterdämmerung option.
The third miscalculation was to over-estimate the Russian popular appetite for war. The return of Crimea to Russian jurisdiction in March 2014 was accompanied by a wave of enthusiasm (the Krymnash phenomenon), as the rectification of a perceived historical wrong. There was no such sentiment this time. The propaganda effects of the state-run media in the internet age and ferocious repression against critics of the war could do only so much. In fact, with so many family ties between Russians and Ukrainians, the suffering inflicted on civilians quickly resonated at home. Opinion polls before the war certainly indicated no war fever, and even the state-controlled mass media had done little to prepare the nation for a war with a brotherly people. The war was met by an immediate wave of indignation, and despite the draconian anti-protest legislation thousands took to the streets to condemn the inhumanity of the war. By the end of the first week at least 7,020 people had been arrested, amidst condemnatory statements by members of the elite. At the same time, it was clear that the morale of the Russian forces in Ukraine was low, suggesting that a protracted conflict would see mass defections. At first the casualty figures were kept secret, but to counter exaggerated Ukrainian claims, the Russian defence ministry admitted that some 500 soldiers had been killed in the first week of combat.
The fourth miscalculation is effectively the combined effects of the first three – the destabilisation of the Russian political order itself. The war was both an act of aggression and of self-harm, with damaging consequences for generations to come. Even if Russia was able to subdue Ukrainian resistance and take the main sites, the occupation forces would be subject to an enduring, savage and demoralising guerrilla war, not unlike that endured by Napoleon’s forces in the Iberian peninsula following the ill-advised invasion of May 1808. As in the postwar insurgency against the Soviet forces, Western Ukraine would act as a reservoir of partisan warfare, as would the neighbouring states, above all Poland. Even if a pro-Russian government was installed in Kiev, it would enjoy little to no legitimacy, especially after the savagery of the warfare that took it to the capital. Ukraine moreover would become part of the same political space as Belarus and Russia, and thus strengthen internal opposition to the various regimes. Unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s regime has little to offer in terms of a universal progressive political project and instead on the menu would be grinding repression, censorship and mendacity.18 Even Russia’s conservative defence of the international status quo in the form of sovereign internationalism was discredited by the invasion. Russia had decisively moved from being a neo-revisionist power – defending the Charter international system against the radicalism of liberal hegemony – to becoming an out-and-out revisionist power.19
The war transformed Russia and there would be no going back. Putin’s future was doomed, however long he clung on to power. Ultimately, it was clear that in launching such a reckless and brutal war Russia was fated to suffer a defeat the like of which it had not seen in a thousand years of its history.
Could the War Have been Averted?
This is something that we will never know, but some tentative suppositions are in order. First, the assessment of Putin’s motivation and strategy, and possibly even psychology. If he was a Russian imperialist intent on recreating the Soviet or Russian empire, engaged in a landgrab, then the Hitler analogy would be appropriate. Negotiations with such a person would indeed amount to appeasement, which would be both futile and degrading. Such a person would keep pushing until they met resistance, and thus pre-emptive sanctions, arming of opponents, and the strengthening of defensive alliances would all be appropriate. In our case, emboldened by the West’s fiasco in Afghanistan reinforced by the chaotic retreat in August 2021, such a person would seize the opportunity of a West perceived to be in disarray and divided to pounce on the next victim, in this case Ukraine. It raises the question whether it was wise to goad and bait such a person, as Zelensky and the West did to the very end. Putin has a notoriously thin skin, and is quick to take offence. This of course does not exonerate the result, but it does raise the question whether such a ‘madman’ could have been handled better. The answer may well be in the negative, but it is a legitimate question to ask.
If Putin was bent on territorial aggrandisement, then he could have annexed the two separatist entities in the Donbass any time after 2015. There may have been tactical reasons not to do so, but other than the annexation of Crimea there is little evidence that the Kremlin was motivated by old-fashioned imperial expansionism. The alternative explanation provided by the veteran broadcaster Vladimir Pozner is more credible. In a lecture at Yale University in Autumn 2018 he argued that it was the West that made Putin. On coming to power in 2000 Putin sought to resolve the deepening security dilemma provoked by NATO enlargement. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined in March 1999, just as NATO launched its 88-day bombing campaign of Serbia. In 2000 Putin even asked US president Bill Clinton whether Russia could join NATO, a suggestion that was dismissed at the time. Following the 9/11 attack on the US, Putin was the first to offer support. Instead of using the opportunity to deepen the security relationship with Russia, George W. Bush went the other way and intensified Moscow’s alienation. The US unilaterally abrogated the ABM treaty in June 2002, invaded Iraq in March 2003, initiated plans to install BMD systems in Eastern Europe, and then, despite Moscow’s vehement protests, in April 2008 offered the prospect of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. Pozner argues that up to that time Putin had behaved in conformity with the imperatives of liberal hegemony, despite the complaints that Russia’s views were being ignored. Pozner places this in the larger context of the two types of peace on offer. The West in his view after 1989 could have offered Russia and the other states some sort of Marshall Plan to rehabilitate their economies and societies, offering a partnership of the type that was applied to postwar Europe. Instead, the US pursued what he describes as the path of hegemony, with all of the ensuing tensions.20
A second point is whether a deal on a revised European security order could have satisfied Russia’s security concerns. From this perspective, the most appropriate analogy is not with 1939 but 1914, where the ‘march of folly’ described by Barbara Tuchman led inexorably to a war that only certain hyper-nationalists may have wanted.21 As in 1914, in 2022 the war may have been prompted by security concerns but it was soon couched in the language of identity and civilisational threats. The rhetoric focused on the brotherly character of the two peoples, something that in practice the war will set back for generations. Putin dwelt compulsively and even obsessively on the identity theme, which indicates a lack of understanding of the dynamics of Ukrainian state building. His apparent claim that Ukraine was not a ‘real nation’ was presented in terms of its territorial agglomeration, but at its heart his approach failed to understand the fundamental resilience of Ukrainian identity. This was already evident before 2013 in the Donbass, where opinion polls showed that the population wanted guarantees protecting their Russophone identity, yet they wished this to take place within the framework of the Ukrainian nation. With the exception of the breakaway territories, this sentiment only intensified after 2014. Putin’s appeal at the start of the war for the population to rise up against the Ukrainian nationalist oppressors demonstrated his lack of understanding of the situation, as did his appeal for Ukrainian soldiers to defect to the Russian side. This worked in Crimea in March 2014, but the circumstances there were specific to the region. The idea that Ukrainians wanted to join some sort of recreated Slavic brotherhood is fanciful.
This does not negate the larger security perspective. We have discussed the December 2021 European security treaty proposals and their rather maximalist ambitions. They were also presented as a package thus could be seen not as a serious avenue for negotiation but as cover for military action. The serious Russian military build-up started in August, and there are suggestions that was the time when Putin decided on military action, and all the rest was feint and bluff. If that was indeed the case, should his bluff have been called.
Many ideas have been advanced to this end, including some sort of indefinite moratorium on Ukraine’s membership of NATO, to some sort of permanent Finlandisation whereby Ukraine retained its domestic autonomy but its freedom of choice in foreign affairs was circumscribed. The Austrian model was also advanced. The State Treaty of 1955 committed Austria to permanent neutrality, thus allowing the occupying forces to leave and for Austria to thrive. The inevitable riposte to these suggestions is that Ukraine should enjoy the right to choose its own alliances and foreign policy. This as we have seen is half the formula enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act onwards, but the other half is the indivisibility of security. All these documents internalise the tension between the two models of post-cold peace orders – the realist and the liberal one. If Cuba’s free choice to host Soviet nuclear missiles in October 1962 was – rightly – challenged by the US in October 1962, then why should Ukraine enjoy such a right today? In contrast, critics argue that any such compromises would be counterproductive and only feed ‘Russian revanchism’.22 This indeed was the dominant line in Kiev following the February 2014 change of regime, and it led to catastrophe. Counter-critics are thus in a position to argue that if Putin’s Russia was a monstrous beast waiting to pounce, then it would not be unreasonable to manage the animal rather than goading it and expecting the West to bail the country out from the ensuing crisis.
Worse, from Moscow’s perspective Ukraine was used by the Atlantic alliance as a platform to contain Russia.23 Washington and Brussels exploited the inherent and deep-seated Russophobia of the regime that it helped seize power in 2014. This would explain why the EU every six months renewed sanctions on Russia for not implementing the Minsk Accords, yet placed almost no pressure on Kiev to fulfil its end of the bargain. President Barack Obama had refused to send lethal arms to Ukraine for fear of aggravating the situation, but since then lethal weapons were being poured into Ukraine – for what purpose? Worse, the Western powers maintained a resolute silence on the forced Ukrainisation programme, which ran counter to the very norms that the EU and NATO formally espoused. It was not hard for Moscow to imagine that norms did not apply when it came to countering Russia and limiting its influence.
The inevitable question then arises: what were Russia’s legitimate security interests, and how could they have been reasonably met? If we work with the liberal hegemony paradigm, then Russia’s only legitimate option was to accommodate to the overwhelming material and moral power of the West, and accept its place as a subaltern. This would have provided huge advantages, including domestic prosperity, external legitimacy and regional harmony. This was the option taken by postwar Germany and Japan, and their success stands as testimony of the efficacy of this path. The only problem was that postcommunist Russia did not consider itself a defeated power, and it retained great power ambitions inherited from the Soviet and Imperial eras. That is why Boris Yeltsin and Putin pursued the realist sovereign internationalist path, generating conflicts with the collective West. This option did not necessarily entail a regional sphere of influence, but it certainly meant a sphere of security.
It also ultimately entailed attempts to create alternative regional instruments of integration, notably the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Their western equivalents, the EU and NATO, studiously refused any sustained official contact with the two, exposing the logic of hegemony beneath the veneer of normative idealism. There could be no alternative to liberal hegemony, and attempts to construct one were met with the full force of Atlantic power, drawing on its 500-year history of imperialism. That is why Russian thinkers such as Sergei Karaganov are wrong to argue that the era of Western predominance is over.24 The war in Ukraine, with all of its endless human tragedy, proves otherwise, although this will be at best a pyrrhic victory. Russia’s rebellion against Western hegemony would be crushed and following the inevitable defeat it will be ready to join the ranks as a subaltern of liberal hegemony. This for many is no bad thing, and will allow the country at last fully to decommunize, demilitarise and lose its exaggerated great power ambitions. Russia would finally set on the path of peace, prosperity and freedom. Or so liberals believe.
Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Research University-Higher School of Economics in Moscow and an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Political Science at Moscow State University. He is the author of Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (Bloomsbury, 2015). His latest books are The Putin Paradox (Bloomsbury 2020) and Deception: Russiagate and the New Cold War (Lexington Books 2022).
1 Vladimir Putin, ‘Address by the President of the Russian Federation’, Kremlin.ru, 24 February 2022,
2 Vladimir Putin, ‘Address by the President of the Russian Federation’, Kremlin.ru, 21 February 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67828.
3 John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (London and New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2018); John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order’, International Security, Vol. 43, No. 4, Spring 2019, pp. 7-50; Patrick Porter, The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2020); Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy (New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019).
4 Charter of Paris for a New Europe (Paris, CSCE, 1990), https://www.oscepa.org/documents/all-documents/documents-1/historical-documents-1/673-1990-charter-of-paris-for-a-new-europe/file.
5 OSCE, ‘Istanbul Document 1999’, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/6/5/39569.pdf.
6 OSCE, ‘Astana Commemorative Declaration: Towards a ecurity Community’, December 2010, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/b/6/74985.pdf.
7. Russian Foreign Ministry, ‘Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Answer to a Media Question’, 27 January 2022, https://www.rusemb.org.uk/fnapr/7060.
8 Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York, Basic Books, 1997), p. 101.
9 Zbigniew Brzezinski, ‘A Plan for Europe’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1995, p. 35.
10 Hibai Arbide Aza and Miguel González, ‘US Offered Disarmament Measures to Russia in Exchange for De-escalation of Military Threat in Ukraine’, El País, 2 February 2022, https://english.elpais.com/usa/2022-02-02/us-offers-disarmament-measures-to-russia-in-exchange-for-a-deescalation-of-military-threat-in-ukraine.html.
11 ‘News Conference Following Russian-Hungarian Talks’, Kremlin.ru, 1 February 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67690. For commentary on how the US began its support for the mujahideen as early as 3 July 1979, when Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to anti-regime forces, see Joe Lauria, ‘What a US Trap for Russia Might Look Like’, Consortium News, 4 February 2022, https://consortiumnews.com/2022/02/04/what-a-us-trap-for-russia-in-ukraine-might-look-like/.
12 MID RF, ‘O peredache pis’mennoi reaktsii na otvet amerikanskoi storony po garantiyam bezopasnosti’, 17 February 2022.
13 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Conflict-Related Civilian Casualties in Ukraine’, 27 January 2022, Conflict-related civilian casualties as of 31 December 2021 (rev 27 January 2022) corr EN_0.pdf (un.org).
14 For a concise and balanced list of Russian concerns, see Alexey Gromyko, ‘When Writings on the Wall are Ignored’, Russian International Affairs Council, 1 March 2022, https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/comments/when-writings-on-the-wall-are-ignored/.
15 Zach Dorfman, ‘CIA-Trained Ukrainian Paramilitaries May Take Central Role if Russian Invades’, Yahoo News, 13 January 2022, CIA-trained Ukrainian paramilitaries may take central role if Russia invades (yahoo.com).
16 ‘Article by Vladimir Putin “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”’, Kremlin.ru, 12 July 2021, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181.
17 ‘Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development’, 4 February 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/supplement/5770.
18 The last three points made by Volodymyr Ishchenko, ‘A Russian Invasion of Ukraine Could Destabilize Russia’s Political Order’, Truthout.org, 14 February 2022, https://truthout.org/articles/a-russian-invasion-of-ukraine-could-destabilize-russias-political-order/.
19 Richard Sakwa, ‘Russian Neo-Revisionism’, Russian Politics, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2019, pp. 1-21.
20 Vladimir Pozner, ‘How the United States Created Vladimir Putin’, Yale University, 27 September 2018, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8X7Ng75e5gQ.
21 Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (London, Abacus, 1985) ranges across history from the Peloponnesian War, the Renaissance popes, the British in America all the way to Vietnam. Her marvellous book on the start of the Great War is The Guns of August (London, Penguin, 1962).
22 The argument made by Andreas Umland, ‘Why Compromise in the Donbas is Unhelpful’, Global Policy, 10 February 2022, https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/10/02/2022/why-compromise-donbas-unhelpful.
23 The argument made, inter alia, by Aaron Maté, ‘By Using Ukraine to Fight Russia, the US Provoked Putin’s War’, 5 March 2022, By using Ukraine to fight Russia, the US provoked Putin’s war (substack.com).
24 Sergei Karaganov, ‘Russian Foreign Policy: Three Historical Stages and Two Future Scenarios’, Russian Politics, Vol. 6, No. 4, 2022, pp. 416-34.