Focus on International Relations: On Russia’s Alleged Motives for Its ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine

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Russia Claims NATO is to Blame for Ukraine War

On Thursday, February 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded its neighbor to the west, Ukraine from positions in Russia, Belarus, and parts of eastern Ukraine – including the Donbas, Luhansk, and the annexed-by-Russia Crimean Peninsula. The result: the largest armed conflict in Europe since 1945, which has cost thousands of lives on both sides, as well as triggered the biggest refugee crisis on the Continent since World War II.

Lest we forget, Russia and Ukraine have been in an undeclared war since 2014. Ukraine and most of the world state that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s motives are:

  • A reassertion of Russian hegemony over those Eastern European nations that were once part of the former Soviet Union
  • A return to the pre-World War II order of “spheres of influence”
  • Paranoia and outright hatred of Western style democracy
  • The creation of a non-Communist version of the Soviet Union
  • The ability to dictate to Russia’s neighbors how to conduct their foreign policies

Of course, in the “up-is-down, east-is-west” authoritarian nightmare that Russia has become in the 21 years that Putin has been in power – 17 years as President, four as “Prime Minister” to his accomplice, Dmitry Medvedev – the message that the average Russian citizen hears from state media is quite different. The official reasons for Russia’s escalation of its war in Ukraine, according to the Kremlin, are:

  • Russia needs to demilitarize Ukraine and get rid of neo-Nazis in the government
  • Ukraine is not a “real country” because it was created by the Soviet Union after the Russian Civil War
  • Ukraine committed acts of genocide against ethnic Russians within its borders
  • Ukraine was going to join NATO
  • Ukraine allowed the United States to develop biowarfare laboratories to create deadly viruses designed to kill Russians
  • Ukraine attacked Russian forces in the disputed areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Rostov

Most of these claims are patently ridiculous and I won’t delve too deeply on them. Suffice it to say that they are all mostly untrue; Ukraine’s President Zelensky is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941. That there are far-right elements in Ukrainian civic society there’s no dispute; a former minister of the interior has ties with the ultra-nationalistic (and white supremacist) Azov Battalion, but he is no longer in the government. (Also, there are far-right organizations in Russia, and Putin doesn’t care, so….)

All of Russia’s claims – many of which are parroted by American right-wingers like Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson – are false. Lies. Outright bullshit.

The one that is the most sophisticated and is bandied about by various pro-Kremlin commentators both in Russia and around the world is that Moscow feels threatened by the expansion of NATO into countries that were either Warsaw Pact members or ex-Soviet republics such as Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. The Kremlin’s take is a mix of xenophobia and paranoia, i.e., the West broke its 1990 pledge that if the Soviet Union allowed the reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War and the Red Army withdrew from the Eastern European nations it had occupied since 1945, that NATO would not expand eastward beyond the Oder-Neisse line that marks the border between eastern Germany and Poland.

Simply put, Russia’s position is, “We invaded Ukraine because you, the West, want to destroy us by surrounding us.”

Nonsense.

Why Russia is Angry at the West

As Ian Bremmer writes in Did the West play a role in causing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? in the April 8 issue of his GZero newsletter:

Russians spent the 1990s and early 2000s watching the US shape the terms of the post-Cold War order as it pleased while they stood by, powerless to claim what they saw as their rightful role as their neighbors and erstwhile vassal states one by one joined the EU and NATO.

This was humiliating to Russia, not least because it believes that in 1990 Western leaders promised Moscow that NATO would expand “not one inch” eastward beyond Germany’s borders. According to Putin, the Soviet Union only agreed to German reunification and to the end of the Cold War because NATO had committed not to admit any members of the former Soviet bloc. The West has always disputed that there was ever a binding promise not to expand, instead maintaining that NATO has an “open-door” policy allowing any European country that meets the pact’s membership criteria to join. However, it was clear since the mid-1990s that the Russians took the alleged promise seriously.

In Russia’s view, the West betrayed its pledge when it invited the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary to join NATO in 1997, and then added insult to injury when it admitted the Baltic states in 2004. Back then, Russia was too weak to do anything about it. But in 2008, when NATO declared that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members, Putin drew a “red line” as he viewed this prospect as a direct threat to Russia’s security.

Putin is not the only major Russian political figure who claims that NATO – and specifically, the late President George H. W, Bush – promised that there would be no eastward expansion of the Alliance. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, also echoes this allegation, even though no written record of the no expansion pledge exists.

In simple language, the Russian grievance regarding NATO expansion is pure baloney.

This, of course, does not mean the West, and especially the United States is blameless in the strained relationship between Moscow and the free world. Western – mainly American – indifference toward Russia’s transition from being the linchpin of the Soviet Union to a fully functioning democracy played a key role in Putin’s rise to power and the Russian people’s feelings of national humiliation and resentment toward the West in general and – primarily – the United States.

Here’s what Bremmer says about that.

Once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, Central and Eastern European states that were previously in the Warsaw Pact were welcomed with open arms into the West, with most eventually joining the European Union and NATO. Integration with the global economy allowed these countries to transition to democratic market economies and achieve high levels of economic development within a single generation. Just look at Poland, which went from communist wasteland to growth miracle in less than 30 years. Meanwhile, NATO membership freed these countries from the instability and insecurity they had historically faced.

What did Russia get? Shock therapy. Privatization. A little bit of economic aid, but not nearly enough and most of it stolen by the new oligarchs privatization had created. There was no Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Russia. There was no real Western effort to integrate Russia into the US-led global order, even though Russia’s first post-war president Boris Yeltsin was eager to draw closer to the West.

This was a huge missed opportunity. Just as the Marshall Plan served to prevent the spread of communism in Europe, our best bet to permanently lower the odds of conflict with Russia in the future was to integrate it fully into global institutions and give it a proper stake in the European security architecture. Helping Russia flourish was in the West’s self-interest.

But instead of trying to help it transition to a democratic market economy and making its prosperity, partnership, and cooperation a top priority like they did (successfully) with the defeated Germans and Japanese after World War II, Americans and Europeans mostly ignored Russia. They had just won the Cold War without firing a single shot, so they figured they were playing with house money. Why spend any of the newfound peace dividend to help Russia succeed? After all, the Soviet Union had just spent the better part of the 20th century fighting the West; it wasn’t on us to make sure the Russians landed on their feet, and the inexorable pull of democratization and globalization would surely lead them there eventually, anyway. Or at least that’s what many in the foreign policy establishment thought.

I was 28 when the Soviet Union collapsed in the summer of 1991, so I still remember the euphoria that followed the end of Communist rule and the possibility that Russia would be a free and democratic society. After all, it wasn’t the average Ivan or Natalia that I saw as my enemy during the late stages of the Cold War. It was the Soviet state and Communist system that I despised. I was happy not just for America and the West’s victory in the war-in-times-of-peace that had informed my life until December 31, 1991, but for Russia and its former vassal states in Eastern Europe.

I am not an economist, nor am I a diplomat, so I did not follow developments in East-West relations closely until the Kosovo conflict of 1999 – NATO’s first military entanglement in its history. Serbia – Russia’s traditional ally since the 1870s – was attempting to stop the secession of the mostly Albanian Kosovo Republic, which wanted independence from the Suutlav-dominated Serbian Republic.   

Russia opposed both Kosovar independence and the NATO air campaign aimed at its Serbian “little brothers” after the Serbian military committed war crimes against the Muslim Albanian population in Kosovo. There were even instances where Russian “peacekeeping” forces and NATO aircraft came close to dangerous incidents which could have triggered a wider war between Russia and the West.

The quarrel over Kosovo, Serbia, and NATO’s bombing campaign was the first hint that the honeymoon between Russia and the West was waning, but since I didn’t know that we weren’t sharing our “Peace Dividend” with our former foes, I figured that this would soon pass and that Boris Yeltsin and his successors in the Presidency of the Russian Federation would embrace democracy, a robust mixed economy, and friendship with the U.S. and Europe.

Alas, not only did we, as Bremmer points out, ignore Russia, and let the oligarchs get a stranglehold on the reins of power, but the pro-West President, Boris Yeltsin, resigned and chose former KGB officer-turned-politician Vladimir Putin as his successor. From that moment on, the relationship between Russia and the West deteriorated as Putin became more autocratic and his nation turned its back on democracy.

As Bremmer states in Did the West play a role in causing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?:

This is not to say that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a democratic country whose only crime was to demand sovereignty and self-determination, is in any way morally equivalent to America’s war in Afghanistan, a brutal regime under the Taliban theocracy that harbored Osama bin Laden, or in Iraq, which under Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and committed horrific human rights abuses. Objectionable and unjust as these American wars were, they are not comparable to what Russia is doing right now to Ukraine. Still, the West’s repeated failure to hold itself to its own standards further emboldened Russia to act in disregard for international law, in 2008, in 2014, and today.

To be clear, none of this absolves Vladimir Putin of moral responsibility for Russia’s bloody attack on Ukraine. The West may have made choices that contributed to the emergence of this crisis, but nothing it did or didn’t do forced Putin’s hand. The blame lies entirely with him.

Russia’s Spin is BS

Since February 24, Russia and its allies have been putting out the BS story that the Russian invasion is not an “invasion” and that it is fully justified in its attempts to de-Nazify its neighbor to the West. The Kremlin narrative is sold to the Russian people via a tightly-controlled state media that is legally forbidden to call the conflict a war. Even worse, Putin’s lies are magnified in the U.S. by American conservatives in the media, such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens. Heck, Russian state television even broadcasts clips of Carlson parroting Putin’s toxic propaganda claims.

So, if you are still on the fence about the Russian-Ukrainian War or have heard Putin’s bald-faced lies about his country’s “special military operation,” this is the straight dope. The West made serious mistakes between 1991 and now when it came to helping Russia make the transition from a totalitarian dictatorship to a working democracy. Hell, our own “do as we say, not as we do” attitudes about the use of military force to solve disputes irritated even potential friends in and out of the halls of power in Russia. The West forgot how a similarly humiliated Germany reacted to the unfair restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and the Allies’ demands for onerous reparations after World War I. Like post-Cold War Russia in the 1990s and the early 2000s, Germans in the Weimar Republic nursed a host of grudges against the Americans, British, and French victors of the First World War – grudges that a man named Adolf Hitler seized upon and used to gain supporters in his rise to power during the interwar period.

Nevertheless, this is Putin’s war, and Putin’s war alone.

Source: Ian Bremmer, Did the West play a role in causing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?, GZero newsletter, April 8, 2022

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

7 thoughts on “Focus on International Relations: On Russia’s Alleged Motives for Its ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine

  1. I believe you are absolutely right. Like you I was 28 in 1991 and I had arrived in the US a few years before. How quickly things changed back then. I was surprised to hear that Yeltsin chose Putin. I don’t doubt it, I just didn’t remember it. Perhaps because I liked Yeltsin and I didn’t know who Putin was. Only later I would find out that Putin was a KGB officer in charge of foreigners in Leningrad/St. Petersburg at the time I was apprehended there at the Finland station. Thank you again for some very interesting commentary.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Apparently, Yeltsin was increasingly unpopular during his second term. His family was embroiled in a scandal that involved bribery, there was a failed attempt to impeach Yeltsin, and, as noted in my article, the transition from Communism to a “democracy” was not going well. With some polls indicating that he only had 2% approval ratings, Boris Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999 and named Vladimir Putin as his successor. (Putin was Yeltsin’s prime minister; the first thing he did as President was to give Yeltsin permanent immunity from prosecution. Yeltsin faded into semi-obscurity and died in 2007.)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I remember things not going well after the fall of the Soviet Union. There were even some who missed the monarchy. To this day. Gorbachev is mostly reviled. I believe he’s still living but has long since retired from public life. I didn’t know about the 2% approval rating, but it doesn’t surprise me. Yeltsin was disliked intensely toward the end.

    But this invasion is, on the one hand, shocking, on the other hand, not too surprising, given Putin’s aggression in Chechnya and Syria. It’s just tragic beyond words.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. There are many accounts of this fact and a search for Putin & the Russian Orthodox Church will certainly find them as I found this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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