The invasion last week, of Ukraine by Russia is a humanitarian tragedy, and a major failure of diplomacy. It shouldn’t have come to this, but it has, and amid the search for solutions to the conflict, we should also ask how we got here.
After weeks of posturing, and denying any intention of invading Ukraine, Russia recognized the breakaway Ukrainian territories of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) on February 21, 2022, and three days later, it invaded Ukraine. So was started this latest installment of the seemingly endless series of conflicts in the European Caucuses, and in particular, the fault line between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In the quest for a resolution to the conflict, it is also important to look at the historical record of the belligerents. Although Russia and Ukraine are the direct combatants, there are other countries which individually, and jointly as members of NATO, play important roles in the conflict.
The United States of America (US) is, after Ukraine and Russia, perhaps the most important party in the conflict. The US has been described by none other than its former President, Jimmy Carter, as the most war-like country on earth, having been (as at 2018) at war for 226 out of 242 years of its existence as a nation. The US has certainly not heeded the advice of its John Quincy Adams, its Sixth President who in 1821 and while serving as Secretary of State, said that they should not go searching for “monsters to destroy” but rather, they should extend a “hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity” to other nations.
Instead, the US got intoxicated with power following the decisive victory of the US-led Allies against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in World War II. Mainly because of myth of its Exceptionalism, the US then went on project its power through war, and got involved in the Korean War (1950–1953), the Vietnam War (1960–1975), and numerous other proxy wars around the globe. The US also invaded countries ranging from Cuba (1961), Grenada (1983) and Haiti (1994–1995) in the Caribbean, to Iraq (1991–2011), and Afghanistan (2001–2021). As at July 2021, the US had 750 bases in 89 countries, and 173,000 troops deployed in 159 countries. The US also led the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to counteract the influence and power of the former USSR (Soviet Union).
In 1961, the US was defeated in its Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, less than 200 Km away. As a result, Cuba requested its ally, the Soviet Union, to place nuclear weapons on its territory to deter future US invasions. The US had already deployed nuclear-armed intermediate range ballistic missiles on Italy and Turkey, thus posing a significant risk to the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Union agreed to Cuba’s request and started to deploy their missiles on the island, the US firmly opposed the move, resulting in the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The tense, one month-long standoff which many feared would lead to an all-out nuclear war was settled after the Soviets agreed to dismantle their missiles in exchange for the US dismantling its missiles from Turkey and Italy and declaring that it will never again invade Cuba.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, effectively ending the 44-year long Cold War, the geopolitical tension that existed between the Soviet Union and its allies on one side, and the US and its allies on the other. The US thus became the sole Superpower in the world because the Russian Federation (Russia), which was what was left of the former Soviet Union, practically collapsed economically, militarily, and indeed spiritually. To say that Russia was down on its knees would be an understatement.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union also resulted in the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact, which was formed by the former Soviet Union and its allies as a counterweight to NATO. Thus, the two entities that were the raison d’etre for NATO’s existence both collapsed, and one would have expected that NATO too, would have been disbanded or at least scaled down.
Instead, the US-led NATO added 14 member countries in five rounds of expansion between 1999 and 2020. The enlargement of NATO was especially painful to Russia because, all the seven former members of Warsaw Pact, and three former Soviet Republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) joined NATO between 1990 and 2004. In addition, Russia claimed it had been betrayed by the US and her allies who promised that NATO would not expand toward Russia’s borders.
Although many dispute the veracity of Russia’s claims that they were promised that NATO would not expand eastwards, the facts are that such a promise featured in negotiations for the re-unification of Germany in 1990. Furthermore US government officials expressed their concerns about the impact of NATO’s expansion on Russia. Russia protested this expansion, consistently and for years, but the protests fell on deaf ears.
Against this background, it is easy to see why Russia concluded that the US and its allies has been tying a noose around its neck. Furthermore, Russians would naturally ask themselves why they would accept the unhindered expansion of NATO to its borders when the US did not tolerate the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. These issues, in addition to the deep humiliation that Russians felt at the breakup of the Soviet Union, meant that it was only a matter of time before they would fight back.
But Russia is itself no Saint. Indeed, it has been almost as belligerent as the US has been, especially toward its neighbors. Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Russia has been involved in 56 conflicts in countries ranging from next-door neighbors Georgia and China to Angola in Africa. Thus, the Soviet Union invaded Armenia and Azerbaijan (in 1920), as well as Georgia (1921) resulting in the annexation of these states into the Soviet Union. The Soviet Red Army also intervened in the Afghan Civil War in 1929 and 1930, invaded Poland in 1939 (as part of its World War II campaign), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979).
The successor of the Soviet Union, Russia went on to get involved in the civil wars in Georgia (1991–1993), and invaded Georgia in 2008. Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, and a few days ago, it again invaded Ukraine. In 2015, Russia entered the Syrian Civil War, and has been key to the survival of President Assad. Russia has also since 2018, provided military support to the government of the Central African Republic in its fight against rebels. Russia is clearly not averse to war.
NATO’s expansion has pushed Russia’s back was against the wall, and it invaded Ukraine to protect what it sees, rightly or wrongly, as its legitimate interests. On the other hand, NATO, led by the US, which is thousands of Kilometers away from the conflict, is adding fuel to the fire by massively rearming Ukraine. For the US, the Russia-Ukraine conflict certainly is a golden opportunity to redeem itself and regain much-needed credibility it lost following its 20-year War in Afghanistan (2001–2021) which it embarrassingly lost to the Taliban. NATO which, following its humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, was declared brain dead by President Macron of France in 2019 also sees in this conflict an opportunity to redeem itself.
It not surprising that Russia is not paying heed for calls for it to abide by a rules-based international order, which only exists in name. The US has bent the rules to suit its interest, as President Putin pointed out in his February 24, 2022 address to Russia. Since 1972, the US vetoed 53 UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions it deemed critical of its ally, Israel. In addition, the US invaded Iraq in 2003 based on lies, euphemistically called flawed intelligence. No wonder then, that many had their doubts about US claims about Russia’s intentions on Ukraine.
Nobody knows how many innocent lives will be cut short, how many people will be maimed, how many families will be destroyed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or when this tragedy will end. But it didn’t have to come to this. Nevertheless, here we are, on the verge of un-imaginable horror, mainly because of the hubris of Western leaders who, instead of trying to engage Russia at the end of the Cold War to bring about a lasting peace, went on tighten the vice on Russia, thinking they have a right a impose their will on the world. As much as Russia, NATO countries too, have blood on their hands. A pox on them all!