War Foretold: Ukraine’s Crisis, 30 Years in the Making

By Christopher Zambakari, chief executive officer of The Zambakari Advisory

Blame it not on forever friends or frenemies. Blame it, instead, on perpetual interests.

We think we know what has happened in Ukraine. We have been told by the nation’s press that the military operation is simply a matter of Russian aggression; in other words, business as usual. As is often the case in confrontations between two great powers, when elephants fight, the grass suffers. Ukrainians are underfoot, caught between a rock and a hard place.

The West, Ukrainian leaders, and Russian brass all bear responsibility for the current crisis.

The crisis has a long history. Every Russian leader since the fall of the Soviet Union has staunchly opposed the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into Eastern Europe, and particularly into countries that border Russia. Dating to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Russian leaders Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Dmitry Medvedev have maintained a longstanding position that Ukraine, an eastern border neighbor, not be allowed NATO membership. In fact, prior to the February invasion of Ukraine, President Putin said he would stand down if NATO would prohibit Eastern Europe’s second-largest country from joining the alliance – a demand NATO flatly rejected.

Ukraine is not a NATO member; it is a NATO partner country. As a partner country, Ukraine cooperates closely with NATO, but it is not covered by the security guarantee in the alliance’s founding treaty. NATO membership is by invitation only. Prospective applicants, once invited, must earn Intensified Dialogue status. Next is an invitation to join the Membership Action Plan, a measure designed to help the prospective member state prepare for inclusion in the international organization.

European Union (EU) membership is a factor as well when it comes to Russia’s concerns about its border neighbors. NATO-EU relations are strengthened by the organizations’ shared interests and shared members. The two groups have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and stand united in supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and right to self-defense. EU membership is based upon the so-called “Copenhagen Criteria,” which require, primarily, that a prospective member demonstrates the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the respect for and protection of minorities, and the existence of a functioning market economy.

In December 2021, Putin sent a list of security demands to U.S. President Joe Biden that included removing NATO troops and bases from former Soviet Union territories and ceasing military assistance to Ukraine. As has been the case with past U.S. presidents, Russia’s demands were rebuffed, and the military trigger was consequently cocked: Putin recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared a state of emergency in his country, and Putin retaliated with a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Despite the posturing and troop deployments in European countries closer to the action, neither the United States nor NATO is prepared to deploy combat troops. Meanwhile, the EU, UK, and other allies have continued to supply military equipment and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. However, these European nations have resisted Ukraine’s calls for more direct military involvement. European leaders and President Biden have been right to rule out such an expansion of direct military support, based on the recent history of such interventions.

As the conflict finds itself in the second half of a year’s worth of brutality, death, and consequential global market shocks, many ask if this conflict could have been prevented.

Quite probably. In retrospect, the strategic geopolitical concerns driving the invader’s actions are not hard to understand.Russia’s military buildup and subsequent actions are, in fact, the result of the West’s complicity in Ukraine, its dishonored security assurances, and, ultimately, a failure to learn from the past.

The most important of these formal assurances included pledges limiting the further eastward expansion of NATO. Yet, since its inception in 1949 as an organization of 12 founding members, NATO has increased to 30 member states. Despite former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s dramatic commitment to expand NATO “not one inch eastward,” the alliance has enlarged to well beyond its original boundaries and, in fact, further east.

These historic events ultimately set the stage for what we are now witnessing in Eastern Europe. Russia’s insistence against alliance growth in membership is well-documented. NATO’s accompanying reassurances that such incursions would not occur are also historically preserved for all to see. However, Western interests have continued to encourage the enlargement of NATO. The failure by the West to follow through on formalized territorial commitments has, over seven decades and many regime changes, exacerbated Russian fears and left the country’s leaders feeling encircled, given the continued and increasing military presence near its borders.

For Russia, Ukraine’s status – the possibility it could become a new NATO member – is a tip-top national security issue.  Russia perceives Ukraine the same way the United States views countries in the Western Hemisphere. For the same reasons the United States might object to Mexico or Canada entering into a military alliance with China or Russia, Putin is equally concerned about the consequences of Ukraine hosting NATO military bases. And, Putin and his charges have every right to be nervous: Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO and the EU date to 2019 when former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a constitutional amendment committing his country to seek such membership.

Since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, when President James Monroe warned European powers that interference in Western Hemisphere matters would be deemed hostile acts, the United States has exercised its own sphere of influence, both on the world’s third-largest continent as well as around the globe. Russian interests in maintaining influence over former Soviet states are no different from the geopolitical interests of Monroe as he penned his sweeping manifesto against outside meddling.

U.S. examples of global interference can be seen throughout its history, from Central America and the Caribbean to Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan, and even as recently as earlier this year when the Biden administration warned the Solomon Islands the United States would “respond accordingly” if the tiny independent island country allowed China a military presence there. How is such heavy-handed U.S. involvement in other countries’ conflicts different from Russia’s wicked invasion of its neighboring Ukraine? Just as the United States keeps its chips in the game to ensure its global sphere of influence, isn’t Russia in the same game, protecting its way of governing against a form of rule it cannot abide by?

When does what was written yesterday retain its promise in the present? What happens when one commitment made becomes an assurance broken or forgotten? When will the West grapple with and consequently understand the historical context for the crisis in Ukraine? Whatever the outcome of the conflict, the cost will not be borne in Brussels, London, or Washington. Devastation will be borne by and measured in Ukrainian lives.

Perhaps Ukraine’s survival hinges on its ability to convince both the East and the West that, like Austria, Norway, Ireland, and others, it can accept EU membership without the deadly consequences of NATO entanglements. First, Putin is more focused on nixing Ukraine’s NATO aspirations; he isn’t bothered by Finland’s and Sweden’s EU membership, but considers their NATO designs a provocation. EU membership for Ukraine would be a likely morale boost for its wearied population, providing the proposition of a free and democratic future. A member since 2004, Hungary attests to more tangible EU membership benefits, including membership in a community of stability, democracy, security and prosperity, growing internal market and domestic demand, and free movement of labor, goods, services and capital.

Another viable option for Ukraine is buried in the Minsk Protocol of February 2015.  The Protocol would have granted the breakaway eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk special recognition, a decentralized form of government, and veto power over Ukraine’s membership in NATO. The subsequent failure of this guarantee of autonomy lies partly with the West; it has failed to encourage or support Ukraine’s political leadership to implement or work toward the realization of the Protocol. Equally, Ukrainian presidents Poroshenko and Zelensky share in the washout of the Protocol’s promise, and Moscow has also failed to encourage compliance in Luhansk and Donetsk.

The failure to recognize or consider the intent of the Protocol laid the foundation for Russia’s “special military operation” into Ukraine. It is time to acknowledge the cold truth about the politics of power – states don’t have forever friends or frenemies, only perpetual interests. Unless the West is prepared to go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, we must acknowledge Russia’s historically justified veto over Ukraine’s military alliances. We must understand Russia’s concern about NATO’s continued eastward movement – against long-time assurances there would be no such enlargement. If we cannot do this, we risk escalating the crisis in Ukraine and spreading political and humanitarian chaos.

This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

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