Understanding the Ukrainian Conflict

In the early hours of Thursday (24 February 2022) Russian premier Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian state television announcing to the nation that he had taken the decision to conduct military operations in Ukraine. His justification for this action was to protect the ethnic Russian majorities in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk — which declared their independence from Ukraine in 2014 — and, in Putin’s own words, to rid the Kyiv regime of neo-Nazis.

By the time most Ukrainians were getting up, air raid sirens were sounding in the capital and it was clear a full scale Russian military incursion was underway. Columns of tanks, armoured vehicles, and troop carriers were pouring south over the border from Belarus towards the primary east-west artery between Kyiv and the Polish border. The VVS (the Voyenno-vozdushnye sily Rossii), the Russian Air Force, was precision bombing Ukrainian airports, airfields, military bases, and other targets important to Ukraine’s defencive infrastructure. Russian armour and troop convoys penetrated the Russian-Ukrainian frontier on the west bank of the Dnieper north of Chernobyl and the shelling of Ukrainian positions in Donetsk and Lugansk were intensified while to the north at Kharkiv more of Russia’s 190,000 deployment was advancing south and west. On the Black Sea, Russian Special Forces — the Spetsnaz, supported by artillery, assaulted the port city of Odessa. Despite international consternation and condemnation, it was evident by mid-afternoon Ukraine was indeed fighting for its life. But no one was coming to help.

Regardless of the 1997 Charter on the Distinctive Partnership [between NATO and Ukraine], the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on coöperation, and the continued formal process towards the enlargement of NATO to include Ukraine, both the United States — as the de facto hegemon of the North Atlantic nuclear alliance — and NATO said they would not intervene in the conflict. The only significant comment from President Biden was a White House statement in which he criticised Russia’s aggression and offered thoughts and prayers for the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian president, former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declined a US offer of evacuation, saying: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” He must certainly feel as though he has been taken for a ride.

There is no doubt Russia is the aggressor in this conflict. This much was strenuously underlined by the Russian-vetoed 11-to-1 vote (PR China, United Arab Emirates, and India abstaining) on the US-drafted UN Security Council draft resolution which would have denounced Russia’s actions. Notwithstanding the veto, this vote does demonstrate how isolated Mr Putin is in the courts of public and international opinion. This is an unnecessary act of aggression which will no doubt result in a catastrophic loss of life in Ukraine — both of military personnel and civilians — and which has already ended the deteriorating peace in Europe (excepting the Balkans of course) that has been to a greater or lesser degree maintained since 1945.

It is simply not the case, however, that Putin alone is to blame for this war. According to the prevailing western media narrative, Vladimir Putin is mentally unhinged; a madman bent on war and destruction — another Adolf Hitler ready to lay waste to the world. Yet, no one worth listening to on Putin actually accepts this lazy and obviously propagandistic caricature. Putin was recruited by the Soviet KGB in the mid-1970s, at the height of the Cold War, with which he served as a counterintelligence officer before his promotion to the First Chief Directorate — the Russian counterpart to the CIA — at a time when the USSR was outperforming the United States’ clandestine services. From 1985 he was stationed in Dresden in the German Democratic Republic (the GDR or ‘East Germany’); on the Russian frontline in the Cold War, where he coördinated the KGB’s collusionary activities with the Baader–Meinhof Group — a far-left terrorist organisation operating in West Germany. His career in St Petersburg and Moscow following the dissolution of the Soviet Union was stellar, with Boris Yeltsin appointing him Director of the FSB — the successor agency of the KGB — in July 1998. It was as Director of the FSB that he was made acting Prime Minister under Yeltsin the following year and President of the Russian Federation when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned.

Those in the West who know him best, serving and retired CIA operatives, know there are no flies on Putin. While he may be somewhat eccentric, he is driven, calculated, uncompromising, and brutal. This is a man who is fiercely patriotic and who has a vision for the restoration of Russian power and influence rooted in the idea of nation and in the strength of the fifth largest military in the world. It would be a grave error on our part to fail to see the invasion of Ukraine — a country he and many Russians believe to be an integral part of the Motherland — as the action of anyone less than this Vladimir Putin. Arguably, this more realistic appraisal of the man makes him considerably more dangerous than the mindless thug of the Russophobic western imagination.

It is also well understood by the US intelligence community that Putin is too smart to invade, occupy, and annex Ukraine as he did with Crimea. He knows the occupation and annexation of Ukraine would be biting off too much and would further weaken a fragile Russia. This invasion is about demolishing and weakening Ukraine. This is about delivering on his past warnings; demonstrating to Ukraine and the West that he is a man who means what he says. He is checking Ukraine’s disobedience.

So, we have to ask ourselves why. Why, when he knows he cannot hold Ukraine, is Mr Putin sending in the troops? In order to answer this question we must go back to 1990, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. For most of us, this was the first concrete indication the Cold War was coming to an end. Yet, regardless of the rapid evaporation of the GDR, Mikhail Gorbachev still had — as far as the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was aware — the military wherewithal to reimpose Communist rule as had happened in 1956 in Hungary. German reunification was therefore the fruit of careful diplomacy and negotiation. Ultimately Gorbachev, cognisant of the growing tensions in Moscow, agreed not to stand in the way of reunification with the proviso that NATO — the anti-Soviet nuclear military alliance led by the United States — would not expand further to the east. Both sides agreed to this and the German partition was ended.

In the twelve months that followed, the wind of change which toppled the Wall swept across eastern Europe as Moscow’s hold over the Warsaw Pact Russian buffer zone weakened until Russia itself was rocked by waves of discontent. While on vacation, Gorbachev was ousted from power, placed under house arrest, and Boris Yeltsin stood atop a tank as the Red Army Guard attempted to restore order in Moscow. That same year, 1991, the new president of the Russian Soviet Republic met with the presidents of the Belarussian and Ukrainian Soviet Republics and agreed by common assent to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR was no more, the Cold War was over, and the new leader of the freshly rebranded Commonwealth of Independent States, Boris Yeltsin, set about normalising relations between Russia and the West, and in 1995 he and US president Bill Clinton expressed their desire for closer, friendlier relations between the two superpowers.

When Putin became president in 1999 he continued along the same path. His relationship with Clinton was warm and at times genuinely friendly. Neither he nor Clinton gave the impression of hostility or that the relationship was souring. But Democracy and the free market economy were disastrous for Russia. Russians had never had democracy before and after almost eighty years of state ownership ordinary Russians struggled to make sense of the sort of economy we took for granted. This was of course exploited by the oligarchs who simply swindled the people’s shares in the industrial wealth of the country — people who were willing to sell them for peanuts. Overnight, new billionaires were created and the Russian economy fractured and collapsed. So unpopular was this ‘experiment’ that Russians began looking back to the ‘better days’ of Communism and the Soviet system.

The hawks in the Clinton administration saw in this the perfect opportunity to reorder the balance of global power and so set about the writing up of new foreign policy objectives that saw the United States as the only superpower of the future. Writing in The New York Times the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Thomas Friedman pointed to exactly this moment. The US Senate ratified NATO expansion in 1998 and George Kennan, the man responsible for the successful containment of the Soviet Union, described this as a mistake — as ‘the beginning of a new Cold War.’ Kennan was absolutely right. Henry Kissinger, once an advocate of NATO expansion, changed his mind because he came to the same conclusion. Then along came George W. Bush:

Bush and his advisers dispensed with Clinton’s hesitancy and put the pedal to the metal to expand NATO eastward. If Poland was in then so, too, were the Baltic states. Team Bush pushed for the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia. Hard-nosed realists morphed into transformationalists. Over time, as Russia rebounded, there was strong pushback, as George Kennan and others predicted.
Michael Krepon, ‘The Long-Term Costs of NATO Expansion,’ The National Interest.

NATO expansion to the east violated the Russian-US understanding of 1990, and the continued existence of NATO posed its own set of problems. NATO was an anti-Soviet alliance, but the Soviet Union no longer existed. The only way Moscow could interpret this post-Cold War NATO was an anti-Russia alliance, which it was. Which it still is. And it is through this expansion — 1999 with the inclusion of Poland, Czechia, and Hungary, 2004 with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, and to the present with US efforts to include Georgia and Ukraine — that Putin’s mood towards the West changed. These were not the actions of a friend nor even those of an international partner. NATO expansion was always — as it was even understood in Washington — a threat to the security of Russia.

Through the entirety of the Obama administration this eastward expansion of NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union itself was coupled with a global policy of strategic encirclement; with the US siting air and military bases in a ring from Norway, down through eastern Europe to the Middle East, across the Indian Ocean to Japan, the Pacific, and all the way to the Bering Strait and Alaska in the continental United States. This puts Putin’s support of Donald Trump in a whole new light, because Trump — for all his failings — had said he could do business with Russia. This was not the message from Hillary Clinton, a keen supporter of NATO expansion and global encirclement. It was not in Russia’s interests to have her in the White House.

Ukraine and Georgia are the last links in this chain, which, if closed, will at once make Putin look weak in Russia and pose a serious threat to Russian security. It matters very little what we as outsiders think of this situation. NATO is an explicitly anti-Russian alliance, and it is led by the United States — a superpower pursuing the objective of becoming the only superpower at Russia’s expense. The US and NATO broke their 1990 commitment not to expand to the east and are now sitting right on the Russian border. Putin simply does not trust the United States. We can see it naively as a benign hegemon all we want, but what matters here is how Putin sees it — and he sees it as an active threat on his border. Moreover, Ukraine is the gatekeeper to the Black Sea. With Ukraine promised NATO membership, Russia is faced with the prospect of NATO (US) troops and ships blocking its access to the Mediterranean. This is not — and never has been — acceptable to Russia.

This explains the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia had been leasing the port of Sevastopol — the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet — from Ukraine since the dissolution of the USSR. The moment Ukraine joins NATO (as it had intended) this lease would be terminated. As an anti-Russian alliance, a Russian naval base would not be tolerated by Washington in the NATO zone of control. Ukraine joining NATO would have locked Russia inside the US ring fence.

We can see from this brief analysis that the Ukrainian conflict has at least two principal causes; the provocation of NATO expansion and Putin’s exploitation of this provocation to flex his muscles. This was not an act of aggression that came from nowhere. This was not the actions of a madman. Putin, as the leader of Russia, is — whether we like it or not — committed to the security and geopolitical ambitions of Russia. The United States, through the instrument of NATO, threatened Russia by promising Ukraine NATO membership. Putin knows there was an expiration date on decisive military action, because once Ukraine joined NATO an attack on Ukraine would be an attack on the whole NATO alliance. He is not a dullard. He knew that if he was going to attack, he had to strike before Zelenskyy’s government signed on the dotted line. He calculated this move well; he knew that Ukraine not yet being a member gave the United States an out, and it took it — offering nothing more substantial to the fight than sanctions and prayers.

In the end Ukraine was led on by the US, as Georgia had been, with some vague indications that the alliance had its back. So it continued to defy Putin regardless of the warnings fired across its bows. At some point, the point where we are now at, Putin had to demonstrate that he means business — that something with a bit more punch lay behind the warnings. And, when the axe finally fell, the US, NATO, and the EU did exactly what he knew they would do. They packed up and left the Ukrainian people to fight their own battles. Now we have Instagram mums and a former Miss Grand Ukraine wielding assault rifles, heartbreakingly imagining they have a snowball’s chance in hell against the Russian Army that demolished Chechnya and Georgia. When these heroic amateurs come face to face with tanks on their streets it will be bits and pieces of them that are gathered from the rubble. All of this to the United States’ eternal shame.

Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies
The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.