Why Russia had to invade Ukraine

‘War is essentially an evil thing,’ said W. N. Birkett at the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. ‘Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’ War is indeed the supreme international crime which finds nowhere in reason or morality any species of justification, and is therefore correctly condemned in international law by the Charter of the United Nations. In stating, then, that Russia had no alternative but to invade Ukraine, it is not the intention of the author — who abhors war — to justify Russia’s recent actions. The invasion of Ukraine is both rationally and morally unjustifiable.

Sovereign states, however, have always acted and will always act in accordance with Realpolitik — a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations — to safeguard their security and their economic and strategic interests. The Westphalian conception of the state enshrines the understanding that the sovereign state entity has the right to protect itself from all enemies — foreign and domestic, and in real terms this means that state sovereignty is not and cannot be limited to the exercise of defence within the territorial boundaries of the state. When regional or international events pose a real and immediate threat to the security of a given state, it is in that state’s interests to intervene diplomatically and, when this fails, with military force.

The purpose of this brief article, then, is to explain — not justify — why events in Ukraine posed such a threat to the security of Russia that the Russian premier, Vladimir Putin, felt he had no alternative but to launch a military invasion. We must recognise that, as the leader of the Russian Federation, as is the case with every other head of state, Mr Putin’s priority is the security of his country. His actions, certainly given the western media’s hysteria, may cause us some considerable discomfort, but, when it comes to defending the international red lines laid down by Russia for its own security, Mr Putin — like every world leader — will put his country’s interests first. Just as President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was prepared to initiate a war with the Soviet Union in 1962 if First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev pushed his ships loaded with nuclear missiles over the blockade line the US had drawn around Cuba, so Russia is prepared to go to war — even with the United States — to prevent its entire geographical encirclement by NATO member states.

Why does Russia see NATO as a threat?

The Treaty of Dunkirk — a Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance — was signed by Britain and France on 4 March 1947 as an alliance to defend themselves from the Soviet Union after the Second World War. This was expanded in 1948 to include the Benelux countries by the Treaty of Brussels, becoming the Western Union or the Brussels Treaty Organisation (BTO). This was expanded again with the North Atlantic Treaty (4 April 1949) to include the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. From its inception, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was a western defensive nuclear and conventional military alliance hostile to the USSR and its geopolitical interests.

Between 1949 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 NATO was engaged in a transcontinental thermonuclear standoff with the Soviet Union and its allies (the Warsaw Pact from 14 May 1955), a period of diplomatic frostiness and varying degrees of hostility interspersed with open conflict in the form of US and Soviet-backed proxy wars that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, theoretically at least NATO had no reason to exist. Francis Fukuyama published The End of History? in 1989, making the argument that the liberal democratic project and the free market had won out against fascist totalitarianism and communism, and with the demise of the USSR and the end of the Cold War all of this appeared to be true. The first McDonald’s restaurant in Russia opened in Moscow at the end of January 1990 — and no two countries with a McDonald’s had ever gone to war. Liberal hegemony had at last penetrated the Iron Curtain and a new era of peace was promised.

Yet, NATO continued, and its continued existence sent a clear message to the new democratic Russia — this was not over. Despite this almost unimaginable change in Russia, NATO’s continuation served only to show that the West still had business to do and these ambitions could only ever be achieved at the expense of Boris Yeltsin’s new democratic Russia.

Recognising the inevitability of German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall and perhaps seeing the writing on the wall for the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev — pressed by the United States and western Europe to allow German reunification to go ahead unopposed by Moscow — grasped the danger a reunified and neutral Germany and the eastward expansion of NATO posed to Russia and sought ‘iron-clad guarantees’ from the States that NATO would move ‘not one inch eastward.’ Eager to gain this significant strategic advantage in post-Cold War Europe, the Bush administration was more than happy to give these guarantees. In classified high-level talks in Moscow, US Secretary of State James Baker promised Mr Gorbachev:

…a Germany that is firmly anchored in a changed NATO, by that I mean a NATO that is far less of a military organization, much more of a political one, would have no need for independent [nuclear weapons] capability. There would, of course, have to be iron-clad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward.

Declassified Memorandum of Conversation between US Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Moscow, 9 February 1990.

NATO did not change, however. It did not become more of a political and less of a military organisation. Rather, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of the Russian economy and its geopolitical decline — during the three decades of US unipolarity — NATO took advantage of Russia’s weakened position and expanded to the east. Against the advice of George F. Kennan, the man responsible for the successful policy of Soviet containment, and Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor in the Nixon and Ford administrations, the hawks in the Clinton administration rewrote the States’ foreign policy objectives; seeking unipolarity — a world dominated by the United States as the only superpower. Kennan and Kissinger warned that this was a catastrophic blunder which would lead to another Cold War.

Czechia, Hungary, and Poland — former Warsaw Pact countries — were admitted to NATO in March 1999; Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — former Soviet republics — and Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were admitted in March 2004. Russia strenuously objected to each of these enlargements, voicing concerns that by breaking their 1990 iron-clad guarantees the United States and NATO had become a serious threat to Russian security. This dishonesty and these enlargements led to a cooling in Vladimir Putin’s attitude towards the West and ultimately led him to draw a line in the sand. There would be no further NATO expansion into what Russia considers its sphere of influence. This was the beginning of Russia’s Monroe Doctrine thinking.

The European Union, the United States, and NATO knew well that any further NATO expansion would be read in Moscow as a hostile move. But they were undeterred. NATO is a nuclear military alliance, a western military institution that has never given up on its hostile position towards Russia — not even after the end of the Cold War. It has positioned US and US-allied troops hard against Russia’s western border and nuclear weapons in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Turkey, and these are of considerable concern to Russia. They are a threat. Nuclear missiles so close to Russian soil would, in the event of a nuclear exchange, give Russia less of a warning and NATO a potentially knockout strategic advantage. They are where they are solely because NATO still views Russia as an enemy and Russia clearly gets the message.

So, when in April 2008 at the NATO Bucharest summit the United States — opposed by its allies — extended an invitation to Ukraine and Georgia to join the North Atlantic nuclear alliance the die was cast. Mr Putin made it quite clear this would not be happening.

Background to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

NATO has not been the only military instrument the United States has employed to limit Russia. Since as early as the 1950s and throughout the period of unipolarity the US has been establishing air force and military bases of its own in states right around Russia; in Iraq and Afghanistan, Australia and Singapore, Japan and thirty other strategically important places. In peacetime, the United States has aggressively pursued a policy of Russian encirclement. Any reasonable observer would think the US was preparing for war, and so we must understand how this has been perceived in Moscow. There was only so long this could continue before a tipping point was reached and that tipping point came not four months after the US unilaterally promised NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia.

Countries with US (blue) and Russian (red) military bases.

Germany and France described George W. Bush’s promise to Ukraine and Georgia as ‘an unnecessary offence’ to Russia, and indeed it was. It was more. It was a threat. Having these as NATO members would effectively complete the US’ military ring around Russia, give the US access to an important stretch of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline to Turkey, and ultimately evict the Russian Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol in Crimea. Vladimir Putin, by now being portrayed as a lunatic by the American media, saw this for what it was; the application of the Bush Doctrine of ‘regime change’ at two of the most sensitive points of the Russian border.

Attacking a NATO member state would make Putin a lunatic. He was never going to wait for Georgia or Ukraine to become members. He knew he had to invade them before they joined the alliance, and time was running out. In early August 2008 Russian forces, under the pretext of defending the pro-Russian separatists of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, entered Georgia and set about what we might describe as the opposite of ‘nation building.’ His object was not to occupy or annex Georgia, but to press home the point that it would not be joining NATO. The war in Georgia was the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union the Russian army had been used to assault an independent state, and its objectives were clear: to assert itself against US hegemony and send a message to other former Soviet republics that accession to NATO would result in a Russian military invasion and the dismantling of their state. It certainly put an end to the possibility of Georgia joining NATO.

Why was the invasion of Ukraine necessary?

By ‘necessary’ here we mean necessary to the geopolitical and strategic requirements of Russia. It goes almost entirely without saying that, from a moral standpoint, war is never necessary. Russia has invaded only two independent states since 1991; Georgia in the first European war of the twentieth century and Ukraine in the largest land war since 1945 — and both of these were in response to US foreign policy; namely, the application of the Bush Doctrine. Clearly, then, Vladimir Putin — who is most definitely not setting out on a military adventure of world domination — has established a red line he will not allow the US, the EU, or NATO to cross. The international map of NATO expansion and the US encirclement of Russia tells its own story: the United States is quite deliberately behaving in a manner that is threatening to Russia. Its interference in Ukraine and Georgia were designed — as French and German protests highlighted — to both offend and provoke Russia.

Arguably, Russia’s most important port — one of its very few warm water ports — is the naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea. Until the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 Russia leased this base from the Ukrainian government and Russia gave no indication of any intention to invade and annex Ukraine. In fact, albeit with a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, Russo-Ukrainian relations were good. The revolution of 2014, which actually restricted many Russian speaking Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine from voting, changed this relationship. Encouraged by the EU, the US, and indeed NATO to establish a pro-EU government, Ukraine crossed Russia’s red line. In the event that Ukraine became an EU member state and joined the NATO alliance, Russia would lose its naval base in Crimea. The 2014 annexation of Crimea was thus an absolute strategic necessity for Russia. Still, with the possibility of what was left of Ukraine joining NATO there remained the very real possibility Ukraine would seek the return of Crimea. Ukraine was still a threat to Russian security, and this was the reason why Putin decided to invade and do some regime change of his own.

His objective is singular; to either reduce Ukraine as he did in Georgia to a point where NATO membership is off the table or, by negotiation, secure from the Ukrainian government iron-clad assurances it will not seek membership of the European Union or join the anti-Russian NATO alliance. But, and of course, this is a challenge to the sacred notion of state sovereignty.

What about Ukraine’s sovereignty?

Sovereignty is a strange argument because sovereignty is negotiated. While we may think an Englishman’s house is his castle, the reality is that one has to make some accommodation for the neighbours. Except for superpower states, sovereignty is conditional. The suggestion that, as a sovereign state, Ukraine can join NATO if it wants is a patently absurd suggestion. Such would demand that, as an equally sovereign state, North Korea should be allowed nuclear weapons. Not even the People’s Republic of China would accept this understanding of sovereignty. States in the neighbourhoods of superpowers simply must accept the reality — Realpolitik — that their sovereignty is to a greater or lesser extent dependent on their relationship with the superpower.

In the Final Analysis

War is wrong. It is the supreme international crime. Yet, and sadly, international law is contingent on the requirements of the most powerful state actors. This simple fact of international politics is as true today as it was when Ashurbanipal was expanding the Assyrian Empire across the Euphrates and into the Levant. And, of course, there is a horrible aspect to this of ‘might is right.’ At some point, regardless of our moral or ideological considerations, we have to accept this. Ukraine borders Europe and Asia’s most powerful state, and the reality of that situation — as Ukraine is now learning — is that its freedom and sovereignty are to some extent subject to Russia’s good grace. Ukraine was warned of what would happen in 2008 when the Russian military machine rolled into Georgia. It was given a louder warning in 2014 when Russia simply grabbed Crimea. Even on the eve of this invasion, with a hundred thousand Russian soldiers amassed on its northern and eastern borders — not quite an invasion force, the Kyiv government had a way out.

Sure, we can say that Russia had a way out — that it could have simply minded its own business and let Ukraine do what it pleased. It could have done that, sure. But is that what the United States, China, or Britain would have done had their security been challenged by a neighbouring country? Of course not. Let’s not be naїve. The US is in the business of demolishing countries that offend it thousands of miles from its borders. Now this is not to suggest Ukraine deserved this. It most definitely did not. No country deserves to be invaded and occupied by a hostile state. But we simply cannot, considering the realities of international relations, argue that Russia was not provoked.

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.