Why War in Ukraine?

Biden isn't the whole cause of the Ukraine mess.

Looking at the current mess in Ukraine, where a large and naturally rich country has basically been destroyed, while at the same time eliminating both the reputation and a half-century's worth of collected hardware of the Russian Red Army, it's hard to imagine just what sort of mindboggling madness and miscalculation got us here.

Not One Inch

NPR hosted a panel discussion which reviewed what the Soviet Union regarded as a promise that NATO would not expand eastward toward the Soviet Union.

Russians say the U.S. and its NATO allies broke a key pledge. They claim the West promised Russia in the 1990s that NATO would move not one inch to the east. Putin recently said, you cheated us shamelessly. The U.S. and NATO say that's nonsense and they've always had an open-door membership policy. ...

The Berlin Wall falls in November 1989 and up comes this question of German reunification. The U.S. thinks that maybe what they could offer the Soviets to get them to allow that is a promise that NATO will not expand eastward. ...

A book about the negotiations over all this called Not One Inch. And she [Mary Sarotte, the author] says this "not one inch" thing comes from this very early conversation in 1990 between then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Baker floats this idea of letting Germany reunify in exchange for NATO moving not one inch eastward. Gorbachev's like, OK; I'll think about it. ...

Baker goes back to Washington where President George H.W. Bush is like, absolutely not. And so the Americans drop it. It never shows up on the bargaining table.

So while it is true that "not one inch" was mentioned at a high level, it never appeared in any of the final agreements - and as we all know, a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on, particularly when, in international affairs, even written agreements often aren't.

NATO Expands

President Clinton was elected in 1992, soon after President Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991.  Mr. Clinton started offering the new Eastern European nations, which had been part of the Russian empire, membership in NATO.

We at Scragged can't help but see how this could be interpreted as a provocation which Russia couldn't ignore forever, because every expansion put NATO forces that much closer to the Russian heartland.  As a land power with no natural boundaries, they've suffered invasion from the East and from the West for generations; a degree of paranoia is completely understandable.

Indeed, we are not alone in this worried suspicion; Politico reported that when Russia invaded the Ukraine, Mr. Clinton was quick to assure everyone that his expanding NATO had nothing to do with the invasion:

Clinton said Putin "made no secret of the fact that he thought the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy."

The former president said the U.S. and NATO never meant to threaten Russia and that the nations of Eastern Europe had a right to live in security after decades of being dominated by Russia. ...

During Clinton's presidency, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. All of those nations had either been part of the Soviet Union or allies of the Soviet Union.

There's no way that Mr. Putin would have been happy about NATO coming eastward, but for many years he didn't do much other than protest.  Mr. Churchill observed that Russia is a mystery wrapped in enigma and shrouded in obscurity.  Perhaps the countries like the Baltics were small enough not to worry Mr. Putin, perhaps he wasn't through modernizing his military; we simply don't know why he didn't go beyond protest as his understanding of "Not one inch" was consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Ukraine is a Different Matter

The Ukraine is the second largest of the former Soviet Republics and has a very long border with Russia.  NPR said that President George W. Bush started pushing for the Ukraine to be admitted to NATO.  France and Germany pushed back, which resulted in an ambiguous situation where NATO more or less offered the Ukraine membership but without setting out a process to actually do it.

There is also a nationalistic reason for Mr. Putin to want Ukraine.  He has said "The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century."  The word "Russia" comes from the name of the Rus, a tribe which formed and grew into the Czarist Russian nation.  Its capital was Kiev, the capital of what is now the independent Ukraine nation.  Mr. Putin has wanted it back for many years, but why invade now?

As long as the Ukraine government was more or less favorably disposed to Russia, Mr. Putin could tolerate a degree of inconclusive talk about NATO expanding so much closer to him, but we messed that up.

Truthout tells us that Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was the "mastermind" behind the Feb. 22, 2014 "regime change" in Ukraine.  She worked to overthrow the Ukrainian government headed by President Viktor Yanukovych while convincing the ever-gullible US mainstream media that the coup wasn't really a coup but a victory for "democracy."

Viktor Yanukovych's government had been pro-Russia enough to rub along acceptably with Russian President Vladimir Putin in spite of all the pro-NATO talk, but the new government was much more pro-Western and less acceptable to Russia.  From Mr. Putin's point of view, the US had fallen back to an old cold-war tactic - we destabilized a government which had been allied with him and replaced it with an enemy government aligned with us.

To make matters worse, it seemed that by working through various businesses, the new government's friends were paying large sums of money to the son of the Vice President of the United States.  How would that look to the Kremlin kleptocrats?

Wasting no time, Mr. Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in February and March of 2014.  The Obama administration ignored its obligations to protect the territorial integrity of the Ukraine, and Mr. Putin kept it.  He didn't go any further during the Trump administration, but once Mr. Biden took over, he saw an opportunity to force the Ukraine back into the Soviet orbit and ordered the invasion.

He grossly overestimated his military capabilities, but that's a problem inherent to any tyranny.  The top three qualities Mr. Putin demands in subordinates are loyalty, loyalty, and loyalty followed by slavish devotion.  Skill and ability aren't all that important - until they suddenly become very important, and as we see, Putin doesn't seem to have much of that left in his army at all.

So Where Are We?

As we see it, the US backed Mr. Putin into a corner, and then led him to believe that NATO was disunited enough that it would be OK to invade, which ended up turning the Donbas into a killing ground.  This is yet another dent in American credibility.

What's worse, we now have two Eurasian land powers destroying each other.  This will make it easier for China under President for Life Xi to take back the parts of Russia which China ceded to the Czars as a result of the Treaty of Aigun of 1858 and the Convention of Peking of 1860 - the latter universally known and loathed in China as chief among the Unequal Treaties.  The Chinese are well aware that the Mongol empire once ran from Vladivostok to Vienna, and they'd like to get some of that territory back, not to mention reeducating the rebels in Taiwan.

We live in interesting times, and our feckless leaders persist in making things more interesting, day by day.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Sir, you are much mistaken regarding the damage done to the Russian army. You could not be more mistaken, in fact. I would go as far to say that the Russian army today is far stronger and far more dangerous than it was when the SMO began.
As a longtime reader of Scragged, this is one of the vanishingly few ones that is factually erroneous. With all respect.
I speak as someone with no dog in the race.

November 17, 2023 6:03 PM

Well, you got that wrong. Russia saw a disunited NATO and wanted Black Sea dominance. Hence, Crimea. No response from the west or NATO. Despite Western "guarantees" if Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons.

Ukraine is a gold mine of industrial and agricultural power. Russia wanted it so it tried to take it. It's still trying. Russia is an expansionist state with ventures all over the Middle East and Africa -- but not in the bailiwick of the other expansionist stage: China.

November 20, 2023 3:01 PM
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