On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and since then both warring parties are still at war, with neither side gaining any discernible victory. The roots of the conflict trace back to history. Ukraine has never been a sovereign state and for the most part of its existence has remained under the subjugation of first Russia, then the USSR.
With the conclusion of World War-II and the subsequent outbreak of Cold War between two great giants of that time, almost the entire world was bifurcated into two blocs: on the one hand was the USA with the Western hemisphere under the purview of NATO, and on the other hand was he USSR with Eurasian region under its sphere of influence through the Warsaw Pact. It was an era of tight bipolarity and both states were trying to undermine the influence of each other. The tectonic plates of geopolitics shifted when he USSR got dismantled in 1990 owing to its incessantly deteriorating economy.
While the West was adhering to the policy dictates of liberal ideals that aimed to promote democracy, enhance economic interdependence, and making eastern European states Western bastions; Moscow was analyzing each successive event from a pure geostrategic lens guided by realist ideas. Thus, the arguments put forth by John Mearsheimer, father of offensive realism, corroborate that it is the West’s inadvertent policies guided by so-called liberal ideals that provoked Putin to engage in war with Ukraine
The USSR dismembered into 15 independent states; Russia and Ukraine being two of these newly independent states. With the dissolution of the USSR, the Warsaw Pact also came to an end but NATO remained intact. In the later half of 1990s geopolitical dynamics began to take a new turn. NATO under the umbrella of the USA and its founding members started a new ‘Eastward Encroachment Drive’ and gradually several ex-Soviet or ex-Warsaw Pact states became members of NATO. This eastward expansion of NATO started in 1999 when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became members. The second wave of expansion took place in 2004 when Estonia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania became part of the Western security alliance.
Moscow viewed all these attempts by the USA and NATO as a direct threat to the core strategic interests of Russia. In the 2008 Bucharest Summit of NATO, the USA and other members of NATO considered the proposal to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia. This was an event that Russia viewed with extreme suspicion as if both states were part of Western security alliance, Russia’s own survival would be in danger. Thus, Russia in retaliation invaded the separatist regions of Georgia in August 2008 when the Georgian President tried to integrate them. Putin kept Abkhazia and South Ossetia from being integrated into Georgia as it would strengthen Georgia and would make it more firm to join NATO. This event elucidated in a crystal clear way the Russian commitment to prevent its border states from joining the Western security alliance.
However, the West in general and the USA in particular did not categorically refute the possibility of membership of Georgia and Ukraine. The chaotic situation in the near-abroad of Russia intensified when pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown in a US-backed coup and a pro-Western leader was installed instead. Right after this coup, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula and annexed it in a bid to prevent it from becoming the US naval base in the Russian neighborhood.
Furthermore, it fueled the irredentist movements in eastern Ukraine, particularly in Luhansk and Donetsk, and made these states quasi-independent. The situation remained intense between Russia and Ukraine over the course of time since 2014. In 2021, Vladimir Putin refused to initiate a bilateral dialogue proposed by Ukraine and declared it a “vassal” state of the USA and Europe. In that July, he put forth an essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” and reasserted the merger of Ukraine with Russia.
Later on Russia demanded that the USA and NATO promulgate a framework that would eliminate the possibility for Ukraine to become a member of NATO once and for all. Furthermore, Russia also demanded that NATO should withdraw its forces from its East European member states. There is no denying the fact that these demands for the USA and NATO were non-viable. Russia tried to make it crystal clear before the West that if NATO tried to extend membership to Ukraine, Russia would eliminate Ukraine from the very map of the world. Russia threatened to pursue military means if NATO continued its policy of expansionism. Finally on 24 February 2022, Russia started its military operation in Ukraine and declared it the ‘demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.’
Another significant factor that sensitized Putin on Ukraine is that in 2008 the European Union launched its Eastern Partnership Project that was aimed to integrate states of Eurasian region by providing them economic support. Europeans contemplated this initiative as a flagship project that would stimulate economic development and induce prosperity within Eastern European states, particularly Ukraine. Under the purview of this initiative the European Union started providing financial assistance and trade barriers were gradually eliminated. As a result, the bilateral trade volume of Eurasian states with the EU began to increase.
The then Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, viewed this approach of the EU as an unambiguous attempt to create its own ‘sphere of influence’ at the expense of Russia’s vital interests. Furthermore, for Russia this attempt of the EU to integrate Eurasian states was a stalking horse for NATO’s advancement. In response to the EU’s expansion plan, the Russian leadership warned the EU to stay away from its strategic backyard but its successive warnings were ignored.
Besides the inadvertent policy of Western states in general and the USA in particular that fomented Putin to attack militarily on Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine in recent times there was the democratization drive whereby they aimed to promulgate democracy and western values among Eurasian states to keep them out of the Russian orbit. In this regard the USA, along with European states acting as aide-de-camps, provided billions of dollars in economic assistance. The USA also established the National Endowment Fund for Democracy and under the purview of this initiative it invested massively in over 50 projects in Ukraine alone that were aimed to strengthen civil society. Moscow viewed these initiatives of West as a social engineering drive that is designed to confine Russia within its own borders.
Finally,another significant factor that Russia used as a pretext to invade Ukraine is linked with history. Putin propounded that when the USSR disintegrated in the 1990s, then US Secretary of State James Baker assured then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that once a reunified Germany joined NATO, the organization would not advance eastward, “not even one inch.” But with the passage of time the Western Security Alliance not only expanded but also extended membership to European states that hard been part of the USSR The strategic significance of Ukraine for Russia has increased manifold in contemporary times due to the eastward expansion of NATO where almost all except a few states have come under the security alliance of the West. Thus for Putin, if Ukraine becomes part of NATO the strategic loss for Russia would be incalculable as it cannot afford to have a hostile security giant right at its border. These strategic fears due to NATO’s encroachment within Russia’s strategic backyard provoked Putin to back up its verbal warnings with a robust military operation it started in February 2022.
While the West was adhering to the policy dictates of liberal ideals that aimed to promote democracy, enhance economic interdependence, and making eastern European states Western bastions; Moscow was analyzing each successive event from a pure geostrategic lens guided by realist ideas. Thus, the arguments put forth by John Mearsheimer, father of offensive realism, corroborate that it is the West’s inadvertent policies guided by so-called liberal ideals that provoked Putin to engage in war with Ukraine.
Whatever may be the causes behind war; the ultimate sufferer at the hands of great power politics is humanity, as evident from human history.