On February 24, following several days of intense shelling in the Donbas region and Russia’s recognition of the independence of two breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin began its “special military operation” against Kyiv, the most significant conventional warfare operation in Europe since the Second World War. According to Jack Matlock, former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, the war was both predictable and avoidable. Tragically, it was not prevented.
It is, of course, too early to fully comprehend the magnitude of this cataclysm, and it is difficult to have a balanced assessment of an ongoing military conflict. In the hope of seeing a possible path to peace, this essay is a small effort to identify the complex roots of the Russia-Ukraine war.
The main responsibility for the war lies with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Fundamentally, Putin missed many opportunities to protect the Russian-leaning majority in the breakaway Donbas republics, and ultimately chose to use force by intervening across the entire Ukrainian territory and bizarrely promising the “denazification” of Ukraine’s government and political class.
In their own way, Ukraine and its Western allies have also greatly contributed to the escalation and to Russia’s growing perception of insecurity, ramping up tensions and helping to put in motion a sequence of events that ultimately led to military conflict. Each of them thought it was making defensive preparations while increasing the other side’s feeling of insecurity—a situation referred to in international relations theory as a security dilemma.
Putin had raised demands about security guarantees from NATO and Western militaries at the highest levels. He repeatedly insisted on written assurances by the West and NATO that the alliance end the process of admitting new members, withdraw its military presence to pre-1997 levels, and cease military cooperation with the states neighbouring Russia.
Simultaneously, Putin expected Western leaders to pressure Ukraine to implement the Minsk Protocol in its original format by engaging in direct negotiations with leaders of separatist territories. The Kremlin also wanted Kyiv to renounce its claims to NATO membership and commit to military neutrality.
It must be said here that Ukraine and Russia sought “diametrically opposed outcomes” from the Minsk Protocol and had diverging interpretations of the agreements, while the provisions intended to pave the way to a resolution always leaned heavily in Russia’s favour.
Having gone through two months of diplomacy, Putin concluded that the West was not interested in engaging with Russia on these issues. Meanwhile, the US was prepared to negotiate matters of military transparency and verification. Washington also stated that it had no plans to build offensive capabilities in Ukraine and that the country would not be qualified to join NATO any time soon. Some of Putin’s closest advisors, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, recommended continuing negotiations while pressing the West politically on NATO non-expansion as consistent with the principles of indivisible security in Europe.
To Putin, however, Western offers did not amount to the security guarantees he was seeking, but rather promises and assurances that could be easily broken.
What further convinced Putin to use force in Ukraine was the West’s reluctance to pressure the Ukrainian leadership to implement the Minsk Protocol by reuniting the Donbas provinces into Ukraine with a large degree of local autonomy, as per the agreement reached in 2015. Putin’s envoy Dmitry Kozak did his utmost but failed to change Kyiv’s position during the Normandy Format negotiations involving Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. Like Lavrov, Kozak was prepared for future talks although he was far from enthusiastic about their prospects.
While Russia must be condemned for its violent invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders have failed to correctly read Putin’s warnings and the signals he sent by raising the bar to its maximum. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s protracted period of economic turmoil and social decline, the US and its allies have grown accustomed to loud complaints from the Kremlin, but very little in the way of action. For instance, following Russia’s brief military conflict with Georgia in August 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a new European security architecture to “redefine Europe in ways that are more inclusive of Russia and its interests.” Western nations politely rejected the proposal, from then on assuming Putin would refrain from using force to avert NATO membership enlargement and the alliance’s emerging missile defence framework on the continent, among other concerns. In short, Europe and the US thought they still had ample time to bargain with Russia and expected to conduct negotiations about European security from a position of dominance.
Even when the US began to warn that Russia was concentrating troops around Ukraine and preparing for a military invasion, Washington failed to build direct dialogue with Putin and was banking on sanctions, loud warnings, and the further militarization of Kyiv as necessary deterrents against potential Russian aggression. What today looks like a correct prediction by US intelligence services was likely a lucky guess and a self-fulfilled prophecy. Putin was concentrating troops as a bargaining tool and was expecting an offer from the West he could consider. That offer never came. Thus, Putin’s initial idea of a controlled escalation failed.
Finally, Ukrainian leaders fell short in several areas. The nationalist government in Kyiv refused to accept the people of Donbas as Ukrainians. Kyiv stalled on the Minsk Protocol, passed severe restrictions on the Russian language and media, arrested Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a pro-Russian faction in Ukraine’s parliament, and continued to concentrate troops near the Donbas. In 2015, Kyiv also signed a new military doctrine, in which it named Russia as the main military threat to Ukraine, and announced plans for closer relations with NATO. The Ukrainian government further denied citizenship to those residents of Donbas who obtained Russian passports out of insecurity. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy even publicly said that those who feel Russian should leave Ukraine for Russia. Driven by nationalist attitudes Kyiv turned a blind eye to or encouraged radical paramilitary groups, including some neo-fascist militias, formed to fight Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas.
Hawkish attitudes dominated in Moscow, Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels. The intense shelling in the area of Donbas served to harden these attitudes further. Whoever was responsible for violations of the ceasefire, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) registered more of them taking place in the area not controlled by Ukraine. By that time, Putin may have already made up his mind based on the above-listed developments. He likely determined that from this point forward Ukraine would be permanently hostile, that the West would encourage such development, and that Russia’s failure to act now would make a future war inevitable and even more costly. On February 23, he heard what he thought confirmed his worst fears as Zelensky threatened at the Munich Security Conference that unless the “territorial integrity” of his country was guaranteed, Ukraine would revoke the 1994 Budapest Agreement in which it gave up its nuclear arsenal.
However soon the war ends, its effects on the European security order and the world will be and already are profound. In addition to human suffering and devastation, the European continent is entering a new era of social and political divisions comparable to those of the Cold War. The possibility of further escalation is now closer than ever. Instead of building an inclusive and just international order, Russia and most European nations will now rely mainly on nuclear weapons and military preparations for their security.
For years ahead, hostility and mistrust will dominate politics and society. Russia and Europe will keep breaking much of what is left of their ties by organizing their societies around the enemy image of each other. The West will keep dialogue to a minimum while relying on sanctions and pressures as it did during the Cold War. In the meantime, the world will continue to transition to a post-unipolar international system, with Russia and the West fighting for their share of power in it. Russia will suffer from Western sanctions and isolation. It is not likely to collapse, as some experts are predicting today. However, it will miss many international opportunities, its social and economic development will suffer, and it will have to mobilize internally while turning for economic and political relations to China and beyond.
Andrei P. Tsygankov is a Professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University, and author of Russia and America: The Asymmetric Rivalry (Polity Press, 2019). His forthcoming book is Russian Realism: Defending ‘Derzhava’ in International Relations.