The horror unfolding in Ukraine today must be understood not only as the result of brutal Russian aggression but also as a protracted proxy war between NATO and Russia over Ukraine. For decades, the United States has been attempting to tilt Ukraine in its direction and away from Moscow. Ukraine is “the biggest prize” in the struggle between Russia and the West, wrote Carl Gershman. At the time, Gershman was head of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a group with an extensive record of funding movements opposed to governments with which the US is displeased. Between 1991 and 2013, the US spent $5 billion attempting to fashion Ukrainian affairs as the US saw fit—“support[ing] Ukraine’s transition to democracy and a free market economy,” in the words of US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland.
During the 2013-2014 protests that preceded the ouster of Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych—who sought stronger ties with Russia—the US signalled its support for the opposition. A leaked phone call between Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, shows (as the BBC observed) that while the State Department’s public position was that Ukrainians’ future was in their own hands, “the US has very clear ideas about what the outcome should be and is striving to achieve these goals.” In the final days of Yanukovych’s government, 50 protestors and police were massacred at the Maidan (or central square) in Kyiv. Western governments blamed Yanukovych’s forces, even though evidence for this claim is ambiguous at best, and recognized the new Maidan government after he fled the country in exile.
These developments should be seen in their material context. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund, which the US and its European allies effectively control (and have used to ravage many countries in the Global South), was criticizing Ukraine’s energy subsidies, and calling on it to lower its “overspending on wage and pension increases,” to press forward with “more deregulation,” and to “further privatiz[e]” the economy. Late the next year, Yanukovych broke with the IMF, reportedly saying that it refused to lift onerous conditions attached to previous loans such as increasing the retirement age and implementing a wage and pension freeze. Nuland later called on Ukraine to follow the IMF’s advice. The rejection of the IMF effectively meant Yanukovych was shelving plans for Ukrainian integration with the EU. Instead, he struck a deal with Russia, which ignited the Maidan protests and heightened divisions among Ukrainians who preferred close ties to Russia and those who wanted deeper connections with the West.
Once Yanukovych was gone, Ukraine’s new government agreed to accept “harsh IMF reforms” in exchange for a loan. These conditions included raising Ukraine’s energy prices and freezing the country’s minimum wage. Ukraine would go on to accept multiple other IMF loans in the years that followed.
Following Yanukovych’s overthrow, Russia annexed Crimea and a devastating war between the US-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists killed thousands of civilians in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. The 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreement to end the war fell apart but its sequel, Minsk II—an agreement between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany (under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe)—remained a possible way to avoid further bloodshed, until very recently.
There’s evidence that the US obstructed that prospect. A 2020 International Crisis Group report notes that while France and Germany “appear eager for the [Russia-Ukraine] conflict [in Donbas] to end, a former US diplomat told the group that “The longer Russia stays bogged down in Donbas,” the less likely Russia might undermine the Baltic states.” A US official also suggested that reintegration of the statelets’ population would not serve Ukrainian interests, referring to these communities as “Soviet.”
To bring about a peace settlement, it is necessary to eliminate or discount the factors that brought about a failure of the Minsk II agreement. Chief among these is Ukraine’s refusal to guarantee permanent full autonomy for the Donbas. The main reason for this refusal, apart from a general commitment to retain centralized power in Kiev, has been the belief that permanent autonomy for the Donbas would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the European Union, as the region could use its constitutional position within Ukraine to block membership. The official US commitment to eventual Ukrainian NATO membership—however empty in real terms—has in turn inhibited the United States from playing a positive role in resolving the conflict.
In other words, had the US seriously pursued peace, Minsk II could have both ended the war in Donbas and extinguished the NATO issue that was a driving factor in the invasion Russia launched last month. Furthermore, as Lieven points out in a more recent piece, prior to Russia’s attack in February, the Western powers failed to offer Russia a wider compromise that it might be able to accept.
The role of NATO
NATO expansion is another crucial context of the war. The alliance has grown by 14 countries since the end of the Cold War, reaching Russia’s borders in 2004, despite verbal assurances from George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to Russian leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin that NATO would not move an inch east of Germany. After the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, the alliance issued a statement saying Ukraine and Georgia “will become” NATO members. Ukraine abandoned this goal under Yanukovych.
In late 2014, after Yanukovych was driven from office, Russia annexed Crimea, and hostilities commenced in Donbas, the Ukrainian parliament voted to take steps to join NATO. Subsequently, there was an effort to “reorgani[ze] and moderni[ze]” Ukraine’s C4 (Command, Control, Communications and Computers) “structures and capabilities” so as to facilitate their “interoperability with NATO to contribute to NATO-led exercises and operations.” Ukraine provided troops to NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and became a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner in June 2020, an arrangement that “aims to maintain and deepen cooperation” including “enhanced access to interoperability programmes and exercises, and more sharing of information.” Full-fledged Ukrainian membership in NATO is widely understood to be implausible in the near term yet, in June of 2021, NATO reiterated that Ukraine “will become” a NATO member. In January, Russia met with 30 NATO member states and the alliance unanimously rejected Moscow’s central demands “for formal guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the alliance will pull back its forces from countries in Eastern Europe that joined after the Cold War.”
Military provocations haven’t been limited to NATO. Since 2014, the US has provided more than $3 billion in weapons—including Javelin anti-tank missiles—equipment, and other supplies to Ukrainian armed forces. Meanwhile, US military advisers, including Army Green Berets, have trained more than 27,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Russia made clear early on that it regarded these activities as a major provocation. For its part, Canada has trained more than 33,000 Ukrainian soldiers since 2015.
Furthermore, last summer, the US and Ukraine led multinational naval maneuvers held in the Black Sea, an annual activity called Sea Breeze. These US-financed exercises were the largest in decades, involving 32 ships, 40 aircraft and helicopters, and 5,000 soldiers from 24 countries.
In all of these ways, the US and its allies helped create a climate that made war more, rather than less, likely.
The February invasion
NATO countries have not been passive observers of the war since Russia invaded, but active participants, threatening to enflame the conflict and weaken the possibility of a ceasefire and continued negotiations.
European nations are sending tens of thousands of rockets to strike Russian tanks and helicopters while US European Command is working with the United Kingdom to coordinate their transport. NATO countries that share a border with Ukraine are also delivering missiles, small arms, body armour and ammunition. Officials in the US Department of Defense say that American military aid, including Stinger missiles, continues to get to Ukraine. The Biden administration has asked Congress for $10 billion to strengthen Ukraine and US allies in Europe. These funds include $1.3 billion for further weapons to send to Ukraine, $1.2 billion in presidential authority to draw on existing US military stocks, $1.8 billion to support the 15,000 troops Biden has already sent to Eastern Europe, and money for intelligence gathering.
Similarly, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said she was “able to get an agreement from Poland to make sure that that delivery could be done through their borders.” Canada has 3,400 troops currently on high-readiness alert in Europe “should NATO’s posture evolve.” Since February 27, Canada has shipped, or said that it will soon ship, to Ukraine: 4,500 M72 rocket launchers and up to 7,500 hand grenades; $1 million towards the purchase of high-resolution modern satellite imagery equipment; 100 Carl-Gustaf M2 anti-tank weapons and 2,000 rounds of ammunition; 1,600 fragmentation vests and 400,000 individual meal packs; $25 million in helmets, body armour, gas masks, and night vision gear; and two C-130J tactical airlift aircraft and a team of 40-50 personnel to deliver aid and support.
Moreover, economic sanctions are a form of warfare. Those that the US had applied to Russia prior to the start of the recent assault had a significant effect on the Russian economy. The sanctions applied since the February invasion have set Russia “on course for an economic collapse.” Implementing these measures marks another escalation in the Russia-NATO conflict overlaying the Russia-Ukraine war.
Indeed, framing Russian aggression as a disastrous escalation in a long-term proxy war is necessary both to accurately make sense of how and why this cataclysm is unfolding, and to underscore the urgency of building an anti-war movement inside NATO countries.
Ukraine appears to have one of the world’s largest reserves of lithium, which is critical to batteries such as those used in electric vehicles and is thus seen as essential to the world’s transition away from fossil fuels. That the country seems to have an abundance of a lucrative and geo-strategically significant resources does not give one confidence that outside powers are likely to quit fighting over it any time soon.
Yet it is still possible to avoid absolute worst-case scenarios in Ukraine—up to and including a nuclear standoff with the US—but only with enormous popular pressure. For that to happen, people living in NATO states first have to understand the role our governments have played in setting the stage for Russia’s brutal attack.
Greg Shupak writes fiction and political analysis and teaches Media Studies and English at the University of Guelph-Humber. He’s the author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media. He writes a monthly column with Canadian Dimension and his work frequently appears in outlets like Electronic Intifada, F.A.I.R, The Guardian, In These Times, Jacobin, and The Nation.