It’s hard to believe, but this month will be the one year mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I originally wrote and shared this in June 2022 with some people who didn’t know a lot about the history and context and wanted to learn more about what was happening and why. There are still people who are interested in learning more, this post is for them. Looking back, most of this writing is holding up but not 100%. I have not gone back to update this based on current events. I have made edits to a section to remove some personally identifying info, otherwise what I wrote is unedited for 2023.
- Short Version of History
- Russia’s Stated Reasons
- Blame the West
People ask me about what’s going on in Ukraine, they want to know “why did this happen” or “what is the purpose of the invasion”. My opinion is that we are seeing nothing more or less than a classic imperialist land-grab and territory annexation. A stronger power is using its military might to dominate a weaker nation. This was not discussed in mainstream Western media and Russian propaganda (initially but not anymore) went especially out of its way to avoid that framing. This document explains the illegitimacy of other reasons. With Putin’s recent comments in commemoration of Tsar Peter the Great, he has finally stated seizing land is the goal. https://news.yahoo.com/m-reclaiming-land-russia-peter-190628141.html
Here is a list of resources that have shaped my opinions on the Russian invasion of 2022:
- Kamil Galeev. A Russian (ethnic Tartar, a Turkic minority) political scientist from Kazan (an old, historic, developed city but not a center of political power), currently lives in Moscow. He studied in the UK and China, and worked in America at a political think tank. He has very unconventional and novel observations on the war as it relates to history, culture, societal impacts, group psychology, and international relations. https://threadreaderapp.com/user/kamilkazani
- Vlad Vexler. A Russian-born (left Russia when he was 10) political philosopher residing in Europe. He focuses on the moral, ethical, and societal aspects of the war. https://www.youtube.com/c/VladVexler
- The War Zone. An apolitical news site focusing on the purely technical, military side. Analyzes developments on the ground and the impact of various weapons systems on both sides. https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone
- War on the Rocks. A site collecting analysis on all facets of the war from diplomatic, military, intelligence, and academic professionals. https://warontherocks.com/understanding-the-russo-ukrainian-war-a-guide-from-war-on-the-rocks/
- John Mearsheimer. An American political science professor at the University of Chicago, his talking points and analysis are popular amongst Russian apologists. His analysis stresses that “great powers” are driven by security concerns above any laws or morality. His most famous presentation and a recent debate he participated in are linked. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrMiSQAGOS4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivcSVG5eCeQ.
Unfortunately for Mearsheimer fans, the professor himself is not without professional controversy related to anti-Semitism. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/john-mearsheimer-endorses-a-hitler-apologist-and-holocaust-revisionist/245518/
- Martti Kari. A Finnish intelligence officer who lived and studied in Russia and has a very deep understanding of how the Russian culture and history intertwine and how that affects modern politics and policies.
- Dr. Daniel Kempton. An American Political Science professor, spent part of his professional life at Tver State University in Russia. His is the professional analysis which makes the most sense to me.
- Bellingcat. An independent investigative journalism organization, performs investigations all over the world but has a special emphasis on Russian disinformation. They are based in the Netherlands and rose to prominence on the backs of investigations linking the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal to Russian intelligence officers. https://www.bellingcat.com/
Short Version of History
There are over 1000 years of relevant Slavic/Russian/Ukrainian history. We will not discuss it all here. Putin tried to do so in an essay as well as a long televised address. His revisionist history was widely panned by historical scholars and political analysts. His conclusion that Ukraine is a province of Russia that needs to be forcibly reunited to Russia is not an interpretation of history which is popular in Ukraine nor with real historians.
We do need to look at some of the most recent history.
1991 – The Soviet Union collapses
Ukraine emerges as an independent country for the first time in nearly 70 years. Russia also emerges as an independent country and officially recognizes the sovereignty of Ukraine and its borders.
1994 – The Budapest Memorandum
When the USSR collapsed, Ukraine (along with Belarus and Kazakhstan) was left with a stockpile of nuclear warheads. The quantity in Ukraine was such that Ukraine had the third largest nuclear stockpile in the world. To help stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, an agreement was made that Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus would give up their warheads to Russia. In return, they would get money, a promise from Russia to respect the borders and sovereignty of those countries, and promises from the US and UK to help maintain the sovereignty of the countries giving up their nuclear warheads.
This document and agreement was written in a way that there wasn’t any real treaty obligation to help a country like Ukraine if they were to be attacked, and the weakness of this agreement is definitely showing now. There wasn’t any enforcement mechanism to disincentivize breaking the agreement. Russia’s flagrant violation of its earlier promise coupled with the West’s relative inaction means that Ukraine willingly gave up its security deterrent for promises not worth the paper they were written on.
From the Russian perspective, they will say that this agreement is no longer valid since a) the government of Ukraine changed in 2014 and b) agreements are made between governments and not countries. We will see later why “a” is completely false. For “b”, it is completely nonsensical to say that agreements are between governments and not countries and flies in the face of the entire history of diplomacy. For example, there is Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. It was agreed that the US could use this space in Cuba as a military base before the Communist revolution there. After the revolution, the new (completely different) government still recognized this agreement as valid since it was made by the country of Cuba with the country of America. If the Russian position was true, then any country could wipe its debt clean by declaring that it formed a new government and the debt was invalid since it was taken on by the previous government or leave any treaty obligation, etc. This does not happen. The Russian government has also claimed other types of nonsense around the Budapest Memorandum, which is linked below.
2014 – The Revolution of Dignity (aka Euromaidan Revolution)
The President of Ukraine from 2010-2014 was Victor Yanukovych and he was a pro-Russian politician. A trade agreement between Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine (Eurasian Economic Union – EEU) was being discussed in 2013. This was unpopular with the Ukrainian people, who wanted better and deeper ties with the rest of Europe. To closer align with the wishes of the people, Yanukovych announced that his government would pursue an EU trade agreement instead of the Russian trade agreement. However, Yanukovych ultimately refused to sign the EU trade agreement after it was ratified by the parliament and instead pursued the EEU agreement. This was an incredibly unpopular move with ordinary people and they started protesting in the streets. The epicenter of this was a square (called the Maidan for short, Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square in English] in full) in Kyiv. This protest grew from hundreds to tens of thousands of people. A critical stage of the protest was reached when Yanukovych ordered special riot police called Berkut (golden eagle in English) and a team called Alpha from the internal intelligence/security service (SBU) to open fire on protesters (https://www.thedailybeast.com/exclusive-photographs-expose-russian-trained-killers-in-kiev). In total, over 110 people (including the police) were killed during the course of the protests.
This accelerated the demise of Yanukovych. He ended up signing an internationally negotiated settlement with the opposition to (amongst other things) hold early elections and re-instate provisions in the constitution from 2004 which limited the power of the President in favor of the Parliament. These items were agreed upon unanimously by Parliament. He fled the country (to Russia) of his own accord after he lost the support of his own political party. Since the President abdicated his position and duties in an unconstitutional way, a vote was held and passed unanimously by both opposition and ruling party members to remove Yanukovych from his position as President. A temporary government was established, they set up elections, and then a new President was elected in elections considered to be free and fair by external observers and Ukrainians themselves.
It is very important to recognize this sequence of events for what it not; this is not a coup. The framing that Russia uses is that 2014 was a coup, a takeover by a junta. The President left on his own accord due to losing popular support, nobody pushed him out and nobody seized power from him. My personal opinion is that his fleeing to Russia makes a lot of sense since he was sure to lose the upcoming election and any subsequent government would prosecute him for giving Berkut orders to fire into crowds of protestors. The temporary caretaker government did not seize power for itself, it functioned to set up subsequent elections (which it did after roughly 3 months). The government itself did not change either. The same institutions and laws (with the change of reinstating the 2004 constitutional provisions to limit the power of the President) remained before and after 2014. Russian propaganda will call this change a coup since the constitutional procedure for impeachment was not followed, but this is not a reasonable conclusion since the President abdicated his position before the procedure could even start. An “unconstitutional” procedure had to be followed (a unanimous 328-0 vote across all parties) since the constitutional procedure for impeachment couldn’t be followed. The only functional difference was elections occurred earlier than they were scheduled to.
The claim from Russian propagandists that the 2014 Revolution was a Western coup against a Russian-friendly government/politician does not pass the most basic logical scrutiny. The leaders of the temporary government did not seize power for themselves, they held elections in May 2014. The current President of Ukraine (Volodymyr Zelenskyy) was not involved in the change of government in 2014, in fact he ran against and beat the President (Petro Poroshenko – who himself did not participate in the temporary government) elected in May 2014.
One piece of “evidence” that Russian apologists like to bring up to support the assertion that the events of 2014 are a Western-backed coup is an audio recording between 2 American diplomats discussing the situation. They claim that this is evidence they planned a coup. The transcript is linked below. Reading the entire thing for full context, it is evident that this conversation was not one to plan a coup. It is an analysis and gameplan to get different Ukrainian politicians discussing issues and plans together, with the American diplomats expressing preferences for some of these politicians over others. They even talked about reaching out to Yanukovych as one of the political players. That sounds like diplomacy to me, the thing that diplomats get paid to do.
It is also important to remember the general sentiment of the people of Ukraine. The following reports from the International Republican Institute (not affiliated with the Republican Party of American politics) show widespread support for joining the EU (and NATO) both before the 2014 revolution and after.
Following the events of Yanukovych fleeing, Russia took advantage of the political turmoil and instability to seize Ukrainian land and foment confrontation in the country’s mostly pro-Russian east. Russia has a naval base (an agreement was signed with Ukraine that Russia would have a long-term lease for this Naval base in Ukrainian territory) in the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. The soldiers from this base (as well as units moved in from mainland Russia) seized the Crimean peninsula without resistance and expelled the Ukrainian military from Crimea. Ever since 2014, Ukraine has maintained that Crimea rightfully belongs to Ukraine and is Ukrainian territory while the reality on the ground is that this entire area has been consumed by and run as a part of the Russian Federation.
In the east of Ukraine, Russian-backed separatist movements erupted in 2 regions (equivalent to a state or province) called Donetsk and Luhansk (these are collectively called the Donbas, short for the basin of the river Donets). Russian intelligence officers went to the Donbas to help the separatists and the Russian military moved soldiers and equipment like tanks and artillery into the Donbas as well. This resulted in a protracted, low-intensity war (Ukraine refers to its efforts to expel Russian troops and defeat the rebels as the ATO – Anti-Terrorism Operation) between the Ukrainian army and the Russians/Russian proxies from 2014 until Russia invaded in 2022.
There was also general unrest in other areas of Eastern and Southern Russia after the Euromaidan Revolution. Pro-Russia and Pro-Ukrainian civilians clashed, resulting in deaths on both sides. The Russian military acted without acknowledgement and attacked Ukrainian military and civilians alike. It seemed that the government may not have been able to or was not willing to intervene in the violence and restore law and order.
Russia’s Stated Reasons
Putin laid out 4 very clear and distinct reasons for his invasion into Ukraine in a televised address he gave prior to the invasion. Let us go through them one-by-one to see how little merit they have. The only real explanation that makes sense is a naked land-grab.
Pre-invasion address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qS6J-WbTD8
There is an explicit and implicit meaning to this statement. Let’s start by looking at the explicit and analyze what the situation is with Nazism in Ukraine.
What are Nazis and do they hold power in Ukraine? Let’s broaden the definition of Nazi in this case from strictly referring to the classical German ethno-nationalist fascism to a broader one of ethno-nationalism and/or fascism. Do these people hold political power in Ukraine? Ukraine is a multi-party parliamentary system with many different ideologies participating. If we look at the results of the previous election in Ukraine, it is evident that the parties that one might label as Nazi did incredibly poorly in the elections and have no real political support. Who ended up being elected as the President? By a wide margin across all geographies and demographics? A Jewish person. In fact, Ukraine was the first country besides Israel to have both a Jewish President and Prime Minister serving at the same time. This is a strong indicator that Nazism is not the driving political ideology of Ukraine. The fact that Ukraine has a strong multi-party democracy and has elected 5 different presidents from wildly different political parties since 2000 is a strong indicator that it is not a fascist country.
As an aside, Russia has had Putin running the country since 2000 with sham elections used to give an air of legitimacy. For a period of time he swapped President/Prime Minister positions with Dmitry Medvedev, but Putin retained full power throughout. In his rule he has consolidated total central power by making local governors a position appointed by him instead of an elected position and by confiscating locally collected tax revenue and making it a resource doled out by the central government.
One of the grievances of the Russian government is that this supposed fascist regime discriminated against Russian speakers. While individuals may certainly have prejudices, there aren’t any government policies that discriminate against any specific groups. In fact, there are laws to protect the rights of specific minorities (like Tatars, the ethnic natives of Crimea who were forcibly deported to Russia from Crimea by the Soviet Union) and minority languages. In the Appendix, more information about the nature of the language laws can be found to show that the Russian narrative is completely false around this topic. As a piece of anecdotal evidence, when my mom visited Ukraine a few years ago, she didn’t have any problems using Russian to communicate in either Kyiv or the highly ethnic Ukrainian West Ukraine.
What about the Azov Battalion? It is accurate to say that this group was founded by neo-Nazis, but the founders are no longer involved and this group is no longer a private group. This was a private paramilitary group financed by an oligarch, originally founded to maintain peace and order in regions where Russian-backed separatists were causing unrest and violence after 2014. They rose in prestige and popularity because they were able to effectively do what the official Ukrainian military and law enforcement could not. This group was founded by Ukrainian ethno-nationalists and their ranks were filled with people who could accurately be described as neo-Nazis (Nazi tattoos, using Nazi symbology, etc.). However, the Azov Battalion was incorporated into the regular military forces (National Guard) roughly 6 months after it was founded, reformed to normal military standards to became the Azov Regiment, and now operates and functions just like any unit of the National Guard. People of many different ethnicities and faiths serve in the Azov Regiment (there is an included linked article about a Swedish neo-Nazi who joined Azov and left with a greater respect and acceptance of other races based on his shared experience of serving in the unit with them). You will most certainly find individual members who are neo-Nazis, but the unit serves and functions to accomplish official government goals, not the political ideology of some of its members.
It is important to also recognize Ukraine’s very long history of anti-Semitism. This is a cultural product that is fading generation by generation and was also codified as official policy in the Soviet Union. Another aspect of history that Russian propagandists bring up as proof of the fascist, Nazi nature of Ukraine is World War 2 and Stepan Bandera. A slur that the Russian media and politicians like to throw around is “banderite”. Bandera was a leader of an organization called the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and the closely associated UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army – the paramilitary part of the OUN). The purpose of the OUN was to establish Ukraine as an independent nation and the primary way it approached that was to fight against the Soviet Union. After the 1917 Revolution, Ukraine declared itself as an independent country and was so until 1921 when it became part of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were a malevolent regime and (amongst other things like depriving people of personal rights and seizing privately owned property) engineered a Ukrainian famine which resulted in the deaths of 7-10 million people and is widely recognized as a purposeful genocide against the Ukrainian people.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the OUN and many Ukrainians outside of the OUN thought of the Nazis as liberators saving them from an oppressive Soviet regime. The OUN collaborated with the Nazi occupiers against Soviet rule. Members of the OUN, in addition to fighting against the Soviets, also killed and committed atrocities against Jewish and Polish civilians. This includes the mass murder of what is thought to be 100,000 Polish civilians. This was both racially and politically (Jews were thought of as being sympathetic to Communism, Poles were viewed negatively since Poland controlled territory that Ukrainian nationalists viewed as part of Ukraine) motivated. OUN collaboration with the Nazis persisted until the OUN declared an independent Ukrainian nation in 1941. At that point the Nazis turned against the OUN and imprisoned much of its leadership (including Bandera) and the OUN fought against the Nazis. Even after the war, up through the 1950s, OUN partisans fought against the Soviet Union in the hopes of establishing an independent Ukraine. Some in modern Ukraine denounce Bandera for his Nazi collaboration and massacres of civilians. Others view him positively as fighting for Ukrainian independence against Soviet, Polish, and German occupation. Whatever the case may be, the Russian assertion that an entire country and an entire people are run by Nazis or function as Nazis because of differing views of a controversial historical figure is absurd.
It must be noted that this is not a unique phenomenon for Ukraine. Many countries overrun by the Nazis had factions that collaborated with the Nazis. Russia also had factions which collaborated and fought with Nazi Germany as part of the German military.
There are quite a few fascist institutions within Russia itself. If the basis for being a Nazi country is the ideology of your soldiers, then Russia needs to start denazification within its own borders. Russian National Unity (“Russia for Russians”, ethnocentrists) is an organization estimated to have 100,000 members at its peak in 1999 and has many associated fighters on the pro-Russian side in Donbas.
Another is Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) from St. Petersburg. They were the first white supremacist organization in the world to be classified as terrorists by the US. They run a paramilitary training base called Partizan where neo-Nazis from Germany and America have gone to train. What is interesting about the Partizan shooting range is that it is located on land belonging to the Ministry of Emergency Situations, implying tacit or overt government approval. This shooting range seems to be adjacent but separate to a public range. They also have members fighting on the pro-Russia side in Donbas.
One group that has trained at the RIM facility is Task Force Rusich (TFR). This is a mercenary force that has committed war atrocities including corpse mutilation and dismemberment in both Ukraine and Syria. They have also been photographed doing Nazi salutes in Syria and their social media postings heavily reference Norse mythology as an allusion to the same air of antiquity the Nazis tried to cultivate. It is not clear from the sources that I found whether TFR is an independent group, closely aligned with Wagner Group, or a part of Wagner Group.
Wagner Group is a name that has become widely known since these mercenaries are well connected to senior Russian leadership and have been used extensively in Ukraine and Syria. This company was founded by a man named Dmitry Utkin and there are photographs (that are unconfirmed but believed with high probability to be him) of him with his shirt off showing various Nazi and Waffen SS tattoos. He and other members of Wagner Group have also been photographed wearing Nazi-themed clothing in Syria as well as putting Nazi insignia on their vehicles.
The linked Bellingcat article is very interesting and describes the origins of a very influential neo-Nazi (white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and worship of Hitler as a deity) organization in Ukraine with direct ties to Azov Battalion and National Corps called Wotenjugend. This group was started by Russians in Russia and came to Ukraine in 2014 to fight with Azov Battalion, with its founders still maintaining Russian citizenship.
The Kornilovtsy Battalion is comprised of neo-Nazis and was active in 2014 in Ukraine.
Russian Marches are government authorized rallies (if the government did not condone the groups and message, these people would not have been allowed to gather) coordinated across the country for neo-Nazis and ethno-nationalists. The linked clip shows Dmitry Rogozin, former Russian Ambassador to NATO, former Deputy Defense Minister, and current head of Roscosmos (Russian equivalent of NASA), giving a racist speech and a fascist solute at one of these events.
The response of the Jewish leaders in Russia to the current situation is also instructive in viewing the concerns of anti-Semitism throughout Russia.
Some of the statements by key Russian figures (Foreign Minister, key regime propagandists, etc.) also strongly suggest that their grasp of anti-Semitism is lacking. Claiming that “the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews” in reference to the Holocaust as a backing for the line of reasoning that Ukraine is run by Nazis is certainly creative. Claiming that Ukraine is being liberated from “German, Anglo-Saxon, and Jewish colonizers” is also certainly novel in the fight against a Nazi regime…
We can see that culturally, politically, and militarily various strains of neo-Nazism have great influence in Russia (which in turn even directly impacts neo-Nazism in Ukraine). So what can be the moral or legal argument by the Russian government about invading another sovereign country to deal with a neo-Nazi problem? The argument that must be supported is that it is fine for Russian Hitler-worshipping ethno-centric fascists to invade Ukraine to subjugate Ukrainian Hitler-worshipping ethno-centric fascists. Does that sound like a real logical, moral argument to invade a country?
For full intellectual honesty, let’s take an opposite approach. Assume that Ukrainian ethno-nationalist fascists (identified as Nazis or otherwise) run Ukraine and that laws and systems are truly ethno-centrist. From the Russian point of view… so what? Ukraine doesn’t and couldn’t possibly threaten Russia even if the government was run by people covered in swastikas. Russia does not have any special rights, permission, or standing to invade any other country because it doesn’t like the government in that country. That is not allowed by international law and something we find abhorrent in modern times. The entire concept of sovereignty means that countries can have their own governments, even if other countries don’t like those governments. Even if some percentage of the citizens of those countries don’t like their own government. The country of Russia doesn’t have any basis to invade any other countries in the supposed quest to protect ethnic Russians in those countries, it is merely doing so in this case because it can, which is classic imperialist aggression. In the Russian quest to denazify its neighbor, an authoritarian regime is violently invading a democracy and killing civilians in the name of shared history, shared culture, and shared blood… the very embodiment of ethno-centrist fascist imperial aggression.
There are also implicit factors with regards to this campaign of “denazification”. The analysis below is an amalgamation of various essays by Kamil Galeev and heavily influenced by his viewpoints. Denazification for Russia does not specifically refer to Nazis, actual fascists, or ethno-nationalists. It has a broader meaning to refer to anything not culturally Russian. The mentality is that “If it is Russian it is good. If it is not Russian but it can become Russian, it can become good. If it could be Russian-ized but Russianness is rejected, then it is Nazism”. Ukrainians choose to embrace their own identities, so this behavior is identified as Nazism by Russia. From this perspective, denazification is really meaning the destruction of Ukrainian history, culture, and identity and replacing that with Russian history, culture, and identity. There are some clear manifestations of this, examples are essays by Dmitry Medvedev (former figurehead/puppet President of Russia, currently in the Defense Ministry) and selective Russian destruction of Ukrainian cultural sites.
Russia claims that Ukraine must be “demilitarized” because it poses a threat to Russia. There are several aspects to this claim but what this really comes down to is “deNATOfication” of Ukraine. One of Russia’s goals was and continues to be to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and drifting closer to Europe in general. Independent countries like Ukraine, especially non-aggressive ones with democratic governments, are free to pursue their own policies and entering into defensive alliances is no different.
Russia claims that having Ukraine as a NATO member along its borders threatens its security. This is nonsense. Russia already has 5 NATO member countries (Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Norway) as neighbors along its borders. The USA and Russia share a non-land border. And Russia has one of the largest non-land borders in the world with another NATO country, Canada. Ukraine joining NATO would certainly add to the length of Russia/NATO land border but there is no practical change compared with the situation now. If we intellectually cheat a little bit and look at one of the post-invasion outcomes, Finland will join NATO and share a 1000+ kilometer border with Russia. Putin himself also said that he does not have any issues with Finland joining NATO. Of course it is not desirable for him, but he must say that publically since he is powerless to do anything about it and complaining now about something he can’t change would show weakness. During the course of the war, Ukraine has also publically stated that the path forward to NATO membership seems closed and it will not be pursuing that. However, this did not receive any acknowledgement from Russia and Russia did not stop the invasion.
Russia claims to have several concerns around NATO. The first is that NATO has kept expanding eastwards towards the borders of Russia. It is important to understand that NATO does not unilaterally incorporate countries into itself. Countries must apply to join (receiving support from both executive and legislative sections of their governments) and pass a set of criteria (military compatibility/standards and maturity of its democratic institutions) in order to be accepted to join. This process can take many years. There are several countries that would like to join but NATO is not accepting (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) them. If NATO was some pure expansionist entity aimed at antagonizing Russia then it would rush to incorporate those countries as quickly as possible. Eastern European countries are especially keen to join NATO because of their history of getting politically and militarily dominated by Russia and joining NATO is the only thing that will prevent what is happening to Ukraine from happening to their countries. Russia’s actions have shown that NATO membership is priceless. Russia also claims that NATO broke promises about eastern expansion during the negotiations of German Reunification. In fact, the Russian politician who negotiated the German Reunification (Gorbachev) has himself stated that there was no understanding that NATO wouldn’t expand at its discretion. Any mention of NATO’s broken promises around this point is pure Russian fabrication.
It should also be noted that while NATO keeps publically talking about its “open door policy” to allow any country to apply, Ukraine’s application and status hasn’t made any real progress. The process has been long and drawn out, without a clear path for Ukraine to actually join NATO. If the intent was to act against Russia, Ukrainian membership would have been fast-tracked, not slowed and blocked. Again, no immediate or even real military threat to Russia.
Russia keeps bringing up concerns around NATO and things like missile deployments. These are red herrings and disingenuous. There is a section in the Appendix discussing topics like Aegis Ashore missile defense deployments in Europe and the INF treaty. However, Russia itself and some Western political analysts calling themselves Realists (John Mearsheimer is the key Realist figure and a favorite source for pro-Putin Westerners) claim that Russia’s security concerns must be considered and that not considering them is leading to terrible consequences for Ukraine. While this sounds very reasonable in general (and in general, this should hold true), this line of thinking completely falls apart when you try to answer “is the invasion based on security concerns” and “what are the security concerns”.
The case that the invasion is based on security concerns is weak. There wasn’t any effort to engage in diplomacy on the part of Russia prior to the invasion. Russia did not engage directly with Ukraine. Russia did send a list of demands to NATO, but these were formulated in a way (NATO to roll back its membership, Russian to dictate when and where NATO troops could be stationed, etc.) as to preclude negotiations and to get instantly rejected. One country’s supposed security concerns do not allow it to dictate the foreign and military policy of dozens of its near and far neighbors. The fact that Ukraine stated that NATO was no longer a goal without any response from Russia and that NATO actually expanded during Russia’s war without any response from Russia indicate that this line of thinking is not a real reason, just a pretext for a land-grab and a narrative for domestic Russian consumption.
We run into a problem when we try to answer “what are the security concerns”. We can dispassionately disprove point after point (practical implications of Ukraine joining vs. current NATO reality, INF missile treaty withdrawal, missile defense deployments) but the Russian government can still hold beliefs about its own threats. And this is a problem. You can believe whatever is a threat to you today in order to achieve whatever higher goals you have today and justify those; and then you can believe something new and different tomorrow to justify your goals tomorrow. Moving the goal posts on what you see as a threat to your security will allow you to claim any arbitrary belief as the reason for any arbitrary action. This is ludicrous and cannot be the basis of a foreign and military policy, yet this is what the Russian government is doing. This has already happened in this war; after Ukraine claimed that pursuing NATO membership is no longer a goal, Russia stated that Ukraine must also drop the pursuit of EU membership (which is a new demand not made previous to the invasion). A land-grab is in progress so any and all excuses must be found to justify the overall goal. Any number of concerns can be addressed but the next one will pop up until the ultimate goal of control is obtained.
In the case of Russia, it is also important to separate the security concerns of the state versus the security concerns of the people overall. The autocrats at the top of the government and those enabled by them only care for their own power. This war is a means to boost that power. If they were to falter in the war or withdraw without something that has the optics of an absolute and unilateral victory (commentators on Vladimir Solovyov’s political analysis program on Russian TV say that negotiations would be seen as a failure and could destabilize the political class since a country as mighty as Russia should not negotiate with Nazis), then the support for the government would fall. So in a sense, the prosecution of the war is of vital security importance to those who comprise Russia’s dictatorship, otherwise they might lose their power.
Recognition of Crimea as Russia
Putin stated that getting Ukraine to recognize the Crimean Peninsula as being part of Russia is one of the goals of the invasion. An illegal, unprovoked invasion to force the victim to officially recognize a previous illegal, unprovoked invasion/land grab. Russia seized Crimea in 2014 the day after Yanukovych fled to Russia through military means in an illegal land grab which is not recognized by most of the countries in the world.
Russia tries to justify this action by saying that a referendum was staged to let the residents of Crimea determine what they wanted to do, but this was a sham and is not internationally recognized. Even if the referendum was staged under fair conditions (which it wasn’t), there wasn’t even an option on the ballot to remain as part of Ukraine in the conditions prior to Russia’s invasion! At first Russia claimed that the referendum was staged by the people of Crimea themselves and Russian troops moved in only after that. After very clear and blatant evidence disproved those Russian lies to the extent that not even the Russian government could stand behind them, the story changed to state that the Russian troops took over to maintain stability and then held a referendum. Unfortunately, the Russian gaslighting techniques are highly effective. The public has a short collective memory for details and specific facts.
The conditions of the referendum being held at gunpoint by an occupying force are highly suspect. The referendum itself is highly suspect and any reasonable person could not conclude it was conducted in a fair and impartial manner. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is a large and established independent election monitor (it deploys into America to do election monitoring here too). It was not allowed into Crimea and its members report that they were fired upon when trying to enter.
The NGO that Russia allowed in to act as observers, and declare that the results were legitimate, is called the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections (EODE). This is an organization based in Russia. It was founded by this man (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luc_Michel), who is claimed to be an adherent of this man (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Fran%C3%A7ois_Thiriart), certainly not political theorists with democracy in mind. It also looks like this organization works only in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nogorno-Karabakh, and Transdniestria (in ¾ of these places, Russia invaded another country and stationed troops in the countries too weak to repel them, creating frozen conflicts and Russian occupied zones). I would not consider this organization to be reliable, independent, or supportive of democracy. The only sources I could find that support the notion of a fair referendum are EODE and the various political parties (including the Bulgarian neo-fascist Ataka party) that EODE called in to participate.
There were also reports from individuals of activities like bussing in voters from outside of Crimea, no checking against voter rolls, and confiscation of identification documents to prevent people from voting. Also, the Ukrainian population and the Tatars (the native ethnic population of Crimea) boycotted the referendum due to its perceived illegitimacy in their point of view.
So beyond the points outlined above, has this been a true objective of Russia? The answer is yes, but not exclusively. Russia certainly wants official recognition by Ukraine and the rest of the international community that the Crimean land-grab is de jure complete. It has even gone further for the Crimeans and taken action like destroying a dam in Ukraine in order to restore the flow of water to the North Crimean Canal which serves as Crimea’s primary water supply, moving water from Tavriysk, Ukraine to Kerch at the eastern tip of Crimea. However, Russia has gone far beyond this objective and is currently occupying far more territory than just Crimea (and the Donbas). Russia also unsuccessfully tried to invade the Ukrainian capital (Kyiv) and overthrow the legal and popularly elected government. Why is this needed? And let’s ask the more fundamental question, why is it important to get official recognition for the previous land-grab of Crimea? In reality, it is not important but maybe symbolically pleasing. After all, Russia has de facto been the ruler of the land for 8 years already and nothing has been done about it except symbolic and meaningless sanctions.
Recognition of Donbas as “Independent Republics”
This is a fairly convoluted topic. After the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, power in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions was seized by pro-Russian separatists (the initial separatist leaders would eventually be overthrown by Russian citizens) based on dissatisfaction of the pro-Russian administration crumbling away and being replaced by a pro-Western administration (calling the new administration “miserable Jews”). This was not an organic uprising, it was heavily supported directly by the Russian military and intelligence organizations from the start. One of the primary Russian leaders of the Russians in Donbas is Igor Gerkin – a former Russian intelligence officer who led the initial military contingent from Russia to Donbas and is one of 4 people criminally indicted as a war criminal in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. This was an underhanded form of a Russian land-grab; not a directly acknowledged military invasion but the formation of friendly proxies to fight against Ukraine on Russia’s behalf. The current invasion is a further, direct land-grab to solidify and formalize the previous gains and a pretext for further territorial expansion.
The original Donbas separatist leaders were heavily backed by Russia. Russian advisors came to Donbas immediately and held key positions in the self-proclaimed independent republics (like Gerkin, who would become the Donetsk Minister of Defense). The Russian military supplied weapon systems directly to the separatists. The systems supplied included modern, new items which were only available to the Russian army (including the anti-air missile system used by the separatists to shoot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17). In addition to this indirect support, Russian military personnel also directly participated in the Donbas area to fight against Ukraine. The use of Russian troops was vehemently denied by Russia, until of course it wasn’t. This predictably follows the Russian playbook of lying and deniability of obvious truths until deniability serves no purpose. Russia also systematically assassinated the original separatist leaders (and supposed factional infighting caused the deaths of others) and installed new Donbas leaders directly under Russian control.
Ukraine naturally did not appreciate another country instigating and supporting a rebellion within its borders and it undertook a military campaign to push out the separatist and Russian military forces. Ukraine called this the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation). This was partially successful and Ukraine was able to retake large swathes of land until Russian heavy weaponry and troops were sent in larger numbers from Russia (it is estimated over 10,000 regular Russian soldiers were sent to Ukraine) and reversed the separatists’ losses. It was the Ukrainian military failures in and after the ATO campaign that lead it to seek training from NATO to improve its strategic decision-making and operational effectiveness. The fighting in the Donbas region during this time took the lives of more than 3,000 civilians from attacks both by the Russian and Ukrainian sides.
In an effort to stop the violence and stabilize the situation, an internationally brokered set of agreements known as the Minsk Protocol were established. The original Minsk Protocol and the subsequent Minsk Protocol second (Minsk II) were not held to for a variety of reasons and can be considered failures in finding a peaceful resolution. Cease fire agreements were not abided by any side. Ukrainian politicians fought against the political provisions, claiming it would give Russia a large amount of political influence within Ukraine. Russia did not withdraw its troops or weapons. Russia would also not engage in negotiations with Ukraine on several matters like hostage returns, claiming that it was not a participant and the agreement was between the Donbas “republics” and Ukraine only.
A political weapon that Russia used in this hybrid war is passportization. Russia forces or incentivizes residents of the Donbas areas controlled by separatists to get Russian passports using simplified naturalization procedures. It is estimated that 500-600,000 residents of these regions have received Russian passports. This creates several problems for Ukraine. In the event of reunification of the separatist regions, there is now a massive fifth column population that will have a large voice and large incentive to undermine Ukrainian politics (this was one of the Ukrainian objections to the Minsk Protocols). The other problem is this creates an artificial “Russian” citizen population within the borders of Ukraine and their presence serves as a pretext for Russian invasion. If Ukraine were to attempt to retake the separatist regions by force, it is easy for Russia to invade Ukraine in response with the “protection of its citizens” being the justification. Indeed, Russia claims this is a defensive war where it was attacked first because Ukraine was massing troops to retake the separatist regions.
Before the February 24th Invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russia passed a law officially recognizing the independence of the Lugansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic. This was accompanied by a statement of offering support to those “republics”. The Russia-controlled “governments” of those Republics then officially asked Russia for military assistance and Russia obliged with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, moving its army into the Donbas as “peacekeepers”.
The Russian government is masterful in using state media to push false narratives and outright lies, both for consumption domestically and abroad. Since Russia launched its war, it has implemented very strict censorship laws which resulted in the closure of many independent media outlets so TV and radio news is done through state-funded outlets. Unfortunately, Western media can achieve much the same effect either intentionally in the pursuit of naked bias or unintentionally in the pursuit of clicks/watches. Ukrainian media cannot be considered as fully reliable right now since the country is in an existential fight for its survival against an invading army. However, source information can still be useful and accurate and Ukrainian media prior to the invasion can be reasonably used for historical reference. Below are some Russian and Western narratives that pop up from time-to-time.
Putin is sick and dying / Putin is crazy / Putin screwed Russia: It is irrelevant whether or not Putin is dying or sick. Putin is not a madman and he is not crazy. He is an enormously skilled geopolitical strategist and none of his moves have put Russia in a position which is worse than it was prior to February 24. It is an error to confuse the extremely poor execution of Russia’s military with the overall position of strength that Russia is in. It is also an error to believe that any negative economic consequences for ordinary Russian citizens are a negative factor for the government. Prior to the invasion, Russia controlled roughly 8-10% of Ukraine through its proxy entities in the Donbas. Now Russia controls 20% (as of this writing) of Ukrainian territory. Besides some extremely optimistic wishful thinking, there is no clear situation where Ukraine would be able to reclaim this stolen land militarily.
- Both the Donbas region and the waters of the Black Sea off of Crimea are rich in energy reserves. Donbas has always been a major producer of coal. But starting in around 2010-2012, surveys found enormous quantities of oil that could be fracked in Donbas as well as deposits off the coast of Crimea that could be drilled. These reserves would be the second largest in Europe (behind Norway). With Russia’s military conquest of this land, it has achieved a two-fold outcome. The first is that it adds to its energy production potential. The second is that it deprives another country of the potential windfalls of becoming a major energy exporter. Russia has strengthened its own energy hegemony by depriving Ukraine of the opportunity to utilize its own resources; aka, taking out the competition and seizing its resources using tanks. “The Crisis in Ukraine: Its Legal Dimensions” by the organization Razom is a report which contains an excellent explanation of Ukraine’s energy resources.
- Russia and Ukraine are both major wheat producers. Russia’s invasion has lowered the capacity for Ukraine’s agricultural sector to produce a key export as well as closed off a key route to market for this key Ukrainian export. Most Ukrainian wheat was shipped through the Black Sea, which now cannot be used because of mines and the threat of violence by the Russian Navy. The Russian army has also stolen Ukrainian grain harvests and transported them to Russian territory to sell. Again, Russia has strengthened its own economic position while destroying the economy of Ukraine. (https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-says-russia-stole-several-hundred-thousand-tonnes-grain-2022-04-30/) (https://www.dw.com/en/ukraine-eu-condemns-real-war-crime-of-russian-grain-blockade/a-62187109)
- Even though Ukraine did not and does not have a viable path towards NATO membership, Russia’s invasion has definitively shut the door on that. Countries cannot join NATO if they are in the midst of fighting a war. If Russia has its way, the Donbas “republics” would become officially separate from Ukraine. It is unlikely that Ukraine would truly accept that, thus they would be in the midst of an ongoing territorial dispute which would disqualify them from NATO membership. Russia has pulled off the same moves before. It stationed troops in the Transnistria region of Moldova and propped up a puppet government claiming sovereignty from Moldova. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and stationed troops in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia. Of course, those regions declared themselves to be republics independent of Georgian sovereignty. Both of these actions created frozen conflicts, killing the aspirations of Georgia to join NATO and any potential aspirations that Moldova had.
- The Russian government has consolidated power over the media. Independent news outlets (especially TV stations, this is less of an impact for internet based media) and Western social media have been shut down and the only message that most Russians get is through state-run TV news and analysis. (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10579867/CNN-ABC-CBS-BBC-CBC-Bloomberg-stop-broadcasting-Russia-fake-news-law-comes-in.html) (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/17/russia-information-firewall-ukraine-war/)
- The Russian government has consolidated political power. A massive pro-war propaganda push including rallies, billboards, etc. has been made and any dissent is stamped out with the threat of fines and/or jail time. Russians are encouraged to turn in those that air opinions contrary to the state narrative. Stating facts or asking questions contrary to the government narrative will result in fines and/or jail time. Political opposition is non-existent, with most credible leaders being imprisoned, murdered, or forced to flee the country. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicholasreimann/2022/03/18/putin-holds-massive-pro-war-rally-in-moscow/?sh=10db1cc32abd) (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/scum-traitors-pressure-ukraine-putin-turns-ire-russians-rcna20410) (https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-denunciations-stalin-putin-ukraine-war/31793081.html) (https://news.yahoo.com/putin-generation-fleeing-putin-russia-083000215.html) (https://dnyuz.com/2022/04/09/spurred-by-putin-russians-turn-on-one-another-over-the-war/) (https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-europe-moscow-347cf5d867eb34b1e8469f942685b673)
- Putin’s action send important messages domestically and internationally
- Domestically, the message is “do not push to Westernize Russia, look at the chaos that ensues”.
- To foreign countries in Russia’s sphere of influence or those Russia is courting for its sphere of influence, the message is “do not seek to leave the Russian sphere of influence, look at what will happen to you” as well as “the West/EU is not a reliable partner”. (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/06/18/vladimir-putins-veiled-threat-ex-soviet-states-part-historic/)
- To the West/EU, the message is that they are ineffective to stop him so they shouldn’t try. They should let him do what he wants in whatever he considers Russia’s sphere of influence to be. (https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/17/europe/russia-president-vladimir-putin-speech-spief-intl/index.html)
All of this is a net positive for Putin. The Russian people have been hit on some practical level (job losses from foreign employers, inflation and scarcity for some items) by sanctions from the West, but the government has been essentially unaffected. Russia prepared for sanctions by increasing its reserves of foreign currencies and gold. While ordinary people are worse off, the state of the ordinary people is a non-factor for the government. Sanctions are also incomplete and fairly ineffective; European countries still pour billions of dollars into Russia for energy imports (https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2022/05/08/russias-oil-revenues-are-soaring/?sh=3af5966a4e34) and significant countries in the Global South (India, South Africa, Mexico, etc.) are not changing their economic cooperation with Russia. None of Putin’s actions have been irrational and the Russian government (even with poor military execution and horrendous troop losses) is not in a worse-off position. Putin’s actions are simply the product of calculating the cost of something and determining that the end value of obtaining the goal is worth the cost. The Western leadership made this calculation incredibly easy for Putin. They explicitly stated that there wouldn’t be a military response, they would stay out of it, and they would act using sanctions so the only cost to weigh was the cost of sanctions (again, which hardly impact the government and ruling elite).
There will be a coup to remove Putin: Giving weight to this idea is just a Western incomprehension of the Russian mindset and attitude. Russians historically have never had and do not view themselves as having any agency in the government that governs them. Even if the war turns out to be unpopular with the ordinary people (which is not the case as far as I can tell from polls and interviews coming from Russia, which all need to be taken with a grain of salt https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/31/putins-approval-surges-after-launch-of-military-operation-in-ukraine-a77162), the people will not do anything about it. Russian culture is predominantly servile to power. Every change of government that the Russian people have experienced has been a coup by the ruling elite, and not the people. The 1917 Revolution was not a people’s movement, it was urban elites seizing political power and convincing enough of the military to join in order to win the ensuing civil war. 1991 was not a people’s movement, it was Communist Party factional infighting resulting in one faction pulling off the dissolution. Putin did not come to power through an election, he was put in a position of power by his predecessor before his predecessor’s resignation. There is no incentive for the ruling elite to remove Putin right now. Some analysts think that would change if Putin ordered the use of nuclear weapons. Personally, I agree with this assessment.
Putin is like Hitler: There are many parallels that could cause a person to believe this, but this is not a sufficient comparison. There is a key point of divergence. Hitler developed a mechanism to systematically murder entire populations that were different than his own. That is not Putin’s desired outcome and not the desired Russian cultural outcome. The modern goal is not the elimination of non-Russians, but the Russianization of non-Russians and dominion over their land. It is the erasure of non-Russian identities and their replacement with a Russian identity. While both are not good, Hitler’s goals are magnitudes worse than Putin’s. Other comparisons are apt. An authoritarian government, suppressing the rights of its people, with an ethno-nationalist view of expanding across its borders through force.
This was a pre-emptive action: Russian media has spread the propaganda that the invasion of Ukraine was needed since Ukraine was preparing to invade Russia. This is nonsense. There is no logical reason for Ukraine (or any country) to invade Russia and there is no logical expectation that any country (even the USA) could successfully invade Russia without triggering a nuclear war. I have yet to hear any real reasoning for this based on historical fact or awareness of the current situation. The lone rebuttal I have heard in order to back up this point is along the lines of “of course it wouldn’t be an obvious military invasion, it would be a series of unacknowledged provocations with deniability by Ukraine”. This does not make any sense. Nobody in recent history except the Russians themselves (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_allegedly_involved_in_Russian_apartment_bombings#FSB_and_GRU_suspects) (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/21/dumb-and-lazy-the-flawed-films-of-ukrainian-attacks-made-by-russias-fake-factory) (https://www.businessinsider.com/russian-agents-the-sims-video-game-sting-operation-2022-4) have ever done covert “provocations” (attacks of a non-military nature) against Russia. Ukraine does not have any reason to do so or any way to gain from doing so; it is a weaker conventional military power as evidenced by Russia’s invasion, it does not have a deterrent to prevent itself from getting nuked by Russia, and it is not defended by the shield of NATO.
There are of course plenty of pure conspiracy theory claims circulating too. One of the popular ones is that Ukraine was developing nuclear weapons to use against Russia. This stems from a comment that Zelensky made that the 1994 Budapest agreement has not served Ukraine well. This is an accurate assessment since Ukraine gave up its strongest deterrent to its invaders for the promise of territorial respect from its future-invaders (a promise broken) and promise of aid in maintaining its territory from the West (also broken). There is no evidence of any kind that Ukraine was pursuing nuclear weapons development. The “CIA biolabs” are another wonderful conspiracy theory. These stories range from “Ukraine developed and unleashed Covid from its biolabs” to “the CIA was developing bio-weapons to use against Russia at the biolabs”. If any evidence is found for this, let me know.
Comment on Budapest Memorandum: https://kyivindependent.com/national/zelenskys-full-speech-at-munich-security-conference/
This is a proxy war between Russia and the West: This became a popular talking point on the TV programs of two of the most influential Russian propagandists (Vladimir Solovyov and Olga Skabeyeva), but only after the Russian military showed its ineffectiveness and ineptitude. There was a striking transformation between their initial content (predicting that at any moment the Russian army will roll into Kyiv with minimal resistance, greeted by Ukrainians as liberators) and subsequent content (blaming the difficulties that the Russian army was having on NATO, stating that Russia was fighting against NATO’s best in Ukraine, etc.). Some of the less-than-mainstream Russian propaganda outfits have even claimed that NATO soldiers are fighting in Ukraine and dying by the thousands. This is of course nonsense. There is a very specific definition of a proxy war, and the current situation fails to meet that definition. This assertion becomes even more laughable when you take into account the statements of NATO and Western leadership that they will explicitly not participate in this war unless NATO territory is attacked. NATO has made a commitment to provide weapons to Ukraine to defend itself, but providing weapons to a third-party does not mean you are a participant. The US provided logistical and weapons aid to the UK during WW1 (before joining the war). But nobody proposes that WW1 was a war with the US fighting against Germany using the UK as a proxy. The Korean War and the Vietnam War can be considered true proxy wars as all parties (side A, proxy A, side B, proxy B) had active combat participation. There are no proxy A and proxy B in the current situation, side A is directly in confrontation with side B.
This is Trump’s fault/Trump praised Putin: This entire line of reasoning is pure nonsense. Under the Trump administration, Russia did not invade any of its neighbors. Under the Bush administration, Russia invaded and seized lands from Georgia. Under the Obama administration, Russia invaded and seized Ukrainian lands. Under the Biden administration, Russia again invaded and seized Ukrainian lands.
Concrete actions that Trump took during his administration were to (for the first time ever) send offensive weaponry and supplies to Ukraine, to shame/cajole/motivate NATO countries to increase their military spending, to hold the largest/most intricate/most aggressive NATO wargames and increase NATO patrols around Russia, increase sanctions, and to withdraw from treaties which either benefited Russia exclusively or which Russia was explicitly violating. These are all bold, powerful moves that project strength and resolution to a potential adversary. Trump also warned fellow Western leaders against allowing them to increase Russian influence in their economic and security matters. (https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2022/02/08/trump_i_gave_germany_a_white_flag_they_already_surrendered_to_russia_when_they_built_the_pipeline.html)
In contrast, the Obama administration (with then-VP Biden being the “point person” on Russia and Ukraine) refused to sell Ukraine offensive weapons to defend itself with as well as freezing the NATO membership process for Ukraine (initiated under GW Bush). This put Ukraine in a very vulnerable position. These are all signs of timidity and weakness to an adversary. Under a continuation of the same theme with the Biden administration, Russia was all but given a green light to invade Ukraine by President Biden’s open proclamation that there would not be any response from the USA if there was such an invasion. This is the ultimate weakness; telegraphing your moves ahead of time to an adversary is the surest way to give your adversary the ultimate advantage.
The last point especially is very important when comparing failed leadership to the Trump approach. After Russia started the invasion in February 2022, Trump was asked what he did to prevent this happening during his administration. His response was that he told Putin he would bomb Moscow in retaliation. Did he really say that? We don’t know. Would he really have done it? We don’t know. Is it plausible he said that and would’ve followed through? Yes, very plausible. And that is the strength of such an approach. If you do not know the exact consequences and cannot come to a reasonable profit/loss calculation for bad actions, then the fear of disastrous consequences will be a strong disincentive from taking those actions. This is how Putin operates and is one of his greatest strengths as a geopolitical strategist; his opponents (the West) are in the dark about true goals, intentions, thresholds, and flexibility so they cannot effectively counter and plan.
The point about Trump praising Putin is nothing short of disingenuous and intellectually decrepit. Saying that Putin made a “savvy” move to invade Ukraine is not praising the actions as being positive, it is merely acknowledging the situation. Putin made his invasion with impunity and with incredibly minimal consequence. All the pathetic and useless pleading by the collective West is safely ignored by Russia without consequence. The Ukrainians met the invasion with strength but the West met it with timidity. The West’s focus is to (minimally) deincentivize the invasion with minimal economic and military risk to itself, taking into account all red-lines set by Russia. Flexing your power at the expense of others without consequence is reprehensible, but it is certainly a savvy move if you can do it and it puts you in a better position. I’m extremely anti-Putin, but I make many of the same points in this document and nothing I have written can be reasonably taken as praise of Putin and his evil government.
Blame the West
Some people blame Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the West. These people can be placed into two groups, Russia(ns) who are trying to deflect and blame naked aggression on a non-participant and Westerns who think that the West has been too aggressive/unfair/etc. towards Russia. I also think that there is a good amount of blame to go towards the West, but for the opposite reasons. This invasion could have been prevented if the West was not weak; history has shown that being resolute, purposeful, and strong is the only way to deal with the aggression of authoritarian irredentists. Appeasement only leads to the next war. Showing weakness from a position of strength does not lead to de-escalation.
I’ve made a comparison in the previous sections about strong vs. weak policy and sending timid vs. resolute signals to an adversary. Even in the midst of the war that Russia is waging, the West continues its weak and timid approach. Some countries like the UK and Poland break this mold, but for the most part, weakness is ruling the day. The West is helping Ukrainians die less and slower, but it is avoiding real difference-making action that could turn the tide. Putin’s threats make the West cower and avoid impactful actions that Ukraine has requested. An example of this is a no-fly zone. NATO resolutely objected to this idea as being too confrontational even though it would have been a game changer in the early days of the war. Why? Because Putin railed explicitly against a no-fly zone. To show strength and deterrence, NATO should have recognized that the Russian fear of specifically a no-fly zone meant that instituting one was of paramount importance to thwart Russian success, save civilian lives, and preserve Ukrainian infrastructure.
The West continues to show capitulation and deference to Putin in many key decisions that could make a very specific impact on the outcome of the war. The West refused to provide modern anti-air defense systems for fear that would be too provocative to Russia. These systems could have played key roles in preventing Russian cruise missiles from hitting residential areas. Training and supply of new fighter jets is not happening. Supply of modern tanks is not happening. Military equipment that is supplied gets supplied very late. Ukrainians request it, the West equivocates endlessly, and ends up supplying it anyways (in some form) when it is too late to make a difference. What does get supplied is usually handicapped or a token gesture. The recent decision to supply HIMARS rocket artillery is a clear example. The yes/no decision was made months after the initial request, the capabilities are crippled by the decision to not supply the longest-range rockets for the system (again, in order to not upset the Russian invaders too much), and only a quantity of 4 are being supplied. Poland ordered 400 of these systems to defend its territory, which is smaller than Ukraine. This aid is enough to publically say “we are doing something” without doing anything practically to turn the tide of the war against the aggressors. Germany is another example of this; publically stating it will supply things like mobile anti-aircraft systems and armored personnel carriers but with the caveat that it will take half a year to do so.
Why does this matter? Keeping the status quo with an aggressor rewards the aggressor and essentially puts a very calculable (and low) price on territorial expansion. This is a strong incentive for further military territorial expansion by the aggressor in the future, and that is a very attractive thing for authoritarian governments (unrestrained by law or morality) as a means for maintaining legitimacy domestically. Next time it could be Moldova, or Georgia, or another slice of Ukraine that gets taken. Those protected now by the NATO umbrella will be protected, those not protected now will never be protected or free again. If the West does not take a stance to make the price for Russian expansion too high now, then we are condemning those free people and countries currently not in NATO to live under Russian rule in the future.
Why should we, as Americans, support Ukraine against Russia in this war? We are sending a lot of money and military materiel to a foreign country for a war that we are not involved in. Forget about any arguments of morality, political unity with another democracy against an oppressive/authoritarian regime, or humanity and aid in the face of innocents suffering. There is a very real pragmatic reason. If Russia cannot be made to see that the cost/benefit of military invasions does not favor doing so, it will continue to do so again and again. More countries, more refugees, more people dying, and more people losing their freedom to an oppressive autocracy. And at some point that will mean Americans dying; Russia’s math will let it believe that taking a small NATO country is worth the price and American soldiers will have to disprove that. I don’t want Americans to die fighting a war in Europe so we should help as much as we can now with our treasure to prevent needing to spend more treasure and American blood later. Ukrainians are willing to fight for their land and their people if only we give them aid. We should so that Americans don’t have to die later for other lands and other people.
Language Laws in 2014
Let’s look at what happened and what the laws were. In 2012, the Kivalov-Kolesnichenk Language Law (KKLL) was passed. This established Ukrainian as the official state language while recognizing Russian as a regional language for business, education, etc. in certain areas based on the ethnic composition of those areas. On Feb 23, 2014, there was a vote in the parliament to abolish the KKLL. This motion passed in the parliament but was vetoed by President Turchynov who appointed a committee to make a new law to respect both Eastern and Western Ukraine on Feb 27, 2014. The KKLL stayed in effect continuously until 2019, it was never cancelled and the status of the Russian language was upheld by the institutions and the rule of law in Ukraine.
Let’s also ask the bigger question; so what if some laws in Ukraine removed official standing of the Russian language, does that give Russia any legal or moral justification in invading Ukraine?
Russia claims that installing Aegis Ashore facilities in NATO countries is a threat to Russia. Aegis Ashore is an anti-missile system, used to intercept incoming missiles with its own missiles and is derived from the Aegis anti-missile system installed on US Navy ships. The Russian objection is that Aegis Ashore could be used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles into Russia. This is both untrue and a mis-direction. Aegis Ashore does not have the capability to launch Tomahawks, this is something that ship-based Aegis systems can do but Aegis Ashore does not have the right components. Every test launch of Aegis Ashore has been a surface-to-air interception. It has never been tested once in a surface-to-surface role.
Japan had a potential choice of pursuing a purchase of a missile strike system instead of a missile defense system after they cancelled their planned Aegis Ashore implementation. If Aegis could be employed in that offensive role, why not consider it for both?
Russia’s objection to Aegis Ashore is because it uses the Mk-41 launch system so it could launch Tomahawk cruise missiles in an offensive way. And the concern there is that Tomahawks can be nuclear armed and have enough range to strike Moscow from within Ukraine. This is plainly either misinformation or disinformation. The launch system is just a physical construct that holds the missiles in place and provides capabilities to allow for launch (opening the hatch, venting plume gasses, etc.). The use case for the missile is independent of the launch system and vice versa. Mk-41 launchers can accommodate Tomahawks, SM-2, SM-3, and SM-6 missiles as well as anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine missiles. The Aegis Ashore system uses SM-2,3,6 surface-to-air missiles. These missiles don’t have surface-to-surface abilities; the hardware and software is designed to do something else. There is a reason why the military has many kinds of different missile systems for different uses and not a universal, single missile. The capability of a missile system is dependent upon its propulsion system, maneuvering system, its on-board guidance system (the seeker in the warhead), and the target acquisition and tracking system (this is the complex system-of-systems including airborne radars, space-based radars, and ship/land-based radars – this is the essence of a weapons system like Aegis). Just like a Tomahawk can’t be used against a submarine, or a radar-guided air-to-air missile can’t be used against a tank, the missiles used in Aegis Ashore aren’t designed to attack land targets; the software and hardware is designed to intercept things out of the air. Aegis Ashore does not have the ground support systems, fire control system, nor the software to launch Tomahawks (https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/top-pentagon-official-disputes-russian-claims-that-aegis-ashore-violates-inf-treaty/).
Any retrofit to Aegis Ashore to gain Tomahawk launch capability would be crazy expensive and also pointless; and this is where the Russian misdirection comes in. Why retrofit this AAA system at a horrendous cost when there are existing land-attack systems that can be procured for a fraction of the price and would be far more survivable if not launched from a static ground facility? There are existing/in development mobile rocket launch systems that can fire Tomahawks, if they wanted that capability, they would just roll that out. There are far more economical and effective ways to lob a cruise missile into Russia (like from a bomber or submarine or mobile launcher) so the entire thing is misdirection, the capability for the discussed perceived threat is already there. The entire objection really is purely that Russia’s offensive capability is diminished with an Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Again; it is not an existential threat that your capability to be an aggressor is diminished. Especially given that there are cruise missiles and ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad that directly touch NATO member’s borders and are in reach of many more members territories. Kaliningrad is much closer to Berlin, Warsaw, and Vilnius than any part of Ukraine to Moscow.
INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty)
One of the many baseless Russian grievances is that their security posture is weakened because the US withdrew from the INF, which limited the development of certain types of missiles. There was a very clear reason for the US to withdraw from the treaty; Russia violated the treaty to test and develop the very missiles prohibited by the treaty. Why remain in a treaty to limit your own capability when your adversary doesn’t abide by the rules of the treaty? This article contains a very good description of exactly what Russia did to violate the treaty: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/INFtreaty