Everything there is to say about Russia's invasion of Ukraine has already been written. “Experts” are divided between those who argue that NATO's eastward expansion was a provocation that left Russia no choice but to undertake a "preemptive military operation", as President Vladimir Putin put it in his May 9th speech on the anniversary of the signing of Germany's surrender documents in Berlin in 1945, and those who claim that it is part of an expansion strategy that began with the annihilation of Chechnya's resistance in 1999. Objective reasons are of little value in accounting for the war; alignment depends above all on the ideology of the analyst.
The implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 after the breakdown of a centralised power led to the secession of the republics that had signed the 1922 Agreement on the formation of the Soviet Union. President Putin considers that this Treaty represented a Bolshevik betrayal because it granted the founding republics the right to withdraw, thus departing from the epic of the Tsars. In his speech, President Putin paid tribute to the generals of the Empire and the heroes that maintained the control of Ukraine throughout the Great Patriotic War, a period from June 1941 to May 1945 during the Second World War.
The expansion of the Tsarist Empire was also part of the Soviet Union's policy once it had consolidated control of the territory after the 1918-1921 civil war. The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 allowed the partition of Eastern European countries with Germany and the Baltic countries (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) in June 1940. The Pact included the partition of Poland; the Russian army, following a decision by the Soviet Politburo led by Stalin, carried out the Katyn massacre where 22,000 Polish officers and leaders held in Kalinin and Kharkiv prisons were killed between April and May 1940 in order to eliminate all resistance and any aspiration for independence.
The joint efforts of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States to defeat Germany after the Nazi invasion known as "Operation Barbarossa" enabled Joseph Stalin to participate in the Yalta Conference with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 4th, 1945, where they agreed on the distribution of occupation forces to avoid a confrontation between the Allies. The Soviet Union took control of Central Europe by establishing "friendly governments" in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Albania, Romania, and Bulgaria.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union actively supported the decolonisation process through which the US, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and France granted independence to their colonies, bringing about a major international reorganisation. However, these changes did not involve any of the Republics that were part of its Empire under the excuse that they maintained a "voluntary association" through "independent governments": a Soviet-style Commonwealth
The 1991 breakdown of the system of centralised and repressive control led to a major internal restructuring but also to the unease of an elite that had been trained to continue with the traditional paradigm that allowed them to exercise absolute power. Vladimir Putin is part of this privileged group educated, trained and identified with the values of tradition. Putin argues that "Russia is a different country, it has a dissimilar nature; we will never abandon the love of our Motherland, our traditional faith and values and the customs of our ancestors". Russia, just like China, went from feudalism to communism without experiencing democracy.
President Clinton's letter of support for President Biden describes the United States' efforts in the 1990s to cooperate with Russia in its transition and to build trust between its armed forces and NATO. The key to cooperation was for Russia to remain a democratic country and not return to ultra-nationalism with aspirations to rebuild the Empire of Peter the Great or Catharine the Great. Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 that guaranteed Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for the handover of nuclear weapons. In 1997, the NATO-Russia Act was signed for Russia's participation in NATO issues. It also supported Russia’s membership to the G-7, which then became the G-8. Nothing foreshadowed the changes following Putin's rise.
The association of Central European countries with the European Union was a natural choice to ensure the continuity of democracy and achieve progress, as was joining NATO to prevent militarisation and protect against any disruption of the situation. Bill Clinton recalls the words of the Swedish Prime Minister: "It was not NATO that marched East, it was the satellite countries of the Soviet Union that aspired to go West". NATO did not reach out to Finland and Sweden; these nations need NATO to guarantee their integrity and sovereignty.
The Soviet Union divided Europe into zones of influence and when it collapsed as a result of the will of the countries concerned, that border also came down. There are clear attempts to replicate this scenario not only in Europe but also in Asia on the grounds of national security. These arguments were incorporated into the Beijing Declaration between Russia and China signed on February 4th as if both had the right to establish the new borders of coexistence.
Bill Clinton's fears were confirmed with Russia's alliance with Belarus, the Georgian war, its involvement in Syria, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Attention can also be drawn to cyber-attacks, interference in electoral processes and financial support for like-minded political parties in Europe and America, repeating the experience of communist parties receiving aid for their election campaigns and for their support to the international position of the Soviet Union.
Last year on December 17th Russia presented Russia-US and NATO-Russia Security Assurances draft agreements laying down restrictions on the deployment of weapons, including missiles, and military forces in Europe. The publication and terms of the drafts prompted rejection because they imposed restrictions on NATO's "open door" policy and set conditions limiting the sovereign right of countries to decide on their foreign relations policies. The proposals appeared more like ultimatums than negotiation drafts against the backdrop of the occupation of Crimea, Russian military forces in the Donbas region and troop concentrations on the Ukrainian and Moldovan borders. The drums of war were already beating.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is part of Vladimir Putin's pathology and his constant moaning about Russia's loss of influence after the 1991 meltdown. From that time to the present, Europe has pursued a policy of appeasement, trying to accommodate demands and binding itself to dependence on Russian oil and gas. The United States, despite the rhetoric, tolerated this policy and accepted the situation in Chechnya, Belarus, Georgia and Crimea. All these developments hastened the perception of the presence of a totalitarian and megalomaniacal leader among the countries that suffered 50 years of totalitarianism.
Vladimir Putin's greed entails a setback and wipes out decades of peace and progress. The consequences are serious because he has created a scenario of instability and confrontation that will be very difficult to overcome unless there is a radical change. The whole world is enduring the consequences of this conflict, but nothing can compare to the sacrifice of the Ukrainian people, who bear witness to the deaths and destruction of their country. This is not a "pre-emptive" operation, Putin wants to take Ukraine a hundred years back in its history. There is no room for second readings or interpretations. History teaches about the dangers of such individuals and their recurrence is regrettable considering the experiences of the past.
Felipe Frydman is an economist and a diplomatic. Former ambassador to Kingdom of Thailand.
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