What Caused Russia to Invade Ukraine?
By David Lane (Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge)
The horrors of war following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in March 2022 could not have been more graphically portrayed in the Western mass media. Russia has been subject to international public condemnation accompanied by devastating economic and political sanctions. The underlying causes of the conflict, however, have received relatively little attention. On one side, President Putin and his associates are presented as an imperialist elite seeking to expand the territory of Russia. The other side, which has had less media coverage, contends that the underlying drivers are Western political interests promoting the expansion of NATO to destroy Russia. There is one chorus to both sides: the enemy is the cause of war.
The causes of war are far deeper than personal or collective ambition. Carl von Clausewitz regarded war as a continuation of politics by other (military and economic) means. Historical and social conditions shape the trajectory of politics. Understanding the political context explains why political leaders resort to war. Notably, Maynard Keynes, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), emphasised the harsh and harmful conditions imposed by the Allies on Germany after the First World War which, he contended, would destabilise Germany, and indeed later did create the political preconditions for the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.
War in Europe was far from the mind of Michael Gorbachev when in 1986 he embarked on the policy of perestroika. He sought to return the Soviet Union to its spiritual home in Europe, to ‘re-join civilisation’. The expectations in both the West and in the communist countries were that perestroika would bring in a new era of peace, stability and prosperity. None of these objectives was achieved. The USSR lost the Cold War.
In shaping the contours of the post-communist societies, historical institutional factors as well as the policies of the Western countries played an important part. The faults and contradictions in the post-communist transition have led to instability, internal wars and inter-ethnic conflicts in many of the former republics and regions of the Soviet Union, of which the crisis in Ukraine is the latest example.
The ‘transformation’ of the socialist states had five components: the creation of new sovereign nation states, setting up a capitalist market system, the institution of democratic competitive electoral politics in a pluralist civil society, and the normalisation of political relations with the West. While these factors are all interrelated, two particularly stand out with respect to the crisis which has afflicted Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. Namely, the settlement of the post-Soviet states in the international and economic political order, and the problematic constitution of Ukraine as a sovereign nation state.
The Problematic International Dimension
President Gorbachev sought a respected place for the Soviet Union in the world political order and he succeeded in transforming East-West relations. As George Bush put it in December 1989: ‘We don’t consider you an enemy any more’ – a sentiment shared by a wide political spectrum of Western commentators. In securing an economic and political agreements with the West, however, Gorbachev had offered unconditional removal of Soviet military forces from Eastern Europe. In return for agreeing to the unification of Germany, he had received a ‘promise’ from Western negotiators that NATO would not move ‘one inch’ to the East. There was a failure here in Soviet negotiations: no Treaty or binding written agreement was made with NATO concerning European security. While the Warsaw Pact was quickly dissolved, not only did NATO continue, but it duly expanded to include the former eastern socialist European states and the former Baltic republics of the USSR. An alternative policy might have consisted of concurrent dissolution both of the Warsaw Pact and NATO in favour of a new security agreement for Europe which could have come under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This could have entailed a form of collective security for all the European countries. A security agreement acting as a shell to the concept of a common civilisation home might have been achieved.
What transpired, however, was a process by which each European country had the right to choose its own security policy – to join any political or military alliance. These rights were defined in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 to which the USSR had subscribed. The reasoning here is that a state cannot be truly ‘independent’ if it lacks the power to join the alliances it believes will further its own security interests. This forms the basis of the Ukrainian government’s politically legitimate right to join NATO, a right moreover which is implied in the USSR’s recognition of the Helsinki Agreement.
The Norms of International Relations
Whether NATO should accept Ukraine, however, is another matter. Acceptance of Ukraine into NATO could concurrently constitute a ‘threat’ to Russia, as it extends a hostile military alliance right up to its borders. The norms and practices of international relations have always limited the freedom of sovereign states to act ‘in their own interests’ if those interests are considered a threat to other states. This is the basis of the Monroe Doctrine, originating in 1823, which defined ‘areas of influence’ of the USA and limited the formation of military pacts between European powers and the Americas. On the reasoning of this doctrine, the USA, under President Kennedy, claimed that Cuba, a sovereign state, did not have the right to secure missiles from the Soviet Union as they would threaten the security of the United States. The USA would be justified in using force against Cuba to stop this happening. Similar reasoning would apply now to any hypothetical application by Mexico to join a Russian or Chinese-inspired military alliance. The USA undoubtedly would not allow it.
In current political practice, countries condemn illegal aggression of one state against another state, except, when they feel threatened, they do just that. President George W. Bush, for example, invaded Iraq and President Nixon authorised a bombing campaign against Vietnam – even though the ‘threat’ to the United States was remote. At the present time, Turkey has invaded Syria. None of these illegal actions can be held, morally, to condone other illegal actions, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They do, however, constitute widely accepted norms of political action which states often claim are legitimate when they defend ‘higher level’ Western civilisational values, or state security. Western democracies, for example, in the Second World War, destroyed civilian populations by bombing and devastating Dresden and Hamburg and, more recently, Iraq.
A similar situation has occurred with respect to Russia’s objection to Ukraine’s application to join NATO which, if granted, would have advanced NATO to its borders. The Astana Declaration of the OSCE (Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe) made in December 2010 has been interpreted by Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, to mean that states do not have any uncontested right to strengthen their security when it involves a threat to, or is at the expense of, the security of other states1. NATO enlargement to include Ukraine is considered by Russia as such a security threat. The policy of NATO expansion has long been criticised as destabilising international relations. Notably in the letter to President Clinton, signed in June 1997, by fifty prominent foreign policy statesmen2 who presciently warned that ‘the current U.S.-led effort to expand NATO….[is] a policy error of historic proportions [which] … will decrease allied security and unsettle European stability.’ In other words, the ‘rights’ of states have to be limited if they undermine other objectives such as peaceful relations between states.
One side to the dilemma posed by the present war is Ukraine’s claim that Russia’s use of armed force is illegal. On the other side, legitimacy is based on the norms and practice of international behaviour between states. Russia claims to be acting within currently accepted practice: states use force, even when it is illegal, to protect their spheres of interest. Thus, there are two conflicting logics underlying the legitimacy of the warring sides: the illegality of the use of force; and the right of self-defence against actual or, as in this case, potential attack. When diplomacy breaks down, as Clausewitz contended, war threatens. The antidote is not to stoke the fires of war but to resolve the disagreements to preserve the peace and introduce institutions and agreements which promote mutual security.
The Problematic Ukrainian State Formation
The other major precipitant to the Russian invasion stems from the faults in the constitution of the state formations which followed the breakup of the USSR. Russia contests the internal policy of the Ukrainian state which harms Russian speaking citizens whom Russia seeks to protect.
The Soviet Union, constituted by Federative Republics, was formed in 1922 on the basis of gubnerniya (provinces) constituting the Russian Empire. Lenin strongly advocated a federal form constituted of republics, and lower level national areas, predicated on the predominant nationality in any given geographical region. Under Lenin, the ‘Union Republics’ (such as Ukraine) had the right to secede from the Soviet Union. The reasoning at the time was that nationalist movements, which had the potential to threaten the socialist formation, could be contained politically within the Union which would be politically centralised and socialist in form.
Population movements, consequent on Soviet industrialisation policy, led to an exodus of the European mainly Russian-speaking population to other parts of the Soviet Union leading to their Russification and other significant changes. During the Soviet period, the multinational character of the Union republics was significant but national groups did not constitute a political threat as the Communist Party and the state administrative system were highly centralised and economically interdependent. The government of the Soviet Union had a monopoly of foreign trade and foreign relations which severely curtailed foreign influences in the republics. The transformation period, however, led to the secession of the fifteen union republics of the USSR which formed independent states. Unlike the countries of Western Europe which had evolved gradually, concurrent with the dissolution of the feudal structures, these new states had to be formed, or reformed, often on the basis of pre-modern historical memories or imagined identities.
Ukraine was one of the most ethnically and politically fragmented states in Europe. The Russian speaking south-eastern industrialised provinces of the Russian Empire in 1922 became regions within the Ukrainian socialist republic. In 1940 and 1945 the Ukrainian speaking agricultural areas to the West, previously part of Poland, were taken into the Soviet Union and became part of Ukraine. Here Ukrainian nationalism was strong and, led by Stepan Bandera, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, fought with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in 1941. Ukrainian nationalism had an extreme right-wing component. In 1954, Russian speaking Crimea was transferred under Nikita Khrushchev (himself a Ukrainian) from the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation to Ukraine. The major territorial changes are illustrated on map 1.
Map 1. Territories Annexed to Ukraine
Source: Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Printed with their permission (email dated 26 March 2022, Jacob Taylor).
In the post-Soviet period, the challenge presented to the incumbent Ukraine governments was how to meld these different and often incompatible communities into a nation state. Many writers have emphasised the cultural divisions. Samuel Huntington, for example, defined the eastern boundary of Western Civilisation to run through the middle of Ukraine – to the east are the Muslim and Orthodox Christian peoples3. The Ukrainian nationalist candidate for Presidency in 1994 (Leonid Kravchuk) was overwhelmingly supported in the Western districts, including Kiev, while Leonid Kuchma received overwhelming electoral support in the Eastern regions and Crimea. As Ian Brzezinski has concluded: the 1994 election ‘reflected, even crystallized, the split between Europeanized Slavs in the Western Ukraine and the Russo-Slav version of what Ukraine should be. It’s not ethnic polarization so much as different cultures’4. (See Map 2). Religious and ethnic differences are not insuperable if they are properly managed as illustrated by federal states such as Switzerland and Canada. But this was not the case in Ukraine.
Map 2. Languages of Ukraine
Source: as for Map 1.
After gaining independence, the Ukrainian government adopted a ‘Ukrainianization’ policy making Ukrainian the sole state language, which was overturned by Viktor Yanukovych. The overwhelming electoral support for Viktor Yushchenko (President of Ukraine from 23 January 2005 to 25 February 2010, the pro-Western European Union Presidential candidate in 2010) came from the Western provinces. Whereas his successful opponent, Viktor Yanukovych (President of Ukraine from 2010 until he was removed from office during the Maidan Revolution in 2014) had the support of the Russian speaking east. Following Yanukovych’s overthrow, the new government legitimated itself by identification with the rehabilitated Stepan Bandera and strengthened laws authorising Ukrainian once again as the sole state language. This policy has led to charges of discrimination against the Russian-speaking population. It is not simply a language issue: language is linked to other political factors. De-communisation, the proscription of the Communist Party of Ukraine and the (recent) banning of opposition parties negatively affects Russian speakers more than others. The Eastern areas, which in 2014 formed the breakaway Lugansk and Donetsk Republics, and Crimea, voted overwhelmingly (over 70 per cent) for Yanukovych.
The major issues between Russia and Ukraine is how to reconcile the security needs of Russia which regards NATO as a ‘threat’ and Ukraine which concurrently considers Russia to constitute the ‘threat’ to its identity. The demand by Russia for greater recognition of the Russian-speaking and Russia-leaning population is rejected by the Ukrainian government as inimical to the formation of a Ukrainian nation state. These divisions are mirrored in the attachment of social groups (often unrelated to ethnic identity) to the European Union or to Russia.
What comes next?
At the time of writing (7 April 2022) the future of Ukraine looks decidedly problematic. The costs of not finding a peaceful solution could involve a drift into a protracted internal war similar to that experienced recently by the Americans in Afghanistan. Thus there are incentives for both sides – and their allies and partners – to come to an agreement. Partition in some form, subject to ratification by popular elections, appears the most likely consequence. This scenario was one of the predictions of Samuel Huntington writing in 1996.5 Such a solution would divide present Ukraine into two: one version of which is illustrated on Map 3.
Map 3. Partition: Ukraine and Novorossiya
Source: As Map 1.
Such an outcome would end the war and secure Russia’s objectives but would be opposed by the Ukrainian nationalists. It could come about only with the urging of the United States and the leading countries in the European Union. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political status would be under threat. To maintain his credibility as President, he would need considerable support from the West. Partition would not be enough: there would have to be agreements to limit the spread of NATO and concurrently assure the future security of Ukraine. This could take the form of security guarantees for Ukraine by the USA and other major powers. A crucial incentive would be support for Zelensky with an offer of at least quasi-membership of the European Union: giving Ukrainians, for example, a visa-free regime and Ukraine many of the benefits of membership. Optimistically, such measures would normalise the economic and political situation in Europe. A longer term scenario should involve wider geo-political arrangements which would include Russia and Ukraine in Europe’s security plans. Unless some such agreement can be achieved, a protracted conflict appears likely.
- Russian Foreign Ministry, ‘Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Answer to a Media Question’, 27 January 2022, https://www.rusemb.org.uk/fnapr/7060.
- https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1997-06/arms-control-today/opposition-nato-expansion. Names included Jack Matlock, Raymond Garthoff and Richard Pipes
- S. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster,1996. See diagram and discussion p.159-
- Cited by Huntington, p.166.
- Huntington, pp. 167-8
From: pp.2-6 of WEA Commentaries 12(1), April 2022