Ukraine appears to be on the brink of a full-scale invasion by Russia. The past few months have seen Russia move its troops along Ukraine’s borders with Belarus and Russia. This follows the ongoing conflict in the country’s east, where Russian separatists hold significant areas of Ukrainian territory around Donetsk and Luhansk.

While the situation has developed quickly over the past two months, it is a crisis that has been some thirty years in the making. The precise causes of the current situation are debated. Still, the general tone from Western media and Western politicians is that this situation was inevitable when you have someone like President Putin running Russia. It is his fault. After all, this is a man who wants to redraw Europe, bully weaker nations, and make Russia great again. This thinking is so ingrained in our culture that modern Russia is almost always painted negatively. Try thinking about the last time you read or heard a positive news story about Russia.

But conflict is rarely the result of one person’s actions or one nation’s decisions – and perhaps this time is no exception. The West could have taken a different route.

Putin’s Gift

On January 27, 2002, Cuba announced the completion of the closure of Russia’s last military base on Cuba. This occasion marked a relatively high point in relations between the US and Russia. President Putin referred to the closure as ‘a special present’ ahead of his meeting with US President George W. Bush. It was the latest in a series of overtures Putin made towards the US and Western Europe.

In 2001 President Putin was the first world leader to call US President George W. Bush offering condolences and support following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. This was followed by Russian assistance to the US in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And there were verbal appeals too. In Putin’s first interview with a western journalist in 2000, President Putin had made several positive comments regarding Russia joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a military alliance of independent nation-states that agree to mutual defense when attacked by an external party.

In the interview with the BBC’s David Frost, the host asked Putin whether Russia could join NATO. President Putin replied – ‘I don’t see why not. I would not rule out such a possibility.’ In the same interview, Putin explained his view that Russia’s place was to be part of Europe and part of a new multipolar world order saying, ‘I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilized world. So it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy’. 

The Warnings

So how did we go from this friendly tone to the confrontation we now have in Ukraine? We find a clue in the same interview with David Frost in 2000. President Putin stressed that Russia needed to be treated as an equal and not seen as an aggressor in the same mould as the USSR. In other words, Russia might have been part of the USSR, but Russia was now a different beast. Russia had thrown out Communism, embraced democracy, and was willing to work with old enemies.

Putin made several telling statements. He wanted integration with NATO, saying, ‘We believe we can talk about more profound integration with NATO but only if Russia is regarded an equal partner.’ He went on to challenge the perception of Russia by the West, saying, ‘We in Russia have to a large extent rid ourselves of what is related to the cold war. Regrettably, it appears that our partners in the west are all too often still in the grip of old notions and tend to picture Russia as a potential aggressor. That is a completely wrong conception of our country. It gets in the way of developing normal relations in Europe and indeed the world’.

Significantly, he repeated his view that Russia should be treated as an equal and not as a defeated enemy saying ‘…when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner. I want to stress this again and again’.

The warning was clear.

The Warnings Ignored

Russia, in the 1990s, was reeling from the break-up from the Soviet Union – years of economic depression, hyperinflation, and a credit crunch had wrecked the economy. It was easy for the US and Europe to ignore a country that seemed to be lurching from one crisis to another.

The bombing of Serbia and Montenegro by NATO in 1998 particularly irritated the Russians as Serbia was its main European ally. So, by the time President Putin made his appeal for treatment as an equal partner, the US and Europe were well-practiced at keeping Russia at a distance, and his warnings were ignored.

The Russian Bear had been defeated and was now irrelevant. Therefore, it was easy to ignore Russia’s protestations when NATO expanded in 1999 to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.

How was Russia’s assistance in Afghanistan repaid? NATO again expanded, only this time to countries that directly bordered Russia – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That process continued when discussions on NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia began in 2005.

This sequence culminated in President Putin’s 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference. Here he highlighted the Russian perception of how the US and Europe had broken promises to Russia on NATO expansion and seemed intent on making Russia an enemy. He made the following comment:

‘I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.” Where are these guarantees? The stones and concrete blocks of the Berlin Wall have long been distributed as souvenirs. But we should not forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall was possible thanks to a historic choice – one that was also made by our people, the people of Russia – a choice in favor of democracy, freedom, openness, and a sincere partnership with all the members of the big European family. And now they are trying to impose new dividing lines and walls on us – these walls may be virtual, but they are nevertheless dividing, ones that cut through our continent. And is it possible that we will once again require many years and decades, as well as several generations of politicians, to dissemble and dismantle these new walls?’

President Putin could not have been clearer. Why was NATO expanding unless it thought Russia was a threat? The speech appears to have been President Putin’s final attempt to engage with the west before he ultimately lost patience…before those ‘walls’ he referenced in his 2007 speech in Munich could no longer be overlooked but instead needed shoring-up from the Russian side. Talking no longer seemed enough; action was required to secure Russia’s interests.

The Spark

The referendum on whether to apply for NATO membership took place in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in January 2008. The referendum result was in favor of applying for membership.

This development ignited Russian anger. By August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to ‘assist’ the troubled Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which both had significant ethnic Russian populations and were in conflict with Georgia. The Russo-Georgia war lasted 12 days, but these areas remain occupied by Russia and subject to international dispute on their status.

The Fire Spreads

By 2013 the EU had been in discussion with Ukraine over closer ties for several years. An Association Agreement was due to be signed in 2013 and, although the signing was delayed, that development alarmed Moscow as it was perceived as a back-door for entry to NATO.

The response from President Putin was decisive. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. It was too much to swallow. This region until 1954 had been part of Russia and housed Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet, not to mention its only warm water port. Now should Russia allow it to fall outside of their control? It was just too strategically important to Russia.

In April, there followed demonstrations by pro-Russian groups in the Donbas area of Ukraine, which was home to many ethnic Russians. These demonstrations escalated into a war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist forces, with the region succumbing to control by the pro-Russian forces.

The West Proved Right, or merely a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Much of the West and Western media dialogue assumes President Putin, who makes the decisions today – domestically and internationally – is the same man who came to power in 1999. Because of his record since 2007, his earlier motives and statements in the 1990s and 2000s are not trustworthy.

However, people change, thinking develops, and emerges over time and through interactions – both for bad and good. Did Putin really want integration with the West at the start of his Presidency? Would democracy have prevailed in Russia if it had been accepted into the wider European community – as had occurred in other ex-Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe?

President Putin clearly wanted respect for his country. Russia still retained significant influence through its stockpile of nuclear weapons, its recent history as a key part of the USSR, and its reach from sheer geographical size.

The story we hear again and again in the West is that his words in the 1990s and early 2000s were an empty game, a trick designed by an angry man eager to redraw the geopolitical fallout from the break-up of the USSR.

Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. Maybe at that point, he really wanted improved relations, albeit with respect.

I’m not sure we will ever know. Still, one thing is quite clear now: the West has got the Russia it wanted to believe was always there – a belligerent aggressor wanting to reclaim its satellite states and exert its sphere of influence across Europe and beyond.

Perhaps 20 years after the Russians left Cuba, they will return – but this time with missiles.


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