It was naive to think Russia’s long history as an empire would end peaceably in just two decades. One year after the invasion, our correspondent looks back.

Vladimir Putin

President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the 2022 Victory Parade in Red Square, Moscow, to mark the anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. Credit: President of the Russian Federation.(CC BY 4.0)

On the international stage, misunderstandings and miscalculations can have unforeseen consequences with historical ramifications. We are seeing this play out in Ukraine now.

The Russia/Ukraine conflict is the largest outbreak of violence on the European continent since World War II. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions displaced and entire cities reduced to rubble. Egregious violations of human rights and humanitarian law have taken place.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago surprised much of the world.

But it could be that it is an inevitable consequence of an even more unexpected event three decades ago: the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Experts and diplomats were caught by surprise when the Berlin Wall came down. While there were euphoric reactions in the West — democracy and freedom had won the Cold War – the great Soviet Union was reduced to the much smaller Russian Federation.

Redrawing the map of the Soviet Union

In writing for the New York Review of Books, Oxford University scholar Timothy Garton wrote, “Empires usually don’t give up without a struggle. It was a dangerous illusion to believe that one of the largest land empires in Europe, the centuries-old Russian (subsequently Soviet) empire, had peacefully dissolved in three miraculous years, 1989–1991, and that this was the end of the story.”

The end of the Soviet Empire left many unanswered questions.

Among them was the relationship between Russia and its former satellite countries. Would those countries geographically close to Russia, what the Russians called the Near Abroad, remain close politically to Russia?

Or, would they become totally independent and free to eventually join western institutions like the European Union or the 30-nation military alliance known as NATO? Or, one possibility proposed by former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, would Russia join a new European security architecture that might encompass all European countries?

Back in 2008, the question of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine came up at a NATO ministerial meeting in Bucharest, Romania.

While most countries thought that neither country was ready to apply for membership, it was decided that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually be eligible. This decision was only mentioned on Item 23 in the final meeting’s communiqué, which demonstrated how little concern it was for the NATO ministers.

The West’s wait and see attitude towards Russia

Then-U.S. President George W. Bush had hailed Georgia as a “beacon of democracy.” The main road from the capital Tbilisi to the airport is called the George W. Bush highway.

But later that year, when Russian troops had a short confrontation with those of Georgia — advancing as close as 12 km from Tbilisi and dislodging the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia — the United States and the West had little reaction.

As for Ukraine, in 2014, protesters there unseated the democratically-elected president and Russian-friendly Yanukovych. Ukraine had been the birthplace of Moscow’s dynasties and was close to Russia until it gained independence in 1991. Crimea, meanwhile, had been part of Russia until Nikita Khruschev gave it to Ukraine in 1954.

It was a short time after Yanukovych’s departure that Russian troops entered Crimea, a critical region in Ukraine that gave Russia access to warm water ports. Again, the West had little reaction.

The United States, weary from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did not seek any direct confrontation. It now considered Russia to be a small, European power and less important than the growing economic and military competition with China.

When Russia took back Crimea, the West looked on.

Several analysts, in looking back at the lack of western reaction to Russian aggressions towards Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, have labelled it “appeasement,”; in that way likening it to western non-reaction to Hitler’s aggressions in the lead up to World War II.

The two instances of Russian aggression in 2008 and 2014 set the backdrop to the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

It would be unrealistic to think that Russia would not insist on a spheres of influence. To even imagine two countries bordering Russia to be members of NATO was conceived in Moscow as a provocation.

One cannot imagine Canada or Mexico becoming members of some Russian treaty organization. The United States almost went to war with the Soviet Union in 1962 over Soviet missiles in Cuba — 76 miles from the U.S. mainland.

Eventual NATO membership of Georgia or Ukraine is perceived in Moscow in similar fashion.

Should Russia not be entitled to a sphere of influence?

None of the above pardons the aggression of the Russian attack starting 24 February 2022. But the question of Russia’s borders and spheres of influence had been left hanging.

There was no major international conference or treaty following the end of the Soviet Union. The world was shocked, and a certain triumphalism took place that the West had won the Cold War.

It is in the context of unsolved questions that the place of Ukraine in the European security architecture is fundamental to the current conflict.

Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine, if not Crimea, as part of a Greater Russia, either directly part of the country or under its influence. Minimally, it is inconceivable for Putin to accept Ukraine to be totally integrated into the West via the European Union or NATO.

The West now believes Ukraine must be free to choose its political affiliations. And President Zelensky has made it clear that he wants Ukraine to have accelerated EU membership. That only increases the Russian desire to assert its own power, and protect what it sees as its sphere of influence and its access to warm water ports in Crimea.

A Ukraine conflict with no end in sight

These unresolved issues make resolution of the current conflict difficult.

Among the issues to be resolved will be the reconstruction of Ukraine, estimated to cost $1 trillion. Where will the money come from? In addition, Ukraine has a history of corruption. It was listed as the most corrupt country in Europe, besides Russia, before the war. How will the money be properly spent?

The next issue is territory.

President Zelensky has said he wants all of Ukraine returned, including those parts of Crimea that were taken over by Russia post-2014. Is this possible? Will there be some concessions on both sides about this? Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still considered part of Georgia, by Georgia, but they have become semi-autonomous regions recognized by a few states as independent countries.

And the last question is Ukraine membership in the EU and NATO. That would mark the final end of the Russian Empire.

Questions to consider:

  1. How has the West’s reactions to Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 been considered appeasement?
  2. What were Russia’s justifications for invading Ukraine?
  3. Can you identify possible solutions to ending the conflict? What are the drawbacks?
Daniel Warner

Daniel Warner earned a PhD in Political Science from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, where he was Deputy to the Director for many years as well as founder and director of several programs focusing on international organizations. He has lectured and taught internationally and is a frequent contributor to international media. He has served as an advisor to the UNHCR, ILO and NATO, and has been a consultant to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense of Switzerland as well as in the private sector.

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DecodersDecoder: War in Ukraine should have come as no surprise