Of course, navigating historical controversies to apportion blame is never easy, as events are subject to interpretations and the myth-making of competing nationalist lobbies. However, understanding rival positions is necessary for both conflict prevention and resolution.
Put simply, as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, ‘the West must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign state’.
Strategically, it is indispensable to Russia’s security – and having military bases of a potential adversary there is no more acceptable to Moscow than Soviet nuclear missile sites were to the US in Cuba in 1962.
But there is also a cultural dimension to Russo-Ukrainian relations that goes to the heart of Russia’s identity that is overlooked by most Western sources, or dismissed as irrelevant to the current conflict.
Those who warned the world of the current crisis – including Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, George Kennan and Zbigniew Brzezinski – were drowned out by a cacophony of noise espousing the intellectually less challenging Reductio ad Hitlerum narrative and a zero-sum strategy.
This, though once effective against a defunct Soviet Union, is redundant in a multi-polar world in which key Western powers no longer have hegemonic authority, as their failure to isolate Russia internationally has demonstrated.
Russia and Ukraine have a shared origin, both emerging from the original Kievan Rus founded by the Vikings in the middle of the ninth century. After centuries of juxtapositioning among competing principalities, Muscovy managed to establish hegemony over all of them, from which emerged the Tsarist Empire. The lands currently known as Ukraine gradually became part of this, except the Western regions that were integrated into the Polish state.
These too, however, would be incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Republic after the Second World War, albeit culturally differentiated from the East.
For the Tsars and de facto for the Soviet Union, Ukraine was culturally inseparable from Russia, a view which continues to echo widely among senior circles in Russia, not least Vladimir Putin himself.
Shortly before the Ukraine invasion, he lamented in a much-publicised article the ‘wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space’.
Crucially for the outcome of the current conflict, as well as for the future of the Ukrainian state as it is currently constituted, Putin’s assessment of history is shared by a substantial section of its population. This is manifested in minimalist and maximalist affinities to Russia and has been reflective of Ukraine’s electoral geography of both parliamentary and presidential elections.
Ukraine’s Russian-speaking president, Volodymyr Zelensky, though campaigning on a vague anti-corruption platform, came to power in 2019 on the back of Eastern votes by promising to end the long-standing war in the Donbass region of south-eastern Ukraine.
This flared up in the wake of the Maidan revolution of 2014 between the pro-West Kiev government and Russian-speaking separatists who sought autonomy for their regions.
However, merely a year after his victory, failing to deliver on any electoral promise, Zelensky’s popularity began to plummet across the country, but particularly in Russian-speaking areas.
The rapid redrawing of Ukraine’s electoral geography was not unpredictable given the deep polarisation of Ukrainian opinion on the post-Maidan order as well as on attitudes towards Russia and Nato membership that successive polling confirmed.
By ignoring cultural-historical nuances in its approach to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Western policy has falsely invested long-standing causes of hostilities with spontaneity.
This in turn has swelled the ranks of Russia’s collective national cynicism towards the West, among which are a growing number of liberals, piqued by the West’s double standards towards ‘humanitarian intervention’, not least its silence about the civilian death toll in the Donbass conflict since 2014.
Much support in Russia for the current war, therefore, is reluctant though informed, and those in the West who claim that it is simply manufactured by Kremlin propaganda are mistaken and woefully ignorant of opinion formation in Russia.
Putin’s own pro-Western sympathies, which had attracted favourable opinion mong many Western leaders, steadily evaporated amidst what to him was a string of hostile acts which required reciprocal actions against what he called a ‘uni-polar world’ under ‘a single master’ imposed by ‘unilateral diktat’ – as he noted in 2014.
Senior US officials including Strobe Talbott – US deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration – and his boss Madeleine Albright were aware of the risks of provoking Russia by crossing its red lines, such as Nato’s expansion into Eastern Europe. But they went ahead regardless, with policies that Robert Gates, Defence Secretary in the Bush Senior administration, regarded as ‘reckless’.
In a throwbackto Mackinder’s Heartland theory of 1904 (whoever controlled Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe would dominate the world) the Pentagon in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse readied itself ‘to prevent the re-emergence of a rival on the territory of the former Soviet Union (whose) resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power’.
When Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace proclaimed, in reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that ‘kicking the backside of Tsar Nicholas I’ is something ‘we can do again’, he was simply reprising a well-established strategy whose origins go far beyond the ‘old Cold War’, which in itself contained little that was fundamentally novel in Russo-Western relations.
Here Western containment strategy dangerously feeds Putin’s own interpretation of it as a continuum that ‘has been carried out against our country for many years … if not centuries’. In short, he noted in his State of the Nation Address in December 2014, ‘whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into place’.
Russia’s actions in Syria sought to arrest the advance of the ‘uni-polar world’. Two years earlier, it had facilitated the Libya campaign by abstaining from a UN vote to halt it under the impression that the West’s military action would be limited to humanitarian causes.
The survival of Russia’s ally President Bashar al-Assad, however, saw Russo-West tensions intensify, which subsequently played out in the Ukrainian theatre between two versions of Ukraine, one supported by Russia, one by the West.
The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has demonstrated the failure of Europe’s security architecture. Merely rebuking Russia for its actions and seeking its defeat does not augur well for either conflict resolution or conflict avoidance.
The expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders created an intolerable asymmetry for Moscow, reinforced by the West’s attempt to decouple Ukraine from its influence.
The West’s doves and hawks are seemingly locked in battle illustrated by rival op-eds and conflicting political positions, while global hunger and recession beckon amidst chilling World War Three drums.
Grandstanding and sugar coating notwithstanding, Ukraine is losing its war with Russia, whose preponderance of military power is decisive and which cannot be overwhelmed in Ukraine’s favour without inconceivable Nato involvement.
While the sentiments behind grand schemes for victory as recently suggested by Ukraine’s Foreign Secretary Dmytro Kuleba are understandable, they are pure fantasy, requiring time that Ukraine doesn’t have and colossal financial commitments.
The prospects for Ukraine already look bleak, with much of its industrial base and most of its ports appropriated in a society awash with all kinds of Western weaponry and host to numerous recriminations.
With ‘Ukraine fatigue’ rapidly growing among its former allies, Ukraine’s only chance to avert social instability and usher in normality appears to be a hasty end to this conflict based on sensible diplomatic solutions. The West’s zero-sum policy has hit the buffers.
In failing to deliver the killer blow against Russia, Biden’s ‘roubles to rubble’ aim has shades of George W Bush’s ‘mission accomplished’ mantra in 2003 over operations in Iraq.
Not only has its failure illustrated Russia’s economic resilience, it has compounded the woes of the West’s Covid-ravaged economies.
Highlighting the multi-polar realities of the global order, to cite Henry Kissinger’s recent Davos declaration that Ukraine must give up land to the Kremlin is not appeasement of Russia, but a recognition of historical truths.