UKRAINE is the plucky little Belgium of our day, threatened and bullied by a big bad neighbour.
This is true but simplistic. It ignores the causes of a crisis that dates back to 1990 when the Soviet Union was moribund and the US, under the first President Bush, promised that if Mikhail Gorbachev removed the Berlin Wall, Nato would not expand eastwards. Gorbachev made the deal.
In just under a decade the West’s word was broken when Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary became Nato members and the alliance began a march to the east that would put it on the Russian border where it has been seen as an existential threat to this day.
By 2007, the resurgent Russians were unhappy with what they perceived as offhand treatment by the West. President Putin, who earlier had been relatively co-operative and had even sought association with Nato, told a security conference in Munich that Russia, still poor but nuclear-armed, was resuming its old role as a world power to be reckoned with.
The event which set Nato and Russia decisively at odds was the Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008 which announced that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of the alliance. Professor John Mearsheimer, an international affairs specialist at Chicago University, called it a ‘fundamental mistake’ which Russia immediately vowed would never be allowed to happen.
In August of the same year, Russia invaded Georgia, which Mearsheimer said in a recent video-call with the Norwegian Atlantic Committee was ‘no coincidence’. In 2014 Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine to prevent the Russian naval base at Sebastopol on the Black Sea from falling under Nato’s control if Ukraine joined.
No one however would guess the existence of this perfectly straightforward back story about Russia’s grievances from the furious condemnations of Putin by the US, the UK and other Western governments which find themselves caught in a trap of their own making.
When the Clinton administration began to plan Nato expansion in 1996, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman interviewed George Kennan, the diplomat who designed the US policy of ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union after 1945. Kennan described the expansion as tragic, unnecessary and the start of a new Cold War with Russia. His prescience has been borne out.
Mearsheimer, who says the West’s missteps led to Putin’s Ukraine policy, said the situation in and around Ukraine was ‘disastrous because there is no solution’. Putin is determined to get Nato off Russia’s borders and the West cannot credibly let him effectively destroy Nato by dictating where it can deploy and which countries it can recruit.
What is happening now is stage two of the 2014 crisis when Putin seized Crimea in response to American and EU efforts to ally Ukraine more closely to the West, which is what most non-Russian Ukrainian citizens wanted when they chased President Viktor Yushchenko from office.
Instead of negotiating the obvious compromise that would have Finlandised Ukraine, Nato left Putin during the intervening years to plot his current threat to Ukraine’s independence in his own time. Putin appears to have a step-by-step plan of action and pressure-building that the US and its allies did not see coming.
This week, undeterred by a flurry of Western sanctions, Putin raised the stakes by recognising two breakaway ethnic Russian ‘republics’ – Donetsk and Luhansk – on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, where Putin has mobilised an army which threatens to invade the entire country. The US military chiefs of staff calculate that Russian forces could reach Kiev in three days, despite the West’s reinforcement of the Ukrainian military with advanced weapons and training.
By infringing Ukrainian sovereignty without actually invading, Putin has dared Presidents Vlodymyr Zelenskyy and Joe Biden to make the next move – with very limited options since the West has ruled out a Nato intervention with ground forces.
Vladimir Pozner, a Moscow-based journalist with established credibility in the West, told Australia’s ABC television that the deployment of Nato forces in Ukraine would be a red line for Putin. He said Putin did not want a war with the West but implied he would not flinch from it.
Western politicians boast that Putin’s challenge has restored Nato’s fragmented unity, but this is true only in the realm of words which mask the reality that they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine if the Russians do invade. It also unavoidably admits that the alliance has been weakened by German pacifism and France’s desire to establish a rival EU army.
Presumably, the Finlandisation option for Ukraine is still available as a get-out for the West. This would ease tensions while Nato’s future overall boundaries are negotiated, but time is short and shrinking.
This is not yet a Clausewitzean dead end like the one which led to the war that destroyed federal Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In that case, negotiations between the constituent republics broke down irrevocably. There is still time for Biden and Putin to talk about a lasting security settlement in central Europe.
This would recognise that Russia has national interests over which it will not compromise as much as does the United States which rigidly enforces the Monroe Doctrine that makes all the countries in the western hemisphere its backyard.
To paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez, what is happening today is the chronicle of a crisis foretold since Nato failed to keep its word to Moscow and stay out of east and central Europe. It is from this broken promise that everything else has flowed. It has culminated in the threat of a war in Ukraine that no one can guarantee is containable there.