War in Ukraine: Some Questions And Answers
By Eugene Nulman
Does Putin want to occupy Ukraine?
The idea that Putin would invade with circa 200,000 troops and try to occupy the whole of the country is silly. If that was the plan, he really would be mad. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan should prove enough of an example to want to avoid occupation, at least of the whole country. Professor John Mearsheimer said that if you want to really hurt Russia, goad it into an occupation of Ukraine.
So, what does Putin want? Is Putin crazy? Is NATO encroachment really a thing? Why is this happening now?
These questions require one (albeit long) answer alongside some (even longer) context. First, what is happening now is not a huge strategic change in Russia’s position toward Ukraine and the invasion was not a last-minute decision on Putin’s part[i]. We know this because (for a change) US intelligence got their assessment correct that Russia has been building up forces on the border in order to engage in a multi-pronged attack.
Let’s backtrack a bit. There was troop build-up along the border in March, with over 100,000 troops positioned on the Ukrainian border and within Crimea (about 87,000 had already been stationed in these positions). Russia claimed the build-up was for the purpose of military exercises but this and other excuses were not persuasive. Instead, analysts believe it was meant to send a signal to Biden about Ukraine and NATO shortly after Biden took office. This came after Ukraine had become a member of NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partnership program in June 2020 and after Ukraine had intentions of engaging in the NATO Membership Action Plan in the summer of 2021.
Russia’s troop build-up was pulled back – ostensibly – in May following an announced reduction by the Minister of Defence but most of those troops that were originally there stayed put. And the other troops started to come back in October/November and at this point US intelligence was already pretty convinced that an attack was coming in the end of January or early February. The reason behind such an attack was also fairly clear. As a paper published in September 2021 by the mainstream, bipartisan Centre for Strategic & International Studies stated “It is widely known that Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine is a nonstarter for Russia.” Wikileaks has since released a cable in which US intelligence states that NATO enlargement remains “an emotional and neuralgic” issue for Russia.
Ok, but obviously the more Russia sabre-rattles, the more Ukraine wants to be integrated. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy only relatively recently became outright in favour of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO, previously being ambiguous on the issue. Putin’s political messaging was clearly not aimed at Ukraine but at the US/NATO. What did Russia get in exchange for reducing its troops? Well, Biden had promised a military aid package to Ukraine, including lethal weapons, worth $100 million and this was halted. However, the White House released a statement in the run-up to a Summit between Biden and Putin, stating that a $150 million package of “security assistance, including lethal assistance” was provided to Ukraine. At that summit, discussions on Ukraine did not get very far which probably sealed the fate of Ukraine – at least as far as Putin was concerned.
But of course, this isn’t where it all started either. We have to go back a bit to understand the context. In 1990, as part of the German unification process, the US gave assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would go “not one inch eastward” while Central and Eastern European countries were applying for NATO membership in order to ensure peace between the two blocs. Naturally, these states – like Ukraine – would want protection from future invasion by an occupying force. However, from a Russian defense perspective it would be the equivalent of Mexico striking a deal with China where 1) any aggression to Mexico by the US would be met with immediate defense of a military with a nuclear arsenal and 2) Mexico would effectively serve as a base for any desired aggression by China against the US (remember that the response to Soviet missiles heading to Cuba nearly led to nuclear war and was only settled through a mutual retraction of weapons, from Cuba by the USSR and from Turkey and Italy by the US).
Since the end of the Soviet Union, NATO’s purpose has shifted from its 3-pronged approach of preventing the USSR from moving westward, ensuring Germany would not devolve back into a militarily developed and aggressive country, and ensure Europe was kept under the US umbrella of influence in the context of a bi-polar world. With the fall of the Soviet Union (and the clear stability and friendliness of Germany), these objectives were no longer valid. So instead, NATO became the “the military arm for European integration”, as described by two US military insiders. Russia was not comfortable with the expansion of NATO in 1999 to former Eastern Bloc counties (Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland). Even their entry process seemed to put ordinary Russians on edge, with an opinion poll showing 62% viewed NATO expansion as harmful.
It would be expected that when W. Bush opened the door for all European democracies to be able to join NATO in early 2001 Russian would be particularly upset as this meant bordering countries would be admitted. However, Russian officials at the time felt this was tolerable if accompanied by certain concession as they were, at that point, hoping for greater peaceful engagement with Europe (even a partner with Europe), seeking a way into the WTO, etc.., while continuing to climb out of economic turmoil that had occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just Yeltsin that took this position. Putin started out largely pro-European integration as well (e.g. Greater Europe). In any case, in 2004, Baltic countries joined NATO.
Ukraine was a different beast altogether because until the Orange Revolution – which Russia believes was part of a democratization effort (read: political annexation effort) by the US – Ukraine was still centrally in Russia’s orbit. Russia first used pressure as an energy provider to obtain influence and, after the Russia-supportive President was ousted during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, it moved quickly to seize the most geopolitically critical element – Crimea – where Russia had been leasing the naval port of Sevastopol since 1991 and had a lease until 2032. Crimea was also Russia’s access to the Mediterranean and – critically at that point for Russian interests in Syria. So, taking Crimea was a strategic necessity for a country with global ambitions.
Between then and now what happened? Well, on the one hand the strategy for Russia in the region was effectively to see how a Trump presidency would play out with its promise of upending NATO. This was certainly something Trump was planning if he won the 2020 election, as was reported last summer, by having the US leave NATO. Obviously, Trump lost and now Putin repositioned his strategy.
But we’ve gotta be honest that Ukraine joining NATO was really never on the cards. France and Germany had openly refused it even as Bush welcomed it. These countries knew this was going to be a step too far. Not only that, an invasion into Ukraine was bound to lead to a strengthening of NATO (at least unless Trump comes back to power) as there’s renewed discussion of Finland and Sweden joining NATO (with Finland appearing interested and Sweden standing firm in not joining). So, given that Russia also knew that Ukrainian accession into NATO was likely to be vetoed and NATO strengthened, why did Putin invade?
Ukraine was a part of Russia’s limited nexus of power until it wasn’t. The autonomy of districts in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts known as the ORDLO was not really moving ahead because of accord violations, with Russia blaming Ukraine and Ukraine blaming Russia. But also, soft power in the country had weakened and Ukrainian nationalism was increasing, and the latter didn’t have the expected effect on the former.
Even as Ukrainian nationalism was leading to the subjugation of minority rights in the country and attacks by nationalist factions, Russian speakers weren’t particularly keen on Russian military intervention. Surveys in 2014 found the following, “When asked whether the Russian army should be sent to protect ethnic Russians if they were threatened, ethnic Russians living in Ukraine were evenly divided in their response, with 43% on each side of the issue. The number of ethnic Russians strongly opposed to seeing Russian troops in Ukraine (32 percent) was greater than the number strongly in favor of such action (23 percent)”. In Donbass, only 18% “favored separating from Ukraine and joining another state”. Annexation of southeastern Ukraine into Russia was supported by only 27% of those in Donbass. This was true even as other studies found that the majority of people in Luhansk and Donetsk believed that the Maidan events were sponsored by the West. A survey in May 2021 show that people from the east and south Ukraine increasingly believed the local conflicts taking place were caused by Russian aggression, moving from 22% and 24% respectively, to 31% and 33%. A majority of people in the South and the East don’t even believe that Ukraine is to blame for the ongoing conflict. So, Russia didn’t even have a support base it thought it might and this was in part due to their military engagement in 2014. And guess what, they’ll have even less support following from the current conflict. But that never seemed to be the point. It always seemed like a battle not with Ukraine, but with the US.
In that battle, Russia wants a meaningful barrier between themselves and NATO. Not a neutral barrier, however, but a friendly one. So, while Marxists are right in thinking that this isn’t imperialism in the economic sense, this is a kind of land grab for geopolitical purposes where it was increasingly clear that a political solution within Ukraine was not going to grant them the kind of space through the ORDLO established after 2014 (and where the population is against it).
This was also clearly on the cards since 2013 or so when Russia had begun preparing for large scale sanctions by securing its financial position away from the dollar and maintaining a large National Wealth Fund in other currencies and trying to find ways of circumventing SWIFT and other financial exchange processes that can be clamped down by the US and other foreign powers.
So, knowing that NATO troops won’t intervene and instigate the possibility of a nuclear war and losing the soft power to have his way in internal Ukrainian politics, Putin pushed for war even against recommendations from allies it seems, to return Ukraine to a pro-Russian country through force or, at the very least, to ensure ‘proper’ autonomy of the ORDLO which will provide at least a bit of the stopgap he is looking for.
So this is my assessment:
Is Putin crazy? Terrible: yes. Crazy: no.
What does he want? Buffer zone at least; control ideally.
Is NATO encroachment really a thing? Kinda, but it’s not specifically about NATO as such.
Why is this happening now? Trump lost the election.
What’s Putin’s Exit Strategy?
Putin needs an exit strategy and that’s gonna have to involve some kind of negotiated settlement. Maybe the following. 1) US promise (whatever it’s worth) that Ukraine won’t be able to join NATO; some – like Varoufakis – seem to think that’s enough. I doubt it. 2) “Full” “autonomy” of ORDLO; Putin needs a barrier and this might be it, with at least a semblance of ethnic Russians who he can claim he is liberating. 3) If he doesn’t straight up kill them, the resignation of the top tier of politicians and fresh elections that Putin and the West can both try to influence to their interests and a selected overseer of the government in the meantime.
The more Ukrainian resistance there is, the longer they hold out, then the more pressed Russia is for supplies. This might improve “Ukraine’s” negotiating position (Russia usually negotiations with the US on Ukraine, not actually with Ukraine). I can’t actually see Ukraine removing Russian forces from the whole of its territory, so I still think a negotiation needs to be had, and that’s obviously what as I write is happening on the Belarussian border.
I’ve also heard commentary that Putin might try to take everything east of the Dnieper giving him a land channel to Crimea. Can their troops maintain that? I don’t know. It’s possible, but there have been military set backs for Putin, so he may need to be less ambitious. A line of tanks heading to Kiev seem to indicate that rather taking territory by force, he is pushing for a negotiated settlement as a sustained occupation of Kyiv would be difficult.
Has Putin Made a Strategic Mistake in Attacking Ukraine?
I’m seeing a lot of commentary saying Putin has made a blunder by his invasion of Ukraine. I think that remains to be seen. Russia would have predicted that NATO would become united (despite some existing divisions), and that sanctions would happen (sanctions on SWIFT might actually be in the long-term advantage of countries outside the sphere of US hegemony). So, it seems that it’s enough for Russia to bring Ukraine or parts of it back into the Russian sphere despite these costs.
Can Russia achieve its demands despite Ukrainian resistance? Certainly, Putin’s original plan involved a quicker military advancement that has played out, but I think Putin will achieve key demands despite Ukrainian claims stating they won’t give up an inch of the country in negotiations. There do seem to be substantiated reports of significant military failures in Ukraine, including the widely reported claims of Russian forces believing they were engaging in military exercises and not prepared to engage in invasion; the pre-invasion plants seemed to have been largely ineffective; Russian forces seemed to have failed to advance through Kharkiv; Russia has called for reinforcements; etc… Some have argued that if they can withstand the invasion for about 10 days Ukrainian forces can starve out munitions and fuel supplies from the Russian troops. However, Russia is still advancing on Kyiv and the at the Belarusian border remain critical for ending this conflict with Russia on a substantially weaker position then they probably thought they would be in. Nevertheless, Russia is in the driver’s seat here.
Would Ukraine have been safer it if kept its nuclear weapons?
It has often been commented on now that in December 1994 Ukraine joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in which Ukraine, the third-largest nuclear power at the time, agreed to hand over its nuclear weapons in exchange for its sovereignty to be respected, for the threat of force not to be used on Ukraine and for economic pressure not be used to influence Ukrainian politics. Obviously Russia has not complied by invading (now twice since 2014). But would holding on to the nuclear weapons been a good idea?
The agreement discussed above is known as the Budapest Memorandum, but its history is a bit more complicated than is being reported. In December 1991 when Ukraine became an independent state it gave operational control of its nuclear weapons to the armed forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which was based in Moscow. But Ukraine stalled in giving the weapons over to Russia which led to disputes between the two nations. Realistically, however, Ukraine did not have the capabilities to maintain the arsenal which needed regular specialized maintenance and monitoring and the authority to launch weapons was still held by Moscow. Russia then effectively dissolved the CIS which made ownership of the weapons on Ukrainian territory a point of contention, but even Ukraine’s senior military leaders did not consider Ukraine to be a viable nuclear power given the difficulties of maintaining such a complex and dangerous system. Instead, they viewed the nuclear weapons as a liability. In September 1993, Russia and Ukraine struck a deal in which the Ukrainian government would hand over the weapons in exchange for debt forgiveness and nuclear fuel rods for nuclear energy generation. However, these negotiations were under duress as Russia was threatening to cut off Ukraine’s gas supplies if they did not sign. This worsened the relationship between the two countries and soon the US came to intervene, eventually leading to the Budapest Memorandum (in addition to debt relief and low-enriched uranium from Russia).
In 2014, Russia broke the Budapest Memorandum when it came in and occupied Crimea but Russia claimed the US had broke the Memorandum earlier by intervening in Ukrainian politics during the Euromaidan protests, which isn’t untrue but not as a direct result of economic pressure which the agreement stipulated. The argument, however, that the nuclear weapons would have helped Ukraine avoid this situation is only true if we assume that Ukraine was capable of managing the nuclear weapons – particularly at that time – which their own military officials believed was not the case.
How does the invasion affect relations between China and Russia?
Russia recently signed an agreement with China that was wide-ranging in scope and strengthened their relationship substantially. Reports say that the US had discussed with China their concerns of an invasion of Ukraine – which they had initially raised in Oct/Nov. China insisted that Russia had no intention of invasion. They would have said that whether or not they believed that to be the case, however, as party to this new alliance. So where do Russia and China now stand? In part, this depends on what they knew, and three options are possible, as far as I can tell: 1) China knew about the invasion and lied; 2) China didn’t know about the invasion and were lied to by Russia; 3) China wasn’t sure and didn’t need to care particularly either way.
Here’s what else we know. China didn’t call for their citizens to leave the country in advance of the invasion. Their citizens in Ukraine are in a difficult situation now with China changing their advice on what to do and delaying an envoy to evacuate because it is unsafe. This suggests they either didn’t know or weren’t sure about the invasion. (Or Russia assured them of the quickness of their operations and lack of casualties. I doubt the latter would have been acceptable assurance.) Another possibility is that to avoid playing Russia’s hand China endangered its own citizens. Evacuations were happening in Doneskh a few days in advance of the invasion. Russia had removed many people from its embassies in January. I don’t think China would have waited if it was forewarned, as they could have used US noise of imminent attack as cover.
China has largely backed Russia during the invasion, not in direct support but in rhetoric. First, they failed to describe it as an invasion[ii]. China also backed Russia’s justification regarding NATO encroachment and legitimate defense concerns – which to be fair it isn’t wrong about from a realist perspective. China abstained in condemning Russia’s actions as ‘aggression’ at the UN. But then China said Russia should go to the negotiating table to resolve the conflict and it should be noted that they never made a statement that fully supported the Russian position and did restate their position of support on national sovereignty (which conveniently doesn’t apply to Taiwan).
We also know that two state-owned Chinese banks have pulled funding for the purchase of Russian commodities. However, rather than this being a contribution to the global economic sanctions against Russia this is about avoiding accusations of providing financial support to Russia and thus avoiding international sanctions against China. China, being Russia’s most important trade partner, was seen as Russia’s best way of overcoming sanctions and this move could indicate China is breaking away (again) from the close relationship the new agreement promised. Instead, they are continuing to respect US led sanctions.
How does the invasion impact China?
Russia’s invasion helps China immensely. It could have a big impact on US foreign policy if the conflict stretches out, putting a pause on the US’s Asia First focus, and refocusing efforts in Europe. Ukraine also provides a useful testing ground for possible maneuvers in Taiwan. Again, SWIFT sanctions could actually be a huge boon for China’s competing financial transaction messaging service CiPs.
How does China’s response tell us about Putin’s Ambitions?
Some commentators believe that China could be an important broker for peace in Ukraine, but others suggest that Russia will not allow China to play this role because it strengthens China’s position in the global arena and Russia doesn’t want to play third fiddle in the global orchestra. So, this suggests that Russia was willing to take a significant loss in other arenas in order to pursuit their interests in Ukraine. This could be ominous for Ukraine if other loses continue to mount and they double-down on their focus on Ukraine.
What Needs to Happen?
Ideally, the threat of war would not be an issue as rather than organizing in the form of state hierarchies, human communities should dissolve states in favor of more self-managed systems such as nested councils as described by Steven Shalom. As most people don’t want war because of the price it would have on ordinary individuals, having a participatory decision making process would remove most threats of large-scale violence. But this is the long term goal and until then we need to come to a peaceful resolution to avoid a much larger, drawn out military conflict that could lead to the aerial bombing of civilian populations such as in Kyiv and the expansion of this war to other countries – perhaps eventually bringing in NATO countries and thus NATO forces and thus the clash of nuclear rivals. A peace settlement must be brokered. This is the short term goal.
In the short but slightly longer term, the Russian population needs to continue to put pressure on its government to not only take steps towards peace but to call on Putin’s resignation and fresh elections that are open to rival political parties. Ideally, Putin would be sent to the Hague for war crimes, along with George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and actually every living US President.
If the Russian population manages to effectively topple their government, people in the West need to, in turn, be open to Russian integration and cooperation along with renewed talks of nuclear weapons reductions (and abolition) to avoid the threat of nuclear holocaust that we are now, again, facing. This should have been the approach from the beginning, but here we are.
In any case, toppling Putin from the inside won’t be easy not least because just before the invasion the Russian population seems to be increasing their hatred against Ukraine and their approval of Putin. (This shouldn’t be seen as a particularly Russian phenomenon. It might be the same drive-to-war mentality that bolstered Bush’s approval rating after the attacks of 9/11 even though his administration could reasonably be held responsible for failing to stop those attacks, rather than be given the green light to bomb countries, even if they had no connection to 9/11 whatsoever.) It is not clear what the sentiments of the Russian population are at the moment, but we have seen thousands in the streets in Russia even as these demonstrations are being heavily policed. That being said, they may still be a minority voice and the sanctions that are being implemented now will also hit the Russian population which could be used to drum up additional support for Putin and opposition to the West.
Politics are complicated, but for anything to get better we need a peace negotiation that can stop this war and enable us to build a better world from there.
[i] The Russian National Security Council meeting in which the head of the spy service eventually told Putin that he recommended the annexation of LNR and DNR to which Putin smiled and replied that they were only discussing acknowledging them as independent was clearly a political stunt.
[ii] Please note that the US still fails to describe the war in Vietnam as an invasion, so it’s a common tactic of propaganda.