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Monday, March 27, 2023

Analyzing the flawed Western policies which led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia is a democratic country shunning its past ideology, and should not feel threatened by NATO stepping up in its backyard. The idea which drove this policy was that since the US is the sole superpower and the West won the Cold War, Western ideology and interests should reign supreme, and Russia should just forget the historical realities and reconcile with NATO’s existence and expansion.

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The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered a precarious state. Russia, contrary to its expectations, has been unable to completely dominate its much smaller neighbor.  Ukrainians are putting up a fight against the invading forces. According to estimates in Mariupol city alone,  more than twenty thousand Ukrainian non-combatants have died. According to Ukraine’s President Zelensky,  sixty to a hundred Ukrainian combatants are dying every day in the war. Russian officials claimed that approximately thirteen hundred Russian troops had died till March 25th, the Western capitals claim the number to be much higher. Rather than being swiftly over, this conflict has become protracted with massive loss of human lives.

This war has exposed the changing world order and an almost confirmed that the future of the global order is multi-polar. The limits of US powers and NATO might have also been revealed. Russia has actually done the unthinkable least for the western world.  The frost in Russia and Ukraine’s bilateral relations did not exist prior to  2014 when a pro-Russia Ukrainian President was ousted from power, and the Kremlin annexed Crimea. The question is, how did the situation between Russia and Ukraine get so out of hand. There are no territorial conflicts between the two neighbors, nor is there a history of animosity and distrust.

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Understanding the matter better

Moreover, Ukraine and Russia are joined by a common history, culture, ethnicity as well as linguistic ties. During the Cold War, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. So if not the animosity between the two neighbors, what led to the current quagmire. Among many factors that could be cited as the trigger, there is one factor that dominates all other NATO.  In 1949, in the initial years of the Cold War, the western democratic bloc formed a military alliance called NATO specifically to counter the Soviet Union. The alliance then went on to play a critical role in the Cold War though many have questioned its necessity in the post-Cold War world, including Russia. In the unipolar world, NATO has not only sustained itself but also thrived, with many of the former European  Soviet Republics as well as WARSAW Pact members joining the alliance.

Logically NATO should have been disbanded, much like the WARSAW Pact in 1991, as the core NATO objective of defeating the communist camp had been achieved. In the nineties, US negotiators made various promises and assurances to the Russians that the alliance will not expand eastward.  However, these promises were never made into a legally binding agreement. The US and the European Big Three  (UK, Germany, France) believe that NATO should be open to all European nations; it is against the spirit of liberal values to deny a particular country entry based on its history or geography. For the western world, the unstated principle of not allowing Eastern Europe into the alliance was only applicable till Cold War. This sentiment, either naïve or intentional, gave rise to an existential security threat for the Russians.

The philosophical undertones of this policy can be traced to Francis Fukuyama’s  End of History and the Last Man, which theorizes that the liberal world has won the final battle for supremacy of ideas. The “end of history” means that liberal democratic values have triumphed over all other political ideologies and will now prevail globally.

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The liberal West, with regards to their NATO policy, believed in the same philosophy that since it has won the Cold War and Moscow began a transition towards democracy, a clash of ideologies no longer exists. Russia is a democratic country shunning its past ideology, and should not feel threatened by NATO stepping up in its backyard. The idea which drove this policy was that since the US is the sole superpower and the West won the Cold War, Western ideology and interests should reign supreme, and Russia should just forget the historical realities and reconcile with NATO’s existence and expansion.

Now NATO has troops deployed from Baltic Republics in the North to Romania in the South. To bridge the relations between NATO and Russia, the Founding Act was signed in 1997 along with the formation of the NATO Russia Council in 2002. In 2010, NATO announced its policy which clearly stated that it poses no threats to Russia.

Despite these efforts, the prevailing sentiment across all political spectrums in Russia collectively perceives NATO’s expansion eastward as a direct threat to the country’s security. Western efforts to bridge the trust with Kremlin were meaningless as long as NATO continued to incorporate former Soviet Republics and ultimately dangled this carrot to both Ukraine and Georgia. The NATO Summit Declaration in 2008 hinted at the possibility of awarding membership to Georgia and  Ukraine, an absolute nightmare scenario for Moscow.

The same year Russia carried out military intervention in Georgia, effectively ending the talks or prospects of it joining NATO. The ousting of pro-Ukraine’s pro-Russia President in 2014, along with the growing public and political consensus that Ukraine should join the EU and NATO, prompted Moscow to not only annex Crimea but also support secessionists in Donbas and Luhansk. To preserve its national interests, Russia always sought a pro-Russia Ukraine, if not pro-Russia, then at least a neutral party. The US and the European powers emboldened Ukraine’s plans to become a full-fledged member of the Western liberal order to the extent that joining NATO is now a national objective designated in Ukraine’s constitution.

Read more: Russia warns countries against hosting Ukraine military aircraft

What is Russia’s problem?

In Russia’s security calculations, NATO already has too much strategic advantage with its troop deployments in the Baltic, Hungary, Romania and Poland. Considering the proximity of these countries to Russia, in case of a conflict, NATO could quickly mobilize its troops as well as utilize  US missiles deployed in Poland and Romania. Kremlin believes that NATO’s expansion simply creates more weapons deployment opportunities in Central and Eastern Europe. The entry of Ukraine into the alliance would seriously undermine Russia’s security and territorial integrity. The maintenance of a physical buffer between NATO and Russia is critical to upholding its strategic interests.

Russia’s proposed legally binding security demands presented to the US in January this year include a rollback of NATO deployments from Eastern European states, awarded membership after 1997, and a declaration that Ukraine will never be extended membership of NATO.  In view of the Western world, this demand, together with Russian actions in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea, cemented Moscow as an expansionist power. The Western world is just unable to grasp why Kremlin feels so threatened by NATO’s expansion that it would carry out an invasion of its neighbor.

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The Western response exhibits a lack of understanding towards a view or sentiment which differs from their own. The entire scenario also implicates that the US and Europe’s post-Cold War policies as deeply flawed and blind towards understanding the great power politics. According to political scientist John Mearsheimer, whenever a great power feels an existential threat, it is bound to lash out. In Russia’s view, NATO’s expansion is simply an existential threat; hence no action or policy, no matter the consequences, is justified.


The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.