Russia-Ukraine War: Hypocrisy, hubris, and avoidable tragedy
Russia has blood on its hands, but it was Western arrogance and hubris that ultimately led to catastrophe in Ukraine.
The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine was an avoidable disaster. It was both predictable and predicted by realists in the West, including famous geopolitical experts such as Mearsheimer, and policymakers such as Kennan (the architect of the policy of containment of the Soviet Union). The core Russian demand that Ukraine not be part of NATO was entirely reasonable. No great power, let alone one with Russia’s traumatic history with Europe, would accept an expanding alliance of powers advancing to its very border. Over 20 million Soviets, many of them Russian, died fighting the evil of fascism in World War II; Russian apprehension about NATO growing eastwards is understandable. Yet the US attitude to Russia after having decisively won the Cold War, was one of contempt. It could have been generous in victory and tried to integrate Russia into the Euro-sphere. Instead, Washington chose to be cold to Moscow, and dismiss legitimate Russian concerns about NATO’s continued growth. The US, UK and France have also all launched devastating military interventions in the Mid-East and Asia over the past 70 years, showing their hypocrisy in condemning Moscow.
Russia is a European country at its heart. It is Orthodox Christian and is culturally much more similar to Europe than Asia. It is true that it is autocratic and has a long history of despotism. However, the powers of the West have allied themselves to autocratic countries when their interest suits them, so to be dismissive of Russia on the grounds that its political system is illiberal was and is not a smart policy. A measured approach of trying to integrate Russia into European trade, while halting eastward NATO expansion could have yielded peace and avoided a war. Notably, Russia co-operated with the US after 9/11, opening the crucial central Asian logistics chain to the US, partly enabling Washington to invade Afghanistan. This was with Vladimir Putin in charge, as well. The US became hostile to Russia despite this.
Russian civilisation began in Ukraine, as the Kievan Rus’. Kiev/Kyiv is where the Russian Orthodox Church began, and it is possible that the splits in the Church between Moscow and Kyiv were a trigger point for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, Ukraine was always going to be such an emotional issue for Moscow, irrespective of who is in power at the Kremlin, that NATO in Ukraine was bound to trigger a reaction – a violent one. It is probable that emotion as much a strategy played a role in Putin’s war.
Does that mean Moscow is morally in the right? No, because the war it started has caused huge civilian suffering. Millions of civilians have left Ukraine for Poland, Romania, and Moldova to finally seek asylum in the West. These people are the very Ukrainians, fellow Slavic people, that Russia calls brothers. Furthermore, Russia attacked a country that did not pose an immediate military threat to it, contravening international law as there was no casus belli (case for war). Many Eastern European nations actively sought NATO membership because of the historical memory of Russian domination. Since the days of Tsar Peter the Great, Russia has failed to modernise its economy to match the West. Most Eastern European countries want greater economic integration with the West, as Russia cannot fully match Western consumer living standards and productivity.
There appears to be opposition to the war within Russia itself, especially among younger Russians. The Russian Ground Forces’ drive on Kyiv went well outside of Russia’s traditional interests in Ukraine - the Russian speaking areas in the East, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk. It is possible that the partial surrounding of Kyiv by the Russian military was a feint to draw defences away from the East so that the Russians could surround and destroy the Ukrainian Army in Donbass, although the initial failed attempt to attack the city by airborne troops suggests Putin did want to take Kyiv but ultimately could not.
If the Russian aim simply was to force Kyiv to the negotiating table regarding NATO membership, with the operational objective of surrounding the bulk of the Ukrainian military in the East, then the war is yielding results for the Kremlin, however slowly. Time is still on Putin’s side, although the Western media and governments would prefer not to report events that way. It is time for Russia and the West to swallow their pride and begin serious negotiations. Russia does not have enough soldiers to occupy Ukraine, and it appears to have seriously underestimated the Ukrainian will to resist. Echoing American arrogance in the Middle East, the Kremlin assumed its men would be greeted as liberators in many areas – they were not, just as US troops often were not welcomed in Iraq. The Western insistence on expanding NATO has led to horrific results for the Ukrainian people. A compromise deal where Ukraine is neutral and does not have ties to NATO would be ideal under the circumstances.
The alternative is a spiralling conflict that could easily assume nuclear dimensions - a terrifying thought for the world. There is also the spectre of Western confrontation with China looming, from which the Ukraine conflict is arguably a dangerous distraction.