By Yanis Iqbal
Russia has launched the invasion of Ukraine. On February 24, 2021, in a televised address, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation”. Within minutes of the broadcast, at about 5 am Ukrainian time, explosions took place near major Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kiev. Since then, strikes have been taking place on Ukrainian military infrastructure, air defense sites, airfields and military aircraft. What are the structural roots of this escalation?
On February 9, 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker told Mikhail Gorbachev – final leader of the USSR – that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not move “one inch to the east” from the Oder-Neisse line that divides Germany from Poland. Earlier, on January 31, 1990, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher had already declared in a speech that “an expansion of NATO territory to the East, in other words, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union, will not happen.” The UK and France also made the same promise.
These commitments to non-expansionism were formalized in the Russia-NATO Partnership for Peace (1994), the NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997), and the Charter for European Security by the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) (1999). Imperialist ambitions soon overrode these agreements. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO, while in 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were incorporated into the alliance. In other words, NATO’s forces have advanced over 800 miles eastward over the last 30 years, deep inside the borders of the former Soviet Union.
In 2002, the NATO-Ukraine Action Plan opened up a framework for Ukraine’s possible entry into NATO. This posed a military threat to Russia since NATO missiles from Ukraine could reach Moscow in five minutes. Further, Ukraine is the buffer between Russia and Europe. All the attacks on Russia earlier, from Napoleon to Hitler, came through Ukraine. These security concerns were overlaid with ethnic conflicts. Since the dissolution of the USSR was carried out by a counter-revolutionary elite, no efforts were made to respect the right of nations to their self-determination.
Ethnic groups which were the majority in the regions they inhabited, for example the Russians of the Crimea and Donbas, were left out of Russia. In fact, one fourth of the Russian nation was left outside Russia. The same happened with the Serbs, who were a majority of the inhabitants of Krajina in Croatia but suddenly found themselves a minority in a foreign country. These new ethnic realities led to 10 million refugees in the former USSR, five wars in former Yugoslavia and 10 in the former USSR.
Post-Soviet ethnic chaos meant that one in five Ukrainians speaks Russian. This Russian community was heavily impacted by the developments of 2014. The then President Viktor Yanukovych tried to play Russia and the European Union (EU) off one another to get the best economic deal for Ukraine. Thus, he became the target of Western-backed business interests and Russophobic neo-Nazi groups. With US backing, the latter staged a coup and forced Yanukovych to flee to Moscow.
The overthrow of the elected president came to be known as the Maidan Revolution, named after the Kiev square that hosted the protests. On February 6, 2014, an anonymous entity leaked a call between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. They could be heard saying that Arseniy Yatsenyuk is America’s choice to replace Yanukovych, which he did. The new government adopted pro-EU and pro-NATO policies. It imposed restrictions on the teaching of the Russian language in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, provoking resistance among the inhabitants. With the support of the majority of the population, expressed in a referendum, Putin joined Crimea to Russia.
In the same year as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, separatist leaders supported by Moscow seized Donetsk and Luhansk – populated primarily by Russian ethnic minorities striving for independence – and declared the “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk”. These events angered ultra-nationalist Ukrainian forces; they declared war on the people that were opposing Yatsenyuk’s Euro-American posture.
To defuse the conflictual situation, talks were held between Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, leading to the Minsk Protocols of 2014 and 2015. This Protocol proposed a ceasefire, which involved the devolution of power without granting autonomy to the Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, and a pulling out of forces and heavy weaponry 15 kilometers from the Line of Contact.
Breakdowns of the ceasefire led to the death of over 14,000 people and displaced over 2.5 million, with nearly half of them seeking refuge in Russia. Talks in 2019 between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, called the Normandy-Paris Process, were unsuccessful because the West refused to give Russia a legal guarantee of security.
A belligerent Western attitude that promoted the military encirclement of Russia was evident from the very beginning of the Minsk Protocols. The West only offered Russia the right to examine offensive missiles placed on its borders, simultaneously establishing three additional bases with such missiles, two in Slovakia and one in Poland.
These simmering security contradictions were exacerbated by NATO’s constant efforts to induct Ukraine, which emboldened right-wing Ukrainian nationalists – including fascists such as the Azov Battalion – to initiate an anti-Russian campaign. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko put forward a language law in 2017 that impeded the teaching of minority languages in the country’s schools.
When Volodymyr Zelensky – elected in 2019 – attempted to implement the provisions of the Minks agreement, large-scale ultra nationalist protests broke out, accusing Zelensky of “capitulation” to Russian pressure and threatening to force him to resign. This made Zelensky adopt a “tougher” rhetoric on Russia, blaming it for the problems in Donbass instead of advancing an agenda of ethnic peace.
Zelensky’s shrill anti-Russian rhetoric was supported by US President Joe Biden’s government which has increased pressure on Moscow as part of its geopolitical subversion of the process of multipolarization. The Biden Administration approved the Ukrainian military’s use of drone warfare in the Donbas in October 2021, when aerial weapons were strictly prohibited by the Minsk agreements. It additionally intensified NATO exercises in Ukraine – the summer 2021 Cossack Mace exercise in the south, between Odessa and Crimea, for instance.
When Putin reiterated his demand that the US and NATO remove all weapons from Ukraine, and that a guarantee be issued Ukraine will not join the alliance, the West showed no willingness to respond to this issue in a diplomatic manner. This was troubling for Russia because it was legitimately concerned about how NATO membership would give Ukraine additional muscle to forcefully assert control over Donbas and also move into Crimea and hold the ports in the Black Sea region. As a result, Russia decided to invade Ukraine so as to pre-empt such a scenario.