To most readers in Western countries, the above title would seem completely wrong-headed. Everyone, it appears, “knows” that the war resulted from an arbitrary decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even in commentaries by members of the Western left, we read that the invasion of Ukraine was “unprovoked”. But who really set the stage for this war? The historical evidence points right outside the usually accepted framework.
A few years after the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, leading Western governments — and above all, the United States — began applying military pressures designed to intimidate Russia, isolate it in world affairs and restrict its ability to defend its interests.
One of these pressures involved stepping up the US nuclear threat. In 2002, the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that had given Russia a certain ability to rely on the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent. Then in 2019, the Donald Trump administration repudiated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This agreement had prevented the US from installing missiles in European sites from which they might reach key Russian targets within minutes.
The present article, though, is concerned with the rising conventional military threats to which Russia has been subjected.
In several bursts since the 1990s, the recruitment of new countries to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance has advanced the pact’s boundaries many hundreds of kilometres to the east, in some places right up to Russia’s border. In Russia, this expansion has created a deep unease and at each step Russian governments have objected to it in the most vehement terms.
Historically, Russia has been attacked repeatedly across the North European Plain, which lacks natural obstacles to block invaders. Russian strategic thinking has traditionally stressed the need to have “buffer states” between the homeland and potential aggressors. That protection is now much less.
Critics of the Russian stance on NATO expansion argue that the pact is defensive in nature, and that Russians should not feel menaced by a NATO presence on their borders. But even in recent decades (think Afghanistan and Iraq), leading NATO powers have notched up an ugly record of invading and occupying weaker countries.
Now, the US and its allies are seeking a further, dramatic ratcheting-up of the threat.
Since 2008, the US and its NATO partners have stated bluntly that Ukraine will, at a certain point, join to the alliance. This plan has been met with outrage in Moscow. Ukraine adjoins industrially and strategically vital areas of central and southern Russia. Russian authorities have repeatedly made clear that they regard Ukrainian membership in NATO as an existential threat, a “red line” not to be crossed in any circumstances.
The argument that Ukraine as an independent country has a right to join NATO if it wishes is beside the point. NATO has to agree to admit Ukraine, and if the consequence of admitting it is a drastic heightening of international tensions, then for NATO to take that step would be dangerously irresponsible.
None of this, however, has deterred the warmakers in Washington and Brussels.
After the 2013‒14 Maidan revolt in Ukraine provoked a counter-revolt in the country’s east and spurred the outbreak of the Donbass War, US and other NATO instructors began training Ukraine’s demoralised armed forces. Increasingly, the Ukrainian units came to be equipped with modern NATO weapons. As a relatively large and capable Ukrainian army emerged, the country came to be integrated de facto into NATO’s military structures. Large Western military exercises, involving thousands of foreign personnel, were held on Ukraine’s land territory and off its Black Sea coast.
Meanwhile, the Donbass War continued, marked by persistent shelling across the front lines. Reports by observer teams of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) show that it was the Ukrainian government side that was by far the more trigger-happy, causing a large preponderance of the civilian casualties.
In the final months of 2021, Western media began reporting that thousands of Russian troops were massed along Russia’s border with Ukraine. As a rule, the reports failed to explain that similar if not larger concentrations of Ukrainian troops had gathered on the “line of contact” that demarcated Ukrainian-held territory from areas held by the rebel Donetsk and Luhansk republics.
From early January 2022, Russian sources reported an upsurge in shelling attacks by the Ukrainian military along this entire line. Speculation began to mount that the Ukrainian government was preparing to unleash a major offensive against the rebel republics. On February 21, OSCE monitors reported a dramatic increase in explosions, with a large majority of the shell-bursts in rebel territory. While rebel gunfire was aimed at the government front lines, the government side were directing their fire as much as 20 km into rebel areas. Large numbers of the shells struck urban districts of the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
It is the accumulation of developments such as these, and not expansionist yearnings on the part of Putin, that should be seen as the true reason why Russian military vehicles on February 24 began rolling across Ukraine’s borders. After showing remarkable forbearance over whole decades, the Moscow authorities had clearly decided that the US and NATO were not to be appeased.
None of this is to say that the Russian state was justified in invading Ukraine. Putin had the alternative of undercutting both NATO and the right-wing Ukrainian leadership politically, through implementing consistently democratic, pro-worker policies in Russia and through building an international counterforce of worker solidarity against NATO aggression. Though such a choice would have been uncharacteristic of the Russian leader, to say the least.
Back in the real world, the way Russia interprets its interests and options is well known to foreign diplomats and policy-makers. The foreign affairs strategists of the US and its allies, including the Ukrainian government, would have understood perfectly that if the pressures on Moscow were mounted far enough, a forceful response would be inevitable.
When you cross a bluntly declared “red line”, you have to expect trouble, and when you mete out this treatment to a nuclear-armed power, you knowingly place the survival of the human species in dire peril. But in an astounding display of imperial arrogance and recklessness, the NATO powers went ahead and did precisely that.
[Renfrey Clarke is the author of The Catastrophe of Ukrainian Capitalism: How Privatisation Dispossessed & Impoverished the Ukrainian People, available through Resistance Books.]