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Friday, December 1, 2023

Why did Russia invade Ukraine?

Lviv, Ukraine. A group of people tour the World War II bomb shelter, which was recently rehabilitated in the face of Putin's war threat. Photo: Manuel Ortiz Escámez

Putin appeals to an old ghost - Nazism - to gain the support of his people and justify an unjustifiable invasion. In doing so, he constructs a potentially powerful narrative that, however, as the days go by, falls apart and turns against him.

The mastermind of the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoning of the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, launches his fratricidal war with the aim of "denazifying" and "demilitarizing" Ukraine and "stopping the genocide" of ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine and "stop the genocide" of ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine. But how true are these arguments?

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, political scientist Francis Fukuyama considered that the political cycle of humanity was closing and that it would lead not to a convergence between capitalism and socialism, but to a triumph of economic and political liberalism. In other words, the American liberal predicted the triumph of the West, of the Western idea and of democracy as a political system.  

According to liberal theorists, the global predominance of democracy as a set of values that in turn entails a system of checks and balances would irremediably lead to greater observance of international law and thus to a prolonged period of peace. For Fukuyama, the end of the Cold War symbolized not only the passage from one period to another, but the end of history itself, i.e., the pinnacle of man's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the ultimate form of government to which all human beings could aspire. 

However, Putin proved to us time and again that the realpolitik matters and that, therefore, we cannot overlook the strategic interests of states. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 - at the hands of undercover Russian soldiers - and, recently, Moscow's cowardly invasion of Ukraine, make it clear that democratic values are not the ultimate harbor of all peoples. Moreover, if democracy is not common currency, the relative post-Cold War peace could not be perpetual either.

Liberal theorists postulate that democracy, economic interdependence and membership in international organizations would be enough to bring positions closer together and resolve conflicts that might arise between countries. In this sense, the advance of globalization, as well as the growing interconnection and economic interdependence it entails, would serve as a brake on the ambitions of autocrats. Nothing could be further from the truth. In spite of the millionaire and varied sanctions imposed on the Russian economy, Putin's inner circle and the great oligarchs of that country, the war continues with no signs of ceasing.

What factors then explain Russia's decision to invade Ukraine? Why did an economy as interconnected with the world as Russia's - unlike, for example, North Korea's - risk an unprecedented array of sanctions?

Ukraine, border with Polona. Approximately every 20 minutes, between 60 and 80 people arrive at this point, fleeing Putin's invasion of this country. Photo: Manuel Ortiz Escámez.

What are Russia's strategic interests?

Clearly the Russian political class must have pondered that the gain would be greater, perhaps not in economic terms, but in political and security terms.

Following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, one of the greatest exponents of offensive neorealism, John Mearsheimer, postulated in. Foreign Affairs that both the United States and its European Union allies shared most of the responsibility for the crisis. Like most voices in 2022, the University of Chicago professor did not hesitate to point to NATO expansion as the cause of the Russian reaction. According to Mearsheimer, Russia perceived that its strategic interests were threatened and feared, among other things, that NATO would establish a naval base in the Black Sea, where Russia has maintained a large fleet since 1790, the year in which Catherine the Great seized the Crimean peninsula from the Ottoman Empire.

If NATO began to expand in 1999 by incorporating the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland into its ranks, and even dared to incorporate the former Soviet republics of Estonia and Latvia bordering the Russian Federation in 2004, why did it take Russia so many years to attack Ukraine? Most experts attribute it to Russian weakness at the time.

In addition, the Ukrainian border with Russia is significantly larger (1576 km) than that of Estonia (294 km) and Latvia (217 km); the distance to Moscow is shorter and less rugged and the strategic importance of Ukraine is incomparable (passage of Russian gas pipelines to Europe, base of operations of the Russian Black Sea fleet, land rich in minerals, high production of grain, heavy machinery, armaments, nuclear power generation etc.).

Ukraine, border with Polona. More than 2 million people have left Ukraine so far. Photo: Manuel Ortiz Escámez.

In cultural terms, Russia claims its historical origin and cultural legacy in the Kyiv Rus (Kievska Rus), a federation of Slavic tribes that dates back to the 9th century and had Kyiv as its capital. Although Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have their origins in that federation, it is the current Ukrainian capital - and not Moscow, Minsk or St. Petersburg - that is the undisputed heir to that legacy. Hence, Putin's assertions that "Ukraine does not exist" or that "it is not a neighboring country, but part of our history, our culture and spiritual space", are the other way around. Russia is part of Ukraine's history. That was the case for more than three hundred years (from the late 9th to the mid-13th century), so Putin's historical claims are unsubstantiated and could rather be employed by a Ukrainian nationalist leader.

Now, that Russia was weak in the 1990s does not mean that Russian officials had not repeatedly expressed their disagreement with Western intentions, and believed - unusually? - that their counterparts had understood their security concerns. In that sense, Putin was not the first to warn the West what would happen in the event of NATO's further expansion into its borders.

Already in 1995, during the NATO bombings against the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the then President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, pointed out:

?this is the first sign of what could happen when NATO arrives right on the borders of the Russian Federation?the flame of war may break out all over Europe?

Boris Yeltsin, 1995

That was not the first wake-up call, nor the most important one, but it does show us that states have strategic interests that transcend their leaders.

Because there is no world authority to turn to -the principle of anarchy-, neorealists argue that states must defend themselves on their own -the principle of self-help-. If they fail to do so, they run the risk of being exterminated. In order to avoid this, states need to strengthen their military capabilities and eliminate threats to their security.

That is precisely what Putin has done to date. Hence, we should not be surprised by the invasion of Georgia in 2008 (a few months after NATO openly considered admitting Georgia and Ukraine), the invasion from within and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014, or even the current fratricidal war against the Zelenskyy government.

What should surprise us - despite the impressive battery of economic sanctions against Russia - is the passivity of the United States and the European Union regarding Russia's flagrant violations of the sovereignty of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

This obviously does not justify any invasion, but it does explain Russian expansionism. In that sense, the "denazification" of Ukraine is a crude resource to mobilize and unify Russian society against a historical enemy that inflicted great damage on the Soviet population -starting with the Ukrainian one where millions of people died at the hands of the Nazis- and which, therefore, easily materializes evil. In the end, it is nothing more than a hollow discourse that is not supported by reality, since Zelenskyy is a Jew, an ally of Israel and a relative of Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Regarding the alleged genocide against ethnic Russians, the UN has found no evidence of such facts, nor has it documented persecution against that or any other ethnic minority (even in the Donbas region, ethnic Russians account for only 25% of the population). However, the opposite has been documented, harassment of Ukrainians for speaking Ukrainian in the occupied territories of Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk.

It should be noted that the Ukrainian Constitution of 1996 safeguards the rights of all ethnic minorities living on its territory. According to Article 10 of the Constitution, "the free development, use and protection of the Russian language, as well as other languages of national minorities in Ukraine is guaranteed". And while Article 11 states that "The State shall promote the consolidation and development of the Ukrainian nation, its historical consciousness, traditions and culture, it shall also promote the development of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of all indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine". Hence, these claims are also unsubstantiated.

Finally, there remains the question of the demilitarization of Ukraine and its status as a neutral country. While the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) declared in 1990 its "intention that Ukraine should become a permanently neutral state, outside any military bloc" (Art. IX). (Art. IX), this desire was not reflected in the Constitution that was promulgated six years later and, therefore, Russia cannot reproach Ukraine for its rapprochement with NATO, nor can it justify its invasion on the violation of this principle.

Even if Ukraine had not been faithful to this "intention", Ukraine is a sovereign country and can therefore decide which organization to belong to according to its interests and values. On the other hand, Ukraine can complain to Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom for not having fulfilled their commitments regarding the provision of security to the countries that renounced their nuclear arsenal in 1994 (Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan).

It is clear, however, that Russia will not cease until it has finished with Ukraine's military capability, deposed Zelenskyy, established a puppet government and achieved the neutrality of the Ukrainian state.  

Octavio Miguel Gonzalez Segovia

Postdoctoral researcher at the Center for International Relations of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).


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