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The real causes of the Ukraine crisis

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

USA and its allies mainly responsible for this disaster.

The central root of the crisis is the U.S.-led attempt to turn Ukraine into a Western bulwark on Russia's borders. This strategy consists of three pillars: the integration of Ukraine into the EU, the transformation of Ukraine into a pro-Western liberal democracy and, above all, the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO.

This strategy was set in motion at the annual NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, when the alliance announced that Ukraine and Georgia would "become members."

Russian leaders immediately reacted with outrage, making it clear that they viewed this decision as an existential threat and had no intention of letting either country join NATO. According to a respected Russian journalist, Putin "went into a rage" and warned:

If Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall apart.

William Burns, who is now head of the CIA but was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time of the Bucharest summit, wrote a memo to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that succinctly describes Russian thinking on the matter.

In his words:

Ukraine's entry into NATO is the brightest of red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, up to and including Putin's fiercest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who sees Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.

"NATO," he said, "would be seen ... as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Today's Russia will react. Russian-Ukrainian relations will go through a deep frost.... This move will create fertile ground for Russian interference in Crimea and eastern Ukraine."

Burns, of course, was not the only policy maker who understood that Ukraine's admission to NATO was fraught with peril.

Indeed, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy opposed moving forward with Ukraine's NATO membership at the 2008 Bucharest summit, understanding that it would alarm and anger Russia.

Merkel recently stated her opposition:

I was very sure that Putin would not simply allow that to happen. From his point of view, that would be a declaration of war.

The Bush administration, however, cared little for Moscow's "brightest red line" and pressured French and German leaders to agree to a public statement declaring that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join the alliance.

Not surprisingly, U.S.-led efforts to integrate Georgia into NATO led to war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008-four months after the Bucharest summit.

Nevertheless, the United States and its allies pressed ahead with plans to make Ukraine a Western bastion on Russia's borders. These efforts eventually triggered a major crisis in February 2014, after a U.S.-backed uprising caused Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee the country.

He was replaced by pro-U.S. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. In response, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and helped fuel a civil war between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

One often hears the argument that the United States and its allies paid little attention to Ukraine's admission to NATO in the eight years between the outbreak of the crisis in February 2014 and the start of the war in February 2022.

The issue was supposedly taken off the table, and thus NATO enlargement could not have been a major cause of the escalating crisis in 2021 and the subsequent outbreak of war earlier this year.

But this line of argument is wrong. In fact, the Western response to the events of 2014 was to redouble efforts at the existing strategy and to bring Ukraine even closer to NATO since that time.

NATO began training Ukraine's military in 2014 and trained an average of 10,000 soldiers per year over the next eight years. In December 2017, the Trump administration decided to provide Kiev with "defensive weapons." Other NATO countries soon stepped in and delivered even more weapons to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military also began participating in joint military exercises with NATO forces. In July 2021, Kiev and Washington jointly hosted Operation Sea Breeze, a naval exercise in the Black Sea that involved marines from 31 countries and directly targeted Russia.

Two months later, in September 2021, the Ukrainian Army conducted Maneuver Rapid Trident 21, which the U.S. Army described as an "annual exercise to improve interoperability between allied and partner nations" to demonstrate that units are ready to respond to any crisis.

In addition to NATO's ongoing efforts to vastly increase the combat power of the Ukrainian military, the politics surrounding Ukraine's membership in NATO and its integration with the West in 2021 changed.

A renewed enthusiasm for pursuing these goals emerged in both Kiev and Washington. President Selensky, who had never previously shown much enthusiasm for bringing Ukraine into NATO and who was elected in March 2019 on a platform calling for cooperation with Russia to resolve the ongoing crisis, changed course 180 degrees in early 2021, not only welcoming NATO expansion but also pursuing a tough policy toward Moscow.

He took a series of steps-including shutting down pro-Russian television stations and indicting a close friend of Putin for treason-that were sure to anger Moscow.

President Biden, who moved into the White House in January 2021, had long advocated bringing Ukraine into NATO and was also super hawkish toward Russia. Not surprisingly, on June 14, 2021, at its annual summit in Brussels, NATO issued the following communiqué:

We reaffirm the decision taken at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance, with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision as well as subsequent decisions, including that each partner will be judged on its own merits. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine's right to determine its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference. --Communique' of the Brussels NATO Summit on June 14, 2021.

On September 1, 2021, Selenskyj visited the White House, where Biden made clear that the United States was "firmly committed" to "Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations."

On Nov. 10, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba signed an important document - the "U.S.-Ukraine Charter for Strategic Partnership." The goal of both parties, the document said, was to "underscore ... a commitment to implementing the deep and comprehensive reforms necessary for full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions."

This document explicitly not only builds on "the commitments made to strengthen the Ukraine-U.S. strategic partnership between Presidents Selenskyj and Biden," but also reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the "Bucharest Summit Declaration of 2008."

In short, there is little doubt that Ukraine moved quickly toward joining NATO beginning in early 2021. Still, some supporters of the policy argue that Moscow should not have been concerned because "NATO is a defensive alliance and poses no threat to Russia."

But that is not the way Putin and other Russian leaders think about NATO, and it is what they think that matters. There is no question that Ukraine's NATO accession remained the "brightest red line" for Moscow.

To counter this growing threat, Putin stationed more and more Russian troops on the Ukrainian border between February 2021 and February 2022. His goal was to force Biden and Selenskyj to change course and halt their efforts to integrate Ukraine into the West.

On December 17, 2021, Moscow sent separate letters to the Biden administration and NATO demanding a written guarantee that:

1.Ukraine would not join NATO,

2. no offensive weapons would be deployed near Russia's borders,

3. NATO troops and equipment that had been moved to Eastern Europe since 1997 would be redeployed to Western Europe.

Putin made numerous public statements during this period that left no doubt that he viewed NATO expansion into Ukraine as an existential threat.

In a conversation with the Board of the Ministry of Defense on December 21, 2021, he stated:

What they are doing or trying to do or planning to do in Ukraine is not happening thousands of miles from our State border. It is on our doorstep.

Two months later, Putin said at a press conference on February 22, 2022, just days before the war began:

We are categorically against Ukraine joining NATO because this is a threat to us, and we have arguments to support this. I have talked about this over and over again in this room.

He then made it clear that he noted that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO. The United States and its allies, he said, ''continue to pump the current Kiev authorities full of modern types of weapons.'' He went on to say that if this were not stopped, Moscow "would be left with an 'anti-Russia' armed to the teeth. That is totally unacceptable."

Putin's logic should make perfect sense to the U.S., which has long subscribed to the Monroe Doctrine, which states that no distant great power should place any of its forces in the Western Hemisphere.

I would note that in all of Putin's public statements in the months leading up to the war, there is not a hint of evidence that he was thinking about conquering Ukraine and making it part of Russia, let alone attacking additional countries in Eastern Europe.

Other Russian leaders-including the defense minister, the foreign minister, the deputy foreign minister, and the Russian ambassador to Washington-also emphasized the centrality of NATO expansion in causing the Ukraine crisis. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed it up at a Jan. 14, 2022, press conference when he said:

The key to all this is the guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward.

Yet efforts by Lavrov and Putin to get the United States and its allies to abandon their efforts to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia's border failed.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to Russia's demands in mid-December by saying, "There is no change. There will be no change." Putin then launched an invasion of Ukraine to remove the threat he saw from NATO.

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