To understand the tragedy of this war, it is worth going back beyond the last few weeks and months, and even beyond Vladimir Putin
A military facility destroyed by shelling near Kyiv, 1 March 2022. Photograph: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images
To understand the tragedy of this war, it is worth going back beyond the last few weeks and months, and even beyond Vladimir Putin
by Keith GessenFri 11 Mar 2022 14.14 GMT
For three months everyone argued about whether there would be a war, whether Vladimir Putin was bluffing or serious. Some of the Russia experts who had long told people to take it easy were now telling people to get worried. Others, who had long criticised Putin, said that he was just trying to draw attention to himself, that it was all for show. Among the analysts, there was a debate between the troop watchers and the TV watchers. The troop watchers saw the massive concentration of Russian forces at the border and in Crimea and warned of invasion. The TV watchers said that Russian TV was not ramping up war hysteria, as it usually does before a Russian invasion, and that this meant there would be no war.
The question was settled, for ever, on the night of 24 February, when Russian missiles hit military installations and civilian targets inside Ukraine, and Russian armoured convoys crossed the border. Then everyone began arguing about why. Was Putin crazy? Was he genuinely concerned about Nato expansion? Was he thinking in amoral categories – as longtime Putin scholar Fiona Hill suggested – that were fundamentally historical, along timescales that made no sense to ordinary mortals? Was he trying, bit by bit, to reconstruct the Russian Empire? Was Estonia next?
I had travelled to Moscow in January to see what I could learn. The city looked beautiful. Snow lay on the ground and everyone was very calm. Yes, repressions were ramping up, the space for political expression was narrowing, and many more people had died of Covid-19 than was officially acknowledged. And yes, speaking of Covid, Putin was paranoid about it, forcing anyone who wanted to see him in person to quarantine for one week in advance in a hotel the Kremlin had for that purpose. No one thought things were going in anything like the right direction, but none of the people I spoke to, some of them fairly well connected, thought an invasion was actually going to happen.
They thought Putin was engaged in coercive diplomacy. They thought the American intelligence community had lost its mind. I visited friends, listened to their reflections, gamed out the various scenarios. Even if an invasion did happen – a big if – it would be over quickly, we all agreed. It would be like Crimea: a precision operation, the use of overwhelming technological superiority. Putin had always been so cautious – the sort of person who never started a fight he wasn’t sure to win. It would be terrible, but relatively painless. That was wrong. We were all wrong.
That everyone was wrong did not prevent everyone from immediately claiming that, in fact, they’d been right. Russia experts who had been arguing for years that Putin was a bloody tyrant rushed forth to claim vindication, for he had undoubtedly become what they had claimed he was all along. Russia experts who had been arguing for years that we needed to heed Putin’s warnings could also claim vindication (though more quietly) because Putin had finally acted on those warnings. As usual, officials from US presidential administrations of yore were trotted out on TV as talking heads, dispensing their wisdom and accepting no responsibility, as if they had not all contributed, in one way or another, to the catastrophe.
This war was not inevitable, but we have been moving toward it for years: the west, and Russia, and Ukraine. The war itself is not new – it began, as Ukrainians have frequently reminded us in the past two weeks, with the Russian incursion in 2014. But the roots go back even further. We are still experiencing the death throes of the Soviet empire. We are reaping, too, in the west, the fruits of our failed policies in the region after the Soviet collapse.
This war was the decision of one person and one person only – Vladimir Putin. He made the call in his Covid isolation, failed to mount any sort of campaign to garner public support, and barely spoke to anyone outside the tiniest inner circle about it, which is why just a few weeks before the invasion no one in Moscow thought it was going to happen. Furthermore, he clearly misunderstood the nature of the political situation in Ukraine, and the vehemence of the resistance he would encounter. Nonetheless, to understand the tragedy of the war, and what it means for Ukraine and Russia and the rest of us, it is worth going back beyond the last few weeks and months, and even beyond Vladimir Putin. Things did not have to turn out this way, though where exactly we went wrong is much harder to determine.
1. The breakup: Russia and Ukraine after the fall of the USSR
Thirty years ago, as the countries of the former Soviet Union declared their independence, everyone breathed a sigh of relief that the empire disappeared so gently. Aside from a nasty irredentist conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the ethnic Armenian exclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, there was very little violence. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, conflict began appearing at the edges of the former USSR.
In Moldova, Russian troops supported a small separatist movement of Russian-speakers that eventually formed the tiny breakaway republic of Transnistria. In Georgia, the autonomous region of Abkhazia, also supported by Russian arms, fought a short war with the central government in Tbilisi, as did South Ossetia. Chechnya, a Russian republic that had fiercely resisted the encroachment of the empire throughout the 19th century, and which suffered terribly under Soviet rule, declared its own wish for independence, and was ground down in not one but two brutal wars. Tajikistan endured a civil war, in part a fallout from the civil war raging in Afghanistan, with which it shared a border. And on and on. In 2007, Russia launched a cyber-attack against Estonia, and in 2008, it responded to an attempt by Georgia to retake South Ossetia with a massive counter-offensive. Despite all this, it was still common for people to say that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had been miraculously peaceful. And then came Ukraine.
In the laboratory of nation-building that was the former empire, Ukraine stood out. Some of the Soviet former republics had longstanding political traditions and distinct linguistic, religious and cultural practices; others less so. The Baltic states had each been independent for two decades between the world wars. Most of the other republics had had, at best, a brief experiment with independence in the immediate wake of the collapse of tsarism in 1917. To complicate matters, many of the newfound nations had significant Russian-speaking populations who were either uninterested in or actively hostile toward their new national projects.
Ukraine was unique on all these fronts. Though it, too, had only existed as an independent state in modern times for a few short years, it had a powerful nationalist movement, a vibrant literary canon, and a strong memory of its independent place in the history of Europe before Peter the Great. It was very large – the second-largest country in Europe after Russia. It was industrialised, being a major producer of coal, steel and helicopter engines, as well as grain and sunflower seeds. It had a highly educated populace. And that populace at the time it became independent in 1991 numbered 52 million – second only to Russia among post-Soviet states. It was strategically located on the Black Sea and on the border with numerous eastern European states and future Nato members. It possessed what had once been the most beautiful beaches in the USSR, on the Crimean peninsula, where the Russian tsars had spent their summers, as well as the USSR’s largest warm water naval port, in Sevastopol. It had suffered greatly during the German advance into the Soviet Union in 1941 – of the 13 “hero cities” of the USSR, so called because they saw the heaviest fighting and raised the stoutest resistance, four were in Ukraine (Kyiv, Odesa, Kerch and Sevastopol). The economies of Russia and Ukraine were deeply intertwined. Ukrainian factories in Dnipropetrovsk were a vital part of the military-industrial capacity of the USSR, and Russia’s largest export gas pipelines ran through Ukraine. Strategically, in the words of historian Dominic Lieven, describing the situation circa the first world war, Ukraine could not have been more vital. “Without Ukraine’s population, industry and agriculture, early-20th-century Russia would have ceased to be a great power.” The same was true, or seemed to be true, in 1991.
Ukraine was not just geopolitically significant to Russia. It was culturally and historically, too. The Russian and Ukrainian languages had diverged sometime in the 13th century, and Ukraine had a distinct and notable literature, but the two remained close – about as close as Spanish and Portuguese. While most of the country was ethnically Ukrainian, there was, particularly in the east, a large ethnic Russian minority. Perhaps more important, while the official language was Ukrainian, the lingua franca in most of the large cities was Russian. And perhaps even more important than that, most people knew both languages. It was common on television to see a journalist, for example, ask a question in Russian and receive an answer in Ukrainian, or to have a panel of experts for a talent show with two Russian-language judges and two Ukrainian-language judges. It was a genuinely bilingual nation – a rare thing.
From a Russian nationalist perspective, that was a problem. Why speak two languages when you could just speak one? Crimea was a particularly sore spot: the vast majority of the population identified as Russian. And once you started thinking about Crimea, you then started thinking about eastern Ukraine. There were many Russians there. To be sure, there were also Russians in other places – in northern Kazakhstan, for example, and eastern Estonia. There were irredentist claims on these areas as well, and occasionally they flared up. The writer turned political provocateur Eduard Limonov, for example, was arrested in Moscow in 2001 for allegedly plotting to invade northern Kazakhstan and declare it an independent ethnic Russian republic. But no place held such a central part in the Russian historical imagination as Ukraine.
For the first 20 years of independence, Russia kept a very close eye on developments in Ukraine, and interfered in various ways, but that was as far as it went. That was as far as it needed to go. Ukraine’s large Russian-language population guaranteed, or seemed to guarantee, that the country would not stray too far from the Russian sphere of influence.
2. ‘Where does the motherland begin?’ The view from Ukraine
In Ukraine itself, even aside from the Russian presence, there were the birth agonies of a nation. Many of the new post-Soviet countries had their share of problems – corrupt elites, restive ethnic minorities, a border with Russia. Ukraine had all this, and more. Because it was large and industrialised, there was plenty of it to steal. Because it had a major Black Sea port in the city of Odesa, there was an easily accessible seaway through which to steal it. As became clear in 2014, when it became time to use it, much of the equipment of the old Ukrainian army was smuggled out of the country through that port.
On top of this, Ukraine was, if not divided, then certainly not immediately recognisable as a unified whole. Because it had so many times been conquered and partitioned, the country’s historical memory itself was fractured. In the words of one historian, “Its different parts had different pasts.” To make things worse, one of the most treasured aspects of the political culture of Ukraine, historically – the legacy of the Cossack hetmanate of the 17th century – was anarchism. The original Cossacks were warriors who had escaped serfdom. Their political system was a radical democracy. There was something beautiful about this. But in terms of the construction of a modern state, it had its drawbacks. In a now-infamous CIA analysis written shortly after the creation of independent Ukraine, it was predicted that there was a good chance the country would fall apart.
And yet, for two decades, it didn’t. For better and worse, democracy was rooted deep in Ukrainian political culture, and so while in Russia power was never transferred to an opposition, in Ukraine it happened again and again. In 1994, the first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, was voted out of office in favour of Leonid Kuchma, who promised better relations with Russia and to give the Russian language equal status in Ukraine. In 2004, his hand-picked successor, Viktor Yanukovych, was, after massive protests against a falsified election, voted out in favour of a more nationalist and pro-European candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. In 2010, Yushchenko proceeded to lose to a resurgent Yanukovych. But Yanukovych was thrown out of office by the Maidan revolution in 2014. A nationalist candidate and chocolate billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, became the next president, but he was replaced by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaking pro-peace candidate, in 2019.
Ukrainian politics were full of conflict. Fist-fights in the Rada were common and protests were a fact of ordinary life. There were massive protests against Kuchma, for example, in 2000, when a recording surfaced of him apparently ordering the murder of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless body had been found in the woods outside Kyiv. (Kuchma insisted the tapes were doctored. He was charged in 2011, but the prosecution was dropped after a court ruled the tapes inadmissible.) Yushchenko, the opposition candidate in 2004, barely survived a dioxin poisoning, which had all the markings of a Russian special operation. The initial round of voting in 2004 was marked by severe irregularities and clear voter fraud such as had not yet appeared in Russia. It took mass protests, known as the Orange Revolution, to win another round of voting, in which Yushchenko won. Yushchenko himself subsequently presided over a fair election in 2010, which he lost. And on and on.
These changes of power were alternately tumultuous and pedestrian, but they reflected genuine differences of opinion among the populace about what Ukraine should be. Some thought Ukraine should integrate further with Europe, others that it should remain friendly and closely connected with Russia. The cultural and historical differences between the different parts of Ukraine would surface in times of crisis.
For Russian speakers and Ukraine’s remaining Jewish population, the memory of the second world war, of resistance to Nazi invasion and occupation, remained an important touchstone. Ukrainian nationalists had a different perspective on these events. For some, the occupation of their country began in 1921 (when the Bolsheviks consolidated control of Ukraine) or 1939 (when Stalin took the last part of western Ukraine as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Germany and the USSR to carve up Poland), if not 1654, when the Cossack Hetmanate sought the protection of the Russian tsar. The famous wartime resistance fighters known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, who had opposed both Soviet and German occupation in western Ukraine, and who were seen as fascist villains by the Soviets, were, in the nationalist narrative, the George Washingtons of Ukrainian history. For nationalists, the signal tragedy of the 20th century was not the Nazi invasion, but instead the great famine of 1932-33, in which millions of Ukrainians died. It was known as the Holodomor – “murder by hunger” – and was consistently referred to as a deliberate act by Stalin (and by extension Russia) to destroy the Ukrainian nation.
All these arguments took place against a backdrop of economic stagnation. Ukraine’s economy was consistently one of the weakest in the former Soviet bloc. Corruption was endemic and living standards were low. Ukraine was dependent on cheap gas from Russia as well as the “transit fees” it charged for Russian gas going to Europe.
To Ukrainians living under these see-sawing politics, going from hope to disappointment and back again, with what seemed like a permanent elite merely trading the presidency back and forth between themselves, it felt like their lives were passing them by. A journalist I met in Kyiv in 2010, who had taken part in the protests that were part of the Orange Revolution and was then let down by Yuschenko’s presidency, lamented the missed opportunities. “All this while time is passing,” he said. He couldn’t believe how little had been done since 2005, and since 1991.
But there was another aspect to time passing. The more time passed, the more Ukraine’s fragile nationhood could coalesce. Because what did it mean to belong to a nation? Where, in the words of the famous Soviet song, does the motherland begin? It begins with the pictures in the first book your mother reads you, according to the song. And to your good and true friends from the courtyard next door. The more people who were born in Ukraine, rather than the USSR, the more people grew up thinking of Kyiv as their capital instead of Moscow, and the more they learned the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history, the stronger Ukraine would become. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in the TV show that made him famous in Ukraine and eventually catapulted him to the presidency, played a Russian-speaking high school history teacher who suddenly becomes president. In the brief scenes in which we see Zelenskiy’s character actually teaching, he is quizzing his students about the great Ukrainian national historian and politician Mykhailo Hrushevsky.
3. For Russia, Nato is a four-letter word
It was violent Russian opposition to EU membership for Ukraine that in late 2013 precipitated the Maidan revolution, which in turn precipitated the Russian annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine. But after the end of the cold war, it was Nato expansion that had been the greatest irritant to the relationship between Russia and the west, a relationship that found Ukraine trapped in between.
Nato expansion proceeded very slowly, then seemingly all at once. In the immediate wake of the Soviet collapse, it was not a foregone conclusion that Nato would get bigger. In fact, most US policymakers, and the US military, opposed expanding the alliance. There was even talk, for a while, of disbanding Nato. It had served its purpose – to contain the Soviet Union – and now everyone could go their separate ways.
This changed in the early years of the Clinton administration. The motor for the change came from two directions. One was a group of idealistic foreign policy hands inside the Clinton national security council, and the other was the eastern European states.
After 1991, the post-communist countries of eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, found themselves in an uncertain security environment. Nearby Yugoslavia was falling apart, and they had their own potential border disputes. Most of all, though, they had a vivid memory of Russian imperialism. They did not believe Russia would remain weak for ever, and they wanted to align with Nato while they still could. “If you don’t let us into Nato, we’re getting nuclear weapons,” Polish officials told a team of thinktank researchers in 1993. “We don’t trust the Russians.”
In presenting their case, it did not hurt that the leaders of the eastern European countries had a great deal of moral credibility. It was after a meeting with, among others, Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa in Prague in January 1994 that Bill Clinton announced that “the question is no longer whether Nato will take on new members but when.” This formulation – not whether, but when – became official US policy. Five years later, the Czech Republic (having peacefully divorced Slovakia), Hungary and Poland were inducted into Nato. In the years to come, 11 more countries would join, bringing the total number of countries in the alliance to 30.
During the recent crisis, some American pundits and policymakers have claimed that Russia did not object to Nato until quite recently, when it was searching for a pretext to invade Ukraine. The claim is genuinely ludicrous. Russia has been protesting Nato expansion since the very beginning. The Russian deputy foreign minister told Clinton’s top Russia hand Strobe Talbott in 1993 that “Nato is a four-letter word”. At a joint press conference with Clinton in 1994, Boris Yeltsin, to whom Clinton had been such a loyal ally, reacted with fury when he realised that Nato was actually moving ahead with its plans to include the eastern European states. He predicted that a “cold peace” in Europe would be the result.
Russia was too weak, and still too dependent on western loans, to do anything except complain and watch warily as Nato increased in power. The alliance’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was particularly disturbing to the Russian leadership. It was, first of all, an intervention in a situation that Russia viewed as an internal conflict. Kosovo was, at the time, part of Serbia. After the Nato intervention, it was, in effect, no longer part of Serbia. Meanwhile the Russians had their own Kosovo-like situation in Chechnya, and it suddenly seemed to them that it was not impossible that Nato could intervene in that situation as well. As one American analyst who studied the Russian military told me: “They got scared because they knew what the state of Russian conventional forces was. They saw what the actual state of US conventional forces was. And they saw that while they had a lot of problems in Chechnya with their own Muslim minority, the United States just intervened to basically break Kosovo off of Serbia.”
The next year, Russia officially changed its military doctrine to say that it could, if threatened, resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. One of the authors of the doctrine told the Russian military paper Krasnaya Zvezda that Nato’s eastward expansion was a threat to Russia and that this was the reason for the lowered threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. That was 22 years ago.
The second post-Soviet round of Nato expansion was the largest. Agreed to in 2002 and made official in 2004, it brought Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia into the alliance. Almost all these states were part of the Soviet bloc, and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the “Baltics” – were once part of the Soviet Union. Now they had joined the west.
As this was happening, a series of events shook up the Russian periphery. The “colour revolutions” – coming in quick succession in Georgia in 2003 (Rose), Ukraine in 2004 (Orange) and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 (Tulip) – all used mass protests to eject corrupt pro-Russian incumbents. These events were greeted with great enthusiasm in the west as a reawakening of democracy, and with scepticism and trepidation in the Kremlin as an encroachment on Russian space. In the US, policymakers celebrated that freedom was on the march. In Moscow, there was a slightly paranoid concern that the colour revolutions were the work of the western secret services, and that Russia was next.
The Kremlin might not have been right about a long-range western plot, but they weren’t wrong to think that the west never saw it as an equal, as a peer. The fact is that at every turn, at every sticking point, in every situation, the west, and the US in particular, did what it wanted to do. It was, at times, exquisitely sensitive to Russian perceptions; at other times, cavalier. But in all cases the US just pressed ahead. Eventually this just became the way things were. Relations between the two sides soured, and positions hardened. In 2006, Dick Cheney gave an aggressive speech in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, in which he celebrated the achievements of the Baltic nations. “The system that has brought such great hope to the shores of the Baltic can bring the same hope to the far shores of the Black Sea, and beyond,” he said. “What is true in Vilnius is also true in Tbilisi and Kyiv, and true in Minsk, and true in Moscow.” As Samuel Charap and Timothy Colton note in their excellent short history of the 2014 Ukraine conflict, Everyone Loses, “One can only conjecture the reaction to such statements in the Kremlin.”
A year later, at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, in what is widely considered a key turning point in relations between Russia and the west, Putin delivered his response, assailing the US and its unipolar system for its arrogance, its flouting of international law, and its hypocrisy. “We are constantly being taught about democracy,” he said of Russia. “But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.”
The warning was heard, but not heeded. In April 2008, in Bucharest, Nato countries met and delivered a promise that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of Nato”. It was, as many have since noted, the worst of both worlds: a promise of membership without any of the actual benefits, in the form of security guarantees, that membership would bring. A few months later, in what, up to that point, was by far the most significant military action outside its borders, Russia defeated Georgia in a decisive five-day war.
In retrospect, one could argue that if Nato had moved faster and accepted Ukraine and Georgia much earlier, none of what followed would have happened. This argument has the virtue of examples to bolster it: the Baltics entered Nato, and despite being former Soviet republics, have experienced relatively little Russian harassment since. But one could also argue that, in the face of mounting Russian alarm and repeated warnings about “red lines” over Nato, the US States and its allies should have been extra careful. They should have taken into account the specificity of the places they were dealing with, in particular Ukraine. Ukraine was not Russia, in Leonid Kuchma’s famous phrase, but it was also not Poland. One of the problems with Ukraine’s Nato bid in 2008, for example, pushed forth by the western-friendly Yushchenko administration, was that it was unpopular inside Ukraine – in large part because Ukrainians knew how Russia felt about it, and were rightly worried.
But as Nato and the EU both expanded further east, their representatives considered it a matter of principle not to make compromises with a regime they viewed as trying to bully them and Ukraine. Again, they may have been right in principle. In practice, Putin has been warning of this invasion, in one form or another, for 15 years. A great many voices are now saying that we should have been much tougher on Putin much earlier – that the sanctions we are now seeing should have been deployed after the war in Georgia in 2008, or after the polonium poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. But there is also a case to be made that we should have thought more deeply about how to create a security arrangement, and an economic one, in which Ukraine would never have been faced with such a fateful choice.
4. What Putin thinks
Still, at the centre of this tragedy lies one man: Vladimir Putin. He has embarked on a murderous and criminal war that also appears almost certain to be judged a colossal strategic blunder – uniting Europe, galvanising Nato, destroying his economy and isolating his country. What happened?
There have always been multiple competing views of Putin, falling along different axes as to his competence, his intelligence, his morality. That is, some people who thought he was evil also thought he was smart, and some people who thought he was merely defending Russian interests also thought he was incompetent.
Five years ago in this paper, during the boom in Putinology that followed Donald Trump’s election, I made the case that Putin was basically a “normal” politician in the Russian context. That didn’t mean he was in any way admirable – the way he prosecuted the war in Chechnya, which launched his presidential candidacy, was evidence enough of his bad intentions. Nor did I think he should be hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails. Nonetheless I thought that, given Russia’s history, its traumatic experience of the post-Soviet transition, the internal dynamics of the Yeltsin regime, and the wider geopolitical context, the person who took over from Yeltsin was almost certain to have been a nationalist authoritarian, whether or not he was named Vladimir Putin. The question seemed to be: would this other nationalist authoritarian, not named Putin, have behaved very differently? Here there was some limited historical evidence, in the persons of Boris Yeltsin (author of the first war in Chechnya) and Dmitry Medvedev (author of the war in Georgia), that he would not.
The moment, at least in my mind, where Putin rendered these questions irrelevant, was the attempted poisoning with a nerve agent of the oppositionist Alexei Navalny, an attempted murder that would almost certainly have had to have Putin’s approval. Other political murders in Russia had seemed to me less clearcut. There was good reason to believe that the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the politician Boris Nemtsov, for example, had been killed on the order of the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. And while Kadyrov was Putin’s loyal ally, they were not one and the same. Possibly this was a distinction without a difference, and yet it seemed that talk of a dictatorship in Russia obscured the fact that the country still had some room, albeit narrowing by the year, for political life and freedom of thought. We are now seeing what an actual Russian dictatorship looks like: all remnants of an opposition media shuttered, journalists threatened with 15 years of prison, unbridled and unanswerable police aggression. With the invasion of Ukraine, there is no one left who thinks Putin is merely acting like a standard post-Soviet Russian politician.
Is there any explaining Putin’s thought process? Here, there were objective and subjective factors. Objectively, he was not wrong to think that Ukraine was integrating further and further into the west. The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement that he had so fiercely opposed in 2013 had been signed in 2014 and gone into effect in 2017. Nato, too, was on its way. There were now Nato weapons and Nato personnel in Ukraine. Putin’s attempt to exert control over Ukrainian politics by creating the breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk had failed. In fact, it had not only failed, it had backfired. Ukrainians who had been lukewarm toward Nato now supported joining and many who had entertained pro-Russian sentiments had seen what Russian puppets had done in the breakaway republics. Ukraine, an imperfect democracy, scored a 61 on the Freedom House scale in 2021; the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (competing under the umbrella term “Eastern Donbas”) scored a 4. No one wanted that for themselves. Putin had won Crimea and some territory in the east, but he had lost Ukraine. In the wake of Joe Biden’s election, which signalled a renewed American commitment to Europe and Nato and, inter alia, Ukraine, things were going less and less in Putin’s favour.
But he was not entirely out of options. In 2015 he had extracted, through force of arms, the Minsk-2 agreement – an onerous peace deal, never actually implemented by either side, that had obliged Ukraine to reintegrate the Donetsk and Luhansk republics into a federated Ukraine, where they would essentially have veto power over the country’s foreign policy; perhaps, in 2022, he could get Minsk-3 as well. And if he had previously left the implementation of the Minsk agreement to a democratically elected Ukrainian government, he could decide not to make that mistake again. He could install a leader in Kyiv whom he could trust. A month before the invasion, the British government declared that it possessed intelligence indicating that Putin planned to do exactly that.
And yet here we get into the subjective factors: why, in retrospect, did Putin think he could pull this manoeuvre on a country the size of Ukraine? Partly, to be sure, he was buoyed up by his string of military victories – in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Crimea, in Syria. He had found great success, often at relatively little cost, by being a kind of international spoiler to the west’s designs in various parts of the world.
He must also have been emboldened by what had happened in Ukraine in 2014. Crimea had surrendered to Russia without a shot. A few weeks later, a small group of middle-aged mercenaries had been able to march 100 miles into Ukraine and capture a small city called Slovyansk, igniting the active phase of the war in eastern Ukraine. If a ragtag outfit could do something like that, imagine what an actual army could do.
There was also the important factor that Putin did not believe Ukraine was a real country. This was not specific to Putin – many Russians, unfortunately, don’t see why Ukraine should be independent. But with Putin this has become a real obsession, impermeable to contradictory evidence. One type of leader would see that Ukraine refuses to submit to his will and conclude that it was an independent entity. But for Putin this could only mean that it was controlled by someone else. After all, this was already the case in the parts of Ukraine that Putin had conquered – he had installed puppets to run the self-proclaimed people’s republics in eastern Ukraine. So perhaps it stood to reason that the west had also installed a puppet – Zelenskiy – who would run at the first sign of trouble.
5. Where does this end?
Just about everyone has been surprised by the ferocity of the Ukrainian resistance: Putin, obviously, but also western military analysts who had accurately predicted the invasion but inaccurately thought the war would be over very quickly, and possibly even the Ukrainians themselves. Before the war, sociologists who studied Ukraine pointed to a fairly high willingness on the part of Ukrainians to fight for their country, but it was one thing to tell a sociologist, and it was another thing to go and fight. But, clearly, the Ukrainians have decided to fight.
Putin clearly did not expect Volodymyr Zelenskiy to turn into Winston Churchill. Zelenskiy had been elected as a peace candidate in 2019. A political novice from the country’s industrial south-east, he won an impressive 73% of the vote in a runoff against Petro Poroshenko. The latter’s campaign slogan had been “Army! Language! Faith!” Zelenskiy, by contrast, was elected as a breath of fresh air, someone who was going to do things differently, and also someone who indicated a willingness to try to negotiate with Putin to end the war. Poroshenko’s campaign warned that Zelenskiy was a Kremlin stooge who would sell out the country. People voted for him anyway.
By the time war rolled around, Zelenskiy was no longer popular in Ukraine. His approval rating was in the 20s. He had failed to find a peaceful solution to the festering conflict in the Donbas region, and he had started persecuting his opponents. Viktor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Putin who was considered his point man in Ukraine, was placed under house arrest, and Poroshenko, still Zelenskiy’s main political rival, was charged with treason for some business dealings he had with Medvedchuk and the separatist regions in 2014. And then, when the clouds of war started gathering, Zelenskiy insisted the threat was not real. He criticised the Biden administration for its alarmist rhetoric. The night before the invasion, he told Ukrainians they could sleep soundly that night. But the first Russian missiles hit their targets before dawn.
The day before, in his anguished, last-minute appeal to the Russian people, Zelenskiy had made clear that he did not want war. But it was also the case that he did not have much room for compromise. The only clear path to peace – implementation of the Minsk accords – had become, with the passage of time, even more intolerable to Ukrainians than it had been at their signing. At the end of the day, people don’t like to feel as if they have been bullied into compromise by their larger and angrier neighbour. And most observers noted that, as terrifying as a Russian invasion was, a compromise by Zelenskiy that ceded too much would probably lead to the overthrow of his government.
If the only way to avoid war was through a craven surrender, then it would have to be war. Ukraine would fight. And fight they have.
Now, as the Russian army regroups and starts bombing and shelling Ukrainian cities, Nato governments are faced with an excruciating choice: either they watch in horror as innocent Ukrainians are killed, or they get further involved and risk an even wider conflict. Where this stops it’s impossible to say. As of this writing, with the Russian leadership continuing to put forth maximalist demands, a settlement looks far away. And whether, if the Russian demands moderate, Zelenskiy will be able to accept a Russian Crimea and eastern Ukraine after all the blood his people have spilled – and, indeed, whether the people will accept it – is an open question.
Someday, the war will end, and someday after that, though probably not as soon as one might hope, the regime in Russia will have to change. There will be another opportunity to welcome Russia again into the concert of nations. Our job then will be to do it differently than we did it this time, in the post-Soviet period. But that is work for the future. For now, in agony and sympathy, we watch and wait.
This article was amended on 11 March 2022. Slovenia was not part of the Soviet bloc as stated in an earlier version.