The catastrophic, yet avoidable war that is unfolding in Ukraine is one born of many miscalculations and has left the country in ruins. In three weeks, about three million refugees have fled Ukraine, half of them children. Another three million have been displaced within the country. Their lives and the lives of many more will never be the same.
It is hard to imagine what it is like to live in Ukraine or become a refugee in a foreign land. It is even harder to comprehend Russia’s decision to go to full-scale war on Ukraine raining terror on innocent civilians. The recent history of occupations leaves no doubt of their cost and futility: America in Afghanistan, America in Iraq, and Russia in Afghanistan. In every case, not just the occupied, but the occupier has paid a tremendous price all around.
For most Americans and Europeans, and for many in countries allied against Russia, the culprit for this war is obvious. Yet for many in China, India, and countries in Africa and the middle east, the answers are more nuanced as their countries abstained from UN resolutions deploring the invasion. They see double standards and racism. Here is a report on what I have researched and learnt with links to readings from a collection of independent sources.
Part 1: Russia: Is this full-scale war on Ukraine a miscalculation of Russia? Relative to what this war will cost Russia to its economy, its military, and its international standing, objectively, reasons commonly advanced for the invasion are not compelling: Ukraine’s intent to join NATO, its increased trade with European Union (EU), or its failure to relinquish control of the eastern regions that border Russia. Every one of them might have been settled less expensively by invading only Ukraine’s east, in a way not unlike Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014, without a full-scale war. A better reason is the one Russia articulated at the outset of the war — a view of Ukraine as its own.
Did Russia underestimate Ukraine’s resistance and the international reaction? Perhaps. Alternatively, the resistance and reaction diminish over a prolonged occupation, and Russia achieves its stated goal of bringing Ukraine under its orbit like Belarus. Regardless of the outcome, Russia would have paid greatly for this war, whatever concessions it gets in return.
Part 2: Ukraine. Caught between the ambitions of superpowers, it is possible that Ukraine could have done little to avoid the war. Ukraine’s concessions to Russia within the last year are unlikely to have halted the war, since Russia had started amassing significant forces near the Ukraine border from about a year ago in early 2021 and such mobilization takes much forethought and effort.
In one of the poorest nations in Europe that became independent only 30 years ago, did missteps by Ukraine’s leaders contribute to this war? In early 2014, Ukraine overthrew its Moscow-friendly President Yanukovych through a popular uprising, known as Euromaidan, for his refusal to agree to closer trade and travel ties with Europe. Subsequently, Russia went to war with Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and ended the war only after Ukraine signed the Minsk 2 agreement under duress. The agreement would have allowed for significant autonomy for the eastern regions Donetsk and Luhansk, bordering Russia, with significant Russian-speaking populations.
Beginning in 2014, under billionaire and new President Poroshenko, Ukraine’s trade with Europe thrived and doubled, even as that with Russia dwindled. A law passed in 2018 disallowed Russian as a regional language and elevated Ukrainian as the State language. In February 2019, just before an imminent election, President Poroshenko signed a constitutional amendment that set a goal for Ukraine to become a member of the European Union and NATO, sensing public opinion shifting in that direction. He still lost the election in March 2019 to a political newcomer and the current President Zelenskyy who also affirmed his commitment to Europe and NATO. Neither president followed through with the unpopular Minsk 2 agreement, insisting on renegotiating it, even as the border wars in the east between Ukraine and Russian separatist forces have continued.
Part 3: America and Europe. Did America and Europe miscalculate the peril in which they had left Ukraine? If Ukraine were a member of NATO, it is possible that Russia might not have initiated this war. Nor might the war have happened if Ukraine had been disinterested in NATO. The “open door” NATO policy that would become informally not now, but not never for Ukraine since 2005 is arguably one reason that made Ukraine a target. Its unstable democracy, the power of its oligarchs, and its border wars with Russia are among reasons cited for European reluctance to its entry in EU and NATO.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, several forces caused the enlargement of NATO to include eastern European nations: A view of American global domination as unarguably benign following the cold war; an unstable Russia warring with its neighboring regions (e.g., Chechnya) with President Yelstin at the helm, replacing four Prime Ministers in a span of 17 months, resigning unexpectedly, and installing President Putin in 2000 circumventing a proper election; and popular public demand in European countries fearful of Russia to join NATO (by a referendum with 85% support in Hungary, for example). NATO has expanded in phases in Europe eastward under every American President, starting under President Clinton in 1999 with Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland (just about when President Putin came to power) and continuing under President Trump with Montenegro and North Macedonia. Russia had expressed its displeasure with every NATO enlargement, especially with the group in 2004 that included the Baltic nations.
Related Readings. Unlike Russia which has been ruled by a president without opposition for decades, American democracy has produced presidents with differing international political views. That history, which is not a straight line, is better understood as it happened in context at the time, as opposed to later interpretations. Here is a bit of that history related to the Ukraine crisis. A summary of excerpts from the archives of President Clinton in the nineties is here. A speech welcoming Baltic nations and others to NATO by Vice-President Cheney in 2005, where he says “What is true in Vilnius is also true in Tbilisi and Kiev, and true in Minsk, and true in Moscow” is here. A critique on the Obama-Biden administration effort to convince Ukraine to come to terms with Russia in 2015 is here. A decline in Ukraine peace diplomacy under President Trump is here. A scathing critique of President Biden’s choice of deputy secretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland, who was NATO ambassador and has served under many presidents for two decades, at the time of her nomination in 2021 is here. A summary of Nuland’s comments in an earlier interview are here. Was it just a coincidence that as Russia was doubling its forces on the border of Ukraine in September 2021, America was disengaging its forces from Afganistan? An assurance from President Biden to President Zelinskyy that “no decisions…about Ukraine…without Ukraine” in December 2021 is here.
Was the war in Ukraine avoidable? Absolutely. It is the same as asking if a shooting is avoidable. Of course. First, the shooter needs to choose not to shoot. Then we can study the history of events that led the shooter to that point to avoid a repeat.
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