Why Russia Went to War Now

In April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky received 73% of the run-off vote and was elected President of Ukraine on a platform that featured making peace with Russia and signing the Minsk Agreement. The Minsk Agreement offered autonomy to the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of the Donbas that had voted for independence from Ukraine after the 2014 US backed coup.

But despite the massive peace mandate, Zelensky was pushed off the path of diplomacy by ultranationalists who, wielding power beyond their small support, threatened Zelensky "if he continues along this line of negotiating with Putin," according to the late Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Politics and director of Russian Studies at Princeton. Under the force of this pressure, Zelensky was, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent Richard Sakwa told me, "thwarted by the nationalists." Reversing the campaign promise upon which he was elected, Zelensky now refused to talk to the leaders of the Donbas and implement the Minsk Agreements.

Receiving none of the support he needed from the US to be able to stand on his election platform, Zelensky was pushed off it. The US also applied no pressure to push him back on. Sakwa says that "As for Minsk, neither the US nor the EU put serious pressure on Kiev to fulfil its part of the agreement." "They did nothing to push Ukraine into actually implementing it," Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me.

Pushed off the path of diplomacy mapped out by the Minsk Agreement, and receiving no support or pressure to reorient back on it, Zelensky, instead, yielded to the ultranationalists and enacted a decree establishing the Crimean Platform, which, contrary to the mandate he was elected on, promised to de-occupy and reintegrate Crimea, militarily if necessary. The first summit meeting of the Crimea Platform was attended by every member of NATO.

Zelensky was threatening war with Russia. And, according to Sakwa, Ukraine had massed 100,000 troops, accompanied by drone missiles, along its eastern border with Donbas. This mobilization preceded the Russian buildup on its western border with Donbas in 2022. There was "genuine alarm in Moscow" that Ukraine was about to escalate the seven year old civil war and invade the largely ethnic Russian Donbas region.

At around this time, in February of 2022, the alarm was heightened by dramatically increased Ukrainian artillery shelling into the Donbas that was observed by the Border Observer Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Sakwa told me that most of the ceasefire violations exploded on the Donbas side of Ukraine. According to UN data, 81.4% of civilian casualties occurred in the “self-proclaimed ‘republics’.” Russia feared that the promised military operation had begun.

Zelensky wouldn’t talk to the leaders of the Donbas, Minsk was dead and Russia feared an imminent operation against the ethnic Russian population of the Donbas. At the same time, Washington had become a leaky faucet on promises of flooding Ukraine with weapons and open doors to NATO: two red lines Putin had clearly drawn.

In the year before the war, the US provided Ukraine with $400 million in security assistance. Biden spoke of "a new strategic defense framework" and promised that “security assistance” would be topped off with a new $60 million package that would, for the first time, include lethal weapons.

While flooding Ukraine with lethal weapons, the US and NATO refused to assure Russia that NATO’s door was closed to Ukraine. During his meeting with Biden, Zelensky once again stated that he “would like to discuss with President Biden here his vision, his government’s vision of Ukraine’s chances to join NATO and the timeframe for this accession.” Biden, in barely coded language, spoke of his “support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations” and American support for Ukraine’s “being completely integrated in Europe.” In October, 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin again "stressed . . . that there is an open door to NATO" for Ukraine.

In November, the US signed the US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership that committed to helping Ukraine make the reforms that are necessary for its ascension to NATO. The document says that the US and Ukraine will be guided by the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration. In Bucharest in 2008, the US and NATO guaranteed Ukraine eventual membership in NATO: "NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO."

For well over a decade, Putin had warned of the red line at NATO expansion into Ukraine. Now, with Ukraine knocking on the door and the US and NATO continuing to extend the invitation and refusing to bolt the door, Putin forced diplomacy back onto the menu in February 2022 by serving the US a proposal on mutual security guarantees and a request for immediate negotiations. 

While Washington showed some flexibility on arms control, responding that "The United States is willing to discuss conditions-based reciprocal transparency measures and reciprocal commitments by both the United States and Russia to refrain from deploying offensive ground-launched missile systems and permanent forces with a combat mission in the territory of Ukraine," they simply and firmly refused to discuss the availability of ascension into NATO for Ukraine. The US response was unyielding, reiterating the insistence that “The United States continues to firmly support NATO’s Open Door Policy.”

Russia tried to talk; the US was unwilling to talk. And, they had no intention of talking. Derek Chollet, counselor to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has recently admitted that negotiating NATO expansion into Ukraine was never on the table.

Talks on the existential threat of NATO expansion into Ukraine and up to Russia’s borders were not on the table. Ukraine was still asking; the US was still firmly committed to the open door. And negotiations were never on the table for the US. That was the end of talks. Ukraine was committed to taking Crimea and the Donbas, they were refusing to talk and now troops were massing at the border and artillery shelling was increasing horrifyingly. Russia feared the imminent invasion and operation against the ethnic Russians of the Donbas.

That was the moment Russia chose to invade Ukraine. That doesn’t make it legal. That doesn’t make it moral. But that may explain why, after more than a dozen years of warnings, Russia chose now to go to war.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.