How the West Provoked an Unprovoked War in Ukraine

“Toward the end of 2021,” The New York Times reports, “Mr. Putin was weighing whether to launch his full-scale invasion when he met with the head of one of Russia’s main spy services, who told him that the C.I.A., together with Britain’s MI6, were controlling Ukraine and turning it into a beachhead for operations against Moscow.”

Turns out, he was right.

The public’s view on a war can be shaped by the words that are used to describe it. The word “unprovoked” is attached to the words “invasion by Russia” every time they are spoken. The adjective is never justified or explained, just repeated. President Joe Biden’s February 24 address on the eve of the invasion was titled, “Remarks by President Biden on Russia’s Unprovoked and Unjustified Attack on Ukraine.” A year later, his address was titled “Remarks by President Biden Ahead of the One-Year Anniversary of Russia’s Brutal and Unprovoked Invasion of Ukraine.” The word “unprovoked” is repeated by government officials and media in the West every time the word “war” is used in reference to Ukraine.

As the Times has now reported, Russia did not see the war as unprovoked. Provocation does not entail justification or legality. But an analysis of perceived provocations is necessary if a war is to be avoided and if a war is to be diplomatically resolved.

Russia saw Western provocation in at least four key ways.

The Intelligence Partnership and the Secret Coalition Against Russia

A February 26 New York Times report provides, in greater detail than before, the extent of CIA involvement in the war in Ukraine. But the report is not only confirmation that the United States is deeply involved in a proxy war, but is confirmation that the U.S. was involved, long before the war, in provoking it.

Hidden in Ukraine are twelve “forward operating bases constructed along the Russian border” and two “secret bases to intercept Russian communications.” The bases, which are “almost fully financed, and partly equipped, by the C.I.A,” were not frantically assembled to assist Ukraine after Russia invaded. The intelligence partnership began eight years before, back in February 2014. By 2016, the CIA was training an elite group of commandos known as Unit 2245 and providing equipment.

The secret CIA-supported bases were tracking Russian satellites and intercepting Russian conversations. They were tracking Russian troop movement and building and supporting spy networks, including Ukrainian spies who operated behind the lines in Russia. The CIA had “transformed Ukraine… into one of Washington’s most important intelligence partners against the Kremlin.” Ukraine was now a “vital” partner in “a secret coalition against Russia.”

Unit 2245 received specialized defensive military training. There were red lines: the CIA would not help Ukraine conduct lethal offensive operations. But the CIA knew that “without their knowledge the Ukrainians could use the same techniques in offensive lethal operations.” And they frequently did.

After the war began, the “handcuffs were off.” The Biden administration “authorized spy agencies to provide intelligence support for lethal operations against Russian forces on Ukrainian soil.”

When U.S. personnel were evacuated from Ukraine in the days before the invasion, CIA Director William Burns exempted a small group of CIA officers who remained behind in a hotel in western Ukraine. They passed critical information on to their Ukrainian partners, “including where Russia was planning strikes and which weapons systems they would use.”

Soon that small group of officers would not be alone. Within weeks, the CIA “sent in scores of new officers to help the Ukrainians,” including providing “intelligence for targeted missile strikes.”

Military Buildup and the Anti-Russia Bridgehead

In 2017, half a decade before Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, the Donald Trump administration reversed the policy of the Barack Obama administration and began pouring lethal offensive weapons into Ukraine. Far from reversing the Trump policy, Joe Biden accelerated it. In March 2021, the Pentagon announced that it would supply Ukraine with $125 million of “defensive lethal weapons” on top of the $150 million already provided by Congress in the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.

In September 2021, Biden spoke of “a new strategic defense framework” with Ukraine and promised “a new $60 million security assistance package” that included both financial support and lethal weapons. He boasted that the U.S. “has committed $2.5 billion in support of Ukraine’s forces since 2014, including more than $400 million this year alone.”

In the months preceding Russia’s decision to invade, there were ten NATO military facilities in Ukraine. Ukrainian territory hosted around 4,000 U.S. troops who were complemented by around 8,300 troops from other NATO countries. 400 NATO servicemen, from several NATO countries, were permanently stationed in Ukraine as trainers. Between April 2021 and the end of December, they had completed the training of 13 battalions and 8 brigades that brought them up to NATO standards. In August 2021, the U.S. and Ukraine signed a Strategic Defense Framework.

If Ukraine was not in NATO, NATO was certainly in Ukraine. In June 2021, Putin said, “Naturally, we cannot but be concerned over the continuous buildup of NATO’s military potential and infrastructure in the vicinity of Russian borders.” On December 2, 2021, Sergey Lavrov said, “I should like to make it very clear: the transformation of our neighboring countries into a bridgehead for confrontation with Russia and the deployment of NATO forces in the immediate vicinity of areas of strategic importance to our security are absolutely unacceptable.” On December 21, 2021, Putin told Russia’s Defense Ministry that it is “extremely alarming that elements of the U.S. global defense system are being deployed near Russia.” In February 2022, Putin called Ukraine “a knife to the throat of Russia” and worried that “Ukraine will serve as an advanced bridgehead” for a pre-emptive U.S. strike against Russia.

Buildup on the Donbas Border

Though there was justified alarm at the buildup of Russian troops on their western border with Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, little notice was taken of the Ukrainian buildup along their eastern border with the Donbas region that preceded it. Prior to the Russian buildup, Ukraine had mobilized 60,000 elite troops, complete with drones, on its border with Donbas. There was “genuine alarm,” Richard Sakwa, Professor Emeritus of Russian and European Politics at Kent University says, that Ukraine was about to escalate the seven year old civil war and invade the largely ethnic Russian Donbas region.”

The Ukrainian Armed Forces by now had 250,000 armed personnel and “over 400 kilometers of complex engineering structures” along the line of contact with the Donbas as well as a “strong second line of defense [that] has also been built.”

Russia’s alarm at the military buildup was heightened in February 2022 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.

NATO and the Reddest of Red Lines

In March 1999, NATO broke its promise to Russia and flooded into eastern Europe, absorbing the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Five years later, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined. In 2009, NATO expanded into Albania and Croatia, followed by Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020.

Russia furiously absorbed the betrayal, the provocation, and the threat. But Russia had long warned that Ukraine was the red line. In 2008, William Burns, then-ambassador to Russia, warned that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).” If it came to Ukraine, Burns warned, “There could be no doubt that Putin would fight back hard.” Robert Gates, another former CIA director, called bringing Ukraine into NATO “overreaching” and said that it was “recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.”

Nevertheless, in 2008, the United States pushed NATO to promise Ukraine eventual membership: “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.”

In 2019, the constitution of Ukraine was amended to make NATO membership a compulsory policy of all future governments. In June 2020, NATO recognized Ukraine as an Enhance Opportunities Partner, which grants it “enhanced access to interoperability programmes and exercises, and more sharing of information.” In June 2021, NATO retook its vow on the eventual membership of Ukraine.

And in August 2021, the United States and Ukraine signed a Strategic Defense Framework. In a September 2021 meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden spoke of his “support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations” and American support for Ukraine’s “being completely integrated in Europe.” A month later, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “stressed…that there is an open door to NATO” for Ukraine. In November, the United States signed the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership that committed them to helping Ukraine make domestic reforms that are necessary for its accession to NATO. The document says that the U.S. and Ukraine will be guided by the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration that guaranteed eventual NATO membership for Ukraine.

None of these four provocations justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Legally, nothing but United Nations Security Council authorization or the immediate need for self defense against an armed attack justifies war. Morally, perhaps nothing does. War is the abandonment of discourse and reason. If humans are rational animals, then the abandonment of reason is the loss of humanity. But that the provocations do not justify the war does not take away from the fact that they were seen as provocations. And understanding and analyzing that may provide hope for preventing further conflict in Ukraine and finally stopping the current one.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at