Vladimir Putin is responsible for his decision to illegally invade Ukraine. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch western governments and their mainstream media outlets with their self-righteous displays of concern about Ukraine. After virtue signaling an implied commitment to allowing Ukraine into the EU, it is now being made clear that it will not be admitting Ukraine any time soon. Neither Washington nor Europe is using its power and influence to conduct diplomacy with Russia to facilitate a settlement to the conflict. Indeed it appears that all the US-led West is willing to do is throw a lot of weapons at Ukraine, which will keep the war going, maximize death and destruction for Ukrainians that will never lead to a victory over Russia, and create blowback risks to the West.
This all puts the lie to the West "standing with Ukraine." It is, however, consistent with how the US and EU have dealt with Ukraine since 2013 as they sought to present that divided country with an ultimatum that could only threaten its fragile stability and hobble its society.
As Jack Matlock explained in his book Superpower Illusions, the greatest threat to post-Soviet Ukraine was not Russian imperialism but the country’s own internal divisions. As a result, the newly independent country needed to embrace a pluralistic approach to governing the state that was based on a civic rather than an ethnic identity to ensure the social cohesion necessary for long term peace and stability.
Ukraine: A Divided Country
Ukraine, along with Russia, had constituted a "loose federation of East Slavic tribes" known as warrior-traders that were ruled by the Rurik dynasty from the 9th to 13th century in what is historically referred to as Kievan Rus. Ties were cemented by the Orthodox Church when Prince Vladimir chose that religion for his people in the 10th century. By the time of the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, the area had degenerated into rivalries among various princes who’d lorded over a dozen or so independent areas. When the Mongol massacre killed about two-thirds of the population, some of the survivors managed to flee closer to what is modern-day Moscow and those who remained were forced into subjugation, rupturing Slavic bonds. Those from the southern part of the Kieven Rus region later became known as Ukrainians and were cut off and later ruled over by Poles and Lithuanians.
In the mid-17th century, the Treaty of Pereyaslavl united Ukraine to Russia as an autonomous region. This led to a 13-year war between Russia and Poland which resulted in the division of Ukraine between the two countries. From then on, the Ukrainian-speaking parts of Poland-Lithuania were progressively conquered by the Russian Empire, leading many Orthodox Ukrainians to strongly identify with Russia. From the late 18th century on, Russians referred to Ukraine territory as Malorussia or "Little Russia," viewing Ukraine and the Ukrainian language as having derived from the greater Russian history and culture and later sought to standardize it to Russian.
The Western parts of modern-day Ukraine had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries while the southeastern portion was part of the Russian Empire. An independent Ukrainian state emerged very briefly in the years of the Russian Revolution and early civil war period, but the project failed in 1919. From then until WWII, parts of Ukraine were ruled by Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Soviet Russia, with the latter becoming a Soviet Republic ruled by the Communist Party. Russian/Soviet rule of Ukraine in the 19th and 20th centuries created complex patterns of migration with significant parts of southern Ukraine settled by Russians, including those who came to work in the mines and factories of the Donbas region, bringing the Russian language with them.
In 1991, Ukraine gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Based on the history outlined above, Ukraine found itself with ethnic, cultural, and linguistic divisions within the country. According to British scholar Richard Sakwa in Frontline Ukraine, there emerged two different and irreconcilable views of how to organize the Ukrainian state.
The first is the monist approach. This is the belief that Ukraine is a single cultural and political entity. The political philosophy underpinning this view is heavily influenced by the Galician ethnonationalist identity of Ukraine rather than a civic or pluralistic one. It advocates for the Ukrianization of society including a unitary state with one language. It partly draws on the thinking of those who were trying to create the independent state that failed in 1919. That failure was subsequently blamed on democracy, liberalism and a lack of will, paving the way for fascist sympathies. In the early 1930’s Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, led by Stepan Bandera, violently resisted Polish rule in Galicia. In 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union made Galicia part of the Soviet Union – a region that had never been under Russian imperial rule and today remains the most strongly nationalist and anti-Russian part of Ukraine.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Ukrainian ultranationalists supported Germans thinking they would assist in the creation of an independent Ukraine. The Ukrainian ultranationalist army – who were supporters of Bandera – massacred 70,000 Poles in Volyn in 1943 and is estimated to have killed 130,000 in Eastern Galicia by 1945. Statues of Bandera have been erected throughout western Ukraine starting in October of 2007. Streets have also been named after him and a giant portrait of Bandera was displayed on stage at the Maidan protests in 2014.
The alternative view of how to organize the state is based on pluralism and acknowledges that Ukraine has a common ancestry with Kievan Rus and emphasizes a civic Ukrainian identity rather than an ethnonationalist one. The pluralist approach says that cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity must be acknowledged and respected. It calls for a degree of decentralization. However, support for this is complicated by the fact that centralization benefits certain financial as well as political interests, namely oligarchs.
For its first two decades of independence, Ukraine was engaged in a clumsy balancing act between the nationalist west, the Russophile east and the relatively moderate central part of the country. Many Ukrainians no doubt wanted to enjoy the perceived benefits of the West, but there was no significant call to sever Ukraine’s economic relationship with the country it had the most familial and social ties with and constituted its biggest trading partner, Russia. There was not majority support for NATO membership either but rather continuing support for non-alignment.
That changed in 2013 when the West provided an ultimatum to Ukraine in the form of an EU Association Agreement. This agreement actually called for Ukraine to implement deeply unpopular austerity measures, give up its trade with Russia – though, unlike the EU, Russia accepted many Ukrainian exports – and synchronize its security with NATO. Russia had requested three-way talks with the EU and Ukraine to negotiate a deal that would accommodate all three parties, but the EU rejected out of hand any attempt at such a compromise. The EU, led by Germany, was effectively forcing Ukraine to choose between the West and Russia. Viktor Yanukovich, who was the Ukrainian president at the time, decided to reject the agreement in favor of a deal from Russia consisting of a $15 billion loan and reduced gas prices.
The protests on the Maidan started out peacefully in the late autumn of 2013 and expressed a desire for reform and closer ties with the EU. However, on February 4, 2014, a leaked telephone conversation between State Department official Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt revealed the two discussing what appears to be a plan to use the protests to facilitate an illegal overthrow of the democratically elected government of Ukraine.
Nuland and Pyatt discuss who should become Ukraine’s new prime minister – the man who would, in fact, weeks later become the prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk – and to have the UN "glue" the plan to "midwife" a change of government. That change in government, as we shall see later, would conveniently result in leaders who would support the Washington agenda. It should be noted that Nuland mentioned then-Vice President Joe Biden as the American official who would be needed to approve the action.
In the interim, the Maidan movement was hijacked by the ultranationalist forces who utilized violence, beginning on February 18, 2014, with the march down Institutskaya Street in Kiev. This event was initially billed as a "peaceful offensive" on the Ukrainian parliament (Rada). But there was an inability or unwillingness of the rest of the Maidan movement to keep the protests peaceful. Over the coming days a massacre, initially blamed on Yanukovich’s forces, of police and protesters on the Maidan was carried out by the ultranationalists.
Those same violent extremists rejected a February 21st agreement negotiated by representatives from France, Germany, and Poland with the Yanukovich government. That agreement provided for the peaceful resolution of the months-long standoff on the Maidan with early elections and a devolution of power that would have resulted in Yanukovich leaving office before his original term expired.
After the installation of the pro-Western coup government, laws were proposed to ban the Russian language (later rescinded) and ultranationalists were given cabinet posts in the Interior and Education departments. Yatsenyuk was installed as Prime Minister and the EU Agreement was signed.
Donbas Residents Targeted in Anti-Terrorist Operation, Civil War Begins
Residents in parts of Ukraine that had ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to Russia, including the Donbas, were extremely alarmed by the illegal change of government as well as the violence and anti-Russian rhetoric associated with it.
Professor Serhiy Kudelia of Baylor University states in his in-depth study on the Maidan protests that the new Kiev government did make an attempt to negotiate with the rebels. However, one is left to wonder how seriously this was supposed to be taken by the rebels when one of the two men that Kiev sent for this purpose was neo-Nazi activist Andriy Parubiy, who participated in the violence of the Maidan (the other was Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema). This attempt at negotiation occurred only after the Donbas cities of Donetsk and Luhansk had successfully held a referendum calling for self-determination, which was viewed as a bargaining chip to gain as much autonomy as possible.
These negotiations failed, and the newly installed Kiev government decided to use force against the Donbas rebels, declaring an "anti-terrorist operation" against the region. Moreover, the rebellion originally called for federalization, with only a minority calling for an independent state known as Novorossiya. These calls would understandably increase later on, after months of Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation against the Donbas, which included shelling civilian neighborhoods and unleashing vicious neo-Nazi battalions to compensate for many Ukrainian army conscripts’ lack of stomach at the time for attacking their fellow Ukrainians. These attacks continued, albeit at a lower rate than in 2014-2015, after the Minsk Agreement of February 2015.
According to UN statistics, around 14,000 Ukrainians have died in the Donbas since the start of Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation against them, with about 80 percent of those victims on the rebel side. It is interesting to note the contrast of how these victims of war – many women and children blown apart – were treated by the Western media. No howls of outrage, crocodile tears, or calls to "do something" – even risking WWIII – to stop it. There was barely a peep out of Western media or officials when Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko declared in October of 2014 about his fellow Ukrainians in the Donbas in reference to the Kiev government’s revoking pension payments and forcing them to hide from shelling:
"We will have jobs – they will not. We will have pensions – they will not. [….] Our children will go to schools and kindergartens – theirs will hide in the basements.”
The Poroshenko government made it clear soon after signing onto the Minsk II Agreement in 2015 – which called for dialogue with the rebels on elections, passing of a law in Kiev to grant special status to the rebel regions, amnesty, and resumption of economic and social services – that it would not implement it. The ultranationalists, who have power out of proportion to their percentage of the population due to their willingness to use violence, made it clear that any moves to make what they perceived to be concessions to the Donbas or Russia would be gravely dangerous.
Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor and comedian with no political experience, defeated Poroshenko by a huge margin in the 2019 election by running as a peace candidate. It didn’t take long for Zelensky to also realize that the ultranationalists would derail any attempts he made for peace, which would require disarming them. This was illustrated when Zelensky traveled to Zolote situated on the line of contact in the Donbas to admonish the ultranationalist militias, led by the Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, to disengage. The militias refused and Zelensky was forced to back down as other armed extremists threatened to descend on the area if Zelensky pushed the idea.
This rendered the Minsk process effectively dead in practical terms and Zelensky soon began cooperating with the ultranationalists, who’d been integrated into the Ukrainian military. He also allowed the Interior Ministry to deploy the ultranationalists’ vigilante brigades throughout Ukraine. He has even presented ultranationalist fighters with state awards.
It should be noted that both Zelensky and the Azov Battalion, along with other ultranationalist militias have a common financial benefactor in the form of Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. The Azov Battalion currently controls the city of Mariupol in the southeast of Ukraine in which heavy civilian casualties are being reported.
De Facto NATO Membership
Since the western-backed coup in Ukraine, there have been numerous actions that could be perceived as moving Ukraine closer to de facto membership. In just the last three years alone, the Ukrainian constitution was changed to codify the aspiration for NATO membership rather than neutrality, over $1 billion worth of weapons were poured into Ukraine since spring of 2021, the U.S. and other countries trained the Ukrainian military to work directly with NATO, more US/UK/NATO exercises were held in the region and US warships increased their time spent in the Black Sea by 150% between 2020 and 2021. There was also concern that missile systems similar to those stationed in Romania and Poland – that are believed by the Russian government to have offensive capability with a change in software – could be installed in Ukraine.
While it may be true that the country was not going to be officially admitted into NATO any time soon, it wasn’t exactly insane from Russia’s perspective to think that de facto NATO membership was an ever-increasing reality.
As reported by the Associated Press on November 30, 2021, Putin told the audience at an online investment forum that he was worried about this very thing:
Speaking to participants of an online investment forum the Russian president said that NATO’s eastward expansion has threatened Moscow’s core security interests. He expressed concern that NATO could eventually use the Ukrainian territory to deploy missiles capable of reaching Russia’s command centers in just five minutes.
"The emergence of such threats represents a ‘red line’ for us," Putin said. "I hope that common sense and responsibility for their own countries and the global community will eventually prevail."
Putin expressed similar concerns a month later in a speech to his military leaders:
Over the past few years, military contingents of NATO countries have been almost constantly present on Ukrainian territory under the pretext of exercises. The Ukrainian troop control system has already been integrated into NATO. This means that NATO headquarters can issue direct commands to the Ukrainian armed forces, even to their separate units and squads….
In fact, Putin tried to explain, in a visibly frustrated tone, to a group of Western journalists during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in 2016 that US/NATO was engaging in provocative behaviors that threatened Russia’s security and that he would eventually be forced to act:
"I must remind you, though you already know this, that major global conflicts have been avoided in the past few decades due to the geostrategic balance of power, which used to exist. So the Iranian threat does not exist. But missile defense systems are continuing to be built. That means we were right when we said they are lying to us. I don’t know how this is all going to end. What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves. And I even know how they will package this: "Russian aggression" again. But this is simply our response to your actions. Is it not obvious that I must guarantee the safety of our people? And not only that, but we must attempt to retain the necessary strategic balance of power, which is the point that I began with…It was precisely this balance of power that guaranteed the safety of humanity from major global conflict over the past 70 years. It was a blessing rooted in a mutual threat, but this mutual threat is what guaranteed mutual peace, on a global scale. How they could so easily tear it down, I simply don’t know. I think this is gravely dangerous. I not only think that, I’m assured of it. (Source – 55-minute mark)
Russia’s Warnings About Red Lines
The tragic turn of events that followed the 2014 coup and the increased push to get Ukraine aligned with NATO was predicted by Russian officials, including Putin himself, on more than one occasion. The first was during a 2006 meeting with then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in which Putin tried to impress upon Rice that efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO would be disastrous all the way around. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was present: "Putin explained what Ukraine was – at least a third of the population are ethnic Russians – and the negative consequences that could arise, not only for us but for all of Europe if Ukraine and Georgia were dragged into NATO."
American ambassador Bill Burns, who was with Rice at the meeting, stated that Rice responded by declaring that each sovereign nation had the right to decide for itself which institutions or alliances it wanted to join. Putin reportedly replied: "You do not understand what you are doing. You are playing with fire."
In February 2008, Ambassador Burns sent a classified cable back to Washington, summing up another meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov about Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan as "Nyet Means Nyet: Russia’s NATO Enlargement Redlines." The Russians had reiterated again that Ukraine in NATO was unacceptable, citing among other concerns that the issue could precipitate division in the country, perhaps leading to civil war, which would put Russia in the difficult position of having to choose whether to intervene or not – a decision it was stressed that Russia did not want to be faced with.
In the midst of NATO expansion, the Bush II administration had also decided to unilaterally pull out of the ABM Treaty in 2002, which was seen as potentially jeopardizing the nuclear balance of power by leaving the U.S./NATO free to pursue a first-strike capability with implementation of an anti-ballistic missile shield. This has allowed the placement of the US/NATO missiles in Romania and Poland that has the Kremlin worried about similar future placement in Ukraine.
In addition to warnings straight from the horse’s mouth, several experts over the years predicted the dangers of the US/NATO using Ukraine as a cudgel against Russia, including George Kennan, Stephen Cohen, and John Mearsheimer. It cannot be said this was done out of ignorance by the West of the potential consequences.
Ultranationalists were weaponized in Washington’s agenda to snatch Ukraine into an exclusive Western camp that included implementation of neoliberal economic policies and either official or de facto NATO membership. This is a familiar Washington playbook similar to how violent extremists were weaponized against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and against the Assad government in Syria.
The bottom line is that if the West had really cared about what’s in the best interests of Ukraine and its people in the long term, they would not have exploited its divisions for geopolitical advantage over Russia in its own backyard. They would have instead ensured that Ukraine was neutral and could not be used by either the West or Russia to further any geopolitical agenda, that it would have the ability to conduct economic relations with both, and it would have encouraged a pluralistic approach to governing which could have provided space for Ukraine to develop its democracy. As it stands, the West seems intent on fanning the flames as Ukraine gets burned. With friends like the West, Ukraine doesn’t need enemies.
Natylie Baldwin is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations, available from Amazon and other major booksellers. She blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com. Twitter: @natyliesb.