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The Root Causes of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

ARTICLE | | BY Alexander Likhotal


Alexander Likhotal

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Russian invasion of Ukraine goes much further than phantom pains of Russias imperial dreams. This unfolding confrontation must be understood as a major clash in the rising strategic competition to determine the future architecture of the world order and the European security system. To analyse the essence of this aggression, one should not succumb to the temptations to deny Putin and his entourage rationally. Most of the steps taken by the Kremlin, both before and after February 24, 2022, look quite rational, if framed by the regimes evaluation of the state of the world. This war is not just about Ukraine, in fact Russia tests in Ukraine the US and the West’s acceptability red lines and this is seen in Moscow as a prelude to the destruction of the rules-based world order. Global governance indeed begs not just for modern institutions reform because their credibility has been substantially eroded by inaction and lack of solidarity but for revision and remodelling because their inadequacy and inefficiency have become ever-present, crying and overwhelming. Redefining multilateralism will not be enough. We will have to reinvent it..

Every day people die in Ukraine. The count may already be in dozens of thousands. These are Ukrainian soldiers, civilians, children and even Russian soldiers who came to a foreign land as aggressors, but many of whom are forced, almost teenage conscripts. Russia has already begun the “second stage of military operation” in eastern Ukraine, the consequences of which are very difficult to predict, but which, no doubt, will claim thousands of more lives. The West is increasing sanctions against Russia and supplying Ukraine with more and more heavy weapons.

As a regular conflict, the ongoing Ukraine war is being fought with kinetic weapons in conventional operational battlefields. However, its impact exceeds the domain of military statecraft. It goes much further than phantom pains of Russia’s imperial dreams. In fact, this unfolding confrontation must also be understood as a major clash in the rising strategic competition to determine the future architecture of the world order and security system—a dangerous gamble played for the highest stakes.

The Russian aggression in Ukraine has put an end to the rules-based world order as well as to the endless debates about a “new iteration” of Cold War together with all kinds of theorising about the differences and peculiarities of “cool” versus the cold wars.

For the first time since the end of the Second World War, the world got a real hot war in Europe in which Ukraine, practically single-handedly supported only by the provision of the military equipment by several countries, has heroically and successfully resisted the aggression of an outnumbered and outgunned enemy.

"The past will be haunting us as long as we do not close all past pages that remain open."

What are the root causes of  Russian aggression in Ukraine and the catastrophic breakdown in the European security system? What are the options for the future world order?

Our main trouble is paradoxical in nature: our future is already with us, but our past is yet to come.

Disintegration of the Soviet empire was an unfinished business—look at the Russian borders where you will see many semi-legal entities—Luhansk and Donetsk “peoples republics”, Osetia, Abkhasia. The existence of these parastatals is the symptom of the continuing disintegration of the empire—the borders are still unclear, flexible and debatable. And there might be further fault lines in the Caucuses, Kazakhstan and many other territories.

However, Russia is not unique. China and Taiwan, South and North Korea, Kashmir, Israel and Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan—you can easily continue the list of border conflicts, occupied territories, which are various forms of irredentism.

And the past will be haunting us as long as we do not close all past pages that remain open.

Actually, it was Gorbachev who warned prophetically (though in a different context) when he said in 1989 that “those who are late are punished by history”.

And late we were, catastrophically late, when after the end of the Cold War we missed the chance to craft a new world on the ruins of the dilapidated structures of the traditional balance of power system.

When Gorbachev overturned the Cold War chessboard it was not just the Russian elite who was not ready, which explains why Russia has taken the direction that led her into the current shape. The happily slumbering West, used to functioning in a bipolar world, was not ready either. Gorbachev’s actions caused consternation and even shock in Western establishments, disrupting as they did the customary rhythm of life and rising challenges the West was not ready for. 

As Georgy Arbatov said to Henry Kissinger at one of the public debates, “Henry, we will do something really terrible for you (the US), we will deprive you of the enemy”. Later Senator Fulbright echoed this warning: “The USSR ... provided us with excuses for our own failures”.

However the West could not resist the temptation to declare itself the absolute winner of the Cold War and the sole heir to history.

For years since, analysts have debated whether the United States incited Russian interventions in Ukraine and other neighbouring countries or whether Moscow’s actions were simply unprovoked aggressions. Now this conversation has been muted by the horrors of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"If Russians are responsible for keeping Putin in power and thus for letting him start this Cain’s war against Ukraine, the US and the West are responsible at least for failing to diagnose timely and offset the threat at a much earlier stage."

However, although it is immoral to blame the United States or the West for Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine, to insist that the invasion was entirely unprovoked or at least not rooted in the preceding developments is also misleading.

This is in no way a blame-shifting attempt, Putin’s Russia is alone responsible certainly for the aggression that has already cost colossal loss of life, but the invasion of Ukraine is taking place in a historical and political context in which the United States has played and will continue to play the leading (though far from hegemonic) role.

And if Russians are responsible for keeping Putin in power and thus for letting him start this Cain’s war against Ukraine, the US and the West are responsible at least for failing to diagnose timely and offset the threat at a much earlier stage. After all, you need two for a tango.

So in what way might the United States have provoked Putin?

One thing should be clear: it was not by compromising the security of Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has objectively enjoyed greater security than at any time in recent history.

What occurred was what frequently happens even in human relations—there was a failure to realise shared interests in a complex, evolving context.

Pope John Paul II warned as early as 1992 that “the Western countries run the risk of seeing this collapse of Communism as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system.”

Instead the US and the West rushed to establish “the victory dividends”, quickly converting moral principles of liberalism and democracy into geopolitical instruments. As Condoleezza Rice wrote in the Foreign Affairs: “it is America’s job to change the world...Democratic state-building is now an urgent component of our national interest”.

 Well, as they say “we wanted the best, you know the rest…”,  many regions of the world  are still facing the consequences of the “democratic state building” programs, imposed on the people and communities historically and culturally not being prepared for it. 

As Fareed Zakaria famously noticed: “In the early twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson put before the United States this goal: to make the world safe for democracy. In the twenty-first century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world.”

But the new “promised” world looked wonderfully pretty. Democracy—and, indeed, decency—had triumphed (in reality in many countries it was largely a made-to-order imitation).  Aggressors would be punished (not always and not everywhere). When difficulties appeared, America would ride in to the rescue, encouraged by an accommodating Russia and all sorts of other, newly acquired friends. The United Nations was flouri

About the Author(s)

Alexander Likhotal

Professor, Geneva School of Diplomacy & International Relations, Switzerland; Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science