Understanding the war in Ukraine requires understanding why Ukraine is so important to the Russian authorities that they choose to bear the political costs of invading it (which, by the way, may be higher than those leaders expected) and why they decided to invade it at this time.
The demise of the USSR in 1991 left many members of Russia’s political and bureaucratic elite dissatisfied. The political rise of today’s Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was the expression of these political forces. Externally, they had the expectation of at least establishing a zone of influence with the former members of the Soviet Union and, at most, reestablishing something approaching the old capacity for external action – even though they knew that initially there were neither the political nor the material resources for this greater ambition.
This does not mean that these political forces would fail to seize any opportunity for gains in this direction, however small.
Ukraine’s burden was greater, for two reasons: Ukraine had inherited nuclear weapons from the USSR (as had Kazakhstan); and Sebastopol in Crimea was the main Soviet naval base, for which it was and is very difficult, for geographical reasons, to obtain a suitable replacement. After enormous diplomatic efforts, in exchange for guarantees against external aggression by the U.S., UK, and Russia, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in favor of Russia and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
It is in this context that NATO’s expansion into former USSR member states and former Warsaw Pact members takes place, several of them wanting to protect themselves from Russia. Over time, some were effectively incorporated as full members, notably Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Others, including the Ukraine, have established partnerships with NATO, possibly in the expectation that they would formally become members – which has not materialized. Russian action in Crimea in 2014 strongly suggests that, at least in the case of Ukraine, the ambition to more directly control the area weighed more heavily than NATO expansion. What is most surprising, however, is that this was so easily accepted – which may have emboldened President Putin.
The manner in which the disaster of the US withdrawal in Afghanistan unfolded, and especially what followed in the wake of that withdrawal, seems to have created a perception of incapacity and lack of firmness and will on the part of the US, which may have created incentives for action by those who want major changes in international politics. At the same time, the growing plausibility that majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress will shift to the opposition starting with the elections next November suggest that this window of opportunity may close quickly.
Still, President Putin seems to have gradually tested the U.S. reaction: first, the concentration of forces around Ukraine, coupled with an intensification of rhetoric; the announcement of political demands – initially regarding Ukraine’s eventual access to NATO, then demanding Ukraine’s disarmament; the recognition of separatist regions in Ukraine, along with a statement questioning the very existence of the Ukrainian state. In all these steps, the leadership demonstrated a lack of firmness and even a fear of confronting Russia. Apparently, this lukewarmness encouraged President Putin to make up his mind to invade Ukraine and to threaten Sweden and Finland (which were never members of the Warsaw Pact, much less the USSR) not to join NATO.
President Putin’s statements that Ukraine has no tradition of being a state and that its future can only be in union with Russia point, for the first time since 1991, to an explicit challenge to the very principle of sovereignty, seeming to express the larger ambition to effectively expand Russia. Moreover, the fact that the guarantees to Ukraine were not honored by either Russia or the United States (the United Kingdom was far less able to honor them on its own, even if it had been willing to do so) may generate an understanding in other countries that renouncing nuclear weapons or not getting them in exchange for guarantees may not have the expected effect. If this were to happen, it would be a particularly serious development of the current situation, implying a significant increase in the risk of an event involving nuclear explosions.
In short, it is possible that we are facing an event of the size of the Fall of the Berlin Wall in terms of reconfiguring the arrangements of political expectations that tend to conform the attitudes of international actors – only this time with much darker expectations.
(*) Eugenio Diniz is also a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London.