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Putin’s Bloody War in Ukraine Was 15 Years in the Making

Russian T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

15 Years of Western Failure to Acknowledge Reality Contributed to the Russo-Ukraine War – Let’s get this clear right up front: there is one, solitary person who is responsible for the war that is raining down death and destruction on Ukraine today, and that is Vladimir V. Putin, President of Russia.

No one else.

There is another reality at play in this war, however, that is equally true: the West has been grossly irresponsible in its conduct towards Ukraine and is not without culpability in preventing war.

We had numerous, valid offramps – over many years – to temper Putin’s worst impulses towards Kyiv that might reasonably have prevented war from ever breaking out. It is of paramount importance, even in the midst of Russian tanks bearing down on Kyiv, that we acknowledge where we missed opportunities to prevent war, because if we maintain the same blind spots that blocked us from preventing the outbreak of war, we may unwittingly lay the foundation for something much worse: an escalation of hostilities that could expand beyond the Ukrainian borders and, in a catastrophic worst case, end with a nuclear attack.

A long line of US and NATO leaders have been unwilling, for the better part of two decades, to acknowledge military, diplomatic, and political reality as it relates to Russia, Ukraine, and eastward NATO expansion. The errors have compounded over the years and in the final days before the outbreak of war on February 24, grew worse.

For 15 consecutive years, Putin has been signaling that NATO on his border in Georgia and Ukraine are red lines for which he would use force if crossed. Beginning in February 2007, Putin strongly signaled at the Munich Security Conference that he considered NATO expansion eastward to his border to be “a serious provocation.”

The next year, following NATO’s Bucharest Conference in which NATO officially announced the future entrance of Georgia and Ukraine, Putin warned that expanding NATO to Ukraine or Georgia would constitute a “direct threat” to his security. Four months later, he demonstrated he was willing to use limited military force to prevent NATO’s accession to his border with the attack on Georgia.

In March 2014, in a speech to the Russian people explaining his motivation for the annexation of Crimea, Putin warned that “we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.”

That should have removed any doubt in anyone’s mind that Putin would not hesitate to use force – again – to prevent NATO from coming up to Russia’s border. At that point, NATO leaders should have simply acknowledged the reality that even considering Kyiv’s application to join the alliance was a non-starter. Extending membership to Kyiv would not, in any way, strengthen NATO. Instead, it would invite instability and pointlessly increase the risk that all 30 members would one day have to make good on an Article 5 trigger that otherwise would not affect their security. Instead, alliance and U.S. leaders ignored the reality and continued publicly entertaining the prospect of Ukraine’s future entry.

In Spring 2021, Putin again strongly signaled – by building up more than 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border – that he was willing to invade Ukraine if NATO continued pressing towards membership. If any nation threatens the fundamental security of Russia, Putin said in a state-of-the-nation speech that month, they “will regret their deeds.” He hoped “no one gets the idea in their head to cross the so-called red line with Russia,” Putin ominously warned.

In early December Putin again warned that NATO expansion into Ukraine was a serious “red line.”  In response, Jans Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, doubled-down on the in-your-face repudiation of Putin’s warning. Stoltenberg firmly warned the alliance stands by the 2008 decision “on the issue of Ukraine’s possibility to become a NATO member. By mid-February Putin’s troop buildup had reached 150,000. After all the warnings and the physical appearance of a full invasion force on Ukraine’s border, it should have been clear Putin was ready to make good on his threats.

Instead, US and NATO leaders ignored the risk of war to Ukraine, essentially calling Putin’s bluff, rolling the dice to see if he meant it. Quietly withdrawing NATO membership offer to Ukraine and Georgia prior to February 24 would have been in America’s interest, NATO’s interest, and Ukraine’s interest. The risk of war on the alliance’s eastern flank would have been greatly reduced and Ukraine would have continued in relative freedom. Compare that with what the people of Ukraine have now.

Thousands of them have been killed thus far. Cities have been badly damaged. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have suffered egregious harm. And the worst may lie ahead. If Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky doesn’t reach an agreement to end the war with Putin in the coming days, it is possible that Russia could unleash even greater devastation on the civil population and eventually lay siege to the capital city. In that case, Ukraine may forfeit nearly all its freedoms.

It bears repeating: Putin is 100% in the wrong for his attack and he alone bears responsibility for the deaths of so many brave Ukrainians. But our leaders, for 15 years, have blindly ignored reality when we could have, at nearly any point, removed the pressure for war, increasing the probability Ukraine continued as an independent, neutral state well into the future.

Instead, the West ignored on-the-ground realities and much of eastern Ukraine lies in ruins. Before any more damage is done – before events escalate beyond anyone’s control and war spills beyond Ukraine’s borders – U.S. and NATO leaders must belatedly accept to the world as it is and make policies based on reality. The security of our nation and the western alliance depends on it.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.