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

Tank T-90
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.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Paul

    March 9, 2022 at 1:37 pm

    Im sorry, but this isn’t only about nato. This is about muscovite supremacy over Ukrainian slavs. Putin made this clear in his speech about his world view of the slavic world.
    And it doesnt stop there. In his ideal world, the slavic world would unite under the Russian flag again, as it did for short periods of time under immense brutality.
    That is why eastern nations warned the west time and time again to take Russias ambitions seriously. They do not want to be cut of from civilization again.

  2. Eric-ji

    March 9, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    Long time in the making save for a few years under Trump. For example:
    “WASHINGTON — The Trump administration took one of its most aggressive actions against Russia on Friday, announcing sweeping sanctions against members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, along with top officials and several businesses, including a state-owned weapons trading company.

    “Senior U.S. administration officials said the sanctions are not aimed to punish Moscow for any particular event, but are instead a broader measure aimed at the “totality of the Russian government’s ongoing and increasingly malign activities in the world.”and increasingly malign activities in the world.” NBC News 2018

  3. Ivan

    March 9, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    Putin is unwilling to concede the collapse of the USSR. He imagines that it still exists and all he has to do is threaten the world with nuclear annihilation to get his way. Like a schoolyard bully, he is willing to sacrifice every Ukrainian, every Russian, every European to emphasize his point.

    It is sad to see western intellectuals making excuses for Putin’s rape of Ukraine. It is turning into genocide. Shame.

  4. Alex

    March 9, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    The correct title of this article is: “The United States has been preparing a provocation in Ukraine for 15 years.” Evidence? 1. An attempt to make Crimea a NATO base. 2. Opening on the territory of Ukraine of biological laboratories with biological weapons. 3. Supervision of Bandera Nazis directly from the Pentagon.
    Are you short? The US is hysterical because their plans were destroyed by Russia.

  5. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 9, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    As a citizen of the West it is heartening to read evidence of the West reflecting on its behaviour.

    Thank you indeed for this article.

    This war is a stake in the ground. The past, demarcated, the future envisaged and drawn from here.

    The West must surely and determinedly learn its lessons.

    Here’s just a couple more to reflect upon:

    How many Western leaders have stood upon the world stage, in front of a barrage of the world’s cameras and microphones, puffed with power, proud and purposeful and inspiring and, to be truthful, chest-beating, and declared this:

    “We will bring democracy to the world!”

    Or something like this:

    “We cannot let people of the world suffer under oppressive regimes.”

    You get the idea. The mind quickly rushes to a president of the USA – any State of the Union Address for example – as those statements are in memory heard, yet many national leaders have over many years declared one way or another the same.

    It makes us feel strong and proud and purposeful. (With the power of vote in our pocket, to which that leader has an eye.)

    But we feel that only for certain if we’re in the West.

    That broadcast goes into every news bulletin the world over, into every country. Those countries include, for example, Russia and China.

    Reflect on those statements, and the manner of their delivery, please.

    It is an utter insult. It is morally wrong. And it is a declared threat.

    If you can’t see that, then ask, in world affairs, what the hell good does it do? Nothing. It’s a parochial clarion call.

    But think on it, imagine it from within the walls of an eastern regime, and you’ll see clearly that it is a direct threat.

    Western national leaders, learn, please.

    And now this one. You’ll hear it time and again, back through the years of recollection.

    You may even hear it tonight, or tomorrow.

    It is sickening.

    Here it is: “As the leader of the free world ..”

    Again, delivered with the same sense of power and pride and purpose.

    Yes, this is to all presidents of the USA.

    Let the world citizens assure you, from outside of the USA, that is a phrase of disgust.

    We are democracies, in the West, are we not?

    Then ask this: who in goodness’ name elected the president, or the nation, of the USA as a “leader”?

    When was the the election for the leader of the free world? There was no election.

    It is a statement of autocracy.

    And, supposedly representing democracies, it is a statement that could not be more hypocritical.

    Enough. Learn, presidents, please.

    We did not elect you, on the world stage, in world affairs, as the leader of anything. If you want to make that claim, hold a democratic election.

    These are just two examples of the sorts of things that create failure.

    (The USA regime may wish to reflect on the strong and growing sentiment in the West, outside of the USA, and indeed within it, that the USA was once considered in effect an ’empire’ and is – and has for a while now – considered an empire in decline).

    So here’s the thrust of reflective action: If you want to bring democracy to the world, and if you feel you can lead the way, and if you believe in democracy then do it by example.

    Time for ourselves to be honest. Our Western democracies are not superbly healthy. Our democracies have within them citizens struggling to eat. The list of internal national failures is long.

    That’s no example.

    How about Western national leaders, and we, citizens for our smaller yet important part, pause and reflect on our actions.

    If you hear those sorts of declarations again, bear in mind what they really are, underneath the bombast.

    This war tells us it is time for the West, particularly Western leaders – and the unelected backroom persuaded and bent by closeness to power – to learn.

  6. Commentar

    March 9, 2022 at 7:39 pm

    15 years in the makin’, did I hear it correctly.

    In 1990 (according to the calculator app on my smartphone that’s 32 years ago) soviet leader, the USSR still in existence at the time, gorbachev was assured by western leaders, including then US state secretary james baker, that NATO wouldn’t move an inch to the east in event east and west germany reunited and resultant entity would be still be within embrace of NATO.

    Gorbachev swallowed the scam hook, line and sinker. When you scam someone, eventually there’s a price to pay.

  7. Jacky

    March 9, 2022 at 10:19 pm

    Hmm, there’s no mention of biden, the poutine-hating NATO leader who’s directly responsible for the bloody fiasco happening in kyiv today.

    US has always been in the invisible tight grip of the deep state which ‘arranged’ biden’s win in 2020.

    Ukraine won’t be in the news today, if people of the likes of ron paul, bernie sanders or (the late) leo ryan were in executive power or executive office. But such people will never be tolerated by the deep state that governs all life in US. Thus you have ukraine today.

    Ukraine is just the latest of a long line of adventures by US & NATO. More to come later.

  8. Sam McGowan

    March 10, 2022 at 6:17 pm

    I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the past weeks and I’m finding out a lot about the region that makes me realize this is not so much about Putin, but it the result of conflict going back for hundreds of years. To begin with, Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusans are cousins. They’re all descended from the Kievan Rus’, and Kiev holds a prominent place in Russian history. The Keivan Rus’ were subdued by Mongols but when the Mongols were defeated, Ukraine came under Lithuanian and Polish domination while Russia developed into the Russian Empire. The Poles and Lithuanians sold Eastern Ukraine and Kiev to Russia in 1686 then Catherine Great got the rest of the country. Ukraine was part of Russia until 1917 when Bolsheviks took control of Kiev. As for the current situation, Putin didn’t invade Ukraine, Russia did. Putin is merely one man and the Russian army wouldn’t have invaded if senior officers weren’t in agreement. No one knows what’s going to happen but don’t be surprised to see Ukraine back under Russian control. By the way, the recent invasion is merely a continuation of the war that began after the 2014 Maidan revolution.

  9. Dimmer

    March 11, 2022 at 6:27 am

    Author, why not 30 years? Why did the United States climb into Ukraine? Putin did not threaten his neighbors, but the United States and NATO threatened Russia.I can tell. who is the culprit of the civil war between Russia and Ukraine. These are the UK and the USA. AND NO ONE ELSE.

  10. Gene Berkman

    March 17, 2022 at 7:42 pm

    The author seems to be saying that when the countries of East Europe sought some security, given the history of Russia invading numerous of its neighbors, some more than once, that this desire for security was a provocation. Extending that out as a principle, anytime anyone takes action to defend their life or property, it is a provocation to potential theives and murderers.

    Accepting that as a principle means that when a country like Russia invades its neighbor, that is not aggression, just a response to provocation. Those who defend themselves from the invader are then cast as the warmakers. That is morally repugnant in any western ethical philosophy.

  11. Richard Steven Hack

    March 17, 2022 at 10:48 pm

    Davis is utterly wrong. The sole persons responsible for this war are the US President, and the leaders of the EU and NATO.

    If he doesn’t have an alternative program that Putin could have followed to avoid this war, then he has no qualifications to discuss it.

    Lavrov’s presser at the RBC TV channel yesterday lays it out;
    Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s interview with RBC TV channel, Moscow, March 16, 2022
    https://thesaker.is/foreign-minister-sergey-lavrovs-interview-with-rbc-tv-channel-moscow-march-16-2022/

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