Could the Ukraine War Have Been Avoided? Military expert Daniel L. Davis, a retired U.S. Army Officer with combat experience, kicks off a multi-part series looking at the Ukraine war:
As we mark the six-month mark of the Russo-Ukrainian War tomorrow, it’s time to finally ask the hard question that few in Washington want answered: did hubris in Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels doom the Ukrainian people to a war that could and should have been avoided?
We must get an accurate, truthful answer to this question because if the answer is ‘yes’, war could have been avoided, then tens of thousands of Ukrainian people have been killed, millions driven from their country, and hundreds of their cities demolished for little more than to satisfy the arrogance of a handful of men – and still with no genuine chance for Kyiv to win.
A sober analysis of available evidence leads to the distressing conclusion that, indeed this war could and should have been prevented. Thousands of lives could and should have been saved. The utter destruction of the Ukrainian economy could have been prevented. The serious consequences to American and European economies that have resulted – and the worst is almost certain to come this fall and winter – were unnecessary.
Exposing the truth is more than merely an academic exercise. The longer this war grinds on, the longer Western leaders and media perpetuate the myth that Ukraine can win the war, that all the Western sacrifices are necessary and worth it, and that our suffering should continue “as long as it takes”, yet more people will unnecessarily die, tens of millions of Americans and Europeans will see their quality of life continue to erode, and the greater the risk that the war escalates – whether by error or miscalculation – and spills beyond Ukraine’s borders.
It is therefore vital to American national interests and our future security to honestly and accurately determine whether or not the war in Ukraine was avoidable. The overwhelming majority of government officials and so-called expert military and foreign policy pundits claim the war was foisted on the West by a power-hungry Putin and that war was unavoidable. As this analysis will show, however, with even a modest willingness on the part of Ukrainian and Western leaders to use diplomacy, war almost certainly could have been averted.
This analysis will be the first of a multi-part series that paints, in often painfully clear detail, how Ukrainian and Western leaders missed ample opportunities to avoid war, and after it started, continued to refuse actions that could have limited the damage by ending it earlier.
This first installment looks at the years (and then final months) that preceded the February 24th invasion and highlights opportunities the West had at its disposal which could have allowed it to avert war altogether. The second assessment will examine the opportunities the West and Ukraine had to limit the damage – and limit Russia’s gains – throughout the first six months of the conflict. Lastly, we will look at the likely course of the next six months and examine the growing dangers to the West and Ukraine if a negotiated settlement isn’t found.
Before going any further, however, it bears pointing out up front: Vladimir Putin started this war, and he alone is responsible for its initiation. No one forced him to take action and there were a near-inexhaustible number of options short of war he could have employed to safeguard what he considers Russia’s core interests. Yet as this analysis will reveal, the West in general, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in particular, allowed arrogance to drive their actions, rejecting many potential off-ramps that could have avoided war.
To fully understand how Ukraine and the West could have could have averted hostilities, it is first necessary to understand just how much Russia feared NATO expansion, especially as it applied to Ukraine. The road to this war was more than 15 years in the making. Russia issued its first veiled threat to the West in February 2007. Putin had been invited to speak at the Munich Security Conference, an annual international security forum that hosts heads of state and senior defense officials from scores of nations. In his speech, Putin made many of the Western delegates uncomfortable as he recited a long list of Russian complaints about the West – but when it came to NATO expansion, the tone sharpened.
Putin said that advancing NATO eastward was a red line and represented a “serious provocation” to Russia and rhetorically asked, “against whom is this expansion intended?” In his speech, Putin quoted former NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner from a 1990 speech in which the NATO leader said, “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee (for context of Woerner’s quote, see full speech here),” with Putin adding, “Where are these guarantees (now)?” .
After NATO promised eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine during its 2008 Bucharest Summit, Putin immediately warned that any attempt to expand NATO to Russia’s border would be considered a “direct threat.” In March 2014, after Russia illegally annexed Crimea into Russian territory, Putin said his actions had been driven by “declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO.” The ramifications to Russia of Ukrainian entry into NATO, he warned, “would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.”
In December 2021, Putin gave one last, unmistakable signal to the West of how far he was willing to go to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. “What the U.S. is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep,” Putin explained, adding that the West “should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly (if Ukraine is allowed into NATO)?”
In the context of having over 175,000 troops poised just beyond Ukraine’s borders on the eve of the invasion, Putin made very clear he was ready to take action if the West continued pursuing NATO membership for Ukraine: “If the aggressive line of our Western colleagues continues,” the diminutive Russian leader said, “we will take adequate military-technical response measures and react harshly to unfriendly steps.”
Given so many years of increasingly strident warnings, no one in the West can claim they were taken by surprise when Putin acted. Yet it is also true that just as Putin will act on what he considers the best interests of Russia, so too should the United States and Europe act in the best interests of our countries. If refusing to invite Ukraine into NATO would harm our national security, there might have been a case for ignoring Putin’s warnings. If, on the other hand, Western security would be harmed or weakened by inviting Ukraine into NATO, then regardless of any threats Putin did or didn’t make, we should have withdrawn any such an invitation.
As the next installment in this series will detail, it was precisely on this seemingly obvious logic that U.S., NATO, and Ukrainian leaders committed fateful errors that made war all but inevitable.
It is completely understandable why Kyiv would desire to be in NATO. Ukraine and Russia have been hostile towards one another for decades but have been in open military clashes since 2014. It is, therefore, entirely reasonable for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to press as hard as he can to lobby NATO countries for entrance.
But it should be an outright obligation for Washington and Brussels to avoid being cajoled into a bad decision because of the emotional plea of a non-treaty aspirant. NATO’s first and priority responsibility lies in ensuring the security and well-being of the existing 30 members. Anything that would put the populations of those members at military or economic risk should be rejected. American and European leaders failed on this fundamental obligation and millions in Ukraine – and tens of millions more in Europe and the U.S. – are already paying the price.
The next assessment of this periodic series will examine the last few months leading up to the war, showing the many off-ramps that could have been taken, either by NATO or Ukraine, to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. Arrogance by the West and an unwillingness by Zelensky to make sound decisions based on objective reality doomed Ukraine to a war that almost certainly could have been avoided.
Now 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 @DanielLDavis