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History Won’t Be Kind: Putin’s Tragic Military Disaster in Ukraine

Old Russian T-62 Tank Fighting in Ukraine. Image Credit: Twitter.

“The invasion of Ukraine was the brainchild of Putin and a tiny group of highly paranoid men around him who became convinced that a pre-emptive blow against Western aggression was necessary for Russia’s survival.” This is the argument that Owen Matthews, previously a Russia-based correspondent for Newsweek and now writing for the Spectator, offers to explain Vladimir Putin’s decision to go to war in Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin and Russia’s War Against Ukraine. In writing one of the first comprehensive accounts about the conflict, Matthews has set a high bar for those that follow.

Matthews identifies the source of Russia’s insecurities as a deep dissatisfaction with the post-Cold War European security order. Although Washington and Moscow pledged to cooperate on establishing a “common and comprehensive security” arrangement in the Euro-Atlantic space, U.S. policymakers too often discounted Russian geopolitical sensitivities throughout the NATO enlargement process. Post facto efforts were made to include Russia in the new security architecture—the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002 was one such example—but not on a “fair, egalitarian basis,” as Boris Yeltsin outlined in 1997. In 2000, Putin even spoke of Russia joining NATO if “Russia’s interests will be reckoned with, if it will be an equal partner.”

Yeltsin and Putin’s statements reflected widespread aspirations shared by everyday Russians. Matthews cites a poll conducted by Levada, an independent Russian research organization, showing that at the end of Yeltsin’s presidency in 1999, “respondents had two main wishes of their new president: to end the economic crisis and to restore Russia to the status of superpower.”

It was in this context that NATO’s decision at the April 2008 Bucharest summit to commit that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join the alliance triggered a new period of tension between Russia and the West. Putin ominously warned alliance leaders at the summit that “We view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders … as a direct threat to the security of our country. The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice.”

Matthews notes that Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili calculated that “NATO’s woolly letter of intent”—reinforced by U.S. equipment and training—would deter Russia from interfering in a Georgian offensive to reclaim control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Yet, as Saakashvili learned later that August when Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia, such promises were only provocative enough to incentivize aggressive opportunism from Moscow to resist NATO enlargement.

The Russian reaction to NATO’s deepening relationship with Georgia demonstrated Moscow’s will and capability to act when it perceived that its core interests were threatened. To its credit, the Ukrainian government initially took the right lesson from this episode. In 2010, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law submitted by President Viktor Yanukovych that banned formal membership in any military bloc while still allowing for cooperation with NATO. Unlike his comparably pro-Western predecessor Viktor Yushchenko (who nevertheless recognized the imperative to maintain a “workable relationship” with Putin), Moscow viewed Yanukovych as a favorable partner in Kyiv.

Throughout the book, Matthews documents how Russian elites easily found willing collaborators in the Ukrainian political class—who Volodymyr Zelenskyy once panned as having “no values”— to advance their interests. But Moscow’s ham-fisted efforts to tip Ukrainian elections in its favor often undermined the legitimacy of the candidates it supported and limited their room for maneuver. Matthews contends that “In retrospect, the neutrality law of 2010 was the great missed opportunity to stabilise relations between Moscow and Kyiv once and for all. But it was the Kremlin’s greed that ruined it. Rather than being content with Yanukovych’s commitment not to join NATO, Russia pressed for more: a further commitment to refuse the EU’s Association Agreement as well.” In the end, Yanukovych would not sign an integration agreement with the EU or the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. The former was much more popular with Ukrainian voters but, like many of its previous interventions in Ukrainian politics, Moscow’s pressure campaign proved counterproductive.

The pro-Western street revolution that led to the disintegration of Yanukovych’s government, and in the process implicated senior U.S. officials and politicians present in Kyiv, caused a panic in the Kremlin which, according to an anonymous senior military source, was “definitely worried that the Ukrainians would cancel [Russia’s] lease on Sevastopol and kick out the Black Sea Fleet.” Matthews’ judgement that Putin’s “takeover of Crimea was opportunistic, unplanned and based on a snap assessment of fast-moving events,” matches the rapid pace of developments in Ukraine.

Matthews notes that the signing of the Minsk accords months later was, in Moscow’s view, intended “to keep Donbas inside Ukraine as a counterweight and drag anchor on any attempts to take the country into NATO and the EU.” As in Georgia, permanent instability fostered through low-intensity measures was Russia’s formula for avoiding a full-scale confrontation with the West. But what drove Moscow to change its strategy?

By the second half of 2021, three trends made it apparent to the Kremlin that its posture toward the West vis a vis Ukraine was not working. First, Matthews explains that Zelenskyy, who was elected on a peace platform, was “the hostage of the ultra-nationalists” and therefore could not resolve the separatist issue in the Donbass without risking a “nationalist Maidan.” Second, in 2019 Ukraine reversed its stance on neutrality and ratified a constitutional amendment to join NATO. The Ukrainian military was becoming more integrated with NATO by hosting trainers, participating in multinational land and sea exercises, and receiving lethal U.S. security assistance.

Third, the Biden administration did not consider Ukraine a priority in U.S.-Russia relations and was unwilling to engage Moscow directly on the issue. For example, at the June 2021 Geneva summit with Putin, President Joe Biden’s comments about Ukraine were limited to asserting an “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and an unspecific pledge “to pursue diplomacy related to the Minsk Agreement.” But during visits from high-level Ukrainian officials, Washington and Kyiv signed the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Defense Framework and U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership in August and November, respectively. By doing so Washington made it clear that promoting greater security cooperation with Ukraine was a higher priority.

Additional developments contributed to Russian unease with the status quo. In particular, the use of a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 Drone to strike separatist positions in the Donbass at the end of October was a novel development indicative of enhanced NATO-Ukraine cooperation. In Moscow’s view, the threat of Ukraine being armed by NATO with increasingly higher-end capabilities, rather than joining the alliance formally, called for a more aggressive posture.

Matthews correctly diagnoses that between “2008 and 2022 the two sides were locked in an escalating dialogue of the deaf that would bring NATO and Russia’s relations to a crisis point.” But he wrongly discounts the possibility that even during the last phase of escalation from November to February, the United States and NATO could have compromised with Russia to avoid the war. “[Russian foreign minister Sergei] Lavrov,” Matthews writes, “would have to secure some truly dramatic, and frankly unrealistic, concessions from the West.” Some of Moscow’s demands, such as a ban on deploying NATO forces already present on certain member states’ territory, could not be met within a reasonable timeframe. Yet U.S. policymakers flatly refused to even consider options for closing the alliance’s “open door” and limiting security cooperation, weapon deployments, and joint exercises with non-member states on Russia’s border.

Washington shoulders blame for refusing to discard an impractical abstract principle—“the right of states to choose their own security arrangements” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it—in the face of hard geopolitical realities. Doing so might have been enough to avert the current tragedy in Ukraine. Moreover, committing to closing NATO’s “open door” would have only codified NATO allies already believe, namely, that Ukraine cannot legally join NATO and that it would not be in the alliance’s interests to let Kyiv in regardless. Notably, this sentiment remains pervasive in NATO capitals even after they have committed billions to Ukraine’s defense.

According to Matthews, Russia is not interested in a replay of the Minsk negotiations and wants to talk directly to the United States to end the war. “In conversations with senior Kremlin officials in August, a well-connected source was told some occupied territory ‘could be negotiable’ – though it was also made clear that Putin wanted to negotiate only with Washington, not with Zelensky.” If Matthews is right, U.S. policymakers might have to discard the slogan “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” to find peace.

Matthew C. Mai is a research associate at Defense Priorities.

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Matthew Mai was a Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society in the fall of 2020.