It has become a commonplace sentiment among the American foreign policy cognoscenti that the current crisis in Ukraine was brought about by President Vladimir Putin’s zero-sum mentality as concerns the post-Soviet space. Some have even posited that the formation of the Eurasian Union is part of this same mentality. However, the claim that Putin, driven by an insatiable appetite for conquest, is behind the current crisis in Ukraine, barely stands up to the minutest scrutiny.
Granted, Putin’s hands are not entirely clean. There have been reliable reports of Chechen fighters flooding across the Russian-Ukrainian border. And Mr. Putin belatedly admitted that, yes, Russia did indeed send troops into Crimea in the run-up to its intervention; and it is far from clear the aforementioned intervention was legal.
And yet, we might do well to consider what role the West has played in the years prior to the explosion of popular unrest on the Maidan.
The years 2008-2013 might, without exaggeration, be seen some years down the line as the West’s ‘March on Moscow.’ In April 2008, NATO held a summit in Bucharest at which it was declared that “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” This took place only two months after the U.S. and the EU decided to recognize Kosovo’s independence in the face of furious Russian opposition. What resulted that summer, the Russian-Georgian conflict, should have come to a surprise to no one.
As Professor Stephen F. Cohen recounts in his book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Russians of all stripes, within and without the government, had made it abundantly clear over the years that no Russian leader would survive politically if he was seen to “lose” Ukraine to the West; indeed, some expressed the view that Ukraine’s accession to NATO would be seen as “an act of war.”
The declaration that both Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO” was followed by the formation of the EU’s Eastern Partnership project in May 2009. The project was created with the explicit goal of integrating six former Soviet states into the EU: Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. The partnership, the joint brainchild of Swedish and Polish Foreign Ministers Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, began the process by which Ukraine would be maneuvered into the Western camp. Some claim, erroneously, that the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) proffered by the Union is simply a free trade agreement. That is wrong. The DCFTA requires Ukraine to adopt EU laws and regulations and this would have an exclusionary effect on trade with Russia. It too would require Ukraine to adopt common defense and security measures in line with EU member states, almost all of which are NATO members.
And so the March on Moscow continued in 2009 when, according to a report in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wanted to explore the possibility of cooperation between NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Once the U.S. Mission in Brussels got wind of this, then U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daadler was instructed to de-rail Rasmussen, because “it would be counterproductive for NATO to engage with the CSTO, an organization initiated by Moscow to counter potential NATO and U.S. influence in the former Soviet space.”
While it is commonly, and, again, incorrectly, thought by the foreign policy establishment in Washington that the Obama administration’s “Reset” policy undermined U.S. allies by being overeager to placate Russia, the March on Moscow continued apace into the President’s second term. No better example of this would be the rejection by the EU – with rather more than tacit support from John Kerry’s State Department – of Putin’s proposed tripartite deal between Russia, Ukraine and the EU in the aftermath of the EU’s Vilnius summit in November 2013. We know the rest of the by-now familiar story.
It should go without saying that none of the major players in this ongoing drama have covered themselves in glory. The sooner we come to a negotiated settlement in Ukraine the better. Then we can get back to focusing on areas of the world that are of far greater strategic importance to the U.S. than Ukraine, with which we have negligible ties and few interests. But Western pundits and policymakers ought to perhaps give some thought to their own culpability for what is unfolding in Ukraine.