Some would have you believe that the world couldn’t have acted to prevent the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as Russia has simply been ultra-aggressive. Some went so far as to suggest that Russian President Putin wants to re-establish a Soviet-like empire. Neither of those suggestions are true.
As it stands, we see sanctions falling like confetti on Russia although there is no doubt that the global sanction ‘pile-on’ is also an implicit warning to China lest it have any ideas about Taiwan.
It isn’t possible in this post to identify each sanction and the sanction-busting (work around) that Russia has devised, but those plans were developed over many years and China will play a very substantial role. Other nations such as India and Brazil (the BRIC alliance) are also working on methodologies to circumvent the strict ‘letter’ of the sanctions as are a handful of other countries, but China is the key.
The principle reason behind Putin’s action is the national defence strategy of Russia. Namely, if Ukraine were to become a member of NATO, that would represent an existential threat to Russia. Currently, Ukraine acts as an effective buffer between NATO members Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary to central Russia. Ukraine’s location compliments the existing buffers to the north (Belarus) and the far north (Finland). NATO members Estonia and Latvia, who share borders with Russia, are too small to be of concern and the borders are easily defendable.
Why now? Because Russia believes that Ukraine’s admission to NATO is simply a matter of time under US President Joe Biden. Make no mistake, there is real enmity between Biden and Russian President Putin, and Russia had information that the US was quietly canvassing NATO members to provisionally admit the Ukraine. Effectively, a fait accompli would be sprung and Russia’s western border would be badly compromised. The US has denied they were involved in any canvassing.
The truth or otherwise of that matter cannot be known but it is indisputable that American foreign policy since US President Bill Clinton has been one of arrogance and utterly tone-deaf to Russia’s national security concerns and NATO. The US has taken every opportunity to keep Russia ‘off-balance’ in that regard and the invasion of Ukraine is the inevitable end result.
The problems began when Clinton’s foreign policy pushed for the expansion of a US-dominated NATO eastward toward Russia. That strategy reneged on promises that George H. W. Bush had given to Moscow during the final weeks of the Soviet Union that NATO would not move beyond the eastern border of a united Germany.
Instead, by 1998 under Clinton, the US had campaigned to allow Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into NATO.
Former Clinton secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, asserted that the goal of both Washington and the newly free members of the defunct Warsaw Pact “was to do for Europe’s East what NATO and the Marshall Plan had done for Europe’s West.” The objective “was to create a sphere of common interest in which every nation would live in security.”
Unsurprisingly, the Russians saw it differently.
Not everyone in Clinton’s administration was 100% on-board with the plan. Although he didn’t trust Russia, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott warned that “Russian uncertainty about its future is inescapably among the factors to be taken into account in shaping decisions about European security.”
Note that this was occurring only a few short years before Vladimir Putin became President and he was already far from a disinterested observer. It is well recorded that in 2005 he made his now famous remarks: ”First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. With that statement, Putin virtually put the world on notice.
But most western governments had no interest in querying US foreign policy and were happy to bask in the belief that the US was in charge as the ‘world’s policeman’. Pondering how to leverage the rise of China for domestic national benefit was of much greater interest.
Meanwhile, America’s pro-NATO policy, without any consideration for Russian sensitivities, has been so successful that from the initial twelve member nations in 1949, NATO has expanded to thirty nations today. Eleven of those since 2004.
Only the terminally stupid would think that continually expanding NATO eastward to the Russian border would not be construed as a hostile act. Yet, every US administration since Clinton has insisted that Russia had nothing to fear.
Thus, by the time the 1990s drew to a close, the momentum toward a new cold war was well underway. And from any realistic perspective, Ukraine’s fate was effectively sealed following the Euromaiden protests of 2013/4 that swept the last Ukrainian politician sympathetic to Russia out of office.
There was a brief glimmer of hope around 2015/6 when former German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to broker a deal between Russia and the Ukraine that included formally ceding the Crimea to Russia and the Ukraine promising not to join NATO.
In return, Ukrainian sovereignty was guaranteed in addition to huge Russian investment and interest free loans, plus discounted gas, were all on the table – but Ukraine wasn’t interested in any negotiations. At the time Ukraine owed Russia tens of millions of dollars for gas (some of which Ukraine had stolen) and Russia offered to wipe that debt as well.
Instead, the new and emboldened Ukraine government preferred to believe their own ‘Revolution of Dignity’ press releases.
We would be well advised to recall that Bill Clinton also signed the U.S.-China Relations Act in October 2000 which granted Beijing permanent normal trade relations with the United States and paved the way for China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001. Successive US administrations have nurtured and promoted China to its current status.
From a global security perspective, how’s that working out for us?
Reap what you sow folks.