by Ted Snider
Why did Russia make the decision to go to war in Ukraine in 2022? It had been over two decades since the US and NATO broke their promise and marched nearly a thousand miles east toward Russia’s borders.
It had been eight years since the US supported a coup in Ukraine that removed a democratically elected pro-Russian government and replaced it with a hand picked government that was pro-West. Worse, from Russia’s perspective, the newly installed government was anti-Russian. It had been five years since the US dissolved the boundary between defensive and offensive weapons and begun flooding Ukraine with lethal weapons.
Undertaking an analysis of the statements and events that led up to the war in an attempt to arrive at an account of the reason why Russia made the decision to invade Ukraine in 2022 is not justifying or condoning a war. Wars that circumvent the Security Council are always illegal. However, such an analysis is necessary if, in the first place, wars are to be avoided, and, in the second, they are to be ended through negotiations.
Russia has, from the beginning, had two stated reasons for the invasion: the insistence by the West that Ukraine will become a member of NATO and the failure of the West to pressure Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreements. These reasons are sometimes more colorfully captured in the slogan the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine. The former refers to NATO weaponry in Ukraine; the latter to the failure to implement the Minsk agreement and protect the ethnic Russians in the Donbas region of the east of Ukraine.
A long line of Russian officials had warned that NATO expansion to Ukraine was a red line. In 2008, Putin called it “a direct threat” to Russian security. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov warned the West that Russia would do “everything possible” to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from becoming NATO members.
In 2017, the Trump administration reversed the policy of the Obama administration and began pouring lethal offensive weapons into Ukraine. Instead of reversing the trajectory, Biden – who himself had warned against NATO expansion in 1997 – accelerated it. In the months preceding the war, Biden spoke of “a new strategic defense framework” with Ukraine and promised “security assistance” that included both financial support and lethal weapons.
In a September 2021 meeting with Zelensky, Zelensky talked of his “vision of Ukraine’s chances to join NATO and the timeframe for this accession.” Biden spoke of his “support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations” and American support for Ukraine’s “being completely integrated in Europe.” A month later, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin again “stressed . . . that there is an open door to NATO” for Ukraine.
In February 2019, the constitution of Ukraine was amended to make NATO membership a compulsory policy of all future governments. Zelensky, who had been elected on a platform of signing the Minsk agreement and making peace with Russia, did not repeal that amendment but maintained it.
In June 2021, NATO retook its vow to on the eventual membership of Ukraine in NATO. In August 2021, the US and Ukraine signed a Strategic Defense Framework. In November, the US signed the US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership that committed to helping Ukraine make the reforms that are necessary for its accession to NATO. The document says that the US and Ukraine will be guided by the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration that guaranteed eventual NATO membership for Ukraine.
Ukraine, the US and NATO had all recently made firm commitments that NATO was coming to Ukraine. The provision of offensive weapons already meant that, if Ukraine was not yet in NATO, NATO had arrived in Ukraine. In a July 2021 essay, Putin complained that Ukraine had become “a willing hostage to someone else’s geopolitical will.” He said that Ukraine had become a “springboard against Russia.” He said that NATO infrastructure was being staged on the territory of Ukraine, on the edge of Russia, that Ukraine was being transformed into an “anti-Russia” and that Russia “will never accept” that.
In June 2021, Putin told the Moscow Conference on International Security that “Naturally, we cannot but be concerned over the continuous buildup of NATO’s military potential and infrastructure in the vicinity of Russian borders.” On December 2, 2021, Sergey Lavrov said “I should like to make it very clear: the transformation of our neighboring countries into a bridgehead for confrontation with Russia and the deployment of NATO forces in the immediate vicinity of areas of strategic importance to our security are absolutely unacceptable.”
Five days later, responding to a question at the press conference following his video conference with Biden, Putin said, “We are bound to be concerned over the prospect of Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO because this will be followed by the deployment of corresponding troop contingents, bases and weapons that threaten us.” On December 21, 2021, Putin told Russia’s Defense Ministry that it is “extremely alarming that elements of the US global defense system are being deployed near Russia.” He stressed that “if US and NATO military systems are deployed in Ukraine, their flight time to Moscow will be only 7-10 minutes.”
In a February 2022 address, Putin said Ukraine had become “a puppet regime” that “is like a knife to the throat” of Russia. He said that “Ukraine will serve as an advanced bridgehead” for a preemptive US strike against Russia. Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, has said that Ukraine had “effectively became a NATO military bulwark even without NATO membership. It was being armed to NATO standards and receiving NATO equipment and training. . . .”
Russia was faced with renewed vows of Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO, the flooding of Ukraine with lethal weapons, Western training of Ukraine’s armed forces and exercises designed to improve interoperability with NATO. Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said that “The situation is extremely dangerous. . . . We have come to the point when we have no room to retreat.”
Geoffrey Roberts, in an article called “Now or Never: The Immediate Origins of Putin’s Preventative War on Ukraine,” reports that, on November 18, 2021, at a meeting of Russian diplomats, Putin turned to Sergey Lavrov and said, “it is imperative to push for serious, long-term guarantees that safeguard Russia’s security. . . .”
Days later, Putin said that “the threat on our western border is really growing, and we have mentioned it many times. It is enough to see how close NATO military infrastructure has moved to Russia’s borders. This is more than serious for us.” Putin then announced that “While engaging in dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on the elaboration of concrete agreements that would rule out any further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of weapons systems posing a threat to us in close proximity to Russia’s territory. We suggest that substantive talks on this topic should be started.”
Because the West had proven that its assurances on NATO expansion were not to be trusted, Putin insisted that, this time, they had to be formally written down: “I would like to note in particular that we need precisely legal, juridical guarantees, because our Western colleagues have failed to deliver on verbal commitments they made. Specifically, everyone is aware of the assurances they gave verbally that NATO would not expand to the east. But they did absolutely the opposite in reality. In effect, Russia’s legitimate security concerns were ignored and they continue to be ignored in the same manner even now.”
On December 17, 2021, Russia delivered its proposals on security guarantees to both the US and NATO. The key demands included no NATO expansion to Ukraine and no deployment of weapons or troops to Ukraine. On January 26, the US and NATO rejected Russia’s essential demand for a written guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO. Instead, the West insisted, once again, on “the right of other states to choose or change security arrangements.”
Derek Chollet, counselor to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has admitted that the US told Moscow that negotiating NATO expansion into Ukraine was never on the table.
Putin simply remarked “that fundamental Russian concerns were ignored.”
The official Russian response came on February 17, 2022. It said that the US and NATO offered “no constructive answer” to Russia’s key demands. It then added that if the US and NATO continued to refuse to provide Russia with “legally binding guarantees” regarding its security concerns, Russia would respond with “military-technical means.”
Russia was faring no better with its second concern: the implementation of the Minsk agreements. In his biography of Putin, Philip Short says that “Whatever hopes Putin had had of an improvement in relations under the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who had succeeded Poroshenko in 2019, had proven vain. For Moscow, progress needed to come through implementation of the Minsk accords. For Kyiv that was politically impossible.”
Negotiated in 2014 and 2015, the Minsk agreements represented the best opportunity for peace in an already very troubled Ukraine. The Minsk agreements were brokered by France and Germany, agreed to by Ukraine and Russia, and accepted by the US and UN. They promised to peacefully return the Donbas to Ukraine while granting it full autonomy.
Zelensky was elected on a platform that promised to implement the Minsk agreement. But to do so, he needed US support. He didn’t get it. Pushed off the path of diplomacy by ultranationalist elements in Ukraine, Zelensky reversed his campaign pledge and refused to implement the agreement. The US then failed to pressure him back onto the road of diplomacy.
Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent, told me that “As for Minsk, neither the US nor the EU put serious pressure on Kiev to fulfill its part of the agreement.” Anatol Lieven, Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, agrees. Though the US officially endorsed Minsk, Lieven told me that “they did nothing to push Ukraine into actually implementing it.”
The Minsk accords were negotiated by then Ukrainian president Pyotr Poroshenko. But Poroshenko may never have meant to implement them. Philip Short reports that “Poroshenko said later he had agreed because it was the only way to stop the fighting, but he had known that it would never be implemented because neither the political establishment nor public opinion in Ukraine would accept it.”
Worse, Poroshenko has recently said that the Minsk agreement was a deception. In May 2022 Poroshenko told the Financial Times that Ukraine “didn’t have an armed forces at all” and that the “great diplomatic achievement” of the Minsk agreement was that “we kept Russia away from our borders – not from our borders, but away from a full-sized war.” The agreement bought Ukraine time to build its army. Poroshenko told the Ukrainian media and other news outlets that “We had achieved everything we wanted. Our goal was to, first, stop the threat, or at least to delay the war – to secure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces.”
More recently, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was instrumental in brokering the agreement, has confessed to something similar, suggesting that the West was simply lying to Russia that there was a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine while they, under the cloak of diplomacy, prepared for a military solution.
In a December 1 interview with Der Spiegel, Merkel said that she believes that “during the Minsk talks, she was able to buy the time Ukraine needed to better fend off the Russian attack. She says it is now a strong, well-fortified country. Back then, she is certain, it would have been overrun by Putin’s troops.” A week later, Merkel repeated that admission in an interview with Die Zeit. “[T]he 2014 Minsk agreement was an attempt to give Ukraine time,” she said. Ukraine “used this time to get stronger, as you can see today. The Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today.”
Former French President, and Merkel’s European partner in brokering the Minsk agreements, François Hollande seems to have validated Merkel’s claim in a December 28, 2021 interview with The Kyiv Independent. Asked whether Merkel’s claims were correct, Hollande responded, “Yes, Angela Merkel is right on this point.” He then said, “Since 2014, Ukraine has strengthened its military posture. Indeed, the Ukrainian army was completely different from that of 2014. It was better trained and equipped. It is the merit of the Minsk agreements to have given the Ukrainian army this opportunity.”
The Minsk agreements represented the best opportunity for peace, and Russia was depending on their implementation. But, according to Petro, “[t]he Minsk-II Process . . . was explicitly rejected by senior Ukrainian government officials at the end of 2021.” Though the key players in the Minsk negotiations, France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, met in the days before the war, “it was clear,” Richard Sakwa says, “that Ukraine was in no mood to fulfill the Minsk-2 agreement.” In March, 2021, Zelensky enacted a decree establishing the Crimean Platform, which, contrary to the mandate he was elected on, promised to de-occupy and reintegrate Crimea, militarily if necessary.
Putin was sensing the death of the last, best hope. On May 14, 2021, Putin told the Russian Security Council that Ukraine was “purging their political environment” with one “goal: to cleanse the political environment of forces that call for a peaceful settlement of the crisis in southeast Ukraine, in the Donbass, and for good-neighborly relations with Russia.” According to Roberts, these remarks were the first public comments of concern about recent developments over the fate of Minsk.
On August 20, 2021, Putin complained to Merkel that “Ukraine has adopted a number of laws and regulations that essentially contradict the Minsk agreements. It is as if the leadership of that country has decided to give up on achieving a peaceful settlement.” According to Sakwa, “The central government in Kiev had long been passing laws prohibiting the use of the Russian language and even Russian culture from official usage, education and the mass media.”
Petro says that with Kiev’s rejection of the Minsk agreements, all ethnic Russian “television and media outlets were shut down by the Ukrainian government. In essence, being a Russophile Ukrainian was now equated with being anti-Ukrainian.”
In the meantime, Ukraine had massed 60,000 elite troops, accompanied by drones, along its eastern border with Donbas. This mobilization preceded the Russian buildup on its western border with Donbas in 2022. There was “genuine alarm,” Sakwa says, that that Ukraine was about to escalate the seven year old civil war and invade the largely ethnic Russian Donbas region.”
At around this time, in February of 2022, the alarm was heightened by dramatically increased Ukrainian artillery shelling into the Donbas that was observed by the Border Observer Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Sakwa told me that most of the ceasefire violations exploded on the Donbas side of Ukraine. According to UN data, 81.4% of civilian casualties occurred in the “self-proclaimed ‘republics’.” According to OSCE monitors, between February 18 and February 20, two thirds to three quarters of the shelling was launched from the Ukrainian side of the line into the Russian side.
As Russia had remained committed to persuading the US and NATO not to move into Ukraine, as witnessed by the December proposals on security guarantees, so it remained committed to seeking a solution through the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Roberts quotes Putin as saying that he is “convinced” there is “still . . . no alternative.” In August, 2021, in response to a question from the press following talks with Merkel, Putin said “we have no other tool to achieve peace, and I believe they should be treated very carefully and with respect.” Roberts says that, in a November 13 interview, Putin “reiterated Russia’s commitment to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, saying there was no other mechanism to resolve the Donbass problem.”
Putin continued to speak with the French and German Minsk brokers of the agreement in the days right before the war. Roberts reports that Putin spoke with Macron on February 12 and complained of the West’s failure to prompt Kiev to implement the agreements. The next day he told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that he believed a solution within the Minsk agreements was still possible but that Germany and France had to pressure Ukraine.
The US and NATO had rejected Russia’s demand for written guarantees that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO. Ukraine had rejected the implementation of the Minsk agreements and a peaceful settlement. As Petro says, “Why did Russia invade now? Because at every level, Russia’s strategy to date had ended in failure.”
But Russia’s decision to invade on February 24, 2022 may not have been because of either one of the failure to receive guarantees that Ukraine would not become a NATO member or the failure of Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreement. It may have been because of the confluence of the two. It may have been because of Putin’s concern that a Ukraine in NATO that attacked Donbas or Crimea would draw Russia into a war with NATO. That concern was not eased in any way by Zelensky’s February 19 speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he threatened Ukraine’s reacquisition of nuclear weapons.
The nightmare scenario for Putin may have been Ukraine, as a NATO member, having rejected the Minsk agreements, attacking Donbas or even Crimea, as promised by the Crimea Platform, and drawing Russia into a war with Ukraine that would trigger NATO’s article five.
On February 1, just three weeks before the invasion, Putin said:
Listen attentively to what I am saying. It is written into Ukraine’s doctrines that it wants to take Crimea back, by force if necessary. . . .
Suppose Ukraine is a NATO member. It will be filled with weapons, modern offensive weapons will be deployed on its territory just like in Poland and Romania – who is going to prevent this? Suppose it starts operations in Crimea, not to mention Donbass for now. This is sovereign Russian territory. We consider this matter settled. Imagine that Ukraine is a NATO country and starts these military operations. What are we supposed to do? Fight against the NATO bloc? Has anyone given at least some thought to this? Apparently not.
This was Putin’s clearest expression of alarm over the confluence of the two core concerns. He then worried aloud that the US goal of containing Russia could be achieved by “drawing Ukraine into NATO, deploying attack weapons there” and then encouraging Ukraine “to resolve the issues of the Donbass or Crimea by force.”
Roberts reports that at their last minute meeting on February 7, after naming NATO expansion and Ukraine’s refusal to implement the Minsk agreements as causes of the crisis, Putin went on to insist to Macron that allowing Ukraine into NATO was a risky move because of the danger that Ukraine would try to reclaim Ukraine or solve the situation in the Donbas by force and ignite a conflict between Russia and NATO.
Just three days before launching the invasion, Putin reiterated what appears to be this central concern. In his opening remarks to a televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council, Putin again stressed that a Ukraine in NATO that attempted to regain Crimea militarily could trigger a NATO-Russia war. Putin said that “the reality we live in” is that if Ukraine is “accepted into . . . NATO, the threat against our country will increase because of Article 5” since “there is a real threat that they will try to take back the territory they believe is theirs using military force. And they do say this in their documents, obviously. Then the entire North Atlantic Alliance will have to get involved.”
The two core security concerns for Russia were the promise of NATO membership for Ukraine and Ukraine’s refusal to implement the Minsk agreement. But the reason Russia made the decision to go to war on February 24 may not have been either of those reasons individually but the combustible confluence of the two.
What Putin may most have feared is an anti-Russia Ukraine dressed in full NATO membership and armed at once with Article 5 guarantees and a formal policy of retaking Crimea and an exclusively military solution to the situation in the Donbas launching an attack on one of the two regions in accordance with their policy and drawing Russia into a war with NATO with their Article 5 guarantee.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.