Ukraine: a tragedy that could have been prevented

Mikhail Gorbachev is likely to be among those Russians who are watching the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine with utter dismay: his life project, focused on building a non-confrontational global order free of military blocs and nuclear weapons, has just gone up in flames. The last few months have left the impression that the Cold War has never ended – certainly its mentalité was not abandoned either by Russia or the ‘West’. While the world is rightly condemning the war started by President Vladimir Putin, little attention has been given to the ‘West’s’ desire for supremacy in Europe, building a Europe from which – in the words of British author Anatol Lieven – Russia was “expelled”.[1] The ‘West’ wanted to end the Cold War on its own terms and has never contemplated a partnership with Russia. Since the late 1990s, NATO forces moved into spaces that hitherto had constituted Russia’s spheres of influence: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eastern European states which gained independence in the wake of the velvet revolutions in 1989. On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Democratic Congressman Jim Costa made a connection between Cold War U.S. missile supplies to the mujahidin in Russian-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s and the likelihood that his country would offer the same assistance to the Ukrainian resistance to Russian forces in the Spring of 2022. Betraying some schadenfreude, he declared that “Russia may find itself creating the same quagmire for them[selves] as they established in Afghanistan.”[2]

The view expressed by Costa can be appreciated in light of Russia’s revamping of its military towards the end of the twentieth century, which the United States may have perceived as a threat to its preeminent superpower status; the United States’s substantial military assistance to the Ukrainian forces; and its enervated initiatives to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. The imposition of a disabling sanctions regime on Russia immediately following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine has been a way of weakening Russia without applying force. President Joe Biden’s predecessor Woodrow Wilson (gov. 1913-21) held that this type of action could be fruitfully used instead of war. During negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, he recommended to “apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted but it brings a pressure upon the nation.”[3] Sanctions have been used unapologetically by the United States to defend its interests.[4] Ramona Bloj, a member of the Group of Geopolitical Studies at the École Normale Supérieure, argues that sanctions are the “only coercive foreign policy instrument available to the EU.”[5] Taking notice, President Putin declared that the sanctions regime imposed on his country was a measure “akin to an act of war.”[6] The sanctions against Iraq (1990-2003) led UN Assistant Secretary-General and humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, to resign in 1998 over the ‘illegal and immoral’ destruction ‘of an entire society.’ In this context, Hélène Richard and Anne Célile Robert, in their recent analysis of sanctions as economic warfare, conclude that “the belief that economic sanctions were inevitably less deadly than sending in troops had been shattered.”[7]

In Russian eyes NATO, created as an alliance against the Soviet Union in 1949, is an anachronistic remnant of the Cold War. After the latter had formally ended, the Warsaw Pact was dismantled but NATO began to expand eastwards, incorporating another eleven members. The United States’ promise to Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1991 that NATO would refrain from eastward expansion was thus broken.[8] “Yeltsin begged the West not to push NATO to Russia’s borders. It would risk, he said, ‘the flames of war bursting out across the whole of Europe.’”[9] In the early 1990s, Russia should have been co-opted by the ‘West’ in some form when it was almost as debilitated as Germany after its defeat in WWII – for example, by offering it an affiliation with NATO which it desired.

Less than a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, a group of fifty well-known foreign policy experts that included Paul H. Nitze, Morton Halperin and Marshall Shulman, expressed their opposition to NATO expansion in an open letter to President Clinton, urging him to suspend the NATO expansion process while alternative actions were to be pursued. The letter was sent a week after then Senator Joe Biden acknowledged that NATO’s eastward expansion might result in a “vigorous and hostile reaction” by Russia.[10] The signatories warned that an expansion would put arms control negotiations with Russia in jeopardy. In an attempt to separate the START II (the Nuclear Threat Initiative) ratification from NATO expansion and to demonstrate that NATO did not intend to isolate Russia and recognized that it must be part of an effective European security system, Clinton signed the Russia-NATO Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security on 27 May 1997. However, the signatories of the letter argued that the Act does not address the scope and pace of the expansion, and that it envisages inclusion of the Baltic states which was unacceptable to Russia. They considered the expansion “a policy error of historic proportions,” and contended that it would diminish allied security and unsettle European stability because among other reasons, in Russia, where NATO expansion was rejected across the political spectrum, it would strengthen the non-democratic opposition and undermine those in favor of reform and cooperation with the ‘West’. It was likely to provoke resistance to the START II and III treaties in the State Duma and, moreover, U.S. security guarantees would be given to countries with unequally developed democracies and border and national minority problems.  (For this reason, Ukraine has until now not been offered membership in NATO.)

The group claimed that Russia did not pose a threat to either its western neighbors nor to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, maintaining that NATO expansion was neither necessary nor desirable. They proposed instead that

– the European Union should assimilate the countries of Central and Eastern Europe;

– an enhanced Partnership for Peace program be developed;

– a cooperative NATO-Russian relationship be strengthened;

– the arms reduction and transparency process be continued.[11]

Subsequently, President Putin’s call for a debate on NATO’s expansion at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 went unanswered. Since Russia’s request for NATO membership was declined, it was left isolated in Europe.[12] Over the past few months an opportunity for a wider discussion of how Russia could be included in Europe’s security architecture was missed. The United States has been prepared only to discuss new arms control measures with Russia which, though significant, shifted the focus away from Putin’s unease about its border security in case of further NATO expansion. Western politicians tend to question Russia’s ‘legitimate’ security concerns. However, Germany’s unprovoked invasion of Russia in 1941 – thus violating the non-aggression treaty between it and Russia – is kept alive as a memory, and NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011 is likely to have nourished suspicions that its raison d’être was not solely to defend European security.

As a matter of fact, Ukraine has been instrumentalized by both the ‘West’ (aiming to assimilate it into NATO to demonstrate Western military and economic supremacy in Europe) and Russia (attempting to keep Ukraine in its orbit and to maintain a buffer between NATO countries and its own borders). After the Munich Security Conference in mid-February 2022, where the hollow phrases of readiness for negotiations were reiterated but no serious compromise solution brought to the table, the attack on Ukraine four days later should not have come as a surprise. The diplomatic stalemate required a face-saving compromise which would have allowed  Putin to withdraw his forces from the border of Ukraine without risking personal and political humiliation. In fact, negotiations in good faith, which would have required a skilled mediator, were not conducted. Those who put themselves forward as negotiators were neither independent nor neutral. The French President Emmanuel Macron represents a country that belongs to NATO; the Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads an occupying country.[13]

It is noteworthy that unlike other political leaders past and present, President Putin has been disinclined to attach a distinctive label to what he refers to as a “special military operation” in Ukraine, which commenced on 24 February.[14] Presumably this choice of classification has been motivated by his attempt to avoid legal liability that results from invasions that have not been sanctioned by the UN Security Council.

However, it has been ascertained that this “special operation” is in fact an invasion that meets the definition of an “act of aggression” as defined by the International Criminal Court.[15] According to Marc Weller, Professor of International Law at Cambridge University, over the past quarter of a century Russia has challenged the prohibition of the use of force in international relations. For example, Putin has claimed that “Russian-speakers in the near-abroad” needed to be rescued by force. Along those lines, he has sought to justify Russia’s recognition of the two “pseudo-states”, the Donbass ‘republics’ (Donetsk and Luhansk) as well as the invasion of Ukraine by alleging that it had launched a campaign of genocide against them.[16] The invasion cannot be legalized either in terms of self- or collective defense or in terms of a collective security measure that is authorized under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.[17] Furthermore, Russia’s assembling of troops around Ukraine prior to the invasion was incompatible with Article 2 of the UN Charter which obliges UN member states to refrain from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”[18] The eventual deployment of more than 150,000 largely conscripted troops across Ukraine[19] constituted a violation of international law and the UN Charter. Article 8 bis 1 of the Rome Statute defines an act of aggression of this kind as “the planning, preparation, initiation or execution by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State, of an act of aggression which … constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations.”[20]

Though Western media have focused on Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law, Western politicians have refrained from criticising such violations elsewhere. Syria has been subjected to attacks by Israel for years – attacks which have been tolerated by Russia, which cultivates amicable relations with the Syrian regime. For this reason, in the early days of the invasion Prime Minister Naftali Bennett insisted on “Israel’s neutrality” in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and has been reluctant to denounce Russia’s invasion.[21] Mr. Trump recognized both Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its annexation of the Golan Heights which it has occupied since 1967.[22] The World Zionist Organization’s plan, awaiting the Israeli government’s approval, is to settle Ukrainian Jewish refugees in areas that are mostly desert, such as the Negev and Arava (both part of Israeli territory), as well as in the occupied Jordan Valley.[23]

During the weeks leading up to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, reasonable proposals were not considered or dismissed out of hand. Thomas Graham, co-founder of the Russian Studies Programme at Yale University, has suggested a moratorium on NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe.[24] While this may not have satisfied Putin, it could have initiated more robust diplomacy. As argued by Anatol Lieven, a viable option would have been a non-aggression treaty between NATO and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The reinvigoration of full diplomatic relations between those two organisations and between the European Union and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) could lead to new discussions of arms control measures with Russia (as already suggested by the U.S.), as well as economic arrangements offering non-members of the EU and EEU a choice of trading partners.[25]

Western nations have emphasized that ruling out future membership by Ukraine in NATO could not be contemplated, but that membership would not be granted any time soon. It was made clear that in any case NATO would not fight for Ukraine,[26] but would supply it with defensive weapons. This begs the question why Ukraine’s status as a ‘neutral’ country was anathema throughout – such an outcome might have contented Putin and prevented war. Against the backdrop of Biden’s dogma to refrain from waging another war of intervention,[27] counterinsurgency (as in Syria) and the provision of intelligence and arms – in addition to sanctions ˗˗ have become the United States’ preferred way to influence the outcomes of wars outside its borders (Yemen, Ukraine). The Ukraine war has not only reinforced NATO’s image of Russia as its enemy but has reenergized it since the loss of face of August 2021, with the ignoble withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Committed to complete disarmament and demilitarization in accordance with the protocols of the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Germany, one of its members, has made a fundamental shift in its defence policy. It will abandon its policy of restraint in security matters, and German troops may be sent to fight abroad.[28]

At the same time as Germany under its new left-of-center government has abandoned its quasi-pacifist tradition, the war in Ukraine seems to indicate that some of the Russian recruits who were sent there have been unable to reconcile themselves with the orders they were given. Irrespective of logistical problems and a determined Ukrainian resistance that may have slowed down the Russian army’s conquest of major Ukrainian cities, Russian soldiers do not seem to fight to full capacity. Without suggesting that this war is less brutal than those fought by the Russian army in the past – whether in Hungary, Chechnya or Afghanistan – it is worthy of attention that stories of soldiers who are reluctant to dehumanize Ukrainians and to kill civilians have recently emerged.[29] Not only do those young recruits share cultural and historical ties with Ukrainians, but are likely to have conversed with other European youth via social media even while their country has been excluded from integration into Europe’s economic and political structures.

While the focus is now on Ukraine’s heroic struggle against a mighty military machine, some thinking should go into the possibility of Russia‘s societal and economic collapse under the weight of sanctions and overreach in Ukraine. It is likely to become even more repressive domestically and to continue to pursue its aggressive foreign policy. If Putin reaches the conclusion that he has nothing more to lose, he might decide to reach for the Wunderwaffe. This would be a pivotal and dangerous moment in a century that has already witnessed three brutal invasions by NATO countries and its allies. The latest one, conducted by NATO’s old enemy, suggests that hubris might not presently be called for by either side.


[2] Interview on BBC-WS Newshour, “Ukraine under full-scale Russian Attack”, 24 February 2022.

[3] Quoted in Hélène Richard and Anne Célile Robert, ‘Russia and the West: between sanctions and war’,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ramona Bloj, ‘Sanctions, privileged instrument of European Foreign Policy’, European Issues, no 598, Robert Schumann Foundation, Strasbourg, 31 May 2021


[7] Hélène Richard and Anne Célile Robert, ‘Russia and the West: between sanctions and war’,

[8] On the impact of sanctions on Iraqi society, see Loulouwa al-Rachid, ‘L’Irak de l’embargo à l’occupation: dépérissement d’un ordre politique (1990-2003)’, PhD thesis, Institut d’Etudes Politiques 2010.

[9] The Guardian 8 September 1995, Youtube Link.




[13] See, in this context,

[14] For example, Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 was codenamed “Barbarossa”, the first Gulf War led by President George H.W. Bush in 1990/1 “operation desert storm.” Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in 2015 was labelled “operation decisive storm”, to be followed by “operation renewal of hope.”

[15] The Rome Statute, which is the legal basis of the ICC, states in its Article 8 bis 2 that an “act of aggression means the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.”

[16] Marc Weller, ‘Ukraine – how the new normal came about’,, pp. 8-9.

[17] Yasuhiro Ueki, ‘Putin can be charged personally for carnage in Ukraine, legal experts say’, See Article

[18] Ibid.



[21] has also sought exemption from most sanctions against Russia and has accepted its request not to sell even defensive weapons to Ukraine. Interview with former Israeli intelligence officer Yossi Alpher,

The UAE has also pursued its own interests by abstaining from voting for a UN Security Council resolution censuring Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 25. The reason for its abstention was Russia’s support for a new UN resolution that proposed to name Yemen’s Ansar Allah a “terrorist group.” Currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UAE proposed to add the terrorist label to the Yemen resolution after it was attacked by missiles on 17 January 2022, for which Ansar Allah has claimed responsibility Apparently after pressure from the U.S., at the UN General Assembly on 2 March both Israel and the UAE sought to limit the damage and voted for a consensus resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.









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