How the west failed Ukraine
An analysis of the international conditions for the ongoing Russian invasion
After the destruction of the Soviet Union, the constituent territories of the USSR were subjected to western interests. Ukraine was disarmed of her nuclear weapons with promises of western protection. Russia was made to accept reunified Germany’s accession to NATO with promises of limited future expansion. Both Russia and Ukraine hoped to join the west, to be integrated into NATO and the EU. All these promises were broken, all these hopes were dashed. Instead of a new world order premised on predictable rules and peacefully mediated through international institutions, the twenty-first century was inaugurated with unilateral action, pre-emptive invasions, and unremitting chaos from Afghanistan to Yemen.
Much has been made of Vladimir Putin’s alleged personal beliefs, and although he is the supreme commander of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and therefore directly responsible for this bloodbath, he is weak and constrained. Were he to fall from power, the same fundamental geopolitical reality would face whoever rose in his place. Putin as a man is easy to sum up: he’s a gangster, a thug, a killer. His worldview is evidently a post-hoc justification for whatever he feels necessary to promote his power. This was demonstrated by the bizarre and haphazard sermon given by Patriarch Kirill blaming the war on the west’s purported “gay parade” foreign policy. His Holiness apparently needed to come up with something quickly. The Russian ruling class is a mafia, not a theocracy. As Vladimir Pozner and others have pointed out for many years, Putin’s regime is itself a byproduct of failed western policy: by excluding Russia from the club of “normal countries”, Russian politics developed in an increasingly aggressive and authoritarian direction.
The tragic missed opportunity for rapprochement with Russia pales in comparison to the betrayal of Ukraine by the west. In 1996, the Budapest Memorandum traded security guarantees from the America, Britain, and Russia to Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine in exchange for their surrender of nuclear weapons. None of these three countries were integrated into the expanded European Union. All three have subsequently been subjected to Russian regional hegemony. The west failed to develop any coherent policy toward Ukraine in particular. The infamous tape of American diplomat Victoria Nuland exclaiming “fuck the EU” indicated the west’s internal divisions on how to approach the Ukraine crisis, as did the failure of the Minsk agreements to ensure a lasting peace. The west wavered for years, leading Ukraine to believe that they would support her when push came to shove. This Ukrainian dream was dramatized by the comedian Zelensky in a skit where the President of Ukraine finally gets the call from Brussels welcoming his county into the EU–only to realize that they intended to congratulate the President of Montenegro. Western ambivalence has since portrayed itself across the ruined cities of Ukraine and in the lives of millions of refugees.
Freedom and democracy are vaguely proclaimed as immortal European values, while the price of gas is quietly and carefully calculated. Ukraine is a poor country and getting poorer by the day–what good is it for the German bourgeoisie to be weighed down with another PIGS country in exchange for more expensive fuel? Britain abandoned the EU in part due to resentment against Eastern European immigrants, and has shown little interest in welcoming any more. President Biden made hazy pronouncements in Warsaw that Moscow interpreted as a call for Russian regime change and that White House officials hastily walked back. While the west have enacted economic sanctions against Russia and funneled arms to Ukraine, the cries of Ukrainians for western help have gone unanswered. Kyiv has so far been judged not worth nuclear war. Ukraine has been handed over for destruction in a conflict that could have been averted had the west committed to the Minsk peace process that France and Germany brokered. There is no coherent or rational western policy towards Ukraine. The result has been an absurd war, and there is no clear way out of it.
The same contradictions that created the conditions for this war perpetuate it: Vladimir Putin’s regime has no alternative in Russia, the sticking points of the Minsk agreements on territorial concessions in Donbas and Crimea remain unresolved, Russia is too weak to simply compel Ukraine to submit, Ukraine is too weak to prevent Russian incursion into its territory, the west is unwilling to sue for peace and unable to defend Ukraine, and the war devours more lives daily. The liberal international project is not dead, it is death. There is no hope in it for a better world free from war. The bourgeois idealism of the Christian and social democrats that birthed the European Union has led to disaster. It is a fundamental mistake of analysis to think that Putin is the problem, that knocking him off the geopolitical chessboard would remedy the situation. Just as removing Bush did not stop America from decimating Western Asia, and the toppling of strongmen in the Arab Spring did not lead to democratic flowering, so too is defeating Russia in this war insufficient. The present world order can only produce more Syrias and Ukraines.