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Was the Ukraine war inevitable?

Feb 22,2023 - Last updated at Feb 22,2023

Moscow has pressed NATO to forget about recruiting Ukraine and urged Ukraine to remain a neighbour Russia can trust not to take up arms against it by joining the Western alliance as many former members of the collapsed Soviet Union have done.

Russia has good reasons to reject Ukrainian membership of NATO. Moscow has not forgotten post-World War I interventions by the US and Britain with the aim of aborting the revolution and being surrounded and isolated by Western powers. Russian President Vladimir Putin fears NATO is determined to repeat this scenario. Following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, six members of Russia's dissolved Warsaw Pact turned to NATO: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania. In addition, NATO enlarged by taking in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. Last year, Sweden and Finland were invited by NATO to begin the accession process but this has been blocked by Turkey. Little wonder Russia feels intimidated and Putin has lashed out at Ukraine, which had been a buffer zone between Russia and the alliance.

Ukraine and Russia also have a centuries’ old shared history and culture. Most Ukrainians speak Russian, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, for whom Russian was his first language. Russia sees Ukraine's NATO membership bid as familial betrayal.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine was ill conceived and poorly managed. His forces crossed into Ukraine in winter, the majority of units after having been stationed along the border between the two countries through the previous three months. The officers and soldiers were not at their best. They were tired and cold and suffered low morale; their tanks and other vehicles were poorly maintained so they broke dowm en route to operational objectives and were abandoned, often without being scuttled so Ukrainian troops, who were also supplied with Russian weaponry, could make use of them.

Although the Russian military was supposed to have been reformed and upgraded, this was incomplete. The commanders appear to have stuck to Russia's traditional modus operandi of throwing thousands of troops into battle with the aim of enveloping and overpowering their enemies. This is very expensive in both men and arms and has cost Russia dearly in terms of the lives of both officers and soldiers.

Putin apparently underestimated the Ukrainian leadership and armed forces which resisted Russia's initial armoured thrust towards Kyiv, where Western commentators claim he wanted to replace Zelensky with a pro-Russian leader who would put an end to the country's NATO ambition. This would have made this conflict sort and sweet for both Russia and Ukraine. They would suffer few military and material losses. Neither side would be humiliated and seek revenge.

Finally, Putin clearly did not believe NATO, sidelined and disunited for years, would get its act together in order to arm and finance Ukraine's defence. He underestimated US President Joe Biden, who was determined to play the lead role, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who wanted to make the alliance relevant.

Zelensky made the mistake of failing to take seriously Biden's warning that Russia's invasion was immanent. Zelensky asked Biden to tone down the rhetoric as this was negatively impacting Ukraine's economy. An actor who did not fully understand the hard-nosed realities of politics, Zelensky did not offer to discuss NATO with Putin with the aim of defusing the situation and averting war. 

When it was too late, Zelensky suggested compromises without spelling them out. Once the war began, Zelensky was built up by the West as a hero defending his country and democracy. He loved the role and exploited the situation by appealing to presidents, prime ministers, parliaments and international bodies to provide maximum aid to Ukraine. His newly found importance has gone to his head and has encouraged him to make demands for tanks, which have been partially met, and fighter aircraft, which have been, so far, rejected by Biden who fears they could be used to attack Russia itself.

This would turn NATO's proxy war into direct combat with Russia. Some US citizens resent Zelensky’s constant demands and regard him as “greedy” for more money and weapons. He is seen as stubborn since he says he will not accept less than Russian defeat and the return of all Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea and the Donbas. Even US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Ukraine will not get Crimea which was Russian until ex-Russian President Nikita Khruschev gifted it to Ukraine in 1954.

Biden, an old cold warrior, has taken the lead in rallying support for Ukraine against Russia. After humiliating himself and the US military by staging a chaotic withdrawal of a few thousand US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, Biden seeks to promote himself as a war leader and win positive ratings in US opinion polls. He has failed. Latest surveys show that 52.2 per cent of respondents disapprove of Biden against 42.7 who approve even though 64 per cent still support the war. This percentage could change if the war goes on. While Biden and other Western leaders have pledged to fund reconstruction in Ukraine, their parliaments and voters may disagree, leaving Ukraine in ruins.

While Stoltenberg has rescued NATO and the war has produced unity among member states, this may not last long and, once the war has come to an end, Hungary which has refused to aid Ukraine and sanction Russia, could veto Ukraine’s NATO membership. This would leave a devastated Ukraine in a far worse situation than before the deadly and destructive war.

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