Amid heated debates about the factors that led Russia to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it helps to distinguish between deep, intermediate, and immediate causes. But while each can matter in their own ways, war need not be considered inevitable even when they are all present.
The most disruptive conflict to hit Europe since 1945 is Russia’s campaign in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, claims that NATO’s 2008 decision in favor of Ukraine’s potential membership brought an existential threat to Russia’s borders. Others attribute the conflict to the end of the Cold War and the West’s failure to adequately support Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. How do we identify the causes of a conflict that could endure for years?
Even though World War I was fought more than a century ago, historians continue to debate its causes in literature. Did it begin as a result of the 1914 murder of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian terrorist, or was it more a result of Germany’s expanding power confronting Britain or the emergence of nationalism across Europe? However, until it actually started in August 1914, and even then, it was not inevitable that four years of devastation had to follow, the answer is “all of the above, plus more.”
Differentiating between deep, intermediate, and urgent causes aids in organizing the situation. Consider how a bonfire is built: piling up the logs is the deep cause, adding kindling and paper is the intermediate reason, and lighting a match is the triggering cause. A burning is not unavoidable, even then. It’s possible that a powerful wind put out the match or that an unexpected downpour saturated the wood. Poor policy decisions were a major factor in the catastrophe, as noted by historian Christopher Clark in his book about the causes of WWI, The Sleepwalkers, in 1914, “the future was still open – just.”
There is no doubt that Putin started the fire in Ukraine when he gave the order for Russian forces to enter on February 24. He likely thought it would be a short, sharp battle with a swift triumph, similar to the Soviet Union occupying Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968, like the leaders of the big nations did in 1914. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, would be overthrown, and a puppet administration would be put in place after airborne soldiers take control of the airport and advancing tanks overrun Kyiv.
In order to “denazify” Ukraine and stop NATO from encroaching on Russia’s borders, Putin claimed to be carrying out a “special military operation” for the Russian people. But given how profoundly he erred, we must wonder what he was actually contemplating. We know that the intermediate cause was a failure to accept Ukraine as a legitimate state from Putin’s own writings as well as from numerous biographers like Philip Short.
Due to the deep cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine, Putin grieved the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which he had served in as a KGB officer. He also thought of Ukraine as a fictitious state. Additionally, Ukraine had been unappreciative, insulting Russia with its Maidan movement in 2014, which overthrew a pro-Russian government, and its strengthening of trade ties with the EU.
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Putin has been considering his legacy as he approaches the age of 70 and wants to reestablish what he refers to as the “Russian world.” In their respective eras, earlier leaders like Peter the Great had increased Russian dominance. Putin appears to have thought, “Why not go further?” in light of the ineffectiveness of the Western sanctions enacted un response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
A less important intermediary cause was the possibility of NATO expansion. The NATO-Russia Council was established by the West so that Russian military officials could attend some NATO meetings, but Russia anticipated more from the partnership. And while James Baker, the US secretary of state, had assured his Russian counterpart that NATO would not expand in the early 1990s, historians like Mary Sarotte have shown that Baker swiftly changed his guarantee, which never had a written agreement to support it.
Russia reluctantly agreed to partial NATO expansion when US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin discussed the issue in the 1990s, but expectations on both sides were different. Putin’s darkest fears about the West were only verified when NATO decided to accept Ukraine (and Georgia) as prospective future members at its summit in Bucharest in 2008.
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However, Putin’s attitude change came before NATO’s 2008 decision, despite the fact that it may have been poorly thought through. He had aided the US after the September 11 attacks, but his address at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 indicates that he had already lost interest in the West before the Bucharest meeting.
All of this was a result of distant or underlying issues that emerged after the Cold War. At first, both in Russia and the West, there was a great deal of hope that the fall of the Soviet Union would pave the way for the emergence of democracy and a market economy in Russia. Early on, Clinton and Yeltsin made a concerted effort to improve their relationship. Russians, however, expected considerably more from the US than what it actually gave to the government of Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar.
Furthermore, it was hard to suddenly transition to a thriving market economy after seven decades of central planning. Forced changes of this magnitude inevitably result in massive disruptions, corruption, and great inequity. The fast privatization of state-owned enterprises resulted in some oligarchs and politicians becoming outrageously wealthy, but the standard of life for the majority of Russians fell.
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Boris Nemtsov, the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, alleged that no one in Russia was paying taxes and that the government was delayed on paying workers at Davos in February 1997. Nemtsov was later assassinated. Unable to handle the political fallout of deteriorating economic conditions, Yeltsin, who was then in declining health, turned to Putin, the unknown ex-KGB agent, to help him restore order. Then, in September of that following year, the liberal parliamentarian Grigory Yavlinsky said at a dinner at the Harvard Kennedy School that “Russia is completely corrupt and Yeltsin has no vision.”
All of this does not imply that the war in Ukraine was unavoidable. But with time, it did grow more likely. Putin made a calculation error on February 24, 2022, and lit the match that ignited the blaze. It is difficult to imagine him lighting it.
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By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter
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