According to what we hear from the White House and from the television networks, the issues at stake in the Ukraine War are simple. They concern the evil of Vladimir Putin, who woke up one morning and chose, whether out of sadism or insanity, to wreak unspeakable violence on his neighbors. Putin’s actions are described as an “unprovoked invasion” of a noble democracy by a corrupt autocracy. How we ought to respond is assumed to be a no-brainer. The United States has pledged vast quantities of its deadliest weaponry, along with aid that is likely to run into the hundreds of billions of dollars, and has brought large parts of the world economy—particularly in Europe—to a standstill.
Now, whenever people in power tell you something is a no-brainer, there’s a good chance that it’s a brainer. And the Ukraine War is more complicated than we’ve been led to assume.
There are reasons why the U.S. might want to project power into the Black Sea region. But we must not ignore that the politics of the region are extraordinarily complex, that the Ukraine conflict is full of paradoxes and optical illusions, and that the theater we are entering has been, over the past 150 years, the single most violent corner of the planet. And unless we learn to respect the complexity of the situation, we risk turning it into something more dangerous, both for Europeans and for ourselves.
Historic Roots of the Conflict
Putin invaded Ukraine after the U.S. rejected his demand for a guarantee that Ukraine not join NATO. We don’t have to excuse Putin, but we should note that, until quite recently, having Ukraine in NATO was a prospect that struck even many American foreign policy thinkers as a bad idea. These included George Kennan, who was one of the architects of the NATO alliance when the Cold War began in the late 1940s. Kennan was still alert and active, at about 90 years of age, when NATO won the Cold War at the turn of the 1990s. And in 1997, during the Clinton administration, he warned that American plans to push NATO borders “smack up to those of Russia” was the “greatest mistake of the entire post–Cold War era.”
John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, is a forceful representative of Kennan’s viewpoint. Mearsheimer is skeptical of “idealist” crusades, like the one in Iraq that George W. Bush drew the country into in 2003. He thinks President Bush dramatically overestimated the degree to which the U.S. could spread its values and its institutions. In light of present events, he especially faults Bush’s push to bring the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO in 2008.
A lot of Americans in government at the time felt the same. One was William Burns, then President Bush’s ambassador in Moscow, now President Biden’s Director of Central Intelligence. In a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Burns wrote the following:
Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two-and-a-half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. [It would be seen] as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Today’s Russia will respond. Russian-Ukrainian relations will go into a deep freeze. . . . It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
In thinking about why this would be the “brightest of all red lines,” consider why it was that the Ukraine problem didn’t get resolved at the end of the Cold War.
Russia is a vast country—the largest in the world. It’s not so much a country as an empire. Even today it has dozens of ethnic republics in it. Maybe you’ve heard of Chechnya or Tatarstan. But have you heard of Tuva? Or Mari-El? Or the Republic of Sakha? Sakha is four times the size of Texas, but it disappears inside of Russia. Back in the day, of course, this vast Russian empire was part of another empire, famously referred to by Ronald Reagan as the Evil Empire—that is, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. There were 15 Soviet Republics, including Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Armenia, and Turkestan. And that bigger empire was part of an even bigger empire, which included the Eastern European “captive nations” of Poland and Hungary.
When Communism collapsed in the early 1990s, all these countries found their way to independence, most of them peacefully, some of them bloodily. But Ukraine, while nominally independent, remained bound to Russia in a number of informal ways—sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly. Russia kept its Black Sea fleet in Crimea, unmolested by Ukraine. Ukraine got cheap gas and desperately needed financial assistance.
Why wasn’t Ukraine able to make a clean break? Not because it forgot to. Not for lack of can-do spirit. It was just a really hard problem. With the possible exception of Latvia, Ukraine was the most Russian of the non-Russian Soviet Republics. Russian has for a long time been the language of its big cities, of its high culture, and of certain important regions.
If you had to give a one-word answer to what this Ukraine War is about, you would probably say Crimea. Crimea is a peninsula jutting out into the middle of the Black Sea. It’s where the great powers of Europe fought the bloodiest war of the century between Napoleon and World War I. It is a defensive superweapon. The country that controls it dominates the Black Sea and can project its military force into Europe, the Middle East, and even the steppes of Eurasia. And since the 1700s, that country has been Russia. Crimea has been the home of Russia’s warm water fleet for 250 years. It is the key to Russia’s southern defenses.
Crimea found itself within the borders of Ukraine because in 1954, the year after Stalin died, his successor Nikita Khrushchev signed it over to Ukraine. Historians now hotly debate why he did that. But while Crimea was administratively Ukrainian, it was culturally Russian. It showed on several occasions that it was as eager to break with Ukrainian rule as Ukraine was to break with Russian rule. In a referendum in January 1991, 93 percent of the citizens of Crimea voted for autonomy from Ukraine. In 1994, 83 percent voted for the establishment of a dual Crimean/Russian citizenship. We’ll leave aside the referendum held after the Russians arrived in 2014, which resulted in a similar percentage but remains controversial.