It had been announced for several months but in the end the Russian invasion of Ukraine in recent days truly shocked the world anyway. According to some important experts and pundits, this aggression was unleashed exclusively by the tyrannical will of a dictator, Vladimir Putin, who, harboring a deep and boundless hatred for democracy, freedom and all that is good in the modern liberal world, decided to attack and regain control of a small and defenseless Ukraine that had the sole fault of wanting to be free and democratic.
In the face of these claims, laden with prefabricated ideology, it certainly helps to look at the events of the last few days and months in the context of what has happened in Ukraine over the past eight years. Without an adequate contextualization, we risk becoming prey to simple and cheap explanations, which in addition to ease and immediacy have very few advantages.
These are obviously considerations that in the fiery climate of a new war that has just begun can only be unpopular: is it not a monstrous and inhumane thing to even raise a doubt or show indecision when one has to choose between the freedom of a defenseless nation and the tyranny of a cruel oppressor?
Yet it is always preferable to look at things with a clear and detached mind. Reconstructing the causes of the conflict does not mean, as one could falsely and maliciously claim, justify the attack by Russia, but it is a necessary operation to avoid falling prey to easy schemes and to understand the true nature of things.
When did the war in Ukraine start?
After the famous revolution of winter 2013-14, Ukraine almost immediately lost control of Crimea and the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the east of the country. While Crimea, in less than a month, after a referendum organized in a hurry and perhaps not in the most rigorous respect of all the standards of democratic norms (after all, it certainly cannot be said that the people carrying out the street revolution seen in Kiev, fought with rifles and Molotov cocktails, had been very concerned with rules and procedures), passed under the control of Russia, the fate of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk was more torturous and bloody.
The war that has been going on in eastern Ukraine for the past eight years has led to around 15,000 deaths and several million refugees. Some of these have found refuge in the rest of Ukraine, others in Russia or other countries. It is important to point out that in Ukraine the concept of “civil war” has always been violently rejected: after the victory of the revolution, the new revolutionary government, with the fanaticism characteristic of those who fight for a pure and indisputable cause and the unconditional support of Europe and of the United States, it was considered in the full right to have to suppress, even with military force, any attempt at insurrection. And after all, it was never about spontaneous uprisings but Russia’s military operations, this is the official narrative. The fact is that in Crimea, annexed by Russia or reunified if you prefer, daily life has proceeded its more or less normal course, while in Donbass, where the Russian military presence and interventions have been more sporadic, the bombings have continued, with different phases of intensity, for years.
Speaking of Russian interventions, it should be remembered here that the last direct Russian intervention before the invasion of these days dates back to February 2015, during the clashes between the separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces that culminated in the battle of Debaltseve, a village halfway between Donetsk and Lugansk. The battle ended with Ukrainian forces abandoning their positions. In those days the famous Minsk agreements were signed, which would lead to a significant reduction in hostilities for the following years, despite the mortar rounds at the front that would continue to be heard with some regularity. In any case, according to official data, in the whole of 2021, the losses of the Ukrainian armed forces have been 84. At the front, therefore, before the resumption of hostilities in recent days, the situation was relatively calm.
However, not even the Minsk agreements managed to bring about the lasting peace in which some hoped and for all these years Ukraine has always continued to consider itself at war with evil Russia. The agreements provided for a certain degree of federalization for the region, but officially the territories of the two rebel republics continued to be designated by Ukraine as “temporarily occupied by Russia” and this is the official designation that had to be strictly adhered to in public speech, including by the media, under penalty of sanctions. In the last year alone, 4 television channels and 2 other important online media resources have been blocked in Ukraine, guilty of being, according to Kiev, too pro-Russian or at least too lenient towards Russia and Ukraine “pro-Russian”.
The two republics of Donetsk and Lugansk have been effectively independent since 2014. In recent years they have created their own parliament, their own ministries, their own army, a school system, some banks, there have been elections. For Kiev, of course, it is just a bunch of terrorists and drug addicts and in all these years Kiev has refused any form of direct dialogue with the republics, conducting talks, and almost always only in the presence of its Western partners, with Moscow and not with representatives of the two rebel republics.
Even before the all-out attack on February 24, the reaction of indignation, panic and total condemnation of the West and Ukraine, following the recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk by Russia, surprised. On the one hand, the two republics had already been considered occupied by Russia for a long time, albeit informally. On the other hand, Russia suddenly, for no reason other than its innate and incurable expansionism, now wanted to incorporate two small states that in the eyes of Ukraine and the West were only puppets in the perfidious hands of Putin.
The expansion of NATO and Russia
At the root of the conflict “for the independence of Ukraine”, there is obviously the rivalry between Russia and NATO. It is recalled here that NATO is originally conceived as an alliance with an anti-Russian function. Today, of course, all the rumors surrounding NATO’s promises not to expand eastward after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 are automatically and systematically discredited as if they were pure invention of the ever lying and malicious Russian propaganda. Yet there are several documents that seem to show that such a promise was made on more than one occasion, even though no one ever made the commitment to set this in a treaty.
2004 is also the year of the first Ukrainian revolution, the so-called Orange Revolution, also directed against Viktor Yanukovich, who enjoys the perhaps unenviable privilege of having been ousted from the square twice within less than 10 years. It is after the Orange Revolution, with the victory of the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, that Ukraine begins to think seriously about a possible inclusion in NATO. Relations with Moscow cooled significantly, in every sense, given that Russia on a couple of occasions accused Ukraine of illegally appropriating gas destined for other European countries and reduced flows.
The turning point for NATO and Ukraine came between 2007 and 2008. In February 2007, host of the Munich security conference, Putin for the first time harshly criticized the unipolar world centered around the undisputed global supremacy of the United States and NATO expansionism. The Western reaction does not prove very constructive: in the face of Russian concerns for its own security, various political figures and experts reiterate the need for NATO to expand in order to potentially include states such as Ukraine and Georgia.
It was in Georgia in August 2008 that we passed from words to deeds. On 8 August, Georgian President Saakashvili, who also came to power following one of the many color revolutions a few years earlier, decides to launch an offensive against South Ossetia, a region formally within Georgia but over which Georgia never exercised control for a single day after having gained independence in 1991. Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia were hit in the attack and after that Russia invades. Within 5 days, Russia forced Georgia to lay down their arms, along with negotiations led by the then French president Sarkozy. Even then, the media circus, especially in the early days, shouted at the violent and unacceptable Russian invasion, choosing to ignore the circumstances that led to the Russian intervention. Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebel region, also wounded by the civil war during the dissolution of the USSR, and never controlled by the central government of Georgia, as independent states. After 2008, the prospect of joining NATO for Georgia and Ukraine is temporarily shelved.
This then brings us to the second Ukrainian revolution within a decade, which ended with the ousting of Yanukovich eight years ago, after three days of shooting in central Kiev. From this moment on, Ukraine, hitherto engaged in an attempt to find a balance between the West and Russia, the future and the past, redefined itself around its new radically pro-Western identity, at the same time striving to eradicate the element and the country’s “Russian” heritage. If until 2014 Kiev was for the majority a Russian-speaking city, after the revolution of 2014, mythologized as a sort of primordial return to the country’s true Ukrainian origins, it becomes more and more Ukrainian speaking.
This is the new Ukraine which after 2014 has received the full moral support of the West. A Ukraine where the radical nationalist element has become dominant, but neither Europe nor the United States, the civilized world, the only civilized world, are too interested in seeing this, because Ukraine has become, according to the great and high-sounding official narrative, the front line between the “free” and “democratic” world and the deplorable world of dictatorships and autocracies. A narrative that naturally takes up closely the comfortable and schematic contrast of the Cold War, of the free and capitalist world against the evil communist empire. A simple scheme that aims to offer a powerful and seductive universal interpretation of the world, from a more than flattering perspective for the incredibly privileged Western citizen.
Ukraine: a new Afghanistan for Russia?
To conclude, a brief historical note. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Then too, just like today, this event provoked a chorus of endless indignation and condemnation towards the Soviet Union. Then too someone wrote that the Soviet Union was invading Afghanistan because Afghanistan wanted to be free and democratic. In reality, Afghanistan then, perhaps not very differently from Afghanistan today, was a country in chaos, where political events were accompanied by unprecedented violence. Within a year and a half before the Soviet invasion, a communist revolution followed, marked by repression and violence against political rivals, then the assassination of the Secretary General of the Afghan Communist Party Taraki by his second Amin , and finally the suspicion that the new leader was planning to ally with the United States, all against the backdrop of an Islamic-style insurrection. In short, the Afghanistan that the Soviet Union invades was a far from peaceful place.
Twenty years later, in 1998, when the war had been over for 10 years and the Soviet Union had disintegrated, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in 1979 national security adviser under President Carter, in an interview with the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, candidly declared:
“According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention. […] We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would. […] That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire. […] What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war.”
The question that arises spontaneously, perhaps a blunt question but a legitimate one nonetheless, is: are the Ukrainians destined to become the new Taliban?