One year on, the fight to freedom continues
24 February 2022, world history was rocked and the future of global stability was questioned. It was that day when Putin invaded the East of Ukraine and bombed the entirety of the land. When a column of troops invaded the North the East and South of Ukraine by one of the world’s most powerful and feared armies it was not expected that Ukraine could survive. One year on, after the most intense fighting in Europe since the second world war, after 8 million Ukrainians have been forced to leave their houses in search of safety and after tens of thousands have been killed, Ukraine is still surviving.
What might be remembered in history as one of the most miraculous survivals of a country, against what many western military experts thought was impossible Ukraine is in retention of Kiev, Zelensky is still president and the Ukrainian military is now on the fight towards reclaiming their land. Still the Russian army pushes its army of young men into the fight with little to no experience or training, everyday there is a risk of military escalation and furthermore Putin threatens the use of nuclear weapons. One year on however we can claim that Ukraine has had its victory, despite the constant threat of an effective push by the Russian military and the use of nuclear blowout, it cannot be emphasised too much how big and important it is that Ukraine survived. With a smaller army, a smaller arsenal of weapons along with the speed of the Russian advance and their dominance of air space Ukraine was expected to be at the peace table forced to make land concessions or risk the collapse of their country.
However with so much time having gone by it is important to examine why this war happened. This will be the biggest historical question for the decades to follow and no doubt as time goes on people will change their opinion and it is important to self-reflect, we live in a Western world with western values and quite often a western perspective on history with little to no insight to anything outside of our bubble. In this case answering 'why' is perhaps a foolish task open to being wrong, but it is an important one to try and answer as soon as possible. To paraphrase Stalin after the end of the second world war into the context of this article, Putin’s come and go, but Russia and the Russian people will remain. If we are to stop Putins and Hitlers, as well as Saddam Hussein's and Al-Assad's from taking power and waging war, we need to answer the question of why the Ukraine War happened and as an extension why Putin came to power.
It is important to mention that I will not be answering in this article the immediate reasons for the Ukraine War. What it was that made Putin switch from not invading Ukraine to suddenly massing troops on its borders. It is in this case a rather bizarre situation where the long term reasons for the war are more clear than the short-term to immediate reasons.
A western failure to act on the strategic importance of Ukraine is a very large part of the invasion of Ukraine. After the fall of the USSR there has always been to some respect been a hesitance for NATO and the EU to try and expand their policies and influence into Eastern Europe as part of an agreement with Russia, who was fearful of a Western takeover of lands they believed they had the right to influence. This especially included Ukraine and Ukraine itself had gone through a lot of political turmoil swinging from pro-Kremlin to pro-Washington presidents. Yet the security of Eastern European nations was always at risk which is why Estonia, Poland, Lithuania and other Eastern countries still joined NATO and the EU. Ukraine however was always excluded, sometimes because the pro-Kremlin president claimed that is what Ukraine wanted and sometimes because the West simply did not want to agitate Putin. So it was placed in the hands of trust. The trust that Putin would not invade or provoke military action in the Ukraine. Even after 2014 when the Crimea was taken over by Putin, trust in Putin was placed. Echoes of appeasement from WWW2 might appear but it is important to notice that this is the first time that the West have had to address negotiations with a nuclear powerhouse arguably inside Europe since the heat of the 1960s during the Cold War and it is not easy.
Yet there are deeper layers that go to this problem that ultimately stem from the collapse of the Soviet Union and for that there needs to be an understanding of why it was so important. This importance is commonly seen through the perspective of the end of the fall of the USSR ending the cold war and ushering in the age of US hegemony in global affairs. Yet the importance is deeper than that. This idea of a Communist state transformed Russia as well as its other states politically and culturally. Politically Russia had been built off of corruption of the Oligarchs and political actors all trying to pursue their own goal. The web of intrigue is vital for most political arenas but none more so in Russia. Add this with a huge political power vacuum all so common before a dictator takes control and there was the start of a political opportunity for stuff to go wrong, as it did. Culturally the people of the Soviet Union were for the first time in decades if not centuries starting to become part of the democratic process. It is important to understand that the way our democracies function in Britain, the USA and in most of Europe, our people behave and vote the way they do because we have grown up with this system. If we are to compare to Russia however, long under the rule of fear and dictatorship, the voicing of opinion, the understanding of how democracy worked, what was good or bad was still hazy with many still being apathetic to participating. Uncharted waters are dangerous and without support even more so.
Culturally there was a further significance which we in Britain are also guilty of. Pride. We did not and arguably still have not gotten over the loss of our position in the world after the loss of our empire. We still believe that we are a nation capable of significance in the world, an economic powerhouse full of potential to expand, when in reality the only reason we think this is because our colonial history allowed us to take this pride, even if wrongly. The same is in Russia, the Soviet Union stood proud in the hearts of many Russians as well as others including many Ukrainians. Russia was used to strength, power, standing in the world as well as victory. It was the first country in the world to explore space, it was large and widespread in its population and culture, it was the first communist country in the world with some of the largest industrial capabilities. There was to an extent equality, without some of the problems associated with capitalism. It ruled over such a vast amount of land. Yet in just a few years it was gone and suddenly cracks, many stemming from the USSR had emerged. An incompetent president, a failing economy, social unrest. These are the food of dictators.
This not to say that the invasion of Ukraine was inevitable from 1991, but it is important in understanding how Putin came to power. It is also important to understand Putin’s intentions. Putin believes greatly in the existence and power of the USSR and its hold in Eastern Europe and perhaps this appealed to many Russians who wanted to go back to the stability that the USSR provided them as well as their pride. Before we can criticize, we must understand that we have been the same in our history, Thatcher, Reagan, Johnson and Trump are all leaders who made their power by promising to restore our countries into their “former glories”. Of course Russia and Britain are two completely different countries with different systems of government and value, but there are still similarities nonetheless.
Whilst I try to and have refrained from writing in the singular, this is important to note that is my opinion, that the combination of these factors explain the Ukraine War's outbreak, but that an emphasise should be placed on a Western failure to protect Ukraine and when it could, include Russia into the team. This can and most likely be wrong but that is the point of history which whilst it happens now the Ukraine War already partially is. A good historian always is open to new opinions when new evidence emerges and this should be especially true when looking at the Ukraine War