Acknowledging the Many Provocations That Led to Russia’s “Unprovoked War” – A First Step Towards Reconciliation

February 24, 2023

Biden & Zelenskyy – partners in crime, Kiev, February 20, 2023
Examples of the “unprovoked” Russian war messaging consistent throughout US/NATO/EU organizations

It is understandable why it is so difficult to begin this line of questioning. Nobody wants to seem unpatriotic or counterproductive to their nation’s interests regarding a wartime effort. But opposing the current open-ended US/NATO policy towards massive amounts of Ukrainian aid in what amounts to a proxy war against Russia does not automatically mean opposition to NATO and the general interests of ensuring European security. It certainly does not warrant accusations of anti-Americanism or support for the Russian government, as is often the response to any such criticism. On the contrary, true support for American ideals, the primary mission of NATO, and stability on Europe’s periphery requires adherence to certain logical principles and policies – not the least of which is adherence to mutually recognized non-aggression, non-escalation, non-interference doctrines with respect to regional powers and spheres of influence. These principles and policies are being contradicted by our current action that is itself a culmination of decades of malfeasance. If we truly wish to protect US interests, help provide security to Europe, and fix the mess in Ukraine, we need to correct ourselves first. Failing to do so simply empowers the vested interests that have been engaging in such behavior to continue doing it.

Power of the purse, based on the power of principle

We must objectively assess the situation and demand any future strategy and aid we choose to commit towards NATO defense and the Ukraine conflict are in line with these principles and policies. It would not hurt to hit Americans with a little dose of reality as well; things do not always go neatly, nicely, and “legally” in geopolitics and warfare so we shouldn’t let our desire for perfection be the enemy of decent, workable solutions. After all, the United States of America – like so many other political entities before it and since – came about from less than clear, amicable, and “legal” circumstances. When the fog of war inevitably overtakes us, we owe it to ourselves to step back and reorient ourselves to ensure we are still moving on the correct overall azimuth. We do not want to pigeonhole ourselves by committing to lesser, counterproductive goals that seem just and right on the surface but are really poisoned fruit. This is what our current Ukraine “strategy” has become and the situation for the US/NATO/Ukraine is not as promising as government spokespeople and the talking heads in the media lead their audiences to believe.

UNICEF/Viktor Moskaliuk – On 5 March 2022 in western Ukraine, children and families make their way to the border to cross into Poland
Of course they promote the domestic political angle

Unprovoked or Provoked?

Examining the talking points delivered by Defense Secretary Austin, we can see where the narrative takes liberties with reality and pushes the boundaries of pure propaganda. He starts his remarks,

“It’s been nearly one year since Russia’s cruel and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and nearly a year since Putin’s reckless war of — war of choice plunged Europe into its worst security crisis since the end of World War II.”

Right away, we see the framing of the conflict as being “unprovoked.” This intellectually dishonest, one-sided notion is how most of the Western establishment and press categorizes the SMO Russia launched last year. While it is certainly not necessary to agree with the merits of Russia’s stated justification for their offensive action, ignoring the many provocations by the US, NATO, and the Ukrainian government the Russians clearly identified as reasons for their decision prior to beginning their operation is irresponsible. Attempts to bypass the arguments completely are never proper and it is just an insult to the intelligence of anyone that understands the complexities of geopolitics and has a shred of interest in conducting the objective analysis necessary to make a fair judgment on the situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech to the General Assembly in Moscow, February 21, 2023 that reiterated his explanations for the SMO last year.

Breaking the “Rules”

After wrongfully categorizing Russia’s actions as “unprovoked,” Defense Secretary Austin takes refuge in the notion of a rules-based international system reflecting our values, claiming, “The outcome of this tragic and unnecessary war is profoundly important to Ukrainian security, European security and to global security. Putin just — didn’t just assault a peaceful and sovereign and democratic U.N. member state; he also threatened the hard-won system — hard-won system of rules and rights that has made Europe stronger and safer for more than seven decades.”

The problems associated with provocation, escalation, arms races, deterrence, etc are easy to understand. Looking back to assess causes within any given initiated chain of events to search for possible mutually beneficial solutions apparently is not.

Act according to universalizable, mutually-beneficial principles

We see in the international order some of the same problems that exist within a state among individuals, including the threat majorities or powerful factions can pose to minorities or less powerful factions with a “might makes right” attitude. Any act by a state or league of states which can be seen as a threat to the survival of other states, especially regional hegemons, is something that should not be taken lightly. Even if the intentions are good, we must think of consequences and the positions of the other states. Theoretically speaking, NATO expansion in itself is a threat to Russia, but the threat is also magnified when it is accompanied by alleged ill-intentioned actions over the years that erode any confidence a rational actor would grant to another to act in good faith (coups, political interference, sabotage, economic warfare, dishonest negotiations, etc). The US/West has undoubtedly been involved in such activities in the region and we must stop fooling ourselves about it. Clearly Russia is concerned with such encroachments and interference, as any actor in their place would be. It could be countered that “Russia is trying to do the same thing in the region so we must beat them to it and contain them.” There is no doubt some truth to that, and often in actual warfare (direct and indirect) this is unavoidably the case, however it cannot be lost on us just how immature that rationale really is if it is universalized – it essentially undermines the very concept of morality and the duty to abide by moral imperatives in our own acts. It is acquiescence to the law of the jungle. It also makes a poor excuse when it comes time for delivering accountability for the negative consequences of such actions.

The schoolyard logic the war hawks want you and their adversaries to accept

Consider this analogy to further illustrate the point of the difference between rationalized actions of individuals within a state, and those of states as the actors themselves. If you are a citizen of a stable country under a functioning Rule of Law, and you live in a neighborhood with a lot of neighbors, absent any specific reason to believe the contrary you can be reasonably certain that you will be safe from those neighbors. The neighbors, likewise, can feel reasonably safe from you. This is because in a civil society with a Rule of Law basis, there is a norm of justice. The moral “social contract” has been implicitly accepted by all the members of the community and a political entity with power has been constructed to enforce it. There is a credible deterrent against aggressive rights-infringing behavior. Members of the community can feel safe and less suspicious of their neighbors and be more tolerant of behavior that otherwise might seem like a threat to themselves and their families. This same dynamic does not automatically apply in a state of nature without the safeguards of the political community. It may be more difficult to live in close proximity to so many unknown neighbors, which may be armed, possibly ready to attack you or otherwise infringe upon your perceived rights. The bar, all of a sudden, for what you are willing to tolerate shifts lower. In a state of nature, neighbors moving around you and acting too privately might cause you concern. Neighbors arming themselves may seem like a threat, even if they never point them at you. Neighbors allying themselves with each other on all sides of your property may get uncomfortable. This is what it is like in the current anarchic world order of states on the international stage. We cannot only apply the logic we are accustomed to within a civil society to the outside anarchic world order and expect things to make the same kind of sense. Yet this is what too many Americans are doing regarding our understanding of US/NATO/Ukraine/Russia relations. Americans say, “Well Ukraine is a sovereign country, they can seek to join NATO and arm themselves to the teeth as much as they desire. Likewise, NATO can expand eastward and bulk up as much as it wants too. Russia doesn’t have any say in that and they have no right to get angry because they are not being attacked.” This is essentially a merging of the “I’m not touching you” argument one child sibling makes to another in the back seat of the car, and the “I didn’t throw the first punch” defensive argument an aggressor might make upon approaching and provoking another, resulting in a fight. It plays on technicalities while ignoring realities and potential dangers. Absent the security guarantees of a world ‘social contract” an independent rational observer would expect a state that is being threatened to eventually act as any person would act if they were being threatened. There would be warnings not to continue the threatening behavior. There may be attempts to diplomatically resolve disputes but if that doesn’t work there would be threats of retaliation to attempt deterrence against further encroachment. If that did not work it should be expected the threatened party would eventually strike out to back up their threat in order to reestablish deterrence. And if none of that works, there will be warfare between the state actors, just as we could reasonably expect an individual to strike in self defense using deadly force if others do not heed warnings and continue to draw weapons on them.

We all recognize the need for deterrence, but it only works if it can be credibly backed up and the measures can be successfully deployed given the red lines are crossed

Ranges of the Il-28SS-4, and SS-5 based on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in nautical miles (NM), presence and capability is often enough to constitute a significant threat

Irregular Warfare and Internal Interference

In his speech defense Secretary Austin notes that NATO “has always drawn strength from its sheer devotion to the values of freedom, democracy and human rights. We’ve seen it in action over the past year, as our extraordinary allies have stepped up to condemn Putin — to condemn Putin’s imperial aggression, to support Ukraine’s right to defend itself and to — to strengthen our collective defense.” After the 2014 coup in Ukraine, orchestrated at least in part by Americans and other Westerners, official Ukrainian policy became dramatically more anti-Russian. The violent impetus for this shift only further delegitimizes claims of Ukraine’s “right” to act independently in accord with Rule of Law.

Imperfect international law, sovereignty, self-preservation, and self-determination

Unrealistic framing of the conflict hinders successful negotiation

Another disappointing aspect of mainstream media coverage of this conflict is how they portray the intentions of Russia’s offensive. Almost without exception, the narrative is that Putin intended to take over all of Ukraine and topple its government but was thwarted in doing so by the brave Ukrainians aided by Western support. Many also speculate that Russia is bent on restoring the Soviet Union and this offensive is part of that effort. If the attack was “unprovoked” as they claim, this provides a reason for the action to explain Russia’s intent. Defense Secretary Austin reflects this notion in this speech, “But things haven’t gone the way that the Kremlin planned. Putin expected Ukraine to surrender, and he expected the world to submit. History will record something very different. History will remember the courage of the Ukrainian people, and history will remember the determination and strength of the NATO alliance.”

This framing is meant to bypass debate and convince the audience that Ukraine has successfully thwarted Russia and perhaps is even winning the war. This helps bolster support for the current strategy. The problem is, it is not exactly true. In his address announcing Russia’s SMO, Putin declared, “…after the collapse of the USSR, Russia accepted new geopolitical realities. We respect and will continue to treat all the newly formed countries in the post-Soviet space with respect. We respect and will continue to respect their sovereignty, and an example of this is the assistance we provided to Kazakhstan, which faced tragic events, with a challenge to its statehood and integrity. But Russia cannot feel safe, develop, exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine.” He continues, “…our plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories. We are not going to impose anything on anyone by force….Our policy is based on freedom, the freedom of choice for everyone to independently determine their own future and the future of their children. And we consider it important that this right – the right to choose – could be used by all the peoples living on the territory of today’s Ukraine, by everyone who wants it.” Addressing the Ukrainian people directly, Putin said, “Today’s events are not connected with the desire to infringe on the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. They are connected with the protection of Russia itself from those who took Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and its people. I repeat, our actions are self-defence against the threats posed to us and from an even greater disaster than what is happening today.”

It would be naive to simply take Putin’s word on this, but we do not need to do that. We simply need to look at the Russian posturing put in place before, during, and after the commencement of the initial offensive and the current reality on the ground. Russia was never geared up or positioned to invade and hold western Ukraine on a long-term basis. The situation on the ground suggested their strategy was to move in, destroy military targets, and disrupt the Ukrianian government’s ability to counter their offensive in the east while they established better control of the Donbass regions. This is essentially what they did and to that point, the Russians were successful. Russian forces are concentrated behind a relatively stable front that resembles the political boundaries of the breakaway regions that voted to join Russia. Most of the conflict is along this front and Russian strikes in western Ukraine are limited mostly to military and infrastructure targets. Would Russia have preferred a topple of the existing government in Kiev so that can better dictate the terms of future governments and relations? Of course. But things did not go that way and there is no good reason to believe a negotiation could not take place right now based on some non-existing aspiration of Russia to conquer Ukraine.

There is a vicious circle aspect to this entire situation of which everyone must be aware if we want to effectively break the cycle and avoid potential catastrophe derived from too much escalation. Russia’s offensive actually serves the interests of the war hawks in the West in some ways, which is contrary to Russia’s stated goal of limiting NATO’s aggressive posture towards Russia. But as indicated earlier, the offensive was primarily a result of perceived increases in NATO’s aggression. So while NATO publicly laments Russia’s actions, they are busily not allowing this crisis to go to waste by rapidly expanding/shifting structures in ways they could not have without such an impetus. Defense Secretary Austin summarizes, “Almost a year after Russia’s imperial invasion of Ukraine, NATO is more unified and more resolute than ever. We are determined to stand with Ukraine’s brave defenders for as long as it takes, and we are also determined to protect every inch of NATO territory. Putin’s flagrant aggression has changed the security environment for every member of this alliance and for countries around the world. You could see the scope of the global response again yesterday, when some 50 nations of goodwill gathered for the ninth meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. And these challenges were an important part of this NATO ministerial. We talked today about how to ensure that NATO remains prepared to confront the dangers ahead. At the Madrid Summit in June, NATO leaders agreed on a fundamental shift in our collective defense and deterrence. We are strengthening our capabilities for the long term to deter and defend against all threats across all domains. We’re upgrading our defense plans and putting more forces at higher levels of readiness. Today we discussed the progress that we’ve made since Madrid and our ongoing work as we move towards the Vilnius summit in July. In Vilnius, our leaders will agree on a new defense investment pledge to ensure that the alliance has the resources to carry out these new plans. We had productive conversations about that pledge and we look forward to working with our valued allies to ensure that we all do even more to invest in our shared security. We also discussed our progress in building up ammunition stockpiles and boosting defense industrial capacity. And NATO allies have dug deep over the past year, and both President Biden and I are deeply grateful. But we still have much more to do. Even as we rush to support Ukraine in the critical months ahead, we must all replenish our stockpiles to strengthen our deterrence and defense for the long term.”

Ukraine needs shiny new American Schwickers to counter Russia’s famous Pinflicketers.

Russia, being put in a “damned if they do, damned if they do not” situation, is certainly going to act in a manner that at least increases their strategic positioning while they take a pummeling in the international community. Territory increases and strategic relations/positioning around the world less dependent upon western-dominated systems may be their biggest wins coming out of this. The writing is on the wall for a protracted, bloody stalemate in this conflict if both sides stubbornly refuse to negotiate for peaceful reconciliation that includes some kind of neutrality agreement for Ukraine, new non-aggression pacts (including Russia, Ukraine, US, NATO signatories), recognition of the will of the Donbass and Crimean people, the possibility of more autonomy for other Ukrainian regions that may seek it, resumption of normal trade relations, redevelopment commitments, etc. Only rational action and recognition of logical, mutually applicable principles can break the vicious cycle of escalation. But both sides must want it.

Potential Escalation and the Battlefield Reality

There is another alternative that is even worse than stalemate in this conflict and both the Russians and the West have acknowledged it and made attempts to deter it, however the threat looms. While there can be no doubt this is a proxy war between NATO and Russia, both sides have been careful not to directly engage the other, which may trigger escalation up to and including WWIII/nuclear warfare. NATO military assistance to Ukraine has been expanded to almost its conceivable limit of “non-interference.” Defense Secretary Austin reiterated NATO’s open options however referencing North Atlantic Treaty Article V; “We will not be drawn into Putin’s war of choice. But we will never waver in carrying out NATO’s preeminent task. And that task is to defend this great alliance’s people and their territory. America’s commitment to that core mission is unflinching. America’s commitment to Article 5 is ironclad. And we’re proud to work alongside our NATO allies to defend the forces of freedom and to build a safer world.” Nevermind the irony of that statement given there would likely be zero threat from Russia had NATO simply remained within its logical sphere. The focus here is on article 5. The North Atlantic Treaty, signed 4 April 1949 in Washington D.C., Article 5 states,

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

Putin, for his part, indicated in his speech a year ago a similar warning regarding too much outside interference, “Now a few important, very important words for those who may be tempted to intervene in ongoing events. Whoever tries to hinder us, and even more so to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.”

When asked by a reporter how NATO will support Ukraine during the anticipated Russian spring offensive given Ukraine’s many challenges and vulnerabilities, Defense Secretary Austin responded, “What we’re seeing from Russia is Russia is — continues to pour large numbers of additional people into the fight. And those people are ill-trained and ill-equipped. And because of that, we see them incurring a lot of casualties. And we’ll probably continue to see that going forward. That’s — that’s their strength: They have a lot of people.
Our goal is to make sure that we give Ukraine additional capabilities so that they can be — not only be marginally-successful, they can be decisive on the battlefield in the — in their upcoming offensive. And so you’ve seen us move to provide Bradley fighting vehicles. You’ve seen us move to provide Strykers, Marders, Leopard tanks and a number of other things that we’re pulling together to provide them additional capability that I think will make a pretty significant difference in their counteroffensive in the spring. So we’re laser-focused on making sure that we provide a capability, and not just platforms. So for every system that we provide, we’re going to train troops on that system, but we’re also going to give them additional training on maneuver, on the integration of fires, on sustainment and on maintenance. And so with that additional capability, better-trained troops, platforms that can perform a lot better in this environment, I think they’ll have a real good chance at making a pretty significant difference on the battlefield and establishing the initiative, and being able to exploit that initiative going forward.”

Russia will likely seek to expand their front here west at least to the Donestk Oblast border to solidify control of their annexed territory
Russia will likely seek to expand their front here north to encompass all of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
Russia will likely seek to bolster control of the Crimea and the Kherson Oblast area, but may stop short of moving further east, which would threaten to leave Ukraine landlocked.

What should we do?

Question everything. As it stands now, if a politician’s lips are moving about Ukraine, he/she is probably trying to manipulate you. Nobody can say for sure what will happen in this conflict. Politicians talk tough, various interests all have different values and goals, and available information is imperfect. The course of war can likewise change in an instant. Most people want the conflict to end and justice to be served. Maybe this will happen this year, or maybe a stalemate will keep the situation unresolved well past the next election cycle (2024). Regardless, the best way to get there from where we are now, I think, is to begin negotiations with consideration for the logical security concerns of Russia, the will of the people of the annexed regions for self-determination, and the security guarantees, benefits of good governance, and reconstruction plans/economic cooperation desired by the Ukrainian people. But this will not easily happen without a massive shift in sentiment in the West, including a reckoning for the provocations that helped cause the conflict. A massive anti-war push is needed based on principle, not merely politics or cost. Candidates for office must take a strong stance against unwarranted aggression and stubborn extreme policy that seeks some sort of total victory over the opponent. Citizens must demand their elected representatives push for real diplomacy to be a condition for further security assistance. The threat of larger warfare must be taken more seriously and used as a key point in favor of deescalation. The American people inherently do not like top-down governance, bullies, or imperialism. It is time to stop our decision-makers from conducting such behavior on our behalf. A reset of international cooperation on arms control and nonproliferation is overdue, and this effort ought to coincide with this anti-war, pro-negotiation for Ukraine movement. This impacts us all. Our inaction over the decades enabled the long-standing provocations that led to this war, our actions now must impact the decision-makers who can justly end it.

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