What’s Really Going on in Ukraine

by Benjamin Studebaker

Most of the people writing about the Ukraine crisis are too busy trying to prove that they are on the right side to give decent analysis of it. They are worried about appearing too friendly to either Russia or the United States, and their career concerns are crippling their ability to say anything useful. Let’s talk about what’s really going on.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded eastward:

NATO expansion has been a bi-partisan project. NATO expanded during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The Bush administration also proposed. to put a missile defense system in Poland.

Russia considers NATO to be a hostile, anti-Russian alliance. It believes that the purpose of NATO is to weaken Russia and eventually to install a pro-western government in Moscow. The Bush administration tried to reassure Russia. It claimed that the missile defense system was just about deterring Iran. But Russia did not believe that argument.

In 2005, Georgia began trying to join NATO, and at the start of 2008, a referendum was held in support of NATO membership. Russia was determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO. Georgia has two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia:

The separatist regions are friendly to Russia, and Russia guarantees the autonomy of these regions. What happened next is controversial. Russia claims that Georgia invaded South Ossetia, anticipating that America would back it up. The United States claims that Russia baited Georgia into invading South Ossetia. In any case, Russia responded by invading Georgia.

Russia did not annex Georgia and it has not annexed Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Instead, it recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Most importantly, the Russian invasion prevented Georgia from joining NATO. Russia made it clear that it was willing to fight over the issue. The United States was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, and it did not consider Georgia’s NATO status to be worth a direct confrontation with Russia. As of 2022, Georgia is still not a member of NATO.

In 2008, Ukraine’s NATO membership was also discussed. While it was decided that Ukraine and Georgia would not be admitted to NATO immediately, NATO continued to suggest that NATO membership for both countries could happen at some later point.

The Obama administration tried to cool things off. It backed out of the Bush administration’s missile defense plan and tried to “reset” relations with Russia:

Years later, in 2013, protesters in Ukraine became frustrated when the Ukrainian government abandoned an association agreement with the European Union. The Russians believe the United States actively encouraged the demonstrations. The level of US involvement is unclear, but pro-American think tanks like the Cato Institute acknowledge some level of involvement. At the very least, feelings of solidarity were expressed.

The protests toppled the Ukrainian government. The new Ukrainian government was markedly more friendly to the west. It disavowed any intention of joining NATO. But Russia was suspicious, and it decided to once again demonstrate its unwillingness to allow more Eastern European countries to become part of the west. It did this by invading and annexing Crimea–a region that is friendly to Russia–and by supporting paramilitary activity in two other regions, Donetsk and Luhansk:

The separatists were only able to establish control in part of this territory. But they have consistently held roughly the same territory since late 2014. For Russia, these separatist regions are like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They give Russia the ability to further intervene in Ukraine if Ukraine tries to strengthen its ties to the west.

This winter, energy prices increased dramatically in the west. This increases Russia’s negotiating leverage, because it supplies gas to Western Europe. Russia chose this moment to demand that the West guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO. When the Biden administration refused to make that guarantee, Russia began once again looking to make a point to show that it will not tolerate NATO expansion. It chose this moment because this is the time when Western European states will be most reluctant to sanction Russia. They need to buy Russian gas to prevent energy prices from rising even higher. Rising energy prices would only make inflation problems worse, and that in turn would make it very difficult for European leaders to win elections.

In the last week, the paramilitary groups have increased their activity in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has also formally recognized the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk it controls as independent states, and it has announced that it is moving Russian forces into those parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. If Ukraine responds by attacking the Russian forces, there could be a new version of the 2008 South Ossetian War.

But importantly, that war did not end in the annexation of Georgia or the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If Russia stages an invasion of Ukraine, it will almost certainly withdraw before the year is out. Why? The new states of Donetsk and Luhansk are small because most of Ukraine is not altogether friendly to Russia. The paramilitary groups were only able to seize control of the regions of Ukraine that could be controlled at a reasonable cost, without having to involve the whole Russian army.

The Russian army is being sent into regions that are already friendly to Russia and which Russia already controls de facto, through the paramilitary groups it supports. Sending the army into the rest of Ukraine would be expensive, and attempting to occupy the rest of Ukraine for any length of time would be cost prohibitive. The United States would almost certainly arm Ukrainian insurgents. As the Soviet Union saw in in Afghanistan in the 80s, prolonged proxy wars bleed the occupying power white. Eventually, after having spent a ton of money, the USSR was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan. The same fate befell the United States in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Even very powerful states have trouble maintaining occupations in places where the local people are not welcoming.

The paramilitary groups helped Russia figure out the degree to which it might be welcomed in Eastern Ukraine. As it turns out, there is a chunk of territory that will tolerate Russians, but it’s not a very large chunk.

At most, we will see a re-run of 2008, with Russia staging a brief invasion of Ukraine to make a point. But Russia is not foolish enough to try a lengthy occupation. There’s nothing for it to gain from that.

Ukraine can prevent a re-run of 2008 by refusing to take the bait. Georgia was invaded in part because Georgia went into South Ossetia, delusively believing that the west would come to its aid if it got into trouble. When it did get into trouble, there was no help coming. Ukraine should learn from this and keep its forces away from Donetsk and Luhansk. All the Ukrainian army can do is escalate a conflict it can’t win.

The west can prevent a re-run of 2008 by making the commitment it has refused, over and over, to make. Ukraine and Georgia cannot be admitted to NATO, because Russia is willing to fight over the issue and NATO is not. Once we admit this, we can all move on.

Most of the rest of what’s being said is propaganda for one side or the other. Russia tells its own people that the Ukrainians are fascists and that it has to rescue Russian language-speakers from a genocidal regime. The American media says that Russia is a fascist state that is trying to rebuild a lost empire. Both sides call the other “fascist”, because everyone agrees that fascism is bad. If you want your population to unquestionably back whatever it is you’re doing, you tell them that you’re doing it to stop fascism. But none of these countries are fascist. It’s a power struggle between Russia and NATO, and Ukraine is caught in the middle. For years now, both Russia and the west have tried to use a mix of carrots and sticks to get economic influence in Ukraine. It’s hard even to say what it would mean for Ukraine to decide its own fate, because Ukrainian politics is awash in foreign money. How can a state speak when all its politicians belong to somebody else? Either Ukraine will be a western puppet state, a Russian puppet state, or a buffer state. In all three cases, its independence and sovereignty will be nominal. Those who pretend otherwise just don’t get it.

I don’t like any of this any more than you do, but this is how it goes.