Understand the complex origins of the Russia-Ukraine War
Special to Stars and Stripes May 4, 2022
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Secretary of State Antony Blinken arm-wrestled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 26 over the question of whether Russia invaded Ukraine due to security fears or due to their view that Ukraine had no right to be a sovereign country.
Paul emphasized that NATO has been moving increasingly eastward since 1991, as countries ranging from Romania to Latvia have joined NATO. This movement east, he said, was threatening to Russia. Blinken emphasized that Russian President Vladimir Putin's speeches and writings have made it clear that Putin thinks that Ukraine has always been a part of Russia; and that this military operation was needed to undo the political independence Ukraine achieved in 1991.
These two perspectives are not like two arguments for and against the $15 minimum wage. The two perspectives are much more complicated and are not actually arguments for or against a policy perspective. They may even be two sides of the same coin.
The Paul perspective is concerned to show how the prospect of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO is threatening to Russia. The threat need not literally be a feeling that Ukraine, with NATO backing, will invade Russia. Rather, the threat makes the Russians feel closed in by democratic countries that oppose their way of life.
The Russians have a history of feeling closed in by other countries that oppose their way of life, notably Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic election, and Germany and Russia had a different ethos. By the late 1930s Germany and Russia were admittedly both totalitarian states. They also had a nonaggression agreement, but Hitler of course invaded Russia in 1941.
This invasion would lead Russia into what would become the most brutal series of battles in the history of warfare: 25 million deaths later the Russians won what they call "The Great Patriotic War."
Blinken firmly rejected this perspective and instead made the case that Russia denies that Ukraine is a sovereign state and still sees Ukraine as part of Russia, whether that was the Russia of the Cold War, the Russia following the Revolution of 1917 or the Russia at different points of its history in the last 1,000 years. To Blinken, rejection of sovereign identity (and desire to restore Russia's empire) and not threat of attack was the reason Putin invaded Ukraine.
Why isn't the firm belief that Ukraine does not have a sovereign identity inextricably bound up with fear that were Ukraine to join NATO this would increase Russia's age-old security fears — which actually go back to Napoleon and not just Hitler?
In short, why can't Paul and Blinken both be right — basically half right? Or a third right? Maybe there was another important factor involved in the cause of the war.
Putin himself may not have full self-knowledge why he ordered his army to invade Ukraine, as some of his motivation may be unconscious. It is well known that he felt the loss of the Soviet Union to be, as he said, "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."
Putin has led as a dictator who is humiliated by what happened to the U.S.S.R. Like China, which suffered through its "century of humiliation," Russia, certainly Putin himself, has been suffering through its 30 years of humiliation.
The search for "the" explanation of Putin's invasion of Ukraine may not have a straightforward answer. What is clear is that the invasion was unjustified from the moral point of view and the point of view of international law. Although there probably is no one cause of this war, it is still important to try to understand the various factors that led to it.
For the more we understand the complex origins of this war, the more likely Ukraine, NATO and the West in general can determine next steps each step of the way.
Dave Anderson has taught political philosophy at five universities. He is editor of the book “Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework.”