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Russia, West and the World: What Is Behind the Russian Operation in Ukraine?

This year started with a dramatic shift in the global balance of power, which was settled after the end of the Cold War in 1989 – 1991. What we see now is a strong attempt to dismantle the current one-polar international system and to replace it with a new multi-polar model. Russia challenged the pro-Western order in Europe and globally. This order was created after big waves of the NATO enlargement, which finally brought the alliance directly to the borders of Russia. At first, in 1999 Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary became new members of NATO. Then in 2004 Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and even three former Soviet republics – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, joined them. Later Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia also entered. 

The NATO jump to the East posed a serious security threat for Russia. Such policy inspired mostly by the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations was in contrary with previous promises made by U.S. government representatives who assured Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev that NATO will not make a step eastwards after the reunification of Germany. Anyway, NATO started the process of enlargement and paid no attention to Russia’s objections. 

The largest military alliance in the world history moved closer to Russia and she had no chance neither to stop it, nor to be a part of it. It meant that Moscow was artificially excluded from the European security system. In 1997 the Russian Federation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization signed the Founding Act on their relationships, which seemingly soften Russian concerns. NATO promised not to deploy nuclear weapons and permanent military bases on the territory of new members. Nevertheless, the alliance followed this document partly only. 

In 2001 the United States cancelled the ABM Treaty and soon declared the deployment of the anti-ballistic missile systems in proximity to Russian borders – in Poland and Romania. Russia protested and pointed out that the systems deployed in Eastern Europe could also be used for launching cruise missiles and therefore threaten its national security, but no result. The United States replied that all these developments were aimed to neutralize just the Iran missile program. 

Later step by step NATO started to deploy its troops near Russia. Extremely sensitive for Moscow was the alliance’s military presence in the Baltic states (one of them, Estonia, is just 130 km from St.-Petersburg, the second largest Russian city). The relations between the West and Russia deteriorated, but some episodes speeded up this process. The NATO’s move to the East inspired by the USA was just a part of the problem. There was the another one. Since the end of the Cold War the alliance and its most powerful member – the United States of America – started a number of interventions, which led to violent changing both state borders and governments. 

In March – June, 1999, NATO carried out the Operation Allied Force against Yugoslavia resulted in separation of the Kosovo district, which in 2008 declared independence. The United Nations guaranteed the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, but its Security Council resolution №1244 was ignored. The NATO aggression against Yugoslavia was the first war in Europe since 1945 and doubled Russian concerns about the European and global security. 

Soon they were tripled, when the United States decided to change the political regime in Iraq in 2003. This time NATO as an organization made an exception and did not participate because close U.S. allies such as Germany, France and Turkey refused to take part in the intervention, and even Britain fluctuated (but finally joined America). The USA built a coalition and invaded Iraq under false pretenses. They claimed that the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein develops chemical, bacteriological and nuclear weapons. Iraq was crushed without any UN sanction, brought to the bloody civil war, Saddam Hussein was hanged, and finally the U.S.-led coalition provided no evidence of their accusations against Iraq and its government. 

It is quite possible that the so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom was not a single action, but a part of an ambitious plan to transform the whole Middle East and North Africa region, which included the change of political regimes, pseudo-democratization and taking control of the regional natural resources. Such conclusions could be made after the analysis of the further steps of the U.S. government and its allies. In 2010 – 2011 the period of political turmoil started in many Arab countries. Initial reasons for this dramatic processes were of social and economic character, but the United States tried to take advantage of the situation. As a result, NATO intervened to Libya and as in Iraq plunged this country into the abyss of a civil war (Muammar Gaddafi shared the fate of the Iraqi leader). 

By 2011 for Russia it was crystal clear that the United States and its NATO allies will follow the policy of global dominance regardless the United Nations and the opinion of many members of international community. But that was half the trouble, because the USA conducted more and more provocative policy towards Russia itself in its neighborhood. In April 2008 at the NATO Bucharest summit the alliance invited two former Soviet republics – Georgia and Ukraine – to be its members. Four months later, in August, the Georgian army prepared by U.S. specialists launched a surprise attack at the Russian peacekeeping forces stationed at South Ossetia that was led to the «five days war». 

Even a more dangerous situation has arisen in Ukraine when the United States provoked and supported the coup d’état in 2014. The legal Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych was forced to flee and was within a hair’s breadth from meeting the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi. The new government of Ukraine immediately appealed to NATO to become its member, banned the use of the Russian language in state bodies (most of the Ukrainians speak it in everyday life) and threatened to punish those Ukrainian citizens in Crimea and southeastern part of the country who refused to recognize its authority. Considering that the ethnic Russians make up about 75 percent of the Crimean population, Russia made a decision to perform a special operation for taking control over the Crimean Peninsula and organized a referendum as a result of which Crimea decided to join the Russian Federation. 

Actually, it saved Crimea from the horrors of civil war, which came to the southeastern Ukraine (known as Donbass) in April 2014. The conflict ended with the Minsk agreements signed in 2014 and 2015. They provided the broad autonomy of the Donbass region, but their implementation was delayed due to the fault of Ukraine. Instead of looking for peaceful solutions, Ukraine backed by the United States headed for NATO and began to turn into the U.S. outpost near the Russian borders (just around 550 km from Moscow). 

Since 2014 Russia tried to change this unfavorable situation, and occasionally launched counterattacks. One of them was a successful attempt to stop the U.S. regime change policy in the Middle East and resulted in the Russian operation in Syria. Thereby the Syrian Arab Republic was the first country after the end of the Cold War, where the United States failed to overthrow the government. Nevertheless, the USA and its NATO allies continued to concentrate forces in Eastern Europe along the Russian borders and incite Ukraine to sabotage the Minsk agreements on Donbass. A part of this policy was constant artillery bombardment of the Donbass cities, especially Donetsk. 

Russia made an attempt to negotiate with the United States and NATO a possible formula for conflict-free relations in December, 2021. It sent to Washington and Brussels her proposals on security guarantees. Finally, almost all of them were rejected. The USA and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization refused to guarantee the Ukraine non-entry to NATO. Such developments left Russia with a choice: either to accept a new NATO enlargement and further deployment of the alliance military infrastructure along the Russian western borders, or protect its national interests. 

Finally, Russia decided to start a special military operation in Ukraine. Of course, this decision made by Moscow could lead to fundamental changes. After what happened the balance of power between Russia and the West will never be the same. Moreover, all that is going in Ukraine affects not the European continent only. It is a challenge to the unjust world order based on the interests of one superpower and its closest allies. 

It is important that Russia is not alone in this challenge. She is accompanied by a group of overt and covert allies. Those states, which also would like to break up the pro-Western global order and create a new one where their interests will be taken into account. For instance, China supports Russia diplomatically and informationally, because it has its own Taiwan story. If Russia proves that the West could be overturned, Beijing uses its chance to unify the country and strengthen its geopolitical positions in Asia Pacific. 

But let alone China, many countries in Asia, Latin America and Europe (especially in the Balkans) are carefully watching who wins. And will update their foreign policy and strategy to the new international reality. So, the Russian military operation in Ukraine is mostly an attempt to break the U.S. global domination and create a just and fair system of international relatons with transparent and obligatory international rules, which will not depend on selfish desires and interests of the sole superpower anymore. 

Dr. Aleksey Pilko
Director of the Eurasian Center Former Associate Professor at the Moscow State University

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