Tony Wood | Matrix of War | excerpts

"Sufficiently aware of Russian concerns to hold back from offering Ukraine and Georgia an immediate path to membership, the Bush administration overrode French and German misgivings to insist that the process would advance all the same. This left the two aspirant states in a waiting room, with none of the supposed benefits of membership, while continuing to amplify Russian concerns. Imposed by Washington from the safe distance of 5,000 miles, this policy course knowingly placed the populations of Georgia and Ukraine in danger, a shameful strategic calculation for which only non-NATO members have so far been made to pay the price."
[emphasis mine: kjl]
The Kremlin bears the responsibility for unleashing this war, and regardless of the outcome it will carry a heavy moral burden for the destruction it has already caused. Amid a broad surge of sympathy for Ukraine and condemnation of Putin - briefly expressed in Russia too, by a burst of spontaneous anti-war demonstrations - the drive by the US and its allies to punish and ostracize the current regime has gathered pace. But justifiable outrage and the immediate demands of solidarity with Ukrainians should not be allowed to shut out larger questions of historical responsibility. As the most powerful bloc in a decades-long geopolitical contest over Ukraine, the US and its NATO allies necessarily played a role in shaping the context for the invasion, just as inter-imperial rivalries in the Belle Epoque set the stage for the descent into war in August 1914. Any analysis that confines itself to Russia's actions alone, or that looks no further than the inside of Putin's head, is at best a one-sided delusion, and at worst willfully distorts the facts.

A clear understanding requires us to keep in view three interwoven strands of analysis: firstly, Ukraine's own internal development and priorities since 1991; second, the advance of NATO and the EU into the strategic vacuum left in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War; and third, Russia's trajectory from post-Soviet decline to national reassertion. The clashes and confluences of these three dynamics produced the broader context in which Russia then committed its act of aggression.
(pp. 1-2)

Russia’s precipitous collapse as a great power in the 1990s was not only the cause of social and economic disaster on the domestic front. It was also the enabling condition for a wholesale strategic realignment of Eastern Europe. The dismantling of the Warsaw Pact was not matched, as the Soviet leadership had naively hoped, by a symmetrical winding down of NATO.15 On the contrary, the withdrawal of Soviet military power provided an opportunity that Washington was determined not to pass up. When the US threatened to torpedo the process of German reunification unless it took place within NATO, the Soviets did not insist on neutrality.16 With Soviet retreat leaving the sole superpower in command of the field, Eastern European leaders were quick to press their cases for NATO membership, the Visegrád Group—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland—jointly declaring it their goal in 1992. By 1994 Clinton was announcing on a visit to Poland that the admission of new members to the alliance was ‘no longer a question of whether, but when and how.’17 The few voices of opposition to NATO expansion in Washington—including George Kennan, architect of containment—were ignored, their concerns over provoking Russia and the hesitation of the US’s NATO allies dismissed. Military considerations were set aside on the grounds that ‘the possibility that Poland or the Czech Republic would actually need defending seemed remote.’18 Indeed the main reason NATO expansion could gather such momentum was precisely because Russia was not a threat. That momentum was sustained into the 2000s: after the Visegrád Group joined in 1999, seven more countries—the Baltic States plus Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia—did so in 2004, followed by Albania and Croatia in 2009. 
Yet while the expansion was fundamentally premised on Russia’s weakness, it also initially required a shield of ambiguity to soften the blow for Moscow, and in particular to avoid harming Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election bid. The US pursued a two-track policy in which Russian collaboration with NATO was encouraged but aspirations to actual membership deflected. For Russian strategists, however, the question of NATO's ultimate purpose lingered: if the Alliance was not directed against Russia, why shouldn’t Russia join it? The aspiration itself stemmed from the prevalence in the foreign-policy thinking of the time of a ‘Westernizing’ line, seeking closer integration with the West and the creation of a common security architecture, ‘from Vancouver to Vladivostok’ in the phrase used in 1991 by the US and German foreign ministers, and echoed by their Russian peer Andrei Kozyrev.19 This line continued to predominate well into Putin’s reign. In 2000 he even proposed Russian membership in NATO and reaffirmed Russia’s place as ‘part of European culture.’20 Western approval for his war on Chechnya in 1999 was matched by Russian support for Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11. But Russian hopes for a deeper partnership, let alone a redrawing of the global security architecture, were confounded. In the second half of the 2000s, indeed, evidence mounted that Russian and Western interests were fundamentally incompatible—and events in Ukraine would play a central role both in revealing and in deepening that incompatibility.
(pp. 7-8)
14 Figures from Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity.
15 ‘Let’s disband both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Let’s release your allies and ours’, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze suggested to US Secretary of State James Baker in September 1989: quoted in M. E. Sarotte, Not One Inch: America, Russia and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, New Haven 2021, p. 29.
16 Sarotte, Not One Inch, Chs 2 and 3.
17 Sarotte, Not One Inch, p. 191; see also James Goldgeier, Not Whether But When:
The US Decision to Enlarge NATO
, Washington DC 1999.
18 Goldgeier, Not Whether But When, p. 142.
19 Sarotte, Not One Inch, p. 128.
20 ‘Putin Says “Why Not?” to Russia Joining NATO’, Washington Post, 6 March 2000.
Alongside moves to integrate more closely with the EU, Yushchenko stepped up Ukraine’s push for full NATO membership. At the time, there was no popular mandate for such a course, and the Ukrainian constitution barred foreign military bases.25 But the Ukrainian government’s aspiration was approved at NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008, together with that of Georgia. The official communique stated flatly that ‘these countries will become members of NATO.’26 But the process was shorn of an explicit timeline in the face of objections to Ukrainian or Georgian membership from Putin. This was a key turning point, and one where the historically culpable role of the US in driving NATO expansion needs to be emphasized. Sufficiently aware of Russian concerns to hold back from offering Ukraine and Georgia an immediate path to membership, the Bush administration overrode French and German misgivings to insist that the process would advance all the same. This left the two aspirant states in a waiting room, with none of the supposed benefits of membership, while continuing to amplify Russian concerns. Imposed by Washington from the safe distance of 5,000 miles, this policy course knowingly placed the populations of Georgia and Ukraine in danger, a shameful strategic calculation for which only non-NATO members have so far been made to pay the price.

NATO’s assumption may well have been that Russia would simply have to swallow the next round of expansion as it had previous ones. But Russia’s temporary powerlessness to oppose the alliance’s growth in the 1990s was not the same as permanent acquiescence, and NATO planners surely foresaw that a reaction of some kind would sooner or later take place. It came barely four months after the Bucharest gathering, in the form of the Russo-Georgian War. Though it lasted a matter of days, the August 2008 war set a pattern that would be followed in Ukraine in 2014. Justified by the Kremlin in terms of a humanitarian ‘responsibility to protect’—turning previous Western rhetoric against it—Russia’s intervention effectively solidified internal divisions into ‘frozen’ separatist conflicts that were clearly intended to serve as a block on full NATO membership. At the same time, the Russo-Georgian war highlighted the Kremlin’s lack of means of persuasion other than force, which thereafter increasingly became one tool of foreign policy among others—a dangerous lowering of the threshold for the use of military power. Yet while Russia’s stance had visibly altered, the broader parameters of us policy remained the same, rendering further clashes all but inevitable.
(pp. 10-11)
25 Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, Cambridge MA 2015, p. 39.
26 ‘Bucharest Summit Declaration’, 3 April 2008.
Five weeks in, it remains to be seen what the future course of the war will be. The worst possible scenario, involving full-scale war between the NATO powers and Russia, has not yet materialized. But the longer the war continues, the higher the possibility of an escalation with potentially catastrophic consequences. Biden’s belligerent assertion on a visit to Poland in late March that Putin ‘cannot remain in power’ increased the prospects of such an outcome. Already plainly implied by the West’s
coordinated economic warfare, unprecedented in its scale, regime change has now been explicitly, if unofficially, posited as the goal of US policy.

A second scenario would be a military defeat for Russia, with a combination of sanctions and US and European weapons shipments helping not just to stem the Russian advance but to force a retreat without any peace agreement. This seems unlikely in itself—the sheer size of the Russian military means they can continue to fight for some time given the political will—and in the absence of a peace settlement would amount to no more than a temporary respite for Ukraine.

A third possibility, and the most disastrous for Ukraine, is the indefinite prolongation of the conflict, with the vastly larger Russian army facing off against Ukrainian forces being constantly rearmed by the US and European powers. The result would be to make Ukraine the site of a relentless proxy war, aid from the US and its allies helping to obstruct without neutralizing the destructive power of Russian arms. This is where the concerted policy of Western governments currently points, and the implications make a mockery of their apparent concerns for Ukrainians’ welfare. On 28 February, Hillary Clinton on MSNBC described Afghanistan in the 1980s as ‘the model that people are now looking toward,’ though ‘the similarities are not ones you should bank on’. The example of Syria seems no less chillingly relevant.
A fourth, less pessimistic scenario involves the swift agreement of a peace. By mid-March a new set of Russian demands had surfaced in talks between Ukrainian and Russian envoys: Ukrainian neutrality, recognition of Russian sovereignty in Crimea and of the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. In late March Ukrainian negotiators put forward a ten-point plan proposing the country adopt non-aligned and non-nuclear status, subject to a referendum, and that its security be guaranteed by a consortium of other states. Discussion of Crimea would be hived off into a separate bilateral process, and the Donbas was not mentioned. Whatever the contours of an eventual peace settlement, and for all the posturing by Washington and its allies, there seems to be broad agreement that NATO membership for Ukraine should be foreclosed. Given how little protection the possibility of NATO membership has given Ukraine, and how much NATO itself did to make the conflict more likely in the first place, the Ukrainian populace may find that an acceptable condition for peace. But with Russian forces seemingly  stalled in their advance, and US and European weapons continuing to flood in, the Ukrainian government may have diminishing incentives to accept a settlement at gunpoint, especially if they are being encouraged by their allies to believe those guns will eventually be forced to retreat. If further atrocities after those uncovered at Bucha in early April come to light, the moral case for negotiating a peace with Russia will also become even harder to make.

A fifth possibility, somewhere between the two preceding scenarios, is that a military stalemate leads not to a peace settlement but to an armed truce. On one side, Russian occupying troops may end up in control of enough territory to enforce a de facto partition, while on the other Ukrainian forces, with NATO backing, would stand emplaced behind front lines stretching over hundreds of miles. Russian moves, as of late March, to refocus military efforts on the Donbas distinctly signalled such a possibility. This would be a much larger-scale version of the fortified armistice line between North and South Korea, and would involve a permanent militarization not just of the polities on either side, but across much of Europe.
(pp. 21-23)
Wood, Tony. "Matrix of War." New Left Review, vol. 133/134, Jan./Apr. 2022, pp 1-2, pp. 7-8, pp. 10-11, pp. 21-23,