Frustrated at the Biden administration’s failure to articulate and implement a clear path for peace in Ukraine, I wrote this opinion piece for The Hill: Preventing Putin from using nuclear weapons. Just as this piece was going live, the world’s richest person, Elon Musk, was getting feedback on his own peace plan. Wouldn’t that be a fascinating twist: if Elon Musk helps the world avoid nuclear war!
Image source: Author: Viewsridge, Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016. Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map / Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed relief map
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I appreciate your writing in this piece, but I think it misses the mark on Putin's real "beef". To be sure, there has been a proxy war between Russia and the United States for MANY years, and the Ukrainian situation is merely the latest installment of that conflict.
However, the request by Ukraine to join NATO was merely a pretense to do what Putin had started 7 years previously in his annexation of Crimea, and that is to reincorporate former Soviet blocs into Putin's vision of a new Russian empire with him at the helm.
To be sure, Putin is understandably nervous and unhappy about the extensions of NATO membership in recent years to former members of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, but he has himself to blame for much of it. Many of the eastern European countries that have joined have only done so out of self-preservation and a perceived need to "choose sides" when caught in the real squeeze on the European continent as the United States and Russia battle for economic, military, and political supremacy. While the United States has used the expansion of NATO as its tool du jeur, Russia has used its energy exports as both carrot and stick to force acceptance (or at least acquiescence) by smaller European neighbors of Moscow's (or more correctly, Putin's) influence.
The ascension of China as a true global power has Putin, and by way of extension the rest of Russia, feeling hemmed in, because it dramatically weakens Russia's ability to exert influence in the Far East while putting a powerful (and expansionist) neighbor on Russia's eastern doorstep. Putin must rightly be concerned about Chinese ambitions in the region, because there is a real history between the two countries that has not always militated in Russia's favor.
The United States IS largely responsible for the current Ukrainian situation, but it has less to do with its championing of Ukraine as a NATO member and more as a result of the very tepid American response to Putin's actions with regard to Crimea 8 years ago. It is very analogous to the disastrous "appeasement policy" that Europe and the United States adopted in a vain attempt to prevent Hitler from launching his war of aggression. Such a policy taught Hitler that as long as he made small moves, he could steal a great amount of land without triggering a land war with the rest of Europe. In Ukraine, Putin saw the inaction of America when he made the grab for Crimea, and he assumed nothing would happen if he were to grab the rest of Ukraine - he calculated the Ukrainian military would fold quickly, much as it had in 2014, and by the time the United States and Europe thought to mount any type of response, he would already be in control of the country. He judged (rightly) that neither the United States nor its European allies would have any stomach for a direct military conflict with Russia over Ukraine, but he made serious misjudgments in several areas. Most significantly, he sorely misjudged the tenacity and fierceness with which the Ukrainians have fought; he overestimated the ability of his military to swiftly conclude hostilities; he underestimated the extent to which the United States and others would furnish advanced weaponry, supplies, and intelligence that has proven deadly and highly effective; and he miscalculated the degree of European resolve to implement and hold the course on such a vast array of political and economic sanctions that have done grave damage to the Russian economy. He gambled that while its initial response might be harsh, the European community would and could not risk the consequences of a Russian energy embargo that would surely happen in retaliation for sanctions. He has been proven seriously wrong in this regard.
I think it's too easy to oversimplify the reasons behind the current Ukrainian conflict, and while the NATO membership application of Ukraine might have been the excuse and trigger for Putin's recent invasion, it was also merely a pretense for his not-so-thinly veiled intentions for the region stretching back many years.