Is there a justification for Putin’s war? | Ukraine

Nazis, genocide, NATO, history: Russia has no shortage of apparent justifications for its war in Ukraine.

But are any of them valid? Were Russian speakers in danger in the east of the country? Is NATO expansion a material threat to Moscow? Were there neo-Nazi cliques running amok in Ukraine?

We assess whether Russia’s claims justify the invasion of a sovereign country.

Allegation: NATO surrounded Russia, directly threatening Russian security, despite assurances it would not

Since 1991, NATO has absorbed 11 Eastern European countries and three former Soviet republics. Even before Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, Russia took a dim view of this. Some say assurances were given to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would not move an inch further east after German reunification in 1990. But it is highly contested.


Russia’s logic here is shaped by history. “The Russian historical view is that every hundred years or so there is an invasion from the west,” said Tomas Ries, associate professor at Sweden’s National Defense University.

“From a Russian military point of view, I can understand that they were worried when NATO was expanded,” he said, adding, however: “The problem with this argument is that nobody, in his wildest dreams, cannot imagine the West attacking Russia”.

Then there is the position of the newly independent states that have joined NATO. “It wasn’t NATO trying to expand, it was countries knocking on the door telling us to let us in,” Ries said. “From our worldview, these are small countries that have good reason to be afraid of Russia.”

Ukrainian pro-EU activists wave flags in Independence Square in Kiev on December 11, 2013. Photography: Sergei Grits/AP

Was Russia right to fear Ukraine joining NATO? Not really, said Kristin Bakke, professor of political science at UCL. “For a long time, NATO support membership in Ukraine was around 30-40%,” she notes, adding that many more people just wanted to stay neutral.

It was only last year that polls showed that more than half of Ukrainians wanted to join NATO. And by the time 100,000 Russian troops amassed on the border, that number had risen to almost 60%.

Claim: The West orchestrated the removal of a democratically elected Ukrainian president in 2014, which deepened the crisis

It was Viktor Yanukovych’s surprising flight, after weeks of protests in Kyiv by pro-Western protesters in 2014, that accelerated the crisis in Ukraine.

Then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych speaks with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, December 17, 2013.
Then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych speaks with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, December 17, 2013. Photography: Kommersant Photo/Kommersant/Getty Images

Yanukovych favored closer ties with Russia. Protesters in Maidan Square in central Kiev wanted Ukraine to join the EU. Western powers understandably sympathized with the protesters, but there is no evidence that the move was anything more than an expression of displeasure with an unpopular leader.

“I had friends on Maidan,” said Gustav Gessel, a member of the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations. “It was neither a rally of Nazis, nor made by the CIA. It started as a student demonstration.

Allegation: The Ukrainian side is responsible for the failure of the Minsk peace process

After Russia seized Crimea and backed a secessionist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 following Yanukovych’s withdrawal, some sort of peace deal was struck in Minsk, mediated by the Franco -German.

The agreement provided for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and a constitutional reform granting some autonomy to the republics of Donbass seeking to secede.

But implementation has been uneven, with violations on both sides. International observers had difficulty gaining access to the breakaway republics. Valerie Morkevičius, an expert in conflict ethics at Colgate University in New York, said Ukraine had embarked on a process of decentralization, but not to the extent foreseen by the Minsk Agreement. “Ukrainians say that would have privileged Donbass over the rest of Ukraine,” she said.

An anti-war protester in Moscow
An anti-war protester in Moscow last month. Photography: Kommersant Photo Agency/Rex/Shutterstock

But she added that the Minsk agreement also provided for the withdrawal of all foreign military forces from the region. “Russia never did, but kept denying their forces were there.”

Claim: Donbass residents needed to be saved from ‘genocide’

It smells of genocide“, Putin said in 2015, noting the unresolved conflict in the east. Until last month’s invasion, Putin insisted that the people of Donbass needed military intervention to prevent their annihilation.

There is no evidence on this. About 14,000 people were killed on both sides during the 2014 war (in an area then numbering about 4 million people). But the deaths slowed to a trickle in the stalemate that followed. And all along, says Morkevičius, “there was no indication that Ukraine was targeting people because they were Russian-speaking.”

Map of Donbass

“The Russians say there was a genocide against the Russian population, and there is no proof of that,” Ries added.

Claim: Russian language and cultural heritage was being erased from present-day Ukraine

It is a misunderstanding of Ukraine to imagine it divided in two with Russian speakers in the east and Ukrainian speakers in the west. In fact, most people speak both languages. And there are a multitude of other languages ​​also protected by law.

A new law introduced in 2019 requiring the use of Ukrainian in public life and secondary education has been seen as anti-Russian in Moscow. It sets Ukrainian language quotas for a range of cultural productions and is not universally popular.

“It encourages the use of Ukrainian, but Russian can still be used whenever a citizen requests it,” Morkevičius said.

“Now Russian is only available as a primary language in primary school, so one could point that out and say that’s not entirely fair,” she added. “But in terms of a reason to go to war, it’s not a just cause and there’s no proportionality there.”

Claim: Ukraine is ruled by drugged neo-Nazis and must be denazified

“There are neo-Nazis in Ukraine but they are not in power, just like there are neo-Nazis in Germany but they are not in power,” Gessel said. The extreme right occupies less than 1% of the seats in parliament. The president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is a Russian-speaking centrist of Jewish origin.

Neo-Nazi concern almost certainly stems from the reputation of some of the volunteer brigades that fought separatists during the 2014 war, such as the Azov Battalion, which had far-right affiliations. These have since been integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a Russian-speaking centrist of Jewish origin.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a Russian-speaking centrist of Jewish origin. Photo: Ukrainian Presidential News Service/Reuters

Putin’s theme of fascists running amok in Ukraine is almost certainly a ploy to rekindle glorious memories of the “great patriotic war.” “World War II is a very important part of Putin’s narrative,” Bakke said. “He uses the victory to mobilize people. In Ukraine at the time, there were nationalist groups fighting for Ukrainian independence against the Soviets. They came to be seen as aligned with the Nazis.

When it comes to being a drug addict, while Ukraine has relatively high rates of opiate abuse, UN data shows it’s no worse than Russia.

Claim: When it comes to invading sovereign countries, the West cannot lecture Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made comments to this effect on the eve of the war in Ukraine, fulminating against Western hypocrisy.

“It’s a tricky position for the west,” Ries said. “It is true that the United States and NATO have used force when they felt the need. Sometimes it was justified, like in the Balkans in 1995, but sometimes it was very suspicious, like in Iraq. From the Russian perspective, I can see how they can make this argument.

Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. And while there are similarities between Iraq and Ukraine – invasion of sovereign territory, spurious justification, large-scale civilian death, no clear endgame plan – there are also differences.

“Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a democratically elected leader who has not committed human rights abuses,” Bakke said. “What’s also different is President Putin’s stated rejection of Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state.”

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