When Russia’s President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, he wanted his neighboring country’s “de-Nazification, de-militarization and its neutrality” with regard to his strategic tussle with the West.
The invasion followed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s refusal to give up the demand for his country to be a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and acknowledge bordering Donbas’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states.
Zelenskyy no longer wants to be part of the US-dominated military alliance whose expansion in eastern Europe had rattled Putin. Zelenskyy is also willing to be neutral, and discuss the future of Luhansk and Donetsk (read their embracing of the Russian Federation).
But the concessions have come only after huge costs: cities wrecked, thousands dead, and millions displaced.
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The idea is not to lay the blame, in any way, at the door of a country that’s the victim of the worst military aggression in Europe since World War II. However, a scrutiny of actions and statements leading up to the invasion, and those even in the middle of war, shows two things:
- Zelenskyy’s overconfidence that Nato would fight on Ukraine’s behalf in the event of an invasion by Russia.
- And Nato was never willing to make Ukraine’s its member, a prerequisite for Western forces to directly join any war against Russia.
Let’s first go back to 2008 when then US President George W Bush pushed for putting Ukraine on Membership Action Plan (MAP), an essential step towards becoming a Nato member.
The military alliance promised its membership to Ukraine “one day”. But Germany and France blocked the move. This is crucial because NATO grants membership only by unanimous consent.
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Germany and France insisted that Ukraine must meet the eligibility criteria. A European nation must show a commitment to democracy, individual liberty and support for the rule of law.
Some American and European officials felt Ukraine had not yet met the threshold. But the crux of the matter was: Nato membership to Ukraine would increase friction with Russia.
In 2014, Putin annexed Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimea peninsula, saying he needed to save its population frightened under the rule of ultra-nationalists. This was after violent clashes between pro-Western protesters and the security forces in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv led to the ousting of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government.
It was around the same time that protests by ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people erupted in Donbas against ultra-nationalist Ukrainian forces. Russia-backed rebels captured portions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Ukraine launched a military counter-offensive, saying pro-Russian forces in Donbas were terrorists.
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Ukraine could regain significant territory and came close to controlling the border areas, prompting an offensive by Russia that said there were genocides in Donbas. Ukraine alleged a “stealth invasion” of Donbas by Russia, while the Kremlin continued to deny the presence of its forces in Ukraine.
It became even more difficult for Nato to consider its membership to Ukraine whose territories had already been under direct or indirect Russian occupation.
Joe Biden, then US vice-president, had told Ukraine in 2014 that any US military support would be small, if given at all. “You have to first fight the cancer of corruption endemic in your system [before discussing the Nato membership question],” Biden had told Ukrainian officials.
Then US President Barack Obama, in fact, encouraged Ukraine to become part of the European Union rather than try to join Nato.
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The military alliance remained unwilling to consider its membership to Ukraine to avoid greater Russian hostility. Before his 2014 invasions of Ukraine, Putin had invaded Georgia. His message was clear: Nato membership to these two countries will mean a Russia-West war.
When Zelenskyy became president in 2019, he continued to follow a policy of de-Russification of Ukraine. For years, Ukraine’s capital was spelt as Kiev (Russian). Zelenskyy moved to change the spelling to Kyiv (Ukrainian). Several signposts, earlier in Russian, were also changed.
In February 2021, Zelenskyy shut down television channels controlled by Putin’s aide and Ukrainian oligarch Vikor Medvedchuk for pushing a pro-Kremlin narrative. Next month, Zelenskyy asked Nato for Ukraine to be admitted quickly. There was no response.
In November 2021, when Putin started bolstering his military presence along Ukraine’s border, Zelenskyy targeted another Russia-backed oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, for trying to stage a coup.
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Zelenskyy was in no mood to give in to Putin’s neutrality demand or acknowledge Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states. He banked on Nato.
The invasion happened and Zelenskyy’s demand for Nato membership was still unmet. But Zelenskyy was still hopeful.
When the West offered to evacuate Zelenskyy, he said, “I need ammunition and not a ride.” Ammunition was anyway coming, what he meant was direct military participation.
Zelenskyy made repeated calls for Nato to declare a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine. In other words, he wanted the US and other forces to take on Russia’s fighter aircraft if they entered Ukrainian airspace. His calls were ignored. Sending military aid is one thing, a “no-fly” zone is quite another. It would be a Russia versus West war.
Zelenskyy also tried to threaten the West that if Nato did not come, Russia would not stop at Ukraine, and there would be World War III. He also attempted to shame the West into “action” by saying, “They are scared of Russia and watching it all from afar.” Neither worked.
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All Zelenskyy got was admiration for his bravery from the West that imposed sanctions on Russian government entities, businesses, and oligarchs in retaliation, besides pumping military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Nato did not come.
This is more because the US has not been keen on Nato’s further expansion because of its experience in the two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even George W Bush’s push for Ukraine’s Nato membership had come despite reservations from US intelligence agencies.
In June 2021, Biden said at Nato headquarters in Brussels that “school is out on that question” when asked if Ukraine could join the defense alliance.
In September, a couple of months before Putin started sending troops on Ukraine’s border before the invasion, Zelenskyy met Biden and said he wanted to discuss Ukraine’s Nato membership issue.
Biden did not even respond to that.
As Putin has now promised to scale down his military operations, with many of his conditions met, Zelenskyy, a former comedian and actor, looks like a man who had a Nato-march movie playing out in his head all along, while politics was unfolding around him.