Geoffrey Roberts: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a war of choice, not necessity

It’s possible to oppose both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the western proxy war on Russia

Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy
Picture by Global Panorama

‘Did Putin have ‘other options’ on Ukraine?’ asked Ray McGovern, ex-CIA analyst and long-time anti-war activist. His question was directed at the signatories of a recent statement in the New York Times calling for an urgent diplomatic initiative ‘to end the Russia-Ukraine war before it destroys Ukraine and endangers humanity.’

Whilst welcoming this intervention by a group of distinguished former US national security officials, McGovern queried their assumption that invading Ukraine was just one of Putin’s options in February 2022.

McGovern’s own answer to the question (in an interview with Judge Napolitano) is that Putin had no choice but to go to war to safeguard Russia’s security.

The NYT statement’s eminent signatories can speak for themselves, but McGovern’s question is a good one and merits a response from those like myself who oppose both Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western proxy war on Russia.

Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, a group of Russian Studies scholars, myself included, issued an ‘appeal’ headlined ‘End the Invasion of Ukraine Now!’:

The invasion is Putin’s war, a war of choice not necessity. The prime responsibility for the conflict, and all its sorrowful, devastating and dangerous consequences, is his.

Nothing that has happened in the last 15 months has led me to change my mind.

Ukraine’s economy has been wrecked and its society devastated by hundreds of thousands of casualties and the mass flight of millions of its citizens. In Eastern and Southern Ukraine, the homelands of millions of pro-Russian Ukrainians have been laid waste. Russia has suffered thousands of casualties, including an estimated 30,000-40,000 fatalities. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are fighting in both sides’ armies, with many millions more actively supporting either the pro-Russian or the Ukrainian nationalist cause.  Ukrainian ultra-nationalism has never been stronger, or more virulent, and both Russia and Ukraine are now much more authoritarian and repressive societies.

Russia and the West are locked in an economic and sanctions war whose price is being paid by the hundreds of millions of people struggling with sky-rocketing energy costs and inflationary food prices.  NATO continues to expand with Finland’s admission into the organisation, and Sweden is slated to follow. Never has the Western military alliance’s collaboration been so deep and far-reaching, or more dangerous. 

We are on the cusp of a renewed nuclear arms race and the threat of atomic warfare has never been greater. Arms manufacturers are coining it and Western hawks are cock-a-hoop about their long-sought-after confrontation with Russia. In academia there are calls for ‘decolonising’ Russian Studies and, even, for a McCarthyite purge of anyone who refuses to toe the anti-Russia line. The lies, distortions, manipulations, and inversions of the relentless and unrestrained propaganda war signal that the post-truth age truly has arrived, and with a vengeance.

None of this is Putin’s sole responsibility. He started the war but the West has kept it going. Without the West’s proxy war against Russia, the battles in Ukraine would have ended long ago, thereby saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Had Putin known then what we know now about the course of the war, would he have gone ahead with the invasion? I very much doubt it. I strongly suspect he would have persisted with his extant policy of militarised diplomacy. 

Initiated in late 2021, Putin’s strategy of diplomatic demands backed by the threat of military force certainly got the West’s attention. He was inundated with phone calls and visits from western leaders urging him to keep the peace. NATO and the United States stonewalled his key demands for Ukraine’s neutralisation and an end to NATO’s expansion, but they did concede the admissibility of Russia’s core principle of the indivisibility of security. There was also some negotiating progress on arms control issues. Slowly but surely the strategy was beginning to work.

When, in mid-February 2022, Putin asked his foreign minister whether Russia should continue negotiating, Lavrov replied: “I think our opportunities are far from exhausted. Negotiations should not be endless, but I think we should still continue to pursue and build on them at this point.”

Lavrov evidently believed Putin would continue his militarised diplomacy, and judging by their remarks at the Russian Federation’s Security Council on 21 February, so did other members of his inner circle, such as former President Dmitry Medvedev, the Council’s secretary, Nikolai Patrushev and the FSB’s foreign intelligence chief, Sergey Naryshkin.

That expectation was widespread in the West, too, where many astute and well-informed commentators were adamant Putin would be mad to go to war when the diplomatic game had only just begun. “Godot Likely to Arrive Before Russia Invades Ukraine” was the headline of Ray McGovern’s piece for on 22 January 2022.

A month later, Putin shocked and surprised us all by abruptly abandoning diplomacy and launching a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

My answer to McGovern’s question – what else Putin could have done? – is that he should have stuck to diplomacy. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to argue the strategy of militarised diplomacy had little chance of success. But Putin did not know that at the time, and nor do we know now that diplomacy was destined to fail. The only way to test that hypothesis would have been for Putin to continue his diplomatic offensive for a few more months. The same applies to what might have happened if Putin had taken an intermediate course of action, such as incorporating rebel Donetsk and Luhansk into the Russian Federation rather than signing mutual defence pacts with each of them as pretext for the Special Military Operation (SM0).

No war is inevitable until the moment of decision. All wars are the result of contingency and choice. On the eve of the Ukraine war, Putin had a range of available choices. We can’t be sure what any of their outcomes would have been.  All we know for certain is that the consequences of Putin’s actual choice – irrespective of the final outcome of the war – have been calamitous and potentially catastrophic.

Putin chose war because he felt it was the best choice, not because he had no alternatives.

Following publication of our ‘appeal’, I put on my historian’s hat and set out to explore the reasons for Putin’s momentous decision to go to war. I concluded he went to war to prevent Ukraine from becoming an ever-stronger and threatening NATO bridgehead on Russia’s borders. The invasion was a preventative action designed to nip in the bud a dire, future threat from a heavily armed, ultra-nationalistic Ukraine that, with NATO’s help, would seek to recover Crimea and the Donbass by force. 

My surmise is that what tipped the balance of his calculations in favour of military action was Zelensky’s inflammatory speech to the Munich Security Conference on 19 February 2022 in which he threatened Ukrainian re-acquisition of nuclear weapons.

As I also noted in my article, some pro-Russia supporters have attempted to shore up the case for war by claiming Ukraine’s armed forces were actively preparing a major attack on the Donbass. However, there is no convincing evidence for this hypothesis and it is not a justification that Putin himself has used. It was a preventative war that Putin launched at the end of February 2022, not a pre-emptive strike.

Explanation is not the same as justification. While Putin may see his invasion of Ukraine as a necessary, defensive act, we don’t have to accept his rationalisations. Moreover, we are entitled to judge his action by its results as well as its motivations and intentions.

The only valid moral-political justification for war is necessity. Putin’s decision-making failed that test because a fundamental threat to Russian security in the form of a powerful NATO enclave in Ukraine was emergent but not yet fully formed. His fears about Ukrainian nuclear rearmament were authentic but they were also exaggerated: it is far from clear the West would have been a willing accomplice of Zelensky’s nuclear ambitions given Ukraine’s commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Above all, the possibilities of a negotiated solution to the Ukrainian crisis had not been exhausted when he decided to invade. There was time and scope for the continuation of diplomacy. 

Sticking to peace entailed its own risks and costs, notably NATO’s continued military build-up in Ukraine, but going to war was hardly a risk-free option.

Paradoxically, the person who started the Ukraine war may also be our best hope for ending it and securing a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was not so much an abandonment of militarised diplomacy as its radicalisation. Putin went to war to force Ukraine and the West to concede what they had refused to negotiate. As the abortive Istanbul peace talks of spring 2022 show, he came tantalisingly close to success in the form of a deal with Ukraine that could have ended the war before it really got going. Reportedly, those talks were curtailed by Ukraine at the West’s behest, but that is no excuse for Putin’s miscalculations in launching the SMO, the over-estimation of his own military forces and the under-estimation of Ukrainian resilience and of Western resolve.

The longer the war goes on the bigger will be the price of peace for Ukraine in terms of its statehood and lost territories. But, remarkably, Putin remains open to diplomacy and to a negotiated end to the war, providing the terms meet Russia’s security requirements and protect the interests of pro-Russian Ukrainians.

Currently, the prospects for peace are depressingly dismal, but as the contingencies of the war change, so, too, will the range of feasible human choices, hopefully in a direction that leads to a ceasefire and then to the kind of diplomatic settlement that could and should have prevented the conflict in the first place.

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