Guido Franzinetti – It’s the Politics, Stupid!

An historical perspective of how we got where we are today in Ukraine

Guido Franzinetti is Lecturer in History of European Territories, Department of Humanistic Studies, University of Eastern Piedmont. He has studied and worked in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Uzbekistan, Kosovo.

File:Gorbachev Bush 19900601.jpg

Photo: A work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain

The Russian-Ukrainian crisis brings together a series of historical processes, which have quite distinct dynamics.

Post-Cold War

The first is the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. There have been endless discussions on what Gorbachev was promised: NATO was not supposed to expand ‘an inch’. This is undoubtedly a good topic for diplomatic historians. But – assuming that this was a correct reading of events – it does not explain anything about the broader historical context in which NATO expansion took place.

There were two basic factors at play. First of all, West German politicians were willing to promise anything to achieve reunification (which encountered obstacles from Great Britain and France, still occupying powers). They had no qualms (initially) in promising ‘not an inch’. Secondly, the USA (after its initial hesitations, which included the ‘chicken Kiev’ episode in July 1991, when Bush Sr. came out against the prospect of an independent Ukraine) quite simply brushed aside any serious consideration of problems of a new European security framework. There was a peace dividend to cash in, Russia was on their side, and Europeans could sort out things for themselves. Russians were becoming like them, and money talks. Similarly, China was going to become like them, and Western-style democracy was going to develp even there. (Things did not actually work out that way.)

When NATO eastward expansion did actually begin (in 1996-1999), there was no serious thought on how to make the inclusion of former Soviet Bloc countries actually sustainable and credible. NATO security has always been based on the assumption that the USA would intervene in case of need. But did anyone (ever) seriously think that American boys would be sent to the Baltic states to defend them?

On the other hand, ex-Soviet republics were left to their own devices, despite all the talk from various sectors of the US establishment: Moldova (and Transnistria), Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia (and Ossetia and Abkhazia), let alone Armenia and Azerbaijan. In ex-Soviet Central Asia US interest was quite limited, even from an economic point of view (especially after 1997, when the Russian market became much more attractive).

This is the real cause of the collapse of the post-Cold War New International Order. There never was any New Order, and this was already demonstrated by the way in which the Kosovo War ended (only thanks to Russian mediation). The ‘unipolar moment’ never existed, despite what many journalists may have believed.


The second general point concerns ‘national self-determination’ and ‘sovereignty’. As the saying goes, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s national liberation fighter’. (All national liberation movements – without exception – resort to terrorism, because it is so much more effective that a pitched battle. None of this makes counter-terrorism any better, but it remains a fact.) Similarly, one man’s ‘national self-determination’ is (often) another man’s denial of minority rights. One man’s dissolution of a ‘prison house of nations’ (Austria-Hungary, Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire) leads to legitimate independence, but can also be another man’s ‘treacherous partition, divide and rule’, etc.

The reason is quite simple: the number of potential nations (and therefore nation-states) vastly exceeds the number of possible states. You can either decide to live with the borders at a given moment (as the Kenyan representative pointed out at the UNSC), or you can decide to be a breakaway state (with all the possible risks). In short, national borders, and therefore nation-states are always the product of historical accidents and conjunctures. In his 1882 lecture, Ernest Renan claimed that a nation should be based on a ‘daily plebiscite’ (un plébiscite de tous les jours). It is a meaningless phrase, as countless plebiscites and referenda have repeatedly demonstrated (right up to Brexit). The framing of the question is what conditions (and then determines) the result of a plebiscite.

It is utterly pointless to argue over the merits of a secession. You can argue about the way in which it is carried out (constitutional means, unconstitutional means, violent action, etc.). But secession, per se, is a fact of life. Even in a functioning democratic system, it is sufficient for a determined minority of voters to be in favour of (or not against) the break-up of a state for it to happen (e.g., Czechoslovakia in 1992). When politics is regulated by violent methods, much less is required.

Yugonostalgics are still inclined to explain the dissolution of Socialist Yugoslavia in terms of German/Austrian/Vatican plots. But the process of dissolution cannot be explained without going back to the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution, the creation of elites based in the separate republics, and abolition of provincial autonomy in the Republic of Serbia. In short, you need to bring back the politics of these processes. Abstract ‘rights’ (national rights, human rights) will never explain much.


This brings in the issue of ‘revolutions’. The mythologizing of the events of 1989/91 as ‘revolutions’ (when they were in fact quite orderly processes of political abdication, with the sole exception of Albania in 1991/92, maybe also Romania) has given new legitimacy to the idea of ‘revolution’, and to the ‘coloured revolutions’ in particular.

Any idea of Ukraine joining NATO was off the cards since at least 2008, for the same reason Turkish entry in the EU is (de facto) ruled out: France and Germany were opposed to it. Even the EU proposal of an Association Agreement with Ukraine was couched in quite modest terms.

As a matter of fact, Helen Thompson has argued that it was the Federal Reserve’s refusal to bail out Ukraine in 2013-2014 which led Viktor Yanukovych to cancel the agreement with the EU and to turn to Vladimir Putin. This is the process which led to the ‘Maidan revolution’. (If so, in this case it was the absence of US interference in Ukraine affairs which led to the ‘revolution’. But this version is unlikely to appeal to diplomatic historians and journalists.)

It is unlikely that any revolution will ever have support from all sectors of society. Zelensky (who had a programme of reconciliation) appears to have been elected in a reasonably fair manner. It is difficult to see how he could have seriously planned to re-occupy the secessionist parts of Eastern Ukraine, let alone Crimea.

Neutrality for all?

The ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine (an enshrined neutral status) has been repeatedly presented as a reasonable solution for the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. But Finish neutrality after World War II was part of an implicit compromise which allowed it to be balanced with the maintenance of Swedish neutrality; otherwise Sweden would have joined NATO. Ukrainian neutrality continued to be proposed and demanded after the Russian occupation of Crimea and the establishment of a Russian protectorate over a significant part of the Donbas and Luhansk provinces. These were not the conditions for a sustainable compromise.

Partnerships for all?

Mary Sarotte and others have argued that the continuation of the original Partnership for Peace (which included NATO countries, NATO candidate countries, Ukraine and Russia) would have been a better option than NATO eastward expansion. But this kind of wishful thinking underestimates the sheer impact of the politics of the 1990s in Eastern Europe, which included the Transnistrian secession, the Chechen wars, and the Yugoslav wars of dissolution. Once Ukraine had renounced nuclear weapons (Budapest Treaty of 1994) it became less relevant.

Putin’s Russia is supposedly threatened by NATO eastward expansion. But Kaliningrad (one of the most militarised regions of Europe, in normal circumstances) is 1 hour 15’ by air (527 km) from Berlin, 30’ from Warsaw (279 km). Poland and Lithuania have a mere 65 border in common (the Suwalki gap) which Belarus could easily block. Threats work both ways, as Putin has well demonstrated. The Russian demands (in December 2021) for a roll back to the military status quo of 1997 seems more a ruse to prevent any diplomatic solution (at a time when Russian troop deployment had already been carried out).

This all points to the role played by Putin’s political ambitions. The emphasis on his supposed ‘paranoia’ actually plays into his possible use of ‘Madman theory’ . So the theatrics of his recent public broadcasts may actually part of quite rational political calculations.

Putin’s forays into medieval and Early Modern Ukrainian and Russian history are another matter. They are part of a quite rational political project of Russian expansion, which –as Putin made quite explicit in his broadcast rants- long antedates any NATO eastwards expansion.

Minsk-II and beyond

Putin repeatedly raised the implementation of the Minsk-II agreement, which Russia and Ukraine interpreted in different ways. In any case, the agreement collapsed.

Putin then began to carry out massive troop movements, encircling Ukraine from the north, the east and the south. Unsurprisingly, the USA began to point out the dangers of the situation. More surprisingly, they began to prophesize a Russian invasion, even though Kyiv steadfastly refused to publicly share this view.

After what is now unquestionably an invasion, some commentators are still likely to say that US prophecies have proved self-fulfilling, etc. It is more arguable is that for any agreement to have worked, it should have been sustainable. As Robert Frost has pointed out a compromise must be presentable, offering something to both sides. This is exactly what Minsk-II did not offer to the Ukrainian side.

In fact, from a Ukrainian perspective, Western alarmism over a possible Russian invasion seemed geared to force on Kyiv the full implementation of Minsk-II (in the Russian interpretation). Poles might have even thought that it foreshadowed some kind of ‘Yalta.2’ agreement to neutralise (in every sense) the entire eastern flank of NATO (Poland and the Baltic states included).

At this stage, all bets are off. No doubt some will argue that it was all the fault of Kyiv (for its language policy, etc.), of the EU, of the USA, etc. Whataboutism will be rife. It is convenient to stick to High politics and Low Journalism (even for those who preach ‘history from below’). Political realism is always essential, but it also requires an understanding of the political actors at play. It is all too easy to take ‘a plague on both your houses’ attitude, as if this were ‘the night in which all cows are black’. At the end of the day, it is not just a question of ‘realism’. It is also a question of politics, and choices must be made. It’s the politics, stupid.

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