Ukraine is more than a pawn in a geopolitical game

This conflict is about the right to self-determination, not about us

February 22, 2022
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Ukrainian combat training on the outskirts of Kiev. Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

So it begins. Russia is deploying troops to internationally recognised regions of another state on the pretext of a genocide that is not happening. In the dystopian universe fabricated by Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is the aggressor, the Russian people are under attack, and invading soldiers are there to keep the peace. One man’s words have replaced objective reality, and now threaten the security of an entire continent.

There is still much that we do not know. We do not know whether the “peacekeepers” will remain in the rebel-held areas of Donbas or cross into the larger Ukrainian-controlled part, which would constitute a major escalation; whether Donbas is the limit of Russian aggression or just the start; and if the latter, how far Putin intends to go, both literally and figuratively. We do not even know if he knows the answers himself. Fears about his mental state and isolation are compounded by the extraordinary concentration of power in his hands.

And yet there are a number of things we can say with confidence. First: contrary to Putin’s assertions, Russian aggression is not, to any significant extent, about Nato. Second: even if it was, it wouldn’t actually matter.

Putin’s speech on Monday gave the game away. Nato is a smokescreen. The president’s angry, rambling statement featured an illiterate history lesson about Ukraine and Lenin, false or irrelevant socio-economic critiques of Ukraine’s governance, and confected rage about Kyiv’s hostility to the Russian people. Nothing in the speech indicated that a unilateral Ukrainian commitment not to apply to join Nato would assuage Putin’s concerns or end his belligerence. His subsequent recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics self-evidently had nothing to do with Nato at all. These regions were occupied by Russian and Russian-backed forces in 2014, when the Kremlin was publicly focused on the Ukrainian revolution, Kyiv’s future relationship with the EU and, ostensibly, the treatment of Russian-speakers in the east—not about Ukraine’s possible integration within the western military alliance.

Even considering the debate on Russia’s terms—that Nato is a legitimate security concern—warrants extreme scepticism. Not least, the framing of “Nato expansion” implies a coercive military conquest rather than members' voluntary ambitions to participate.

Nato has not “expanded” into any former Soviet or satellite states for 18 years. Since the 2004 accessions, it has only accepted as members Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, countries over a thousand miles from Russia’s borders. The only former Soviet states currently in the bloc are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with a combined population of six million people and combined area only slightly larger than England and Wales. In the 1990s, Nato made no formal guarantee not to enlarge eastwards; there was even discussion about Russia itself joining the alliance. Notably, one key agreement from that time was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia, the US and UK gave Ukraine assurances on its security and territorial integrity in return for Kyiv abandoning its inherited nuclear stockpile.

Bluntly, there is no prospect of Nato welcoming Ukraine or Georgia in the short or medium-term and, in the light of recent events, perhaps ever. And even if Nato was as aggressive as Putin claims, there is precisely zero chance that it would strike Russian territory. Moscow has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and nobody will antagonise its volatile leader so recklessly. Western governments have ruled out direct military engagement even if Putin launches a full assault on Ukraine. It is Russia’s troops, not Nato’s, who have amassed on the border.

The commonly mentioned equivalent of the US and its border countries Canada or Mexico is specious to the point of absurdity. Sceptics of western actors hypothesise the scenario that the US’s neighbours apply to join a Russian or Chinese security alliance, and question Washington’s response. First, the scenario would require the US president to have effectively denied the legitimacy of Canada and Mexico, proclaimed their populations American, and mobilised 150,000 troops on their borders. But Canada and Mexico’s stance still would not give the US any right to invade. Quite the opposite: anti-imperialists would strenuously—and rightly—argue that those countries ought to live free of US interference and claim full autonomy to pursue their own perceived defensive interests.

All of this raises a basic question: why have so many people made excuses for the Russian government? Putin has always had western defenders on the left and right, but in recent weeks some committed anti-imperialists and peace activists have cast this issue on his terms alone. The inconsistency is striking: they implicitly grant Russia a sphere of influence and benefit of the doubt that they would never in a million years extend to the UK or US.

The basic principle ought to be simpler: Russia is no more entitled to dictate foreign policy choices in its former empire than Britain is. It should not be difficult for people who, with clear moral force, said “don’t attack Iraq,” to extend the same unequivocal solidarity to Ukraine.

In some cases there may be a blind spot or Cold War romanticism about Russia, or perhaps a belief that Europe and the US are the world’s key agents of imperialist aggression and thus always the first people to blame. The idea not only ignores the fact that Putin is an irredentist ethno-nationalist rather than socialist resistance hero; it commits a key sin of imperialism itself. That is, it centres the discourse around the west and denies the agency of anyone else.

But this is about agency: not Russia’s or the west’s, but Ukraine’s. Ukraine is not a perfect democracy, but it has an elected government which is entitled to make decisions on behalf of its people. You do not have to be a Nato enthusiast to believe that sovereign states have the right to dictate their own affairs and apply to join international organisations, regardless of the opposition of their ex-masters. Ukraine is not destined only ever to be a card in someone else’s game.  Committed anti-imperialism means just that: opposing all imperialism. It means supporting the rights of states and populations to live freely and securely and to determine their own destiny. Not everything is about us.