It was Kremlinologist Jonathan Haslam who spotted the overconfident press release and dubbed it Putin’s Premature Victory Roll. Two days after the invasion of Ukraine began a year ago, the Russian press service Novosti posted a broadside that began “A new world is coming into being before our very eyes.” In Haslam’s translation, lightly edited for clarity;
Russia’s military operation has opened a new epoch…Russia is recovering its unity – the tragedy of 1991, this horrendous catastrophe in our history, its unnatural caesura, has been overcome. Yes, at a great price; yes, through the tragic events of what amounts to a civil war, because now for the time being brothers are shooting one another… but Ukraine as anti-Russia will no longer exist.
By not leaving the Ukrainian question to future generations. Putin has taken upon himself a historic responsibility. The issue of national security, the creation of an anti-Russia out of Ukraine as an outpost for the West to pressure us is only the second most important among the key reasons [for acting]. Instead [presumed primary reason], the Great Russians, the Byelorussian’s and the Little Russians (Ukrainians) would come together as a whole.
So much for that. The triumphal proclamation was quickly taken down after it became came clear that it was premature. We know now that Russia’s planned lightning invasion of Ukraine, including the assassination of president Volodymyr Zelensky, had failed to achieve the anticipated three-or-four-day takeover, due to unexpectedly robust Ukrainian defense, aided by American intelligence.
On the other hand, we know next to nothing about the State Department formal communique that may have been the final straw for Vladimir Putin. The US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, of November 10, 2021, reiterated America’s commitment to eventual NATO membership for Ukraine. It was a clear and formal dismissal of Putin’s “red line,” as described to the Bush administration in Nyet Means Nyet, a 2008 cable from then-Ambassador to Russia William Burns obtained illegally by Wikileaks.
By 2022, Burns was serving as CIA Director in the Biden administration. He had flown to Moscow in October, the week before the Charter was announced, hoping to meet with Putin, He talked to him by phone in Sochi instead, The Russian leader “recited his usual complaints about NATO expansion, the threat to Russian Security, and illegitimate leadership in Ukraine” (according to The Washington Post); in person, in Moscow, so did a senior aide. In December, with Russian forces continuing to mass on the border, Biden assured Putin in a video call that that Ukraine wouldn’t be admitted to NATO “any time soon”
A few days later, the Russians formally proposed a pair of treaties: first, agree to end expansion of NATO; and, second, limit NATO activity in states that had joined the treaty since 1997. In January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Geneva for one last conversation with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who, in the end, walked out of a private room on him. Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
It seems to me the road to war is impossible to understand without some knowledge of the view from the other side of the road. Without the November Charter of Strategic Partnership, and the story behind it, the war in Ukraine is like World War One without Sarajevo.
Yet a search of The Washington Post website found no mention of it; one of The New York Times discovered a single reference, by war critic Christopher Caldwell; and a third, of The Wall Street Journal, yielded only the interview with historian Robert Service that first brought the Charter to my attention.
Instead, poking around in newspaper histories of the US-Russia tangle over the future of Ukraine sufficiently one-sided that they could reasonably be called, not propaganda, but cheerleading, of the sort that has preceded every American war since Vietnam. The best of them I found also happens to be an example of impeccable shoe-leather reporting – of one side of the story. Road to War, a fourteen-part Washington Post series, from which much of the above timeline is drawn, probably will be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Some of the most talented foreign affairs reporters and editors in the business put it together; others employed by the WPost remained on the sidelines.
Yet almost all of the story is conveyed though sources gathered from a single side, a collectivity of widely-shared and mutually-reinforcing opinions drawn from, in this case, the Biden Administration, the foreign policy establishment of Washington, and various European circles radiating from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Skepticism arising outside the echo chamber are not part of the yarn. So serene in self-assurance is “Road to War” that its premises are asserted in two separated passages near the beginning:
[A]nalysts who had spent their careers studying Putin were increasingly convinced the Russian leader – himself a former intelligence officer – saw a window of opportunity closing. Ukrainians had already twice risen up to demand a democratic future, free from corruption, and Moscow’s interference, during the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, and the 2013-2014 Maidan protests that preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea. While not a member of NATO or the European Union, Ukraine was now moving steadily into the Western economic, political, and cultural orbit. That drift fed Putin’s broader resentment about Russia’s loss of empire
The Kremlin did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
It turned out the Western analysts were right, By Novosti’s own account, Putin acted because he saw fading an opportunity to reunify Russia as he understood it. His sentiments on the Soviet Union are well known: “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.” (For a fascinating elaboration of that sentiment, see The Soviet Century: Archeology of a Lost World, by Karl Schgel,) I loathed the Soviet Union from since I was a child, but when I look at a map of eastern Europe, I see not the isobars and isotherms of imperial vicissitudes that I know are there, but, those two ancient rivers, the Volga and Dneiper, flowing from Russia’s border near Finland to the Black and Caspian seas.
NATO expansion, on the other hand, is a tricky topic. It is impossible not to admire the Ukrainian government’s mastery and resolve; not to sympathize with its desire for independence, not to grieve for its citizens.. Still, the outcome of the war is far from clear. Perhaps the Russian army will turn out to be a paper tiger, unaccustomed to conquest and reluctant to fight after decades of peace. Indeed, the Russian campaign so far has often gone wrong. Yet the beginnings of long wars often start that way.
Meanwhile, a trickle of anti-war sentiment has grown to a stream. The indefatigable David Johnson takes a clear-eyed view nearly daily in his Johnson’s Russia List. Political theorist John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, writes at intervals for Foreign Affairs; see Why the Ukrainian Crisis is the West’s Fault and Playing with Fire in Ukraine (and, for a counterargument, “It makes no sense to blame the west for the Ukraine war,” by Gideon Rachman, of the Financial Times, as long as you are a digital subscriber). Christopher Caldwell wrote “Russia and Ukraine Have Incentives to Negotiate. The U.S. Has Other Plans” earlier this month in the NYTimes.
And the bigger picture? Among others, historian M. E. Sarotte, of Johns Hopkins University, is on the case, having completed Not One Inch: America, Russian and the Making of Post- Cold War Stalemate in 2021. In the magazine Financial Times this weekend, Sarotte writes,
“[M]oscow has failed at a quintessentially 19th-century challenge. It has botched the imperial incorporation of a proximate territory. As the Yale historians Paul Kennedy and Arne Westad have argued, states that over-extend themselves in such a profound way tend to meet unhappy fates in the long run. But they do a lot of damage on the way down.” Writing the next chapter of the story will take years. I look forward to Sarotte’s next book.