"Unjustified and Unprovoked? Russia’s ongoing ‘military operation’ in Ukraine"
by Gilbert Doctorow
gilbertdoctorow.com (February 24, 2022)
In a speech to the nation yesterday, American president Joe Biden called the military operation which Russia launched against the Kiev regime late in the night Moscow time “unjustified and unprovoked.” By doing so, by willfully ignoring the lengthy justifications and list of provocations that Vladimir Putin had set out in his address to his nation and the world two days earlier, President Biden fully justified Putin’s remarks in a televised speech just hours ago characterizing present-day America as “the Empire of Lies.” Finally, the Russians have found an appropriate and suitably evocative response to Ronald Reagan’s memorable characterization of the Soviet Union as an “Empire of Evil.” This is a phrase that will ring around the world, first of all in Beijing.
In recent days, some of my peers have expressed the pious hope that Washington would find the political courage and rise to the occasion of the Russian demands from 15 December 2021 by agreeing to revise jointly the security architecture of Europe in a more equitable manner, thereby bringing Russia in from the cold. They alluded to the wisdom and Realpolitik of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in their visit to Beijing fifty years ago, during which bitter enmity was set aside and the countries entered into a new relationship of live and let live. However, the authors of these hopeful recommendations ignore the plain fact that Joe Biden and his closest advisers in the Executive branch of government are intellectual pygmies compared to their predecessors. As I remarked in an essay several weeks ago, the Biden administration is intellectually bankrupt, lost in Cold War mythology. They will eventually be brought to the negotiating table snarling and kicking when they are confronted with superior force that poses an existential threat to the American homeland. There is every reason to believe that will happen in the coming months as the Russians move on with their multi-stage attack on the now fragile structure of US global hegemony.
Several readers of my analytical essay yesterday have commented this morning that I was wrong in my scenarios of an entirely peaceful application of psychological pressure by Putin. Indeed, I said yesterday that violence is not in his playbook. I freely acknowledge that I misjudged, though in the opening paragraphs of yesterday’s essay I issued a disclaimer, saying that predictions in this matter are very risky. Let all know that I stand ready ‘to eat my hat’ and that I have a straw boater held in reserve for just this purpose.
Nonetheless, I insist that my overriding message yesterday, that the conflict with the United States and NATO would not end with recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, but that Russia would address the mortal dangers it sees in NATO expansion and in particular in the ongoing implantation of NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine irrespective of that country’s possible admittance into the Alliance.
This leads us to the question of why now? Why has Vladimir Putin decided to accelerate the timetable for taking on the big issues and make the move that we see on our television screens this morning? I will address that directly in the next section of this essay. After that I will comment briefly on the extraordinary speech that the Russian president delivered last night, one in which the reader wants to underline every second sentence. I have selected some of the more memorable lines in this speech which I offer here to allow the reader to savor the turns of speech and thought processes of the Russian leader without mediation.
In the concluding section today, I will consider what implications there are for Russia’s other neighbors arising from Russia’s planned clean-up of Nazism and radical nationalism in Ukraine today.
Why the change of course from Monday? Steely nerved opportunity and risk calculations are behind the Kremlin’s decision-making in this whole adventure.
People have recalled the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan last August as a contributor to Russian decision-making. Yes, to a limited extent this helped set the timing for Russia’s push to settle the Ukraine challenge from the very start. It demonstrated the Biden administration’s amateurism, plain incompetence and cowardice.
The Kremlin applied pressure on Washington by the build-up of its forces on the Ukrainian borders in November and in December we heard the American president say that the country will not send a single soldier to defend Ukraine in any armed conflict with Russia. This statement alone surely was among the considerations in the calculation of Risk and Opportunity that went on for weeks in the run-up to yesterday’s decision to solve the Ukraine problem by military force now. The impression of an irresolute and cowardly America was heightened by Joe Biden’s call for Americans to leave Ukraine in advance of a possible invasion and by his moving, then closing the U.S. diplomatic missions in Ukraine, all of which added to the economic and political disorganization in the country.
But there is much more.
The USA and NATO have continued to double down in the past couple of weeks precisely to spite Russian demands for a roll back in Eastern Europe. We may have no doubt this was a factor. I have in mind the incremental increase of US and NATO staff and offensive weapons in Poland and the Baltic States. This could no longer be ignored. And then there was the demonstrative, unprecedented airlift of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of munitions and advanced lethal weapons systems to Kiev. That all of this was cosmetic, unlikely to change in any way the outcome of a Russia-Ukraine war is obvious. It was playing to the home audience in the USA, and was nothing more than an electoral stratagem as the country enters the campaign for midterm elections. In this regard, it was as domestic focused as opposed to pragmatic and effective in managing relations with Russia as Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Moscow to ‘mediate’ the crisis for the sake of his image back home in France ahead of the soon to be held presidential elections there. Finally, the charade of domestic policies in the West that take no account of the real world impact abroad is exacting a price on its practitioners, starting with Biden.
Still another factor must have been the Ukrainian President’s revealing in Munich last week his country’s plans to become a nuclear power and their possible withdrawal from the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 that had denuclearized the country in exchange for security guarantees. This prospect was already outside and beyond the authority of NATO and could he resolved only by direct intervention of Moscow to “demilitarize” Ukraine here and now. Moreover, we can be certain the Kremlin understood perfectly well that Zelensky’s initiative on the nuclear issue was viewed behind the scenes in Europe, and particularly in Poland, with something like horror. Thus, in diplomacy Russia would have a strong Soft Power argument for its military intervention with countries that will never publicly admit their fear and repugnance at the ambitions of the madmen now running Ukraine.
One might argue that all of the foregoing factors were present already on Monday, 21 February when Putin spoke to the nation and gave no indication that military action might be forthcoming. So what is new?
The immediate trigger to this decision was yesterday’s appeal for military assistance coming from the two republics which claimed that the Ukrainian forces were advancing on their territory. Cause or pretext for the Russian ‘military operation’ today? We cannot say now, though in the days to come there may be proof from OSCE observers.
Then there are a couple of other very relevant developments since Monday. I have in mind the sanctions which the West has imposed on Russia following its recognition of the Donbas republics but before a single Russian soldier crossed the border. In effect, these were the kind of ‘preventive sanctions’ before the fact of some violation that Zelensky had been calling for. It was, of course, contradicting common sense to think that when you have been sanctioned and have nothing to lose you will not proceed to do exactly the opposite of what is expected of you. Among the most offensive and potentially painful sanctions were those imposed by the German chancellor, who ordered the ‘suspension of the certification’ of the Nord Stream II pipeline, a move equivalent to cancellation.
If you are going to pay the price, why not take the prize? This reasoning had to play a role in Putin’s latest move. Moreover, it was supported by the bitter disappointment the Russians have with the German leader overall. Olaf Scholz’s remark at his joint press conference with Putin in Moscow last week that it was ‘laughable’ to speak of the Ukrainian authorities’ policies towards the Donbas as ‘genocide’ was deeply offensive to Vladimir Putin and to the Russian political class. It was intended to remove all basis for comparing Russia’s recognition of the Donbas republics with NATO’s recognition of an independent Kosovo in 1999. And lest no one think that Scholz’s remark was a slip of the tongue, he repeated it in the open session of the Munich Security Conference last week. From intercessor for Russia within the EU, which role it had played in the Merkel years, Germany now showed itself to be a willing tool of U.S. policies of confrontation and domination with respect to Russia. The Germans will pay dearly for the unprofessional and ill-considered policies of their new coalition government.
Against this background, the call of Donetsk head of government Denis Pushilin for immediate Russian military help to fend off attack fell on fertile ground. Moreover, by having kept his military forces in holding pattern off the Black Sea coast of Ukraine and at the Belarus-Ukraine and Russia-Ukraine borders, President Putin had at his disposal all necessary means to act swiftly and decisively. Attacking by night, as he did, restored a certain element of surprise to the operation and reduced to a minimum likely collateral damage to civilians.
Russia’s objectives in the ongoing military campaign
There is no room for uncertainty over Russian plans. Vladimir Putin named the objectives of this ‘military operation’ as being to demilitarize and to denazify Ukraine. A Russian military occupation of Ukraine is out of the question. Ukrainian cities will not be touched, if Putin has his way. The intent is to oversee a regime change that removes the Maidan installed junta for which Zelensky is just the front man. Alwo to round up the neo-Nazi and radical nationalists who have perpetrated clearly identified crimes against humanity when they took power in February 2014 and consolidated power immediately thereafter. Surely this includes the snipers and others who killed innocent demonstrators of the Maidan movement so as to put the blame on the Yanukovich government’s Berkut security forces and raise the Opposition‘s determination. More than 50 died in shootings that have since been well illuminated by the widely disseminated testimony of foreign mercenaries and others who took part. Surely another incident that will be pursued by Russia when it collects criminals for prosecution in Moscow will be those responsible for the outrageous murder of innocent protesters in Odessa soon after the coup. They were chased into the Labor Union building which was then set alight. Anyone trying to escape was fired upon. The names of the perpetrators are mostly well known from private investigations that took place afterwards. None has ever faced any charges from authorities of the Kiev regime. Now the day of reckoning will come.
It is in Russia’s interests to hold such trials in order to expose to the world the clearly documented facts of genocidal crimes against Russian speaking Ukrainian citizens by their own government and its irregular supporters including neo-Nazi elements. All of this will lay to rest the empty and offensive remarks of Joe Biden that Russian action was unprovoked and unjustified.
It is noteworthy that in the speech last night Vladimir Putin issued strong warnings against those in the West who may entertain thoughts of intervening in one way or another in the Ukrainian theater against Russia. The subtext is clearly Lithuania and Poland, where there have been official statements in recent weeks of willingness to assist resistance movements in Ukraine against any Russian imposed new order. The Russian response will be immediate and unlike anything the world has seen, per Putin.
Looking more generally at Vladimir Putin’s address to the nation last night, which came to 10 typed pages, somewhat less than half his address of Monday night, there is a change of tone, a still greater frankness over the misdeeds of the United States and its allies, a greater willingness to call a spade a spade. The “empire of lies” phrase is exemplary in this regard.
He takes to a new level of openness the explanation of how/why the United States was able to work its will in the 1990s and ignore Russian complaints over the trampling of its national interests.
Without further ado, I offer below some of the choice quotations in this speech:
“The answer is clear, everything is understandable and obvious. The Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s was weak, and then it collapsed. The whole train of events that occurred then provide a good lesson for us today. They convincingly showed that paralysis of the government, of its will is the first step to complete degradation and oblivion. We just had to lose our self-confidence for a certain time and everything – the whole balance of forces in the world was destroyed.
“This led to the situation where all former treaties, agreements de facto no longer operate. Requests and coaxing do not help. Everything that does not please the hegemon..is declared to be archaic, outdated, unnecessary. And vice versa: everything that seems advantageous to him is held up like the truth of final instance, is pushed through at any price, in a boorish manner, by all means. Those who don’t agree have their backs broken.”
Putin went on to say that this kind of treatment was meted out by the United States not just to Russia but concerns the entire system of international relations, including allies of the USA:
“After the collapse of the USSR de facto a repartition of the world began and the norms of international law which had accumulated till then – among which the key norms arose from the results of the Second World War and largely consolidated its results – began to get in the way of those who declared themselves to be the victors in the Cold War.”
“The euphoria from absolute superiority, a sort of contemporary form of absolutism, rose in the context of the low level of general culture and arrogance of those who prepared, undertook and promoted solutions that were advantageous only for themselves.’’
In the foregoing we see an unparalleled expression of the frustration and scorn that underlies Vladimir Putin’s present actions to overturn the U.S. led world order. Otherwise, he once again lists the misdeeds of the United States and its allies in their unsanctioned and disastrous military interventions in Yugoslavia, in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan, from which he concludes:
“Generally the impression we get is that practically everywhere, in the many regions of the world where the West comes to establish its order, the results are bloody wounds that do not heal, ulcers of international terrorism and extremism. ..
“In this list, we find the promises made to our country not to expand NATO one inch to the East. I repeat, they deceived us, or to use a folk expression, they just screwed us. Yes, it is often said that politics is a dirty business. Maybe, but not so much as this. Such cheating behavior contradicts not only the principles of international relations but above all, it contradicts the generally recognized norms of morality and ethics. Where do we find justice and truth here? It is all one big lie and hypocrisy.
“And by the way, American politicians, political scientists and journalists write and talk about the fact that in recent years inside the USA a real ‘empire of lies’ has been created. But there is no reason to go halfway: the USA is of course a great country, a power that shapes the world system. All its satellites not only dutifully and obediently sing along on any matter, but also copy its behavior and joyfully accept the rules proposed to them. Therefore there is full basis for saying confidently that the entire so-called Western
bloc formed by the USA in its likeness is as a whole that “empire of lies.”
Putin freely acknowledges that the US-led West will apply against Russia its financial, technological and military possibilities. He insists that he proceeds “without any illusions and with maximum realism.”
He can do so for the following clearly stated reasons:
“As regards the military sphere, present-day Russia even after the collapse of the USSR and loss of a significant part of its potential, is one of the most powerful nuclear powers of the world and, in addition, has certain advantages in a number of new forms of armaments. In this connection, no one should doubt that a direct attack on our country will lead to defeat and to horrible consequences for any potential aggressor.”
However, as he notes, technologies change in the defense sector and leadership swings back and forth over time.
“For this reason, military control over the territories bordering with us will be a matter of concern for decades going forward and will create for Russia a constantly growing, absolutely unacceptable threat. Already now, to the extent that NATO has moved to the East, the situation for our country with each passing year becomes worse and more dangerous. In addition, in the last few days the leadership of NATO is talking directly about the need to hasten, to force the pace of movement of the Alliance infrastructure to the borders of Russia. In other words, they are tightening up their position. To continue and simply watch what is going on is no longer possible for us. It would be wholly irresponsible on our part…
“For the USA and its allies this so-called policy of containing Russia pays obvious geopolitical dividends. But for our country, it is finally a question of life or death, the question of our historic future as a people. And this is no exaggeration – it is actually so. This is a real threat not only to our interests but to the very existence of our state, to our sovereignty. This is the red line about which we spoke repeatedly. They have crossed it.”
As regards the Kiev regime:
“The entire course of developments and analysis of the incoming information show that a clash between Russia and these forces is inevitable. It is only a question of time: they are getting ready, they are waiting for a suitable moment. Now they are also claiming the right to own nuclear weapons. We will not allow them to do this.
“As I said before, after the collapse of the USSR Russia accepted the new geopolitical realities. We have behaved respectfully and will continue to be respectful to all the newly formed countries in post-Soviet space. We respect and will respect their sovereignty and an example for that is the help we extended to Kazakhstan, which experienced tragic events that challenged its statehood and integrity. But Russia cannot feel secure, develop, exist under a constant threat coming from the territory of contemporary Ukraine….
“They left us with no other possibility than to defend /Russia, our people than what we are compelled to do today. The circumstances demand of us decisive and immediate actions. The Peoples Republics of the Donbas turned to Russia asking for help. In this connection…I have taken the decision to carry out a special military operation.
“Its objective is to defend people who in the course of eight years have been subjected to mockery, to genocide from the Kiev regime. And for this purpose we will strive to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine, as well as to turn over to courts those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.
“All the while we have no plans for an occupation of Ukrainian territories. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force. .. “At the basis of our policy is freedom, freedom of choice for everyone to independently determine their future and the future of their children. And we consider it to be important that this right, the right of free choice, may be exercised by all peoples living on the territory of present-day Ukraine, by all who so wish.”
As regards the Ukrainian armed forces, Putin issued the following appeal:
“Respected comrades. Your fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers did not fight against the Nazis and defend our common Motherland just to see today’s neo-Nazis seize power in Ukraine. You took an oath of loyalty to the Ukrainian people and not to a junta against the people which is robbing Ukraine and has only contempt for the people.
“Do not carry out criminal orders. I call upon you to immediately lay down your arms and to go home. Let me explain: all servicemen in the Ukrainian army who carry out this demand can freely leave the area of combat and go back to their families.”
As regards third party countries:
“Now several very important words for those who may be tempted to intervene in the events presently occurring. Whoever tries to hinder us, or still worse to create threats to our country, to our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have already been taken. I hope that I will be heard.”
Implications for other states in the region
The United States and its NATO allies have responded in the past two weeks to the Russian preparations for what the Kremlin unleashed yesterday by sending reinforcements to NATO’s ‘front line states’, meaning the Baltics, Poland, Romania . This was done both as a show of force, a show of plumage, to impress the Russians, to impress the receiving countries with the strength of NATO commitment to article 5 and mutual defense, but mostly to silence domestic critics of the noninvolvement policy in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and America’s resort only to sanctions.
Is there in fact a Russian threat to the Baltics?
Prior to the recent NATO measures of posting additional troops there I would have said ‘no.’ In light of the stubborn resistance the United States is showing to deal with any of the key security issues in the Russian ultimatum of 15 December 2021 and its doubling down by raising the force level in these countries bordering Russia, that question has to be reviewed with greater attention to detail.
The basic issue of cultural genocide that Vladimir Putin raised in his discussion Monday evening of the Donbas crisis applies equally well to one of the Baltic states, Latvia, where the correlation of Russian speakers to Latvian speakers was from the time of the break-up of the USSR roughly the same as in Ukraine, 40% or more of the population. I have written about Latvia as an apartheid state with reference to the blatantly discriminatory legislation which from soon after independence denied Russian speakers of their citizenship papers except for the trickle of applicants who mastered Latvian. Some 300,000 Latvian born and bred residents of the country were thus made stateless and deprived of many civil rights including professional advancement and the right to own property. Meanwhile, as in Ukraine, the Latvian authorities looked the other way at the neo-Nazis in their midst who were allowed to hold annual marches in the capital and to venerate Nazi collaborators from the period of WWII in the same way as the Ukrainians do the Banderovtsy.
(See Chapter 22, “Latvia’s 300,000 Non-Citizens and the Ukrainian Crisis Today” and Chapter 33 “Latvia’s failed US-inspired policies towards Russia and Russians” in Gilbert Doctorow, Does Russia Have a Future?, 2015)
Russia took no action on these abuses, which violate all of the “European values” promoted by the European Union, not to mention universal human rights concepts.
Will Russia remain indifferent to the fate of its ‘compatriots’ in Latvia going forward? No one can say. However, if NATO continues on its present path of reinforcing troops and offensive weapons systems in Latvia and the other Baltic states, it is logical that Russia will respond, and it will not pussy-foot around in consideration of the Article 5 obligation of the United States to defend the country. I point out that similar abuses of Russian speaking minorities are not significant causes of friction between Russia and Estonia or Lithuania.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2022