The West is not to blame in Ukraine: Putin alone is wrong

Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik pool via Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a March 8, 2022, file photo.

On March 18, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in fluent English on Russia’s RT television network, spun an elaborate web of false and misleading claims, clearly hoping to stoke disagreement in the West about who is to blame for Russia’s catastrophic aggression against Ukraine. Lavrov chided Europeans for submitting to America’s dictates which aim, he said, to restore a “unipolar world,” and he serially mischaracterized the purpose of Western sanctions, NATO’s defensive nature, Ukraine’s supposed “provocations” of Russia, and the background of former Soviet biological laboratories located around Russia’s periphery, now secured with the help of a Pentagon threat reduction program. 

While some may fail to see through Lavrov’s propaganda, Russia is entirely in the wrong, and Putin’s own words underscore this reality.

{mosads}Western commentators can point to U.S. policy missteps — perhaps NATO enlargement was perceived as provocative by Putin, and there may have been a road not taken by the West that equally served European security interests. Both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have cited past assurances that were not upheld. But generalizations implying moral equivalency between NATO and Russia in explaining Putin’s decision to invade are as wrong as they are dangerous.

When I and a Pentagon colleague briefed a roomful of senior Russian officials in Moscow on the revised U.S. global force posture in 2004 — soon after seven nearby countries had become NATO members — the response was gratitude for our candor. There were no objections or red line warnings; the DOD plans had anticipated Russia’s sensitivities. Our European Command was regularly conducting exercises with Russian military participation. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage brought a large delegation to counterterrorism talks in Moscow. In late 2004 I concluded a bilateral agreement with Russia, co-signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 at Bratislava, to control exports of shoulder-fired missiles; my counterpart, a retired lieutenant general, called to say the final terms had been approved by Putin.

If Putin felt the U.S. was disrespecting Russian interests, some of us directly involved never got the memo.

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Much is made of Putin’s March 10, 2007, speech to the Munich Security Conference, where he called NATO expansion “a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” The 1990 pledge he cited by NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner that “we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory,” may have been a “firm security guarantee,” but it was to the Soviet Union, not to post-Cold-War Russia. While denouncing the “unipolar model,” — and by implication the U.S. intervention in Iraq — Putin said this: “I am convinced that the only mechanism that can make decisions about using military force as a last resort is the Charter of the United Nations … The use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN.”

None of Russia’s claims today find historical justification, even during the Soviet era. Ukraine was a newly independent republic in 1917 when Lenin’s Bolshevik Red Army overtook it militarily. It was a founding member of the UN General Assembly with its own seat and a signatory of the UN Charter, a status advocated by Stalin to recognize its sacrifices fighting the Nazis. Crimea became part of Ukraine in 1954 by an act of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. In 1991 Ukraine regained its independence. By “annexing” Crimea in 2014, and last month recognizing the “independence” of Luhansk and Donetsk as “breakaway regions,” Putin himself was acknowledging that the rest of the territory his army has now invaded and attacked is that of an independent, sovereign UN member state.

{mossecondads}On Nov. 29, 1990, for the first and only time since the founding of the United Nations, the Soviet Union voted yes to authorize “all necessary means” — including military force — to restore peace and security after Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

Security Council Resolution 678 met Vladimir Putin’s 2007 test of legitimacy for the use of military force. His military aggression against sovereign Ukraine fails this test. 

Whatever direction the crisis in Ukraine may take, the world must be clear about one immutable fact: Just as the Soviet Union in 1990 was right, Russia in 2022 is wrong. And, as Michael Walzer wrote in his classic Just and Unjust Wars, “the aggressor is responsible for all the consequences of the fighting he begins.”

Lincoln Bloomfield Jr. served as a national security official and assistant secretary of State in five administrations. He is chairman emeritus of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

Tags Diplomatic Relations Enlargement of NATO International relations NATO Richard Armitage Russia Russian aggression Russian foreign policy Russian invasion of Ukraine Russia–NATO relations Sergei Lavrov Ukraine United Nations Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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