Why the West Failed on Ukraine
How Can We Learn From Our Past Mistakes?
The celebration of 100 years of Ukrainian Border Guards foundation, Kyiv, April 27, 2018. Photographer: Markiv Mykhailo. Source: President.gov.ua
No one knows today whether Putin’s regime will again step up its attack on Ukraine and continue its invasion in other parts of the Donbass, or even beyond. This will not be the subject of this paper. But it was necessary to start there to understand what is at stake. Ukraine has been facing the Russian war for almost eight years and part of the Donbass is already occupied by elements of the Russian regime. It has already been and is still being invaded. In 2021 again, 80 Ukrainians have been killed in action by Russia and many more wounded. The war today is said to be of lesser intensity than in 2014 and 2015, but it still kills. Beyond the eighty personal tragedies, which follow those of previous years—this war three hours from Paris, less than two from Berlin has already claimed more than 14,000 victims, not to mention the 1.5 million displaced—the continuation of this aggression constitutes a major failure for the Western world.
The war is here. However, because the leaders are not talking enough about it, the vast majority of French, Germans, Italians, Belgians, Spaniards or citizens of Western European countries do not know it. Some even imagine that if the Russian regime did not decide to continue its massive invasion of Ukraine, it would be a relief. No doubt, but it is to be feared that one would forget the murderous war that exists and the fate of the populations of the Donbass who aim in a state of oppression. One would forget the prisons in this area where torture and terror are sown. One would also forget the still illegally annexed Crimea where the Tatar population in particular is subjected to the suppression of its rights and culture, humiliations, persecutions and forced disappearances. Once again, the crime would be forgotten, as it was in Syria and elsewhere.
Worse still, some imagine that we should “thank” Mr. Putin if, by chance, he did not launch a new attack against Ukraine. Perhaps—although it seems less certain now—this is also what he is looking for, or at least what he tried to do at the beginning: to obtain new concessions. These would also mean forgetting the existing war and persecutions in Crimea and the Donbass. The usual Putinversteher rushes to recommend that the Ukrainian government should be “reasonable” and agree to “give ground”, or even to suggest—which is obviously false—that Ukraine would also be responsible for the non-implementation of the Minsk 2 agreements. Still others like to say that if this attack does not take place, there would be no problem in certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, as if it were not a major threat to the European Union and as if nothing was happening.
In reality, this rhetoric has been heard all too often during the eight years of Russian war against Ukraine. These eight years have been a mixture of inaction and denial, of failure to take a clear stand toward and sometimes contempt for the aggressed nation, of silence and indifference, of improprieties in the language of Western leaders, and fundamentally of a lack of understanding Putin’s own objectives—ultimately following a unique pattern in Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, Georgia and elsewhere. Everything happened as if this threat had not been taken seriously and as if the 14,000 deaths had no historical and strategic significance—regardless of any moral considerations and empathy.
It was feigned that this foreign war was a “civil war”, that it was fought by “separatists” and even that “the blame was shared” and that it was necessary to “understand Russia”. The problem is not that the extreme parties in Europe have taken up the Kremlin’s rhetoric, but that sometimes the so-called moderate political leaders have in some way accredited it. They pretended to think and even said that there was room for negotiation and compromise and that they were dealing with a trustworthy interlocutor. They were attached to legal fictions—including that of the Russian regime as a “guarantor”, which is, moreover, quite contradictory to the sanctions, justified though too weak, against Russia—and to fictions altogether, including by not always pointing out forcefully enough the presence of Russian military elements, in one form or another, in the occupied regions of Donbass. In short, the war has been allowed to settle over time, sometimes giving the impression of weariness, as if certain Western leaders seemed especially eager to move on.
Today, we have reached this point.
War and time
The time of war counts: letting a war take hold—soon eleven years in Syria, eight in Ukraine, eight in Yemen—is always an implicit form of acceptance, as is the occupation of 20% of Georgian territory for almost twelve years. This almost always means war crimes, persecutions, but also a settlement of the war that makes the cost of its end infinitely higher as time goes by. This is not only a sign of an absence of will, but also a disastrous strategic calculation: it is both a tacit authorization and a denial of responsibility.
As is often the case, the West has not paid attention to Putin’s intentions with regard to Ukraine, which date back to well before 2014 and even before the NATO summit in Bucharest from 2 to 4 April 2008: the desire to annex Crimea had been stated by Putin as early as 2000 and, as early as the mid-2000s, he had tried to instrumentalize certain supporters of the Kremlin in the Donetsk region in order to bring about its “independence”—at least from Ukraine! That these leaders may not have taken these warning signs seriously before Georgia is certainly excusable, at least conceivable. That there was no retrospective warning after 2008 is a definite flaw. It seems difficult to imagine that the Western intelligence services did not issue the necessary warnings to the political authorities.
I will not recall in detail the stages of the outbreak of the war: as early as February-March 2014, largely aroused unrest in all likelihood in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, military invasion of Crimea by Russian forces and an almost immediate fraudulent referendum on independence, and, as early as April 6, the beginning of the war presented as that of the separatists, but in which the evidence of the involvement of Russian forces—presented as “tourists” or as “volunteers on leave” by the Russian power or “little green men”, first in Crimea, in other words special forces or fighters without apparent insignia—was quickly demonstrated and confirmed several times thereafter. This was also, as early as 2014, what the committee of mothers of Russian soldiers said in a shocking way, quickly silenced. Putin himself had recognized this for the Crimea. Involuntarily, a Russian court even demonstrated this! The Kremlin has only repeated on a much larger scale operations that it had undertaken elsewhere. What has sometimes been called “the practice of unconventional warfare” is not only a matter of infiltration and propaganda, but also of classic warfare operations. If anything, the intensity of the operations carried out by the so-called “separatists”—in fact by Russian units also responsible for the death of the 298 passengers and crew of flight MH17 on 17 July 2014—and their firepower attest to the existence of military capabilities that the “separatist” militias alone could not have.
On a political level, the statements of political leaders, especially American and French, show that no one is fooled about the eminent responsibility in the outbreak of the conflict. But at the same time, on a concrete level, the reactions are almost nil. American military assistance to Ukraine is very limited—essentially training—and nil on the European level—only Hungary providing tanks to Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict. They also remain ambiguous: as he did in Syria, President Obama urged his Russian counterpart to “put pressure” on the separatists—in Syria, it was the Assad regime—but he excluded any military support operation. As in Syria, calling on the main aggressor and a perpetrator of crimes to put pressure on others is a dubious joke. In fact, as it were, Obama’s refusal to enforce the red lines he himself had drawn after the chemical weapons bombing of Ghouta on August 21, 2013 had made it clear to Putin that he had carte blanche in Ukraine and elsewhere. In a way, George W. Bush had done the same for Georgia when the U.S. administration had unofficially given guarantees to the government in Tbilisi—and Joe Biden was to repeat this with Trump’s planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
Diplomatically, the steps are also known: the first Minsk agreement on September 5, 2014, never complied with, then the second Minsk agreement on February 12, 2015, negotiated by France and Germany under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with Russia and Ukraine, and the participation of representatives of the self-proclaimed (and unrecognized) republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. This agreement was not implemented by Russian forces—regular attacks on Ukrainian positions mainly—and it was the basis for the subsequent so-called Normandy format talks. It is—a point often forgotten—the basis of the second set of EU sanctions against Russia, the first consisting of individual sanctions related to the illegal annexation of Crimea. This arrangement—it seems in a way miraculous—has always been renewed until today.
Not without reason was this agreement considered by Kyiv as a document negotiated under threat and largely unenforceable in the present conditions. In fact, constitutional reform and the establishment of a provisional government in eastern Ukraine could hardly be achieved in a region under de facto Russian occupation and where there is no freedom of speech and vote. It was clear from the beginning that this was a thinly disguised annexation and the granting of Russian passports to residents of the occupied regions was to demonstrate this. The Kremlin’s willingness to return these regions to Ukraine, even in a federation with greater autonomy for the eastern regions of the country, was more than questionable from the start. Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and integrity were more than threatened; they were de facto abolished. It was therefore clear from the start that the Russian regime had no intention of implementing the Minsk 2 agreements.
In essence, the process that led to these agreements is in itself a failure. They are the result of a lack of will, first of all on the part of the United States, but also on the part of the European Union—which, in fact, did not have the military means—to take concrete action, if only by providing lethal weapons to Ukraine—even if a positive, albeit insufficient, development has been taking shape since 2018—and offering it the necessary means in terms of air surveillance and intelligence. The sanctions that were decided by the power, both necessary and relatively effective, were not targeted at Putin’s inner circle either, under the fallacious pretext that Russia should not be “provoked”. Faced with this situation, the first concern of President François Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel was, if not to stop the war, at least to reduce its intensity.
Subsequently, still lacking American support and due to a European “doctrine” of non-intervention, these agreements have, in reality, resulted in a sort of fait accompli. The discussions in the Normandy format have in fact produced nothing but a few exchanges of prisoners, not without the Kremlin using them in its propaganda to put those on both sides on the same level—whereas some, notably the filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, were in fact hostages in the hands of the Russian authorities.
Between 2015 and the current period, the management of these agreements has not been free of heavy mistakes, especially on the part of Berlin. This was the case when, in 2016, the then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a regular in bothsidesism, went so far as to propose the “formula” that bears his name and which provided for the holding of elections in the Donbass. This formula, not foreseen by the Minsk 2 agreements, would have led to a de facto recognition of the control of Moscow’s forces in the occupied Donbass. Renamed “Putin’s formula” because it was so favorable to Moscow’s positions, it was for a moment implicitly accepted by Ukrainian President Zelensky in early autumn 2019, which led to numerous protests in Ukraine. Fortunately, it has since been buried.
The reinforced threats against Ukraine since December 2021 are only the translation of this lack of will of the West to bring the only real possible answer: to put an end to the Russian occupation. However, the more time passes, the more it settles in, even though it was predictable from the beginning. Some have described the situation in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions as frozen; in reality, it is deeply unstable and it was clear that, one way or another, the Russian regime would try to regain full control. This so-called freeze is never a solution. It weighs dramatically on Ukraine and it reflects an acceptance of the fait accompli: here has revision of the borders by force, as was the case in Crimea. There is a kind of illusion of containment when it is not also linked to a credible perspective of rollback.
The strategy of fear
The “strategic patience” that Barack Obama spoke of—first with regard to North Korea—has been illustrated in Ukraine by a strategic rout, the consequences of which are expected today. It is important to understand the reasons for this because they are far from being dispelled today.
First, it must be recognized that Russian propaganda has largely worked on at least one point: the threat of a full-scale war. This Kremlin narrative has been repeated over and over again until today, and it has not failed to impute potential responsibility to its enemies if such a war were to be launched. While no one can consider that this risk is not to be taken seriously, especially since Vladimir Putin’s rationality is far from being completely assured, focusing on this speech alone is like obeying the threats of the Russian regime. Above all, compliance with this form of pressure leads not only to paralysis in the face of the Russian regime’s actions, but also to the postponement of the emergence of the threat, as we have seen since December 2021. In practical terms, the Russian state has only strengthened its military capabilities and the threat is only getting stronger.
Secondly, the absence of action reflects a form of acceptance of the Kremlin’s expansionist policy, including its claim to “Russianness” beyond Russia’s territorial borders. This becomes a pretext for revising the borders, and Putin made no secret of this in his long text of July 21st 2021. Some Western politicians even seem inclined to consider that this could be legitimate. Some even pretend to consider that this corresponds to the so-called permanent “interests” of Russia and that the regime would only be its normal spokesman. I have already shown how this alleged attribution of interests is part of a false and outdated conception of international relations.
Moreover, some Western officials are inclined to divide the world into so-called important nations and nations that are in some way marginal. In this spirit, they implicitly consider that Russia, because of the size of its territory, its history and its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, would have more “rights” and legitimate claims than Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus or Kazakhstan. Above all, they consider states and governments and not peoples. They are therefore deprived of an accurate conception of world security, which also depends, if not essentially, on the security of smaller nations and the freedom claimed by their people. They do not see that the war in Ukraine does not only threaten Ukrainians, but the whole of Europe and even beyond. They are therefore in a hurry to end it, as if “serious things” were being played out elsewhere than in Ukraine.
Finally, the same political leaders do not consider that this is strictly speaking a war of one regime against another state and its population. Many continue to speak of a “crisis”, particularly in relation to Ukraine, because they refuse to see the war. Indeed, when it is a war—an uninterrupted war for eight years—it is necessary to take appropriate measures. One of these measures is the prohibition of the supply of any weapon to the adversary. However, by considering—some have used the term—the Russian regime as a “partner”, by believing that it can provide solutions on certain issues—including the war on terror, which I have shown to be factually wrong—, by agreeing to give it financial resources useful to its war effort—in particular by trading with it despite the sanctions or by agreeing to the realization of Nord Stream 2—, these leaders show that they do not understand what a war is, or they do not want to see it.
Russia’s policy of fear has thus worked. It is precisely this scribbled strategy that must be broken.
Taking back the reins in silence
In the face of threat, sometimes silence is the best policy, provided it is combined with action. It is often better than multiple and sometimes erratic and contradictory statements or endless discussions that not only get nowhere, but above all are a fulcrum for the enemy's propaganda. In fact, since 2014, the West has talked a lot, far too much, and done little. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has advanced, solidified its positions, nurtured the complicity of part of the Western ruling class and imposed its agenda. Today’s serious threats, whatever their realization, are only the results of this dizzying vibrancy of diplomatic speech in which one can discern an absence of strategy.
Do the Allies understand their fault? Some of them undoubtedly appreciate more accurately the Russian threat, the first and most immediate one for the free world, and have given up on the blunders that constitute the ideas of re-engagement, reset or trusting dialogue. They are more aware that there is no give and take with the Russian regime and that the very principle of a dialogue is doomed to failure and a sign of weakness that can only be exploited by the Kremlin. Others, however, continue to pretend to believe—one does not dare to hypothesize that they really do—that it is possible to start afresh with Moscow and rebalance a situation in which, today, the Kremlin has all the advantages and solidified positions. After more than fifteen years of misunderstanding the workings of the Russian regime and of disorganized and absurd words, one can therefore sometimes fear that nothing has really changed in certain political circles in the United States and in Europe. It seems that the lesson has not been strong enough.
The duty today for the Western capitals is to regain control. We can certainly be happy that NATO has regained more cohesion and that its eminent mission, which has never ceased to be, is now recognized more than it was in the past. Few still dare to speak today of an organization that would no longer have a raison d’être since the disappearance of the USSR. But many, nevertheless, continue to believe that further enlargements of the organization are not welcome, especially with regard to Ukraine, or even Finland and Sweden, as if the choice had to be made taking into consideration the supposed perceptions of the Kremlin. The same applies to the European Union, for which some do not see the point of a commitment to the future membership of Ukraine—for which, incidentally, the prospect of membership is even more decisive than that of the Washington Treaty organization—, Moldova, and in due course Georgia, as well as of a Belarus rid of the criminal regime of Lukashenka.
Finally, it is high time to speak the truth about the situation in Ukraine. It must be recognized today that the Minsk agreements have come to an end and that the situation in eastern Ukraine will not be resolved solely through the good offices mission of Paris and Berlin. It will not be insurmountably difficult to find a way to ensure that the sanctions against Moscow are no longer linked to the non-implementation of these agreements, but simply to the occupation of the Donbass. And of course, Ukraine must be given the means to defend itself. Finally, the West will have to clearly state that this occupation, as well as the annexation of Crimea, are not acceptable. This has already been done in the case of the latter, since the annexation has never been recognized in international law—and this is fortunate. But the same must be done for the Donbass. We must urgently get rid of the fictions that lead to not recognizing this de facto annexation. As such, it calls for much stronger sanctions than those in force today. These should not be linked only to the prospect of a new war, but to the current situation.
Western leaders must come out of this world of illusions. Since Plato, we know that leaving the cave can be risky. But even more important are the dangers of refusing to accept the truth and of not getting out.