War of Surprises: Ukrainian resistance to Russian invasion has confounded military mavens world over
Some wars acquire names that stick. The Lancaster and York clans fought the War of the Roses from 1455-1485 to claim the British throne. The Hundred Years’ War pitted England against France from 1337-1453.
In the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648, many European countries clashed, while Britain and France waged the Seven Years’ War, 1756-63, across significant parts of the globe. World War I (1914-1918) gained the lofty moniker, “The Great War,” even though World II (1939-1945) would prove far greater in death, destruction and its grim global reach.
Of the catchier conflict names, my own favourite – although the Pig War of 1859 between the US and Great Britain in Canada runs a close second – is the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748). It was named for Captain Robert Jenkins of the East India Company who, in 1738, told the British House of Commons that his ear, which he displayed for the onlooking parliamentarians, had been severed several years earlier by a Spanish coast guard sloop’s commander.
He had boarded the ship off the Cuban coast and committed the outrage using Jenkins’s own cutlass. If ever there was cause for war, that was it! An ear for an ear, so to speak.
If I could give Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine a name for posterity, I think I’d call it the War of Surprises because from the get-go it so thoroughly confounded the military mavens and experts on Russia and Ukraine. For now, though, let me confine myself to exploring just two surprising aspects of that ongoing conflict, both of which can be posed as questions: Why did it occur when it did? Why has it evolved in such unexpected ways?
Although a slim majority of experts opined that Putin might use force against Ukraine many months after his military build-up on Ukraine’s border began in early 2021, few foresaw an all-out invasion. When he started massing troops, the reigning assumption was that he was muscle-flexing, probably to extract a promise that Nato would cease expanding toward Russia.
Some context helps here. Nato had just 16 members at its Cold War peak. More than three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has 30-32 when Finland and Sweden, which sought membership after Putin’s invasion, are allowed to join. Long before Putin became president in 2000, Russian officials were already condemning the eastward march of the American-led former Cold War alliance. His predecessor Boris Yeltsin made his opposition clear to President Bill Clinton.
In October 1993, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher prepared to travel to Russia, James Collins, chargé d’affaires at the American embassy in Moscow, sent him a cable warning that “Nato expansion is neuralgic to Russians.” If continued “without holding the door open to Russia,” he added, it would be “universally interpreted in Moscow as directed against Russia and Russia alone – or ‘Neo-Containment,’ as Foreign Minister [Andrei] Kozyrev recently suggested.”
In February 2008, eight years into Putin’s presidency and about a month before a Nato summit in Bucharest, Romania, William Burns, then the American ambassador to Moscow and now the director of the CIA, sent a cable to Washington focusing on Ukraine.
“Nato enlargement, particularly to Ukraine,” he warned, “remains an ‘emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia.” That same month, in a memo to President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Burns wrote that Ukraine’s entry into Nato would cross “the brightest of all red lines” for Russia’s leaders. “I have,” he continued, “yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in Nato as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
Such diplomatic missives had little effect as Nato expansion became the centrepiece of Washington’s new security order in Europe. In April 2008, at Bush’s urging, Nato finally took a fateful step at that Bucharest summit, declaring that Ukraine and Georgia would, one day, join its ranks.
Now, it was one thing to include former Soviet allies from Central Europe in Nato, but Ukraine was another matter entirely. In the eyes of Russian nationalists, the two countries shared a centuries-long set of cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious ties with Ukrainians, not to mention a 1,426-mile-long border, a point Putin made in a 7,000-word essay he wrote in July 2021, tellingly titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
Putin, who never regarded Ukraine as an authentic state, saw the Ukrainians’ overwhelming December 1991 vote in favour of independence as a deep injustice. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that he told George W. Bush at a Nato-Russia Council meeting held during that 2008 Bucharest summit, “Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? A part of its territory is Eastern Europe, another part [Ukraine east of the Dnipro River], and a significant one, is a donation from us.”
He later added ominously that, if Ukraine entered Nato, it would lose Crimea, its sole Russian-majority province, and the Donbas, its Russophone east. In his 2016 book, All the Kremlin’s Men, Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar confirmed that Putin had indeed threatened to destroy Ukraine, were it to join Nato.
Those who blame Nato for the present war point to just such evidence. And it can’t be denied that Nato expansion created tension between Russia and the West, as well as Russia and Ukraine. But the alliance’s Bucharest promise that Ukraine would become a member someday didn’t make Putin’s war any less surprising.
Here’s why: between then and the invasion moment, Nato never followed through on its pledge to take the next step and provide Kyiv with a “membership action plan.” By February 2022, it had, in fact, kept Ukraine waiting for 14 years without the slightest sign that its candidacy might be advancing (though Ukraine’s security ties and military training with some NATO states – the US, Britain and Canada, in particular – had increased).
So, the Nato-was-responsible theory, suggesting that Putin invaded in 2022 in the face of an “existential threat,” isn’t convincing (even if one believes, as I do, that Nato’s enlargement was a bad idea and Russian apprehensions reasonable).
A rival explanation for Putin’s war is that it stemmed from his fear of liberal democracy. Under his rule, Russia had become steadily more authoritarian until the state was embodied in a single person: him. Putin’s greatest fear, so this explanation goes, was the spectre of Russians thronging the streets demanding more freedom – and so, his departure.
For that reason, he curbed the media, exiled opposition figures, allegedly had others like Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov killed, and jailed Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent dissident and the person most likely to lead a grassroots rebellion against him.
According to this account, Putin can’t imagine Russians turning against him spontaneously, since he played such a crucial role in putting the 1990s – a decade of economic collapse, fire sales of state property to sleazy “oligarchs,” rising poverty, and potential civil war – behind them.
Instead, he built a strong state, imposed order, crushed the Chechens’ attempted secession, paid off Russia’s massive debt early, rebuilt the army, revved up the economy and left the country standing tall as a great power once again.
So, if Russians do protest en masse (as they did from 2011 to 2013 against rigged elections), it must be thanks to instigation from abroad, as was supposedly true in adjoining countries like Georgia during its 2003 Rose Revolution, Kyrgyzstan during its 2005 Tulip Revolution, and Ukraine during its Orange Revolution that same year.
Putin, this narrative continues, hated the “colour revolutions” because they created turmoil in regions he deemed Russia’s sphere of influence or in which, as former president Dmitry Medvedev put it, the country has “privileged interests.”
But his real beef against citizen rebellions in Russia’s neighbourhood, according to this explanation of what sparked the invasion, is that they might inspire insurrection in Russia. And when it came to that, he especially feared such events in Ukraine.
- A TomDispatch report