Ukraine Narratives

Photograph Source: Silar – CC BY-SA 4.0

It all depends on the story one tells.  When the Russians invaded Ukraine, many observers saw Putin as attempting to crush Ukraine, acquire territory and recreate a new Soviet empire.  Some Eastern European countries feared that Russia might invade their borders.  U.S. President Joe Biden saw the invasion as a threat to democracy. As the war shifted southeastward, slipping into a bloody stalemate. the western press portrayed Putin as an evil dictator. Whenever there were opportunities for a ceasefire and peace negotiations, Western governments, and the major media, pushed back. They said Putin would  never negotiate and that if he did, he would never honor a settlement.

Based on such assumptions , the U.S. dismissed Russia’s pre-war claims and rejected both the 2022 deal mediated by Turkey and China’s offer to mediate. Based on the same assumptions, U.S. representatives vowed to provide weapons to Ukraine “as long as it takes.”  Never mind that Zelensky’s top war goals (to recover Crimea and expel Russian troops) are not achievable according to most military experts. Biden’s modest success in his proxy war to downgrade the Russian military has come at a horrific cost of Ukrainian casualties.

An alternative narrative suggests that Russia’s 2022 invasion in the north and full-scale military attacks in the south and east (where separatists had been fighting since 2014) were primarily strategic: to avoid encirclement by NATO forces. As early as 1990,  U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker assured Russia that NATO would not expand towards its border.  Nine years later, NATO admitted Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic.  In 2004, seven more Eastern European nations joined NATO, putting European troops directly on Russia’s border.  That same year, Russia denounced NATO expansion. In 2009 the U.S. announced plans to put missile systems in Poland and Romania and in 2016 began troop buildup in Europe. U.S. withdrawals from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (2001) and the Open Skies Treaty in 2019 sent hostile signals. Since 2007, Russia warned that a NATO force on its border would be intolerable. In 2021 the U.S. and NATO rejected Russian proposals that would keep NATO away from Russian borders. A current map shows U.S./NATO bases almost surrounding western Russia.  Would America tolerate Russian bases along its borders with Canada and Mexico?

The 1823 Monroe Doctrine bars foreign involvement in the U.S. hemisphere.  It was applied in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which revealed American determination to keep Russian missiles out of nearby Cuba.  It was a crisis that created a nuclear showdown that almost led to a world war. Would Russia not react the same way to a perceived move toward Ukraine admission into NATO?  Even if Putin is bluffing with his nuclear threat, the risk of cataclysmic war is not worth taking.

Here are some key facts:

+ The Russian invasion of February 2022 was an existential threat, which Ukraine successfully resisted in self-defense (with key help from the U.S. and its European allies).

+ Repulsed by Kiev, Russia shifted its military might to the on-going secessionist war in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions.  In territory where language, ethnic, and national loyalties are mixed, Russian and Ukrainian forces are now stalemated in bloody trench warfare.

+ Having lost over 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 civilians, Ukraine now faces shortages in troops  as well as weapons.

+ It is highly unlikely that Zelensky can recover Crimea and expel the Russian military by continued warfare.

+ Should Russia begin to lose territory it now regards as its own, the West should take Putin’s nuclear threat seriously.

+ If the U.S. and NATO countries cease to supply weapons, Ukraine may then opt for diplomacy to achieve a ceasefire and a mediated settlement.

Whichever narrative one accepts, only diplomacy can end the Russia/Ukraine war, preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty, and resolve the territorial conflict.  The continued supply of weapons by the U.S. and Europe only prolongs the war and encourages Zelensky in his false hope of victory. The withholding of weapons would likely cause Ukraine’s leaders to see that its forces cannot defeat an adversary that is four times its size. They may then understand that only diplomacy can create a narrative of peace.


L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.