Editor’s Note: on Day 8 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
..parsing a dictator’s words to help make sense of a murky and devastating conflict
Any news site we go to features Russia's invasion of Ukraine with the latest destruction, battles, timeline of events and whatever other details have been reported across the world. Each news site is trying to understand how the conflict will play out and have presented theories as to why now and what is Putin’s aim. It’s impossible to take a dictator at his word - or more specifically to trust he is being forthright with his reasoning. But if what he said provides any clues as to the pretense he may use to extend the conflict, here are some thoughts from the editor with what we know today:
How do we categorize this invasion? None of these are meant to be literal analogies but rather to help frame what facts have come to light against historical conflicts.
In his February 24th televised speech to the Russian people, he shared his version of Western and Russian history and listed multiple claims to justify the falsely labeled “military operation” in Ukraine. Three claims stand out as it relates to the Iraq analogy:
a) Putin claimed Ukraine was committing genocide in Donbas and Eastern Ukraine. No human rights group has proven this assertion but it is reminiscent of the American case made to attack Iraq in the early 1990s. Saddam was a brutal dictator who murdered thousands of Kurds (he in fact did do this) and needed to be stopped.
b) Additionally, Putin claimed Ukraine wanted to acquire nuclear weapons, which was a false claim made by the United States in the run-up to the second war in Iraq. Similar to that war, evidence to date has not proven this assertion to be true but the threat of nuclear weapons that could be used against the Russian people could help galvanize Russian support for Putin's war.
c) In his address, he spoke of how the Russian people fought valiantly to push back the Nazis during WWII and it is Russia’s duty to deNazify Ukraine and fight Nazis everywhere. In the leadup to the second war in Iraq, many Administration officials and members of the media deliberately insinuated a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. America swore to fight Al-Qaeda anywhere in the world in our global war on terrorism and for years after the war, millions of Americans still believed that connection existed despite facts proving otherwise.
As Americans know full well, the second war in Iraq was an utter disaster for our country and the region. Yes, Saddam was removed from power, but the war destabilized the region more than it helped secure America and our Allies from future terrorists attacks. Putin would also have known this and reading each of the above claims, the threat of attacks against Russia, nuclear or other missiles, could justify any “military operation.” It’s not a stretch to say the United States had energy concerns on its mind when attacking Iraq the second time, but what resources or economic reason would there be for Russia to invade Ukraine?
This particular war was incredibly complicated but when Russia did start supporting Assad’s regime, the stated reason was fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. In Putin’s televised address regarding Ukraine, he did say:
“This is how it was in the 1990s and the early 2000s, when the so-called collective West was actively supporting separatism and gangs of mercenaries in southern Russia. What victims, what losses we had to sustain and what trials we had to go through at that time before we broke the back of international terrorism in the Caucasus! We remember this and will never forget.”
Though his tone suggests he feels strongly about this issue, it was a small part of his speech and in context it serves to build Russia’s moral stature than be a reason to invade Ukraine to stop the Neo-Nazis mentioned before.
In Syria, Russia successfully helped Assad remain in power and increased its stature in the Middle East.
Rebuilding the former Russian empire
From Putin’s televised speech:
Even now, with NATO’s eastward expansion the situation for Russia has been becoming worse and more dangerous by the year. Moreover, these past days NATO leadership has been blunt in its statements that they need to accelerate and step up efforts to bring the alliance’s infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders. In other words, they have been toughening their position. We cannot stay idle and passively observe these developments. This would be an absolutely irresponsible thing to do for us.
Any further expansion of the North Atlantic alliance’s infrastructure or the ongoing efforts to gain a military foothold of the Ukrainian territory are unacceptable for us. Of course, the question is not about NATO itself. It merely serves as a tool of US foreign policy. The problem is that in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile “anti-Russia” is taking shape. Fully controlled from the outside, it is doing everything to attract NATO armed forces and obtain cutting-edge weapons.
In this context I would like to address the citizens of Ukraine. In 2014, Russia was obliged to protect the people of Crimea and Sevastopol from those who you yourself call “nats.” The people of Crimea and Sevastopol made their choice in favour of being with their historical homeland, Russia, and we supported their choice. As I said, we could not act otherwise.
Despite repeatedly claiming in his speech he wants to respect the rights of other nations and let them choose their fate, these passages strung together suggest something more ominous. Referencing territories adjacent to Russia as “our historical land” and making a point of saying Crimea and Sevastopol want to return to “their historical homeland” is indicative of larger ambitions. Since the Cold War, Russia has been alarmed about eastern expansion of NATO and feeling cornered. Just this morning, AP News reported both Finland and Sweden are now considering joining NATO after decades of resistance. Finland was part of the 19th century Russian Empire along with Ukraine, Belarus (which voted with Russia at the United Nations), Moldova, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Baltic Republics, and parts of Poland and Turkey.
As of today, it is unclear when the war in Ukraine will end but Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has said a second round of talks with Russia has begun in neighboring Belarus. While the war and talks go on, more and more European nations are arming themselves, some in America are calling for a no-fly zone and Russia still has thousands of nuclear weapons. And yesterday, China abstained at the United Nations from admonishing Russia’s invasion and seems to be watching events unfold on the sidelines..
..if you want to learn more: