Russia’s interior issues, not exterior, led to invasion of Ukraine
By Michael Niemann
In recent columns, Herbert Rothschild has asked why the invasion of Ukraine wasn’t prevented and offered three possible answers. One, Putin was determined to attack. Two, U.S. strategists failed to realize that he was serious about attacking. Three, U.S. strategists wanted him to attack.
First, a quick bit of additional history. We all know the words “not one inch eastward” uttered on February 9, 1990, by James Baker. Those four words have continuously been presented as the reason for Russia’s disenchantment with the West and the invasion. However, the Treaty of the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed on Sept. 12, 1990, spells out in Article 6 that Germany could belong to any alliance. Russia therefore accepted NATO expansion to the Oder-Neisse border with Poland.
As the Warsaw Pact dissolved and its former eastern European members developed democratic governments, the security question in Europe became more complicated. On May 27, 1997, NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation. The premise of the treaty was a future of cooperation between NATO and Russia. The fourth bullet point in the first article spells out “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security .…” In other words, the possibility of NATO expansion was acknowledged by Russia as early as 1997.
When Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined in 1999, it was no surprise. Yes, Russia at the time was assuaged by the monetary aid given by the West, monies that sadly disappeared in rather few pockets, but it is not accurate to say that NATO betrayed Russia. Such a claim is disingenuous.
So I’d like to offer a fourth answer. Rather then seeking the reason for the attack in NATO misdeeds or Putin’s psyche, it might be found in the material conditions of Russian capitalism. The 1990s with their shock transition from a planned economy to capitalism were a decade of incredible disruption for ordinary Russians. People’s incomes, pensions and jobs disappeared, sometimes overnight.
Yeltsin’s policies, often implemented in seemingly abrupt and poorly planned edicts, shrank the economy dramatically. At the same time, the privatization advocated by the West transferred vast values at bargain basement prices into the hands of what Tony Wood (author of “Russia without Putin”) calls a new “outsider elite,” a group of operators not directly tied to the old Soviet state apparatus. Yeltsin’s attack on the Parliament underscored the willingness to use force to push these reforms through.
When Putin came to power in 2000, he led an attack on those outsiders, culminating in the breakup and transfer to the state of the Yukos Oil company in 2003. A new group, the “insiders,” according to Wood, rose to prominence. These were people closely associated with the state both in Moscow and the provinces.
The boom in oil and gas exports in the early and mid-2000s brought plenty of cash into the state coffers, allowing the government to fully pay pensions, increase wages and similar policies that guaranteed the regime’s popular support. The crisis of 2008 brought an end to that government largess. In only one year, Russian per capita income declined by 25%. Between 2013 and 2020, per capita income declined by about 30%. Commentators have spoken of the humiliation of Russia and Russians in the post Cold War era. That is true. But the humiliation wasn’t the lost superpower status. The humiliation was the loss of meaningful jobs, of income, of pensions. Soviet women had a high labor participation rate; today they are told to rear children.
Such devastating economic developments lead to political restiveness. The 2012 protests were its symbol. The Russian state clamped down on opposition movements while also steering the country toward a Russian nationalism, strongly tinged by Orthodox Christianity. The Russian model of capitalism isn’t working anymore and, to distract the populous from its failed policies, the state increasingly turns to tried-and-true methods. The government trumpets a glorious Russian past, the virtues of the Russian nation, and condemns enemies of the nation both outside and in. The attempt to incorporate Russian speaking territories into the motherland are part and parcel of that strategy.
In short, Russia’s own internal contradictions have fostered the dispossession of millions of Russians which created the need for a horrendous distraction. That’s why I think a different NATO policy would have had little impact on Putin’s decision to attack.