It took me nearly a month to organize my thoughts about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some consider that a long time for one to simply decide on which side of history to stand, but I am of a small pool of Americans who call both the United States and Russia his home. This duality of identity was the source of the internal conflict with which I wrestled with during that time. In the end, the statement I articulated against the war was likely too long for many to read, but it felt relieving to put my thoughts into text form, nonetheless. In truth, there was much more that could have and perhaps even should have been included in my statement but at some point, a statement of that nature had to simply come to an end.
A couple weeks have passed since I published my statement, and I again feel compelled to share some thoughts as the war approaches its sixth week. As of the date of this publication, the war has gone on now for forty days. I am not religious, but you do not need to be so to recognize the symbolism of forty days. It was during the Great Flood depicted in Genesis that rain fell for forty days; it was for forty days that Moses remained on Mount Sinai before he returned with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments; and it was after forty days of fasting in the Judean Desert that Jesus was tempted by the devil. The number 40 in human history has represented periods of change, difficulty, and turmoil. As of today, Ukraine has gone through its own forty days of trials, emerging better and on a stronger footing than it had been prior to the Russian invasion, and yet the end of this turmoil is still not in sight.
Russia has often expressed a legitimate national security concern about the eastern expansion of NATO – especially into former Soviet republics – and more broadly, encirclement. All countries have the right to defend their national security against existential threats. It is reasonable for Moscow to feel threatened by military deployments of foreign adversaries that encircle Russia. At the very least it upsets the balance of power which has served to keep the peace in Europe for a half a century. It is also reasonable for Moscow to object to foreign military alliances encroaching into countries that were once under Russian rule but certainly still exist within the Russian sphere of influence.
A comparative analysis would show that the United States has not taken well to the presence or interference of foreign powers in Central and South America, which Washington has taken upon itself to prevent as a matter of official foreign policy since the days of James Monroe. Theodore Roosevelt expanded that policy with a corollary that established a self-proclaimed right of the United States to directly intervene in the internal affairs in countries south of its border, and the United States did not shy away from exercising this right across the Western Hemisphere from Panama to Grenada and Nicaragua to the Dominican Republic.
That foreign policy has since been watered down and walked back over by subsequent presidents over the past century, but the United States maintains its sphere of influence in its own hemisphere, nonetheless. It is within this context that I can sympathize with the Russian desire to prevent foreign adversaries from deploying into countries that not only share a border but are countries with which Russia shares deep historical, cultural, religious, and linguistic ties. It is within this context that I can understand the Russian desire to prevent foreign adversaries from further encircling Russia.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, therefore, has officially been about improving Russia’s national security position by preventing the eastern expansion of NATO into that country, thereby eliminating the threat of further encirclement, and reducing the prospects of its adversaries encroaching towards the Russian border in the future. In fact, given the tremendous and embarrassing losses incurred by the Russian military during these past six weeks, the stated military objective of forcing Ukraine to abandon its aspirations of joining NATO and adopting a neutral stance continues to be a condition for peace while other objectives, such as denazification and demilitarization, have essentially been set aside.
Looking at the war through that lens only further demonstrates Russia’s failure to improve its national security position. Not only has Russia lost a tremendous number of lives on its side, but it has also earned itself the scorn of the world for causing a tremendous loss of lives on the Ukrainian side, much of which among the civilian population. An entire separate discussion and debate could be held about what happened or did not happen in Bucha, and whether it was genocide perpetrated by the Russian side or a provocation orchestrated by the Ukrainian side.
The pointed truth is that it does not matter what happened in Bucha or elsewhere. What matters is what the world believes happened and Russia is in no position to counter the prevailing narrative. I am not disagreeing with the prevailing narrative of what appears to be an atrocity committed by Russian soldiers, but I believe people should “question more,” which is ironically the slogan of Russian state media channel Russia Today.
Regardless, Vladimir Putin is ultimately responsible for every loss of human life in Ukraine since February 24, for tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers would be alive today had he not chosen to invade Ukraine; Bucha would still be an obscure Ukrainian town today had he not chosen to invade Ukraine; and the yet unknown precise number of civilians killed from Mariupol to Chernihiv as a result of the Russian invasion would still be alive today had he not chosen to invade Ukraine.
Russia will feel the consequences of this military debacle for years and even decades. From the economic sanctions, isolation from the western world and severely tarnished reputation on the world stage, to the sons and husbands who will never return to their mothers and wives in Russia, it raises the question whether the war in Ukraine will turn out to have been worth it.
Personally, I find it hard to accept that the additions of Donetsk and Luhansk into the Russian Federation was worth the economic and human loss, even if one were to only consider the loss of Russian lives. Should the people of these two regions in fact join Russia, may they be forever indebted to the Russian people for the sacrifices made on their behalf.
Meanwhile, Ukraine appears agreeable to adopting a neutral stance and rejecting membership in NATO. If this comes to pass, it seems on the surface as though it may present Russia with a “Missioned Accomplished” moment, albeit at an extraordinarily high cost of human lives. Yet an even slightly deeper look at the new reality in Europe shows that Russia would be ill-advised to claim Ukrainian neutrality a victory, as it appears that neutral Finland (and maybe even Sweden) may join NATO in the near future as they reassess their own national security in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Not only does Finland share an 830-mile border with Russia, but its admission into NATO would expand that military bloc further east and it would open a new flank against Russia from the northwest that does not, for the time being, currently exist. Its admission into NATO would mean Russia’s military adversaries could theoretically deploy their forces just 85 miles northwest of Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city and Vladimir Putin’s hometown. These potential deployments to Finland would reinforce current deployments in Estonia, which has been a member of NATO since 2004, shares a border with Russia, and is just 60 miles southwest of Saint Petersburg. For a country so concerned with encirclement, it appears the actions it has taken to avoid encirclement have been utterly counterproductive, for both Finland and Sweden prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine were in favor of neutrality and against joining NATO.
There is something inherently beneficial to national security when a country is able to maintain respectful, if not cordial, relations with its neighbors. Yet due to Russian military actions of the past and present, Russia’s neighbors are decidedly anti-Russian. This unfriendliness—hostility even—spans from Georgia to the Baltics and is now more viral in Ukraine than it had ever been, representing ground zero of a new global pandemic—a global pandemic of hostility towards Russia. Personally, I find it hard to accept that the addition of Donetsk and Luhansk into the Russian Federation was worth turning the Ukrainian people fiercely anti-Russian for generations to come. I find it hard to accept that Russian national security is best served by encircling itself with nations which bear grievances against Moscow.
I find it hard to accept that the geopolitical security of the Russian Federation is on better footing now than prior to its invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, I consider the entire invasion and occupation a complete and unmitigated failure. There is not a single realistic outcome that can result with Russia walking away in a better position politically, economically, or militarily.
Politically speaking, Russia has been and is being systematically dismissed from international organizations to which it had belonged and through which it could exert its influence on the world stage and soon Russia will find itself further isolated when more countries around the world rightfully or wrongfully declare Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
Economically speaking, Russia has been isolated from the much of the global economy either by sanction or by voluntary acts of private corporations around the world which have decided to end its business dealings in and with Russia. The country is already facing price hikes on everything from automobiles to staple food products on top of pre-existing inflation and a highly volatile currency economists say is being artificially supported by Russia’s Central Bank.
Militarily speaking, Russia has a new aggressively adversarial neighbor in Ukraine, NATO is more united now than it has been in decades, eastern European countries like Poland are now welcoming the United States to deploy nuclear weapons to its country as a deterrent against Russia, previously neutral countries like Finland and Sweden are reassessing their own national security and may join NATO in the near future, and there are now nearly 100,000 American troops deployed along the NATO’s eastern flank in countries across eastern Europe.
In exchange for all of that hurt (no matter how much pride will force its officials publicly deny that pain), Russia may get Donetsk and Luhansk. However, without acquiescence from Kyiv, those two territories will never be internationally recognized as part of the Russian Federation. Thus, so long as Russia continues to occupy what is officially Ukraine, it will remain perpetually isolated from Europe and the broader western world where the Russian elite love to travel, buy villas, anchor their yachts, do business, and send their children to receive a prestigious education. Russia will remain perpetually under economic sanction, leaving the country in a state of economic crisis with product and food shortages, the pain of which will be mostly felt by the Russian people, not by those responsible for those pains. And yes, Russia will remain encircled—possibly to an even greater degree—by its military adversaries in a new Europe with no illusions about Russia’s intentions; a new Europe racing to end its dependency on Russian oil and gas, a cornerstone of the Russian economy; a new Europe boosting its defense spending and the size of its standing armies, keeping a watchful eye on its aggressive neighbor to the East.
Now, who can call that a victory in terms of improving or defending one’s national security situation?