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Only Putin is to blame for a second Ukraine invasion

There are many western voices echoing Russian claims NATO’s eastwards expansion is to blame for the current tensions. However, neither Russia’s first incursion into Ukraine, nor the current pressure applied can be attributed to anyone other than the Kremlin.

February 14, 2022 - Mark Temnycky - Articles and Commentary

A column of armoured personnel carriers rides on a snowy road outside Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photo: Seneline / Shutterstock

On February 11th, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that additional Russian forces had gathered near the Ukrainian border, amassing more than 130,000 troops. Based on these recent developments, Blinken believes that a Russian invasion “could begin at any time.” Intelligence gathered by the United States and its allies also suggests that Russia’s second incursion into Ukraine could occur “during the Olympics.”

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan echoed these statements. In his own press conference, Sullivan urged American expats to leave Ukraine within the next 24-48 hours. Other western states voiced similar concerns.

The situation remains very tense and unstable near the Russo-Ukrainian border. Russia has illegally occupied the Crimean peninsula and territory within the Donbas region since 2014. Over 14,000 have died from the conflict, and nearly two million Ukrainians are internally displaced (IDPs). If Russia was to launch a second military invasion, the number of deaths and IDPs would dramatically increase.

The international community will now watch anxiously as Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrates Russia’s next move. Some sources believe that a second invasion could be as imminent as next week.

Critics have argued that the West has not done enough to aid Ukraine during its time of need. They state that western countries should have initially provided lethal weapons to the Ukrainians, and that additional sanctions should have been implemented to deter the Russians. Instead, several countries have opposed sending lethal aid to Ukraine. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have also struggled to agree upon new Russian sanctions.

Other critics claim that Russia’s behaviour near the Ukrainian border results from NATO expansionism. The possibility of admitting Ukraine and Georgia, they argue, has aggravated the Russians. Had Ukraine and Georgia not pursued NATO membership, then the crises in these countries may have never occurred.

But if Russia is to launch this second invasion, western leaders should not be blamed for these potential developments. Over the past eight years, the United States has provided over 2.5 billion US dollars in defence, financial, and humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, the EU has provided nearly one billion in military and economic aid. Numerous western advisers have also been sent to help the Ukrainians reform their government, and modernise the Ukrainian military.

NATO should also not be blamed. Russia’s first incursion into eastern Ukraine was not a result of NATO expansionism. Instead, it was a response to its neighbour’s Revolution of Dignity. In November 2013, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reneged an Association Agreement with the European Union. This caused hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to travel to Ukraine’s city centre in Kyiv, the Maidan, to protest their government’s decision. The Ukrainians believed that having greater cooperation with the EU would help improve their standards of living, and they envisioned better democratic practices by interacting with western institutions. Fearing that these beliefs could be spread into Russia, Putin ordered soldiers to illegally annex Crimea. Armed movements then emerged in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (provinces) in an attempt to destabilise the country. In other words, Russia retaliated in Ukraine because it was fearful that democratic thought could spread into Russia, rather than the possibility of Ukraine being invited to join NATO.

Therefore, there is only one perpetrator for the conflict in Ukraine. Putin is to blame for the destruction caused by the illegal annexation of Crimea and the ongoing Donbas conflict. If Russia launches a second invasion, Putin will solely bare responsibility for this development.

Given his authoritarian rule, Putin does not need to ask for permission from his legislative or judiciary bodies to intervene in foreign countries. The Russian leader has made his ambitions known in an opinion piece published last year. In his article, Putin argues that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. He also has a personal vendetta against Ukraine. Putin understands that if Ukraine successfully joins western organisations and democratise, then this would inspire Russians to pursue a similar future. This would result in Putin’s loss of power.

He is also obsessed with his legacy. If Russia was to acquire more territory in Ukraine, then this would be the largest territorial expansion since the rule of Catherine the Great. Putin wants to be remembered as one of Russia’s greatest rulers, and he will go to great lengths to achieve his goal. Sanctions have done little to deter his behaviour. Putin is also unfazed by the social and economic costs endured by the conflict. A second invasion will be even deadlier.

The US, Canada, UK, and EU must be prepared to send additional weapons and other forms of aid to the Ukrainians so that they may defend themselves. The West has also claimed that they have a series of sanctions prepared. Rather than waiting for Russia to act, the West must strike first so that it can discourage a Russian invasion. Finally, European countries must be willing and ready to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Millions of Ukrainians would likely flee their homes, and this would be the largest movement of individuals in Europe since the Syrian refugee crisis.

The situation in eastern Ukraine remains dire, and it is time for the West to act. If the West is able to deter a second Russian incursion, then this will be a major victory for international order and democracy. But if the West fails, then Europe will likely see the largest ground war on its continent since the Second World War. The fate of Europe lies in the hands of Ukraine.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

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