Russian President Vladimir Putin had given the US and its NATO allies plenty of advance warning about the grievances and personal ambitions which drove him to launch the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
For nearly two decades, Putin had been speaking openly about his concerns about the eastward expansion of NATO. The fact that it now includes many of the former members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw pact, as well as the Baltic states which had formerly been part of the Soviet Union, represented, in Putin’s view, an unacceptable threat to Russia’s national security. He also saw NATO’s expansion as a major obstacle to his driving ambitions to reassert Russia’s domination over Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.
The long buildup to the invasion of Ukraine, based upon interviews with more than 30 of the people who were directly involved, was reported at length in a Wall Street Journal essay entitled: “Vladimir Putin’s 20-Year March to War in Ukraine — and How the West Mishandled It.” It is the source for much of the material in this story.
In his annual address to the Russian people in April 2005, Putin said that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory. The epidemic of collapse has spilled over into Russia itself.”
WHY PUTIN IS OBSESSED WITH UKRAINE
Of all the lost Eastern European nations in the Soviet orbit during the Cold War, and its former republics which declared their independence from Russia upon the Soviet Union’s collapse, none is as important to Putin’s understanding of Russia’s destiny and national identity as Ukraine.
Before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine had been viewed as an integral part of Russian territory since the 17th century, when Russia first emerged as a major European empire under the czars. In Putin’s mind, reestablishing control, if not outright possession, of Ukraine, with its plentiful agricultural crops, mineral resources, and industrial productivity, was essential to his goal of restoring Russia’s greatness as a global power.
Western leaders failed to appreciate just how determined Putin was in reasserting Russia’s independence from the US-dominated post-Cold War global order, and Russian control over Eastern Europe. Putin saw the region as Russia’s natural sphere of influence, as well as a vital buffer zone securing Russia’s historically vulnerable eastern borders against the threat of invasion.
NATO leaders dismissed Putin’s security concerns. They pointed to a NATO policy which was established when it agreed to expand into Eastern Europe — not to permanently station any combat forces in Eastern Europe that could be seen as threat to Russian territory.
During the first few years of his presidency, Putin encouraged Western leaders to believe that he wanted Russia to become part of the wider European family. In a speech to Germany’s Parliament, in the fluent German he learned how to speak while serving as a KGB officer in East Germany during the Cold War, Putin promised to build a strong Russian democracy and work with the West. “The Cold War is over,” he flatly declared.
But Putin began to drop that friendly facade in a speech he delivered in January 2007 at the annual Munich Security Conference. He denounced the US for trying to rule the world by force, accused NATO of breaking its previous promises by expanding its membership into Eastern Europe, and accused the West of hypocrisy for lecturing Russia about democracy.
Subsequent efforts by both Democratic and Republican US presidents, as well as European leaders, failed to convince Putin that Russia could be integrated into the US-dominated post-Cold War order.
Putin’s attitude towards pro-Western European leaders then became even more hostile. In a meeting with a Balkan head of state during an energy summit in Croatia, he condemned NATO’s 1999 military intervention in the conflict between Serbia’s pro-Russian government and separatists in the Muslim-majority province of Kosovo as a grave violation of international law. Years later, Putin would cite NATO’s forcible removal of Kosovo from Serbian control as a precedent for his 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its subsequent annexation to Russia.
NATO MEMBERSHIP WAS PUTIN’S RED LINE
A NATO statement in 2008 that the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia would both one day join the alliance angered Putin, further strengthening his security fears and increasing his determination to bring those countries back under Russian control.
Initially, Putin thought he could exercise effective Russian control over Ukraine and Georgia by influencing the outcome of the elections of their leaders.
For example, when President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, met with Putin at his dacha outside Moscow in May 2004, he introduced her to the candidate he was backing in the upcoming Ukrainian presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych won that election, but his victory was challenged by accusations of fraud and voter intimidation, which led to weeks of street protests in Ukraine that became known as the Orange Revolution. Ukraine’s supreme court eventually ordered a new vote, which Yanukovych lost to pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko.
Putin saw the Orange Revolution as US-sponsored plot aimed at removing Ukraine from Russian influence and feared that it was a preview of a similar US campaign to remove him as the president of Russia.
When President Yushchenko’s chief of staff, Oleh Rybachuk, visited Moscow in November 2005, he attempted to reassure Putin that the street protests which led to the Orange Revolution were a spontaneous, indigenous movement by Ukrainians who wanted their country to be a democracy. But Putin dismissed that claim as nonsense and said that according to reports by Russian intelligence services, the Orange Revolution had been orchestrated by the US, the EU, and billionaire investor George Soros.
Yushchenko understood that Putin was determined to undermine his efforts to bring Ukraine into the European community. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2008, he met with then-Secretary of State Rice to ask for her help in drafting a procedure that would enable Ukraine to become a full-fledged member of the NATO alliance.
Rice brought that request back to the White House to be debated in the National Security Council. It resulted in a decision by President Bush that NATO membership should be open to all countries that qualify and want to join. A NATO summit was set for April 2008 in Bucharest to discuss Ukraine’s request, which became known as the Membership Action Plan (MAP). According to NATO’s ground rules, all of its member states need to approve the applications for new members. In advance of the Bucharest meeting, Germany and France raised objections to the applications from Georgia and Ukraine, citing territorial conflicts in Georgia as well as the reputations of both countries for widespread political corruption and lawlessness.
THE DEBATE WITHIN NATO
German Chancellor Angela Merkel understood from Putin’s remarks in Munich that he would see NATO membership invitations to Georgia and Ukraine as a direct threat to Russia. She therefore told Putin in advance of the Bucharest meeting there was no chance that such invitations would be issued, because of the split within the alliance over their membership, but he was not convinced.
At the Bucharest meeting, the US delegation — led by President Bush, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and Secretary of State Rice — tried to convince Germany and France to drop their objections to admitting Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. Rice, who was known as one of America’s leading experts on the Soviet Union, said that Putin wanted to gain control over Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia to help rebuild Russia’s status as global power, and that extending NATO membership to those countries was the last chance to stop him. But German and French officials were skeptical. They argued that Russia was too economically weak and dependent on the West for the country to become a serious threat again.
As the debate continued, Poland and other Eastern European NATO countries argued strenuously for Ukraine and Georgia to be admitted into membership. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus warned that a failure to stop Russia’s resurgence at that time would eventually result in a serious threat to all of NATO’s eastern members. Eventually, an agreement on a compromise statement was reached. It said, “We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” But that statement didn’t say when they would be admitted to NATO, and did not include a specific procedure that Ukraine and Georgia could follow for their membership to be approved.
Some of Ukraine’s supporters were happy with the outcome in Bucharest, but others feared that NATO had just set up Ukraine and Georgia as targets for a Russian attack, without giving them a guarantee of NATO military protection, which only comes with full membership in the alliance.
When Putin arrived at the Bucharest summit the next day, he made it clear behind closed doors that he strongly disapproved of the NATO compromise regarding membership for Georgia and Ukraine, and described Ukraine as a “made-up” country. In his public comments, Putin also questioned whether Crimea had been properly transferred from Russia to Ukraine during the Soviet era, providing the first clear indication that he considered the peninsula, which includes Sevastopol, the home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, to be fair game for Russian conquest.
Four months later, Putin ordered the Russian army to invade Georgia, using as an excuse an ongoing conflict between Georgia’s government and a Russian-ethnic separatist group. To this day, 14 years later, 20% of Georgian territory remains occupied by the Russian army.
POLITICAL TURMOIL IN UKRAINE
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, President Yushchenko was struggling to fulfill his promise to the leaders of the Orange Revolution that he could turn the country into a prosperous Western-style democracy. In Ukraine’s 2010 presidential elections, Yushchenko was defeated by the pro-Russian Yanukovych, who, according to international observers, won fairly that time after running a campaign in which he promised to maintain friendly relations with both the West and Russia.
After taking office, Yanukovych entered into negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the EU, but then came under pressure from Putin to join the customs union that Russia had set up with Belarus and Kazakhstan. EU officials warned Yanukovych that Ukraine could not be a participant in both trading agreements simultaneously, because their customs rules would clash. The EU also demanded changes in Ukraine’s governance, revamping its judiciary and making improvements to the rule of law. Putin then increased the pressure on Yanukovych to join the Russian customs union by using a carrot-and-stick approach. He blocked Russian imports of Ukrainian-made products, while offering Ukraine cheaper natural gas prices and a $15 billion loan.
In November 2013, after Putin called the proposed EU-Ukraine deal a “major threat” to Russia’s economy, Yanukovych abruptly suspended talks with the EU, citing Russian pressure. That prompted a new round of anti-government street protests across Ukraine, with the largest taking place on Kyiv’s central Independence Square, also known as the Maidan. To the protestors, the EU agreement was much more than a trade deal. It represented the realization of their desire for Ukraine to become a more democratic and prosperous country, and an integral part of the rest of Europe.
As the protests continued, they became known as the Maidan revolution. By February 2014, clashes with riot police had become frequent, leading to the deaths of dozens of protesters.
In an effort to end the growing violence, a group of EU foreign ministers brokered a power-sharing deal between the Yanukovych government and members of Ukraine’s parliament supporting the protests. But huge crowds of protesters on the Maidan rejected the power-sharing agreement and demanded Yanukovych’s resignation. President Yanukovych realized that his domestic political support was rapidly slipping away, and fled from Kyiv in a helicopter.
Putin saw the turn of events in Kyiv as a coup organized by the US intended to undermine Russian influence over Ukraine. During an all-night meeting with his security chiefs, they discussed plans to evacuate Yanukovych to safety in Russia, and to annex Crimea.
THE “LITTLE GREEN MEN” TAKE OVER CRIMEA
A few days later, Russian troops, who were not wearing any identifying insignias (and who were therefore called, euphemistically, the “little green men”), invaded and occupied the Crimean Peninsula, meeting little resistance from Ukrainian forces. They then forced Crimea’s regional parliament, at gunpoint, to vote to secede from Ukraine.
At the same time, Russia organized and armed a separatist rebellion in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region, which is Ukraine’s industrial heartland. When Ukrainian troops struck back at the separatist militia, Putin sent in regular Russian troops to intervene, leading to bloody intermittent clashes over the past eight years.
During that period, Germany and France brokered a series of fragile ceasefires which became known as the Minsk agreements, which promised local self-government for the separatist-held areas of Donbas. But Putin had no interest in stopping the fighting, because it served his purpose by destabilizing the government in Kyiv. As a result, the fighting continued, costing 14,000 lives. Since the invasion this past February, the Russian army has been occupying the separatist-held areas and slowly expanding them in hard fighting against the Ukrainian army.
While Putin’s deployment of Russian military force in 2014 won him control over Crimea and about a third of the Donbas region, it has backfired politically. It has alienated the Ukrainian people, including many of the Russian-speakers, and united them behind the pro-Western government in Kyiv.
WHY PUTIN CAN’T TOLERATE A FREE UKRAINE
According to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s advisor, Christoph Heusgen, “Putin’s great anxiety was that Ukraine could become economically and politically successful and that the Russians would eventually ask themselves ‘Why are our brothers doing so well, while our situation remains dire?’”
At a G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, in late 2014, Merkel realized that Putin would never agree to reconcile with the West, after hearing him launch into a tirade against the decadence of democracies and the decay of their moral values, while declaring that Russia’s moral values were vastly superior. He also expressed disdain for Western politicians because they are beholden to public opinion and hobbled by political pressures and a free media.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration and some NATO allies began a limited program to train and equip Ukraine’s armed forces, which had performed very poorly against the Russia troops in Donbas. But it did not include any offensive weapons, because the Obama administration did not believe that Ukraine could ever overcome Russia’s military advantage, and because it didn’t want to provide Putin with an excuse to retaliate. Eventually, President Donald Trump expanded the US military aid to include Javelin antitank missiles, but added no weapons that could pose an offensive threat.
THE RISE OF PRESIDENT ZELENSKY
Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelensky, a political outsider, won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election by campaigning on a promise to clean up corruption and end the war in Donbas. However, in his first and, so far, only meeting with Putin, a December 2019 summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, they could not come to an agreement, and Putin walked away with a low opinion of the new Ukrainian leader.
Macron continued his efforts to broker a peace deal during a number of conversations and meetings with Putin. He invited Putin to the Palace of Versailles and to his summer residence on the French Riviera. Their conversations were cordial and businesslike, according to French officials, but made little progress.
Starting with a telephone conversation in 2020, Macron said he began to notice changes in Putin’s attitudes. Putin had carefully isolated himself during the Covid-19 pandemic and became increasingly out of touch, even from some of his closest aides. According to one of Macron’s aides, the French president believed that the Russian president on the phone with him was talking like a very different person from the one he had hosted in Paris and the Riviera. “He [Putin] tended to talk in circles, rewriting history,” Macron’s aide said.
BIDEN’S NEW FOREIGN POLICY FOCUS
When President Biden took office in 2021, he no longer saw Europe as the primary focus of his foreign policy. Unlike Obama, Biden wanted neither a “reset” of US relations with Russia nor a rollback of Putin’s power. Instead, according to a National Security Council document, the Biden administration would be satisfied with a “stable, predictable relationship” with Russia, enabling it to turn its main attention to the challenge to US global leadership from China.
In April 2021, Biden considered a $60 million package of defensive weapons, including more Javelins and small arms, for Ukraine, but deferred a final decision until after the June summit between Biden and Putin in Geneva. The new arms package was not announced until Zelensky met with Biden in Washington in September.
It was only after that meeting that US intelligence agencies realized that Putin was gathering a huge military force along Ukraine’s borders, much bigger than the one which had participated in a Russian military exercise in the same area that spring.
During a meeting in the White House on October 27, Biden’s Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, warned that the Russian forces could be ready to attack Ukraine by the end of January 2022. After further discussion, it was decided to send CIA Director William Burns to Moscow to assess Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Ukraine. Burns was also told to deliver a warningto Putin that if he went ahead with an invasion, Russia would face crippling sanctions from a united West.
CIA DIRECTOR BURNS’ MISSION TO MOSCOW
When he arrived in Moscow, Burns was connected on a secure Kremlin phone with Putin, who was self-isolated in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Putin made no effort to deny that he was making preparations for an invasion, and then calmly complained about how the US had been ignoring Russia’s security concerns for years. Putin also repeated his claim that Ukraine has always been part of Russia, and never was a real country.
Upon his return to Washington, Burns advised President Biden that he thought that Putin hadn’t yet made an irrevocable decision to invade Ukraine, but that he believed Putin was highly likely to go ahead with it.
Burn’s report resulted in a decision to prepare a new $200 million package of military assistance for Ukraine, but Biden again held off from authorizing it until he could coordinate any such action with the rest of NATO. For the next three months, the Biden administration struggled to persuade its skeptical European allies that Putin’s threat to invade Ukraine had to be taken seriously, and that they needed to prepare and advertise a unified response plan that would hopefully deter him from launching an attack.
In the end, Biden’s efforts failed to deter Putin from invading Ukraine, but the US and NATO did give Ukraine just enough military aid to halt Russian forces before they overran Kyiv and decapitated Zelensky’s government.
In mid-December, the Russian government finally responded to the Biden administration’s request for a proposed agreement that would avoid an invasion. In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov handed State Department official Karen Donfried two draft treaties: one with the US, and one with NATO. They demanded that NATO withdraw all non-local military forces from its Eastern European members, and close the option of membership in the alliance for Ukraine and any other former Soviet republic. Then, without waiting for a US response, the draft treaties were posted on a Russian government website. That led the Biden administration to conclude that the treaties were just diplomatic camouflage for Putin’s already-decided-upon plan to invade Ukraine.
On December 27, Biden ordered the Pentagon to begin sending more military assistance to Ukraine, including antitank missiles, mortars, grenade launchers, small arms, and ammunition.
Three days later, Biden spoke on the phone with Putin, to reassure him that the US had no plans to station offensive missiles in Ukraine, and to urge him not to go forward with the invasion. However, Putin was only willing to talk about rolling back NATO’s military presence in Eastern Europe.
US GAVE ZELENSKY A HEADS UP ABOUT THE INVASION
In mid-January, CIA Director Burns made a secret trip to Kyiv to see President Zelensky. He gave the Ukrainian leader new information the US had just learned about Putin’s plan of attack. The war would begin with a drive by Russian troops that had been stationed in Belarus toward Kyiv. First, the Russians planned to seize Antonov Airport in Hostomel, on the outskirts of Kyiv, and then fly in more troops to that airport to launch a rapid strike that would decapitate the government. That accurate piece of intelligence helped enable Ukraine to successfully defend that airport and survive the first days of the war.
LAST MINUTE PEACE EFFORTS BY FRANCE AND GERMANY
European leaders then made last-minute efforts to talk Putin out of going forward with the attack. When French President Macron visited the Kremlin on February 7, he was made to sit at the far end of a 20-foot-long table from Putin, who was even more difficult to talk to than he had been on the phone. During their six-hour conversation, Putin lectured the French president about the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine and the West’s hypocrisy, and refused to respond when the French president tried to talk about ways to avoid a war in Ukraine.
Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, got the same treatment from Putin when he came to Moscow and sat at his long table on February 15. Scholz argued that the international community recognized the existing borders in Europe, no matter how and when they were created, and would never accept any attempt by Russia to forcefully change them. He also warned that the sanctions against Russia in response to an invasion of Ukraine would be swift and harsh, and that the German public would demand that economic cooperation between Germany and Russia be ended.
But Putin wasn’t listening. He just repeated his low opinion of weak Western leaders whose policies could be swayed by public pressure.
Scholz then made another effort to avoid a war, by pleading with President Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference on February 19 to renounce Ukraine’s aspirations for NATO membership and declare its neutrality, as part of a larger new security deal between the West and Russia. But Zelensky refused, explaining that Putin could not be trusted to uphold such an agreement, and that most Ukrainians wanted to join NATO more than ever.
THE BIDEN-PUTIN SUMMIT THAT NEVER HAPPENED
The final European peace effort came in video call between President Biden and President Macron. “I think the last person who could still do something is you, Joe. Are you ready to meet Putin?” Macron asked. Biden agreed, and then asked Macron to set up the meeting.
Macron spent the night of February 20 on the phone with Putin and Biden, trying to negotiate the wording of a press release that would announce the US-Russian summit. But the next day, Putin called Macron back and told him the summit would not take place. Instead, Putin said, he had decided to recognize the independence of Russian separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. He then again blamed the US and its NATO allies for failing to respond to Russia’s security concerns about Ukraine.
Putin didn’t say it in so many words, but his meaning was clear. The invasion of Ukraine was about to start.
His final words to the French president were, “We are not going to see each other for a while, but I really appreciate the frankness of our discussions. I hope we can talk again one day.”