Ukraine: “We Have Provoked This War”

23 June 2024

Ukraine: “We Have Provoked This War”

By Gwynne Dyer

There is one thing almost all populist nationalists agree on: the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the continuing carnage there was the fault of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. If NATO had not expanded to Russia’s borders, it would all still be peace and love in Europe.

The latest far-right figure to make this claim is Nigel Farage, the leader of the Reform Party that is currently splitting the right-wing vote in the British election and guaranteeing a landslide defeat for the governing Conservative Party. It’s ‘friendly fire’, but Farage just cannot contain himself.

“It was obvious to me that the ever-eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union was giving (President Vladimir Putin) a reason to say to his Russian people ‘They’re coming for us again’ and to go to war,” Farage said last Friday. “We provoked this war.”

On the very same day, former US President Donald Trump asserted that it was specifically President Joe Biden who is to blame for the Russian invasion. “For 20 years, I heard that if Ukraine goes into NATO, it’s a real problem for Russia.

“I think that’s really why this war started”, Trump continued. “Biden was saying all of the wrong things. And one of the wrong things he was saying was, ‘No, Ukraine will go into NATO’.”

We could find many similar statements from other far-right luminaries like Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, but let’s just focus on the actual claim.

What they are all saying, in essence, is that Russia faced a real military threat when nine newly independent countries in Eastern Europe that it had conquered either in 1940 (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) or in 1945 (Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) were allowed to join the Western alliance.

Russians would prefer the word ‘liberated’ to ‘conquered’, at least in the case of the latter six. However, the fact is that they were all under effective Russian control for the next 45 years, with Communist governments installed by the Soviet Union and most with Russian troops based on their soil.

They did not enjoy the experience. Tens of thousands of their citizens were killed and millions jailed for defying Russian rule. Two of the countries rose in rebellions that were crushed by Russian tanks. So when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, they all wanted to join NATO in order to get protection from any future Russian incursions.

NATO waited almost a decade before letting the first of them join, mainly because it was aware of Russian paranoia about foreign invasions. From the Vikings and the Mongols to Napoleon and Hitler, Russia has been visited by the Premier League of invaders, and they do tend to obsess on the subject.

On the other hand, the smaller countries of Eastern Europe have had just as hard a time, and are just as entitled to protection. When they joined NATO, no borders were moved – and in practical military terms, the risks to Russia did not change one bit.

That was in 1999, when everybody had already had more than half a century to get up to speed on nuclear weapons – and the main conclusion was that the old obsession with the risk of a land invasion is obsolete, at least for the countries that have nuclear weapons. Where the other side’s troops and planes are stationed is irrelevant.

Out of consideration for Russian paranoia, however irrelevant, NATO did not permanently station any non-national troops on the territory of its new Eastern European members until 2017, after the first Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory. And that was purely symbolic: eight multinational battle groups of 1,500 soldiers each.

Even then the United States continued to draw down its troops in Europe, from 315,000 at the end of the Cold War in 1989 to only 63,000 by 2021. Since Russia invaded Ukraine that number has gone back up to about 100,000, but only 20,000 are in Eastern Europe.

The idea that such a small force threatens Russia is preposterous. It would be ridiculous even if nuclear weapons did not exist, and any competent Russian soldier would know that. So it comes down to a question of Vladimir Putin’s individual psychology.

Was Putin so obsessed/ignorant/stupid that he could not grasp the fact that letting Eastern European countries join NATO posed no threat to Russia? Or was he cynically exploiting that perception, particularly among those who were ill-informed on military matters, to achieve his diplomatic and strategic goals in the former Soviet space?

Dunno, but I’ll tell you this. NATO never said that Ukraine could join. It said they’d think about it some time in the future, once Ukraine no longer has a border dispute with Russia. So never, then.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“We could…claim”; and “Russians…soil”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Intervention Earth: Life-Saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers’. Last year’s book, ‘The Shortest History of War’, is also still available.