Is there any justification for Putin’s war?

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Nato invasion, genocide and drug-addled neo-Nazis: we assess whether any of Russia’s claims are valid


Nazis, genocide, Nato, history: Russia has no shortage of apparent justifications for its war in Ukraine.

But are any of them valid? Were Russian speakers endangered in the country’s east? Is Nato’s expansion a material threat to Moscow? Were there cliques of neo-Nazis running amok in Ukraine?

We assess whether Russia’s claims justify the invasion of a sovereign country.

Claim: Nato has encircled Russia, directly threatening Russian security, despite assurances that it would not

Since 1991, Nato has absorbed 11 eastern European countries and three former Soviet republics. Even before Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, Russia took a dim view of this. Some say assurances were given to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that Nato wouldn’t move an inch farther east after German reunification in 1990. But this is hotly disputed.

Interactive

Russia’s logic here is shaped by history. “The Russian historical view is that every hundred years or so there’s an invasion from the west,” said Tomas Ries, associate professor at the Swedish national defence college.

“From a Russian military perspective, I can understand that they were worried when Nato was enlarged,” he said, adding nonetheless: “The problem with this argument is that no one in their wildest dreams can imagine the west attacking Russia.”

Then there is the position of the newly independent states that joined Nato. “This wasn’t Nato trying to enlarge, this was countries hammering on the door saying let us in,” Ries said. “From our worldview, these are small countries that have good reason to be afraid of Russia.”

Ukrainian pro-EU activists wave flags in Independence Square in Kyiv, 11 December 2013.
Ukrainian pro-EU activists wave flags in Independence Square in Kyiv, 11 December 2013. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP

Was Russia justified in worrying that Ukraine might join Nato? Not really, said Kristin Bakke, a professor in political science at UCL. “For a long time, support for Nato membership in Ukraine was about 30 to 40%,” she notes, adding that far more people wanted simply to remain neutral.

It wasn’t until last year that surveys showed more than half of Ukrainians wanting Nato membership. And by the time 100,000 Russian troops had amassed on the border, that number had risen to close to 60%.

Claim: The west orchestrated the removal of a democratically elected Ukrainian president in 2014, which deepened the crisis

It was the startling flight of Viktor Yanukovych from office, after weeks of demonstrations in Kyiv by pro-western protesters in 2014, that accelerated the crisis in Ukraine.

Yanukovych favoured closer ties with Russia. Protesters on Maidan square in central Kyiv wanted Ukraine to join the EU. Western powers naturally sympathised with the protesters, but there is no evidence that this movement was anything other than an expression of discontent with an unpopular leader.

“I had friends on Maidan,” said Gustav Gessel, a Berlin-based fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It was neither an assembly of Nazis, nor made by the CIA. It started as a student protest.”

Claim: The Ukrainian side was responsible for the failure of the Minsk peace process

After Russia seized Crimea and supported a secessionist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 after Yanukovych’s removal, a peace deal of sorts was hammered out in Minsk, under Franco-German mediation.

The agreement provided for a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry, and constitutional reform granting a measure of autonomy to the Donbas republics seeking secession.

But implementation was patchy, with violations on both sides. International monitors had a hard time accessing the separatist republics. Valerie Morkevičius, an expert in the ethics of conflict at Colgate University, New York, said Ukraine did engage in a process of decentralisation, but not to the degree that the Minsk Agreement intended. “The Ukrainians say that would have privileged the Donbas over the rest of Ukraine,” she said.

An anti-war protester in Moscow
An anti-war protester in Moscow last month. Photograph: Kommersant Photo Agency/Rex/Shutterstock

But she added that the Minsk agreement also provided for all foreign military forces to be removed from the area. “Russia never did, but continued to deny that its forces were there.”

Claim: Donbas residents needed saving from a ‘genocide’

It smells of genocide,” Putin said in 2015, remarking on the unresolved conflict in the east. Right up until last month’s invasion, Putin insisted that Donbas residents needed military intervention to prevent their annihilation.

There is no evidence for this. About 14,000 people were killed on both sides during the 2014 war (in an area then numbering about 4 million people). But deaths slowed to a trickle in the stalemate that ensued. And throughout, Morkevičius says, “there was no indication that Ukraine was targeting people for being Russian-speaking”.

Interactive

“The Russians say there was a genocide against the Russian population, and there is no evidence for that at all,” Ries added.

Claim: The Russian language and cultural heritage was being erased from modern-day Ukraine

It is a misunderstanding of Ukraine to imagine it split into two with Russian speakers in the east, and Ukrainian speakers in the west. In fact, most people speak both languages. And there are a multitude of other tongues protected by law as well.

A new law introduced in 2019 requiring use of Ukrainian in public life and secondary education was seen as anti-Russian in Moscow. It sets Ukrainian language quotas for a range of cultural output, and is not universally popular.

“It does promote the use of Ukrainian, but Russia can still be used whenever a citizen asks for it,” Morkevičius said.

“Now Russian is only available as primary language through elementary school, so one could point to that and say that’s not entirely fair,” she added. “But in terms of a reason to go to war, it’s not a just cause and there’s no proportionality there.”

Claim: Ukraine is run by drug-addled neo-Nazis, and needs to be denazified

“There are neo-Nazis in Ukraine but they are not in power, just as there are neo-Nazis in Germany but they are not in power,” said Gessel. The far right occupies fewer than 1% of seats in parliament. The president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is a Russian-speaking centrist of Jewish origin.

The neo-Nazi concern almost certainly stems from the reputation of some of the volunteer brigades who fought the separatists in the 2014 war, such as the Azov battalion, which had far-right affiliations. These have since been folded into the Ukrainian national guard.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is a Russian-speaking centrist of Jewish origin.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a Russian-speaking centrist of Jewish origin. Photograph: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters

Putin’s theme of fascists running wild in Ukraine is almost certainly a ploy to revive glorious memories of the “great patriotic war”. “The second world war is a very important part of Putin’s narrative,” Bakke said. “He uses the victory to mobilise people. In Ukraine at the time, there were nationalist groups fighting for Ukrainian independence against the Soviets. They came to be seen as aligned with the Nazis.”

As for being drug-addled, while Ukraine does have relatively high rates of opiate abuse, UN data shows it is no worse than Russia.

Claim: When it comes to invading sovereign countries, the west cannot lecture Russia

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, used words to this effect on the eve of the Ukraine war, fulminating at western hypocrisy.

“It’s an awkward position for the west,” said Ries. “It is true that the US and Nato have used force when they felt they needed to. Sometimes it was justified, as in the Balkans in 1995, but sometimes it very dodgy like in Iraq. From the Russian perspective, I can see how they can make that argument.”

Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. And while there are similarities between Iraq and Ukraine – invasion of sovereign territory, spurious justification, large scale civilian death, no clear plan for endgame – there are differences too.

“Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a democratically elected leader, who has not committed human rights abuses,” Bakke said. “What is also different is President Putin’s stated dismissal of Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting