Russia-Ukraine war: Did Western nations misjudge Vladimir Putin?

Russia-Ukraine war: Did Western nations misjudge Vladimir Putin?
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Until recently, few Western leaders believed that Putin will launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, thereby miscalculating his resolve to use force.

Western nations and their allies have aligned to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. However, they may be guilty of ignoring Putin’s repeated indications that he intended to broaden Moscow’s domain of influence and cast NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to Russia’s security.

Until recently, few Western leaders believed that Putin will launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, thereby miscalculating his resolve to use force.

“It was strategic narcissism and an associated failure to consider the emotion, ideology, and aspiration that drives Putin and the Siloviki around him,” H.R. McMaster, a retired three-star Army general who served as former US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, told The Wall Street Journal, alluding to the small circle of hard-line advisors around Putin.

The Russian President’s straight-out attack on Ukraine has put the West on the back foot. The Western countries are now struggling to explore ways to persuade Putin, who has openly scorned the West, for a ceasefire. This has also brought into doubt the ability of these countries to take resolute action against Russia.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 

Russian forces moved ahead by land and air to attack Ukraine’s capital Kyiv on Friday after launching an invasion on Wednesday, February 23. According to a spokesperson of Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia was ready to hold negotiations with Ukraine but the objectives of its combat operation to “demilitarise” Ukraine remained.

Ukraine is paying a heavy price for the West’s failure to dissuade Russia, with Kremlin’s invasion rupturing the already chilly relations between the Western nations and Moscow.

When Russian forces invaded Georgia in 2008 after it was promised NATO membership and recognised two breakaway regions, the West reacted by temporarily suspending discourse, before restarting business as usual.

The sanctions imposed by the West after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 also didn’t bite. In recent months, despite many US officials laying out Putin’s invasion plans, his misreading intersects several US administrations.

Western nations solaced in the restricted nature of Putin’s earlier military interventions, considering them deniable, minor scale operations that sought to camouflage the extent of Russia’s role.

“The West did not underestimate Russia’s military capabilities. It watched the determined military modernisation program since the Georgian war in 2008, and saw some of its fruits in the militarily successful intervention in Syria in 2015,” William Courtney, the former US ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan during the Clinton administration told the publication.

“But the West may have underestimated the Kremlin’s willingness to use force in Europe, and against a people which Putin claims are one with Russians,” he added.

Putin’s abhorrence for NATO 

As NATO continued its expansion to eastern European nations, which had been a part of the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact in 1999 and then in 2004, the US and its allies looked at it as a way to promote reform in the newly budding democracies.

However, Putin’s anger over the enlargement became evident in a speech he made at the annual Munich Security Conference in 2007, where he denounced the unipolar world controlled by the US. He also expressed his resentment against NATO expansion, levelling allegations of hollow promises from the West that the alliance wouldn’t shift eastward, and portrayed enlargement as a threat to Russia.

Enlargement “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?” he said.

Meanwhile, through the years, successive US Presidents sought to keep the prospects for cooperation amid differences.

Jamie Shea, a former senior NATO official said that in hindsight, the West should have acted earlier and more steadfastly.

Days before Russia waged war on the nation, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy likened the West’s attitude towards Russia to the errors of appeasement in the 20th century. Criticising Western countries for not imposing sanctions earlier, Zelensky said, “What are you waiting for?… We don’t need sanctions after the bombardment begins.”

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