David J. Kramer, John Herbst, and William Taylor write:
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year and, for that matter, its first invasion of its neighbor eight years before are impossible to justify. Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to convince his public that this war is existential, but with little success. Russia’s existence as a strong, sovereign state is not dependent on its control of Ukraine or even parts of the Donbas or Crimea. That’s why, since Putin implemented a partial mobilization last fall, hundreds of thousands of men have fled Russia rather than march to the sound of the guns, and it’s why he still refuses to declare war and order a full mobilization.
And yet a small band of critics has rallied beneath the banner of realism to argue against continued Western support for Ukraine’s effort to defend itself. “Russia may be waging a war of aggression as a matter of law,” Mario Loyola wrote in a recent essay in The Atlantic, “but as a matter of history and strategy it is moving to forestall a grave deterioration in its strategic position, with stakes that are almost as existential for it as they are for Ukraine.” But actual realism must be grounded in the details of the situations it assesses. And in the case of Ukraine, those facts lead to very different conclusions.
The borders of Ukraine that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 were enshrined in international law and in numerous treaties and agreements that Russia signed, over and over. They were not a “formality,” as Loyola suggests, nor were Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea justifiable because “Russia felt it had no choice … because it couldn’t risk losing Sevastopol.” Russia shared Sevastopol with Ukraine for more than a decade and had a lease that would have lasted until the middle of the century. Ukraine was living in peace with Russia until 2014. Putin didn’t like democratic revolutions in neighboring countries, especially in Ukraine, because he feared that Russians would want the same thing, threatening his corrupt, authoritarian system. That’s why he invaded in 2014, and one of the main reasons he launched round two last year. [Continue reading…]