Harlan Ullman*, in an OpEd published at The Hill last week** titled “Is Ukraine Putin’s Taiwan?” called for NATO to make even further provocative moves near Russia’s borders, after having already carried out several naval exercises this summer in the Black Sea. A British warship sailing close to the Crimean coast even prompted the scramble of Russian warplanes. His suggestion is all based on alarmist assumptions regarding an essay Vladimir Putin wrote recently and the mischaracterization of past events.
In the essay, which readers can see for themselves in English here, Putin stated that Russians and Ukrainians are historically one people with a shared culture and history – not one country. Interestingly, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky essentially acknowledged the same thing in 2014 and 41 percent of Ukrainians agreed in a recent poll. But Ullman uses Putin’s essay to jump to the conclusion that Putin wants to take over Ukraine and doesn’t respect its independence. The solution to this supposed problem, according to Ullman, is for NATO to boot up, grab its military hardware and ride to Ukraine’s rescue from Russia’s alleged imminent attack.
As we all need to be reminded in order to support more NATO action, Putin is an aggressive autocrat and therefore capable of taking over eastern Ukraine. As part of his evidence, Ullman mentions Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. He leaves out the context of why Putin was criticizing the U.S.-led international order. First, Putin was the first world leader to call President Bush to offer condolences after 9/11. He also offered military assistance, against the advice of his national security team, to the U.S. in their pursuit of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The following year, Bush showed his gratitude by unilaterally withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, a move Russia perceived as a threat to its nuclear deterrent. Moreover, the U.S. had illegally invaded Iraq based on false claims, killing hundreds of thousands and creating long-term instability in the Middle East, a region geographically much closer to Russia than the U.S.
Ullman also repeats the unfounded claim that Russia “laid a trap” for Georgia in 2008. As the EU Fact-Finding Mission published in its 2009 report, Russia did not start the war but responded to military attacks by Tbilisi against Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. This attack was undertaken because the Georgian leader at the time, Mikhail Saakashvili, was operating under the false impression the U.S. would militarily support him. One can debate whether Russia overreacted to these events, but Russia did not start the armed hostilities in 2008 as is commonly and erroneously claimed.
Ullman then moves on to mention “Russia staged a large military buildup around Ukraine, possibly as a rehearsal” in reference to an increase in Russian troops near the Ukrainian border back in April. The term “possibly as a rehearsal” is clearly supposition and he again leaves out significant context. For example, in February, Ukrainian president Zelensky ordered troops and heavy weapons into the area near Donbas, which represents the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. Then on March 24th, Zelensky signed a decree approving a strategy to reintegrate Crimea and the Russian naval base at Sevastopol into Ukraine.
Ullman cites a possible invasion and occupation of Serpent Island located in the western part of the Black Sea as something Putin might do, stating “this scenario is at least as viable as a Russian invasion of the Baltics.” This is another fantastical claim some pundits make about the Kremlin’s supposed aggressive designs on Eastern Europe. However, no one has ever provided a plausible explanation of what the possible benefit of invading the Baltics would be to Moscow, especially given the obvious drawbacks of invading and occupying these three small countries. If this Serpent Island idea has comparable viability, then we have very little to worry about.
What is always in the background of touting Russia’s aggressive designs in its neighborhood, particularly Ukraine, is the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Again, some context would be helpful in assessing whether this event suggests that Moscow is interested in taking over eastern Ukraine by force.
Crimea had been part of Russia from the time of Catherine the Great’s reign in the 18th century. But in 1954, Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine as part of his campaign to consolidate power in the post-Stalin era. Since both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union at the time, this was not a problem. However, when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Crimea remained in Ukraine as an autonomous region, while the naval base at Sevastopol was retained by Russia via a lease agreement with the Kiev government.
When the corrupt but democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovich was illegally overthrown, with the active support of Washington, in February of 2014, Putin viewed the events as a threat to Russia’s security, especially when three former Ukrainian presidents subsequently called for repudiating the legal basis of the lease agreement with Russia. Sevastopol is Russia’s only warm water port and a critical naval base that is the last militarily defensible barrier to an invasion into southern Russia. Sevastopol has major historical importance for Russians due to the crucial battle against the Germans there in summer 1942 in which the Soviets ground down a portion of the German army for months, preventing their advance to Stalingrad, leaving a smaller and weaker German force that ultimately lost to the Red Army . The Soviet Union lost 27 million people fighting the Nazis.
Eastern Ukraine does not have the same immediate security significance to Russia as the naval base in Crimea. Given that Russia had also ignored several requests from Crimeans – the majority of whom are ethnically Russian and Russophone – since the 1990’s for reunification, it seems reasonable to conclude that the situation with Crimea in 2014 represented a unique national security issue for Russia that the Donbas does not. Ukraine in NATO is viewed as a red line for Moscow, but a military invasion of Donbas or any other part of Ukraine is not required to protect its interests as the U.S.-led west is not going to grant it membership anytime soon.
We need to have a rational discussion about what U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine should be. That discussion is not helped by alarmist recommendations based on distorted information and decontextualized claims.
*Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor at The Atlantic Council. This explains a lot.
**Note: The Hill acknowledged receipt of but refused to publish this response to Ullman’s OpEd.