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Studies 27 February, 2022

Russia, Ukraine and NATO

Reflections on the Determination to Not Avoid the Road to War

Azmi Bishara

General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies (DI). Bishara is a leading Arab researcher and intellectual with numerous books and academic publications on political thought, social theory and philosophy. He was named by Le Nouveau Magazine Littéraire as one of the world’s most influential thinkers. His publications in Arabic include Civil Society: A Critical Study (1996); On The Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Manifesto (2007); To Be an Arab in Our Times (2009); On Revolution and Susceptibility to Revolution (2012); Religion and Secularism in Historical Context (in 3 vols., 2013, 2015); The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context: Theoretical Problems (2017); The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon (2018); What is Populism? (2019) and Democratic Transition and its Problems: Theoretical Lessons from Arab Experiences (2020). Some of these works have become key references within their respective field. His latest publication titled The Question of the State: Philosophy, Theory, and Context (2023) with a second volume forthcoming in 2024 titled The Arab State: Beginnings and Evolution.

Bishara’s English publications include Palestine: Matters of Truth and Justice (Hurst, 2022); On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts (Stanford University Press, 2022); Sectarianism without Sects (Oxford University Press, 2021), among other writings. His trilogy on the Arab revolutions, published by I.B. Tauris, consists of Understanding Revolutions: Opening Acts in Tunisia (2021); Egypt: Revolution, Failed Transition and Counter-Revolution (2022); and Syria 2011-2013: Revolution and Tyranny before the Mayhem (2023), in which he provides a theoretical analysis in addition to a rich, comprehensive and lucid assessment of the revolutions in three Arab countries: Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

1. The Predicament

With Vladimir Putin’s accession to the presidency of the Russian Federation on 26 March 2000 – after a brief spell as acting President that began six months earlier – an energetic battle began to save Russia from becoming what he called a second-tier or even third-tier country. In his famous “Millennium Message” speech given in late 1999, the new President told his listeners that it was “too early to bury Russia as a great power.” These statements were not intended for the exhausted Russian population but for a global audience. Putin was setting out his vision clearly for the whole world to see.

The 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia was the first step towards making the “Russian idea” that Putin had articulated in his speech – Russia as a resurgent great power – a reality. The overt purpose of the intervention was to defend South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions that had sought to secede and establish independent republics with Russian support. In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and openly supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. In both cases, Moscow warned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and even the European Union (EU) in Brussels against continuing to expand their influence in republics it considers to be within its areas of vital interest, especially in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. This was followed by a Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015 to save a tyrannical regime from collapse, establishing a semi-permanent military presence on the Mediterranean coast, linking the new base in Tartus with Sevastopol and the Crimean headquarters of the Russian fleet.

None of these operations were met with a decisive Western response, despite a US administration extremely critical of Putin’s policies. Predicting a possible escalation, Putin decided to anticipate developments by requesting clear security pledges and guarantees from the United States. After failing to secure these diplomatically, he began to try making threats, massing troops on the Ukrainian border and then granting formal recognition to the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk on 21 February 2022. Putin then launched a full-scale invasion, an aggression which began with air and missile coverage of the separatists' movement on the ground to occupy the entire Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, before the Russian army stormed other parts of the country. It is not yet known how this military campaign will end.

In 2021, Russia adopted a new national security strategy representing “a shift in Russia's strategic priorities.” In its former strategy, adopted in 2015, a lengthy paragraph had been devoted to the problem of the relationship with NATO and Moscow’s rejection of NATO’s excessive military activity and expansion towards its borders. But it also highlighted Russian interest in dialogue with the EU and “coordinating integration processes” in the former Soviet republics. The 2021 strategy reiterated the same reservations about NATO but withdrew any interest in dialogue with Brussels.

Given this shift in strategic priorities, in December 2021 Russia made geo-strategic security demands, in a draft treaty that was handed over to a US diplomat in Moscow. The Russian government sought assurances that NATO would stop its eastern expansion, not build any new infrastructure (weapons systems and military bases) in former Soviet territory, terminate military equipment sales to Ukraine, and end the deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe.