In the heavily saturated media coverage of the Ukraine invasion, it is often difficult to remember why it is that Russian President Vladimir Putin started the war. He spoke about de-Nazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine, but also – and justifiably in many people's eyes – he wanted Ukraine to never become a part of Nato.
In fact, a little before he ordered the military build-up along the Ukraine border he had asked the United States for permanent guarantees – with a one-month deadline attached to it – that Ukraine is permanently barred from joining Nato.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelinsky while speaking to the Russian media conceded that Ukraine was ready to provide permanent guarantees of never becoming a part of Nato, as long as such an arrangement was guaranteed by third parties and put to a referendum.
Earlier, a few weeks back, Zelinsky had sent out feelers to Putin by admitting that Ukraine was no longer trying to be a part of Nato. Although there has been no official response from Russia yet, one is hopeful that Russia will finally accede some ground in this conflict.
It was ironic how, even a few hours before Zelinsky made these comments, commentators in the Western media were writing and speaking profusely about how the war was in a stalemate, how the Russian army was 'suffering' casualties and how the Ukrainian army and civilians were 'winning' the war. In fact, according to one Nato official, Russia has reportedly lost 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers, including a number of generals, while the corresponding casualty figures for Ukraine apparently are not even a fifth of that.
Zelinsky's concession does beg the question as to why he would be conceding if all those numbers were true?
The more circumspect commentators with a much more deeper understanding of military history, however, had already made the observation that the Russian invasion and siege of Ukrainian cities such as Mariupol were following a classical Russian template of warfare – of slowly encircling a city – and was not, in fact, a failure on the part of their army as the Western media would have everyone believe.
Judging by the number of civilian casualties (900) suffered in the 32 days, one could even make the argument that the Russian army, cognizant of the sensitivities among Russians about inflicting harm on Ukrainians, were actually being careful about minimising civilian harm during their assaults.
This is by no means trying to make an excuse for the violence wrought by the Russian army. After all, thousands have died and more than two million people have been displaced during the more than month-long war. But now that we can hopefully look forward to some form of easing of tensions since Putin has effectively gotten what he asked for in the first place, it does raise the question, of whether the war could have been all but avoided and all these lives saved if Zelinsky and Ukrainians had not been cheered on by the West and its allies?
Putin began raising alarm about Ukraine becoming a part of Nato not just in December, but actually more than a decade back. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, despite informal guarantees to Russia otherwise, one after another country in the former Soviet Union's sphere of influence became a part of Nato.
By 2009, nine countries, from Hungary to Albania, had joined Nato. In 2008, in a move that left both allies of the US and Russia surprised, then-President George W Bush decided to nominate Ukraine to become a part of Nato, even though the country was clearly a distance from meeting the requirements of becoming a full member.
Putin was seriously aggrieved in 2014 when a West-backed coup replaced a pro-Russia government led by President Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv. It created the backdrop for the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea a month later, and tensions between the West and Russia have ever since been at an all-time high since the Cold War.
While the West continued to hold its official line that any country was free to join Nato as long as it met its requirements, thus refusing to provide Russia with any guarantees, Western policymakers, in private, conceded a while back that Ukraine would probably never become a part of Nato.
In 2021, US officials reportedly relayed to Kyiv that Nato membership was unlikely to happen in a decade.
During the early weeks of the war, it was clear Zelensky was trying all out to get the West to actively participate in Ukraine's defence, asking for emergency membership of Nato, as well as the implementation of a no-fly zone. While the West did deliver on sanctions, provided weapons support to Ukrainians and the Western media carried tales of heroism of Ukrainian soldiers and the population, in the end, however, Ukrainians were basically left to fend for themselves.
As the conflict rages on and Western interest is always at risk of slowly dissipating, Zelensky's concession in many ways reflects his slow realisation that the West will never do enough to protect Ukraine, not now, and not in the future.
During the course of this month-long war, Western policymakers have often been faced with the question of whether this war could have been avoided if Nato had reined in its efforts to expand eastwards. After all, Nato was an organisation formed during the Cold War to defend against the expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence. What was the point of Nato after the fall of the Soviet Union?
The usual answer of pro-Western analysts has been that Putin's aggression has actually little to do with Nato and is more about expanding his sphere of influence and returning to the glory days of the Soviet Empire. Under the circumstances, it would indeed be interesting to see now how Putin reacts to Zelensky's offer to deliver permanent guarantees of not joining Nato.
If Putin decides to continue the war on the grounds of still seeking demilitarisation and regime change in Kyiv, then many Western analysts will feel validated. Then we will have to realise that for Putin it was never just about securing Russia's borders from Western aggression. It was something more. And how far Putin is willing to take this 'more' is anyone's guess.
'This is not a question of victory or defeat'
It wasn't like Ukraine was saying in recent times that they would become a part of Nato. This was a Russian narrative anyways. What Zelensky said is an element that can be used towards negotiations, a ceasefire and further resolution of the conflict. This is not a zero-sum game, so we should not look at it like one side has won. This is not a question of victory or defeat.
I doubt whether this guarantee, if it came earlier, could have stopped the invasion. Russians have been looking at this from the larger European security framework. I feel they were looking to pass on a message by invading Ukraine. They were actually looking for a reordering of the European security structure. If you take all of Putin's demands before the invasion, including de-Nazification and regime change, not all of that is directly related to Nato.
Putin actually refuses to see Ukraine even as a state. What does that have to do with Nato? He probably wants to see Ukraine as a part of Russia.
'The invasion could have certainly been avoided'
Shahab Enam Khan
Professor of Intl Relations, Jahangirnagar University
The Kremlin wanted to ensure that Zelensky doesn't join Nato and the European Union. Their second objective was to take full control of Eastern Europe, including access to the sea. And the third objective was to weaken Zelensky or install a government in line with Russia. Two objectives have already been fulfilled, but the third objective hasn't.
Therefore we can't say the Kremlin has won, but the ball is certainly in their court. It is now the Kremlin who has to decide. We still have to see how Europe reacts, whether this takes a turn to civil war, but right now, Russia is certainly in an advantageous position and in a position to dictate.
The invasion could have certainly been avoided if the guarantees were provided before the invasion. The West and Kyiv failed to continue confidence-building measures between Moscow and Kyiv.
Since the Crimea invasion, the EU should have been working to keep the status quo between the Kremlin and Kyiv alive. We are in this situation because the status quo has not been maintained. This was a massive political failure of the West. However, the invasion cannot be justified at any cost because human casualty is the greatest tragedy.