At the end of the world war, Stalin insisted that the USSR should have two seats at the UN: one for the USSR and one for Ukraine. He meant it as a counter-balance to what he considered to be the Yankees’ faggot votes in the UN resulting from the memberships of Latin American countries. After all, Ukraine was a crucial piece of real estate. In 1922, the settlement of the Ukraine as a political entity in its own right lay at the heart of Stalin’s treatment of other nationalities in the USSR; the Ukraine had been the focus of Hitler’s grab for Lebensraum; and up to 7 million Ukrainians had served in the Red Army during the war between 1941 and 1945. An almost equal number had perished: one quarter of the total losses incurred by the USSR. The UN membership was Stalin’s saying “thank-you”.
From World War to Cold War
In the initial years following the war, Stalin placed the number of losses on the Soviet side in single figures, and downplayed the immense material losses of towns, cities, farmlands, and industrial plants. He did so because he suspected that if he were to reveal quite how much the USSR had suffered at the hands of the Axis powers, the capitalist states-headed by the U.S. - would go to war. As good capitalists, they would seek to roll back the territorial gains of the proletariat into the heart of Europe.
Downplaying Soviet losses was a conscious policy of bragadaccio, but it was not his only tactic. On 24 July 1945, at the Potsdam Conference, Harry S. Truman told Stalin that he had a weapon of uncommon potency, at which point Stalin said he was glad to hear of it and hoped it would be used against the Japanese.
Churchill was hovering close by, and wrote in his memoirs, Triumph and Tragedy, that Stalin.. “seemed to be delighted (at the news)…How did it go?”, Churchill asked Truman afterwards. “He never asked a question”, he (Truman) replied. “I was certain, wrote Churchill, therefore that at that date Stalin had no special knowledge of the vast process of research upon which the United States and Britain had been engaged for so long..”
Churchill was wrong. Dr Fuchs- a nuclear physicist, ex-German communist, and a senior member of the British team at Los Alamos, had fed a constant stream of information to Moscow over the war years. Stalin knew exactly what Truman was talking about, and gave instant orders to develop a Soviet bomb. The explosion happened in August 1949 at the Semipalatinsk test range in Kazakhstan. Six years later, the Soviets exploded their first hydrogen bomb, with a yield one hundred times greater than the first bomb.
That year saw the lines of the cold war in Europe freeze: both alliances were in place; Austria negotiated its neutrality that year. The Austrians like telling the tale they got through to the signature by drinking the Russians under the table. In fact, the Russians conceded neutrality status not least because Austria’s geography drew a mountain frontier between Germany and Italy, both NATO members.
Finnish neutrality was a more complicated construct. Negotiated in 1948, when the USSR had a military base near Helsinki, it ensured that the USSR would not have a NATO member on its doorstep -a fact that gained considerable credibility by Sweden’s version of armed neutrality outside of the two alliances.
The Soviets withdrew from their base in 1955. Subsequently, Finnish foreign policy steered a careful path between West and East, supporting arms control and eventually hosting the pan-European Helsinki conference, culminating in 1975. The conference entrenched the concept of human rights in European international law, and underwrote the principle of the inviolability of frontiers, without the consent of their citizens.
There was also a de facto domestic dimension to Finland’s neutrality: pro-Soviet political parties were always in or around government policies and acted as a pro-Moscow voice in domestic affairs. That did not prevent Finland from joining western free trade organizations, like the GATT and EFTA, but it did reassure the Soviet Union of Finnish commitment to the policy. In the 1980s, about 20 percent of Finnish exports went to the USSR, so when it collapsed, it was a major, if temporary, blow to the Finnish economy.
I spent several years, with my colleagues from INSEAD, lecturing senior members of the Finnish political system-politicians, business people, civil servants, trade unionists- about changes in the world economy and polity. The lesson they took was to double down on accelerating the drive up-market, most evidently recorded in the huge leap forward taken in the country’s secondary education system as well as in the extra-ordinary record of Nokia in the global hi-tech market-place. Nokia came to dominate 90 percent of the valuation of the Finnish capital market.
It became evident over the course of the first two post-1990 decades that attitudes towards Moscow in Paris and Berlin developed at considerable variance to those in Washington DC. Neither capital wanted confrontation with Moscow; their businesses considered Russia a prime market for expansion, as they did for China; the German population furthermore reverted to the deeply held pacifism of the Nie Wieder movement following the disaster of the World War.
The Emergence of an Independent Ukraine
What may one ask has this all to do with President Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine in February 2022. The answer to this question is “everything”. All the components of the present embargo have deep roots in the past. These include the Finnish example of neutrality, nuclear weapons, the fate of the two alliances, the implosion of the USSR and its impact on Russia, and not least the complex set of cross-cutting loyalties eastwards and westwards in the Ukraine, recorded in the searing Ukrainian and Russian memories of 194-1945.
One outstanding fact which should have weighed much heavier in Putin’s calculations about whether or not to invade the Ukraine was the result of the December 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence from the USSR. Of a total population of 52 million, 32 million voted, making for an 84 percent turnout, with 92 percent voting in favor. The results provided a direct impetus for the 8 December agreement among the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to create the CIS- the Commonwealth of Independent States, as the successor entity to the Soviet Union, which they formally declared dead.
In double quick time, the newly independent Ukraine was recognized by 98 other states. This was a very important moment, as the Ukraine finally entered the global society of states and as its own agent, with the full panoply of rights and duties which membership of this most exclusive of clubs entails. Those rights include self-determination, territorial integrity, self-defense, and the support of other sovereigns.
In double quick time, the newly independent Ukraine was recognized by 98 other states. This was a very important moment, as the Ukraine finally entered the global society of states and as its own agent, with the full panoply of rights and duties which membership of this most exclusive of clubs entails.
The emergence of an independent Ukraine also altered the geopolitical map of Europe. The Ukraine has a highly developed industrial base, an impressive advanced technology sector, rich agricultural capabilities and -at the time- nuclear weapons on its territory. The new Russia, Belarus and Ukraine had declared their ambition for a very close relationship. How would the western states and alliance consider the Ukraine’s emergence in light of their interests? How would the Ukrainian people view their position in the European ensemble? We can start with the last question.
Ukrainian National Memories from 1917 to 1945
The simple point to record is that, despite the enormous Ukrainian contribution to the victories of the Red Army during the world war, the seventy years of the USSR had reinforced a deeply held Ukrainian patriotism. During the Russian civil war, following the revolution of 1917, the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, had declared independence of Lenin’s new state in January 1918, then sided with the Central Powers to drive out Russian troops from its territory, to feed Germany and Austria-Hungary, and to sign the Brest Litovsk Treaty of early 1918. Such steps ensured Berlin and Vienna’s primacy in the huge central European hinterland.
All of that was undone by the German military and political collapse in October-November 1918. Ukraine’s civil war merged into the civil wars that broke out on the collapse of the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires; aand involved opposing Ukrainian, German, Polish, Austrian, Russian, French, Romanian and Czechoslavak forces, ending in 1922 with a nominally autonomous Ukraine. As Europe’s prime breadbasket before 1914, Ukraine was too valuable an asset for the USSR to lose. The Ukraine was also the central focus of Stalin’s policy to extract maximum resources from agriculture to finance the forced industrialization of the USSR in preparation for what Stalin considered an inevitable war with the capitalist powers.
In the Holodomor of 1931-1932, between 2 to 10 million Ukrainians died from enforced starvation. Not surprisingly, when German troops entered the Ukraine, especially in its western parts with their history of incorporation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they were warmly welcomed. Ukrainians co-operated with National Socialist Germany, leaving highly conflicting memories of the war that remain vivid. One such instance is Stepan Bandera, who nailed his flag to Hitler’s mast: he travelled to Lvov, where in June 1941 he declared an independent Ukraine. He thought that it might be possible to make an alliance with the Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, he was immediately arrested by the Gestapo and put into Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
He had made the fatal error in believing that Hitler was a nationalist. Hitler was first and foremost a racialist. What mattered to the Führer were race and Lebensraum, meaning Germanic hegemony and prior access to Ukraine’s rich agricultural resources. Ukraine lay at the heart of Germany’s imperialistic vision, an national frontiers were not something Hitler condoned. In modern jargon, the Führer was for a frontier-free Europe. Bandera learnt the hard way.
Nationalist resistance to Soviet dominance lasted in to the late 1950s, but faded in the light of rapid industrialization. The central role played by the Ukraine in the Soviet military build-up, and the transfer of the Crimea to the Ukraine in 1954 also played a considerable role in this fading. Ukrainians occupied key positions in the Soviet leadership. Most notable figures include Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. But none of this compensated for the systemic stagnation that consumed the socialist experiment, eventuating in the April 1985 nuclear plant explosion in Chernobyl. Large parts of the Ukraine were contaminated and demands for independence revived.
Ukraine in the European Society of States
That the USSR dissolved with scarcely a life lost is little short of a miracle. The same did not happen in Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and received the support of Germany. German Foreign Minister Genscher went so far as to state that German foreign policy backed all claims to national independence, prompting a furious response from Spain. But united Germany’s new weight prevailed in European counsels, EC members followed suit, and Yugoslavia dissolved into a patchwork of states, local wars, terrorism, recriminations and external military actions.
In his Armageddon Averted, The Soviet collapse 1970-2000, Stephen Kotkin argues that the Soviet Union’s collapse was not inevitable. The sclerotic socialist construct could have staggered on, Kotkin argues. But Gorbachev was a romantic, believed that the construct was reformable, and helped to precipitate collapse. There was a very strong set of continuities between what came before and what came after the announcement of the CIS, and the formal death of the USSR in December 1991.
At the time, ideas were floating around NATO to wind up the organization and to create a new Euro-Atlantic security organization with the US and Russia as leading co-founders. Such a structure, it was hoped, would minimize Russian resentment and efforts to build exclusive spheres of influence. But by mid-1992, a consensus emerged in Washington DC that NATO enlargement was a wise realpolitik measure to strengthen Euro-American hegemony. The Ukraine signed a Partnership for Peace agreement with NATO; Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic officially joined the organization in March 1999. A slew of central eastern European countries followed suit; Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, the most recent NATO members being Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020).
On the other hand, Ukraine agreed to hand over its nuclear weapons in a joint memorandum, co-signed with the US and the UK, along with China, France, and Russia -in other words the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The memorandum was signed in December 1994 and committed the signatories to the principles of the 1975 Helsinki accords, and to abstain from economic coercion or the use of force against the Ukraine.
Two arguments were advanced against this partial opening of NATO to the Ukraine. The first was by a galaxy of primary figures in the US who had played leading roles during the years of the cold war. They expressed their concerns about NATO expansion as both expensive and unnecessary given the lack of an external threat from Russia. The theme was developed by George Kennan, author of the famous 1947 “Long Telegram” from Moscow whose analysis underpinned NATO’s containment policy during the Cold War. In a New York Times article, entitled “A Fatal Error”, published in February 1997, Kennan wrote:
“Why, with all the hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the Cold War, should East-West relations become centered on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable future military conflict?”
The other argument was more hardnosed. John Mearsheimer, who later became famous for his realist take on international relations, argued in a Foreign Affairs article of summer 1993, entitled “The case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent”, that a Ukraine without any nuclear deterrent was likely to be subjected to aggression by Russia.
Mearsheimer went on to develop a powerful case against NATO enlargement. He rightly pointed out that the US refused to concede Putin’s repeated statements that the enlargement of NATO, or the EU, to include Ukraine, was conceived in Moscow as an existential threat. Trouble came to a head in November 2013, with a wave of demonstrations centering on Independence Square (Maidan Nezaleshnosti) in Kyiv. The protests were sparked by the Ukrainian government’s decision not to sign the EU-Ukraine association agreement, instead choosing closer ties to Russia and its Eurasian Economic Union. The demonstrations ended in violence, with the deaths of almost 100 protestors and 13 police in February 2014; the flight of the Ukrainian President to Moscow; and Russia’s seizure of the Crimea by force.
The 2022 Replay
The events of this year, 2022, are in many ways a replay of the same themes: NATO insists that the Ukraine has the right as an independent state to choose NATO membership; the Russian leadership anticipates the worst; invasion is proceeded by much saber rattling; there is talk, again, of Ukraine re-acquiring nuclear weapons; the Russian leadership reminds the Ukraine and the rest of Europe, that it is a nuclear weapon state; the invasion proceeds.
Where does Mearsheimer get it right? He is most definitely right that the western powers have failed to listen to what successive Russian leadership have been saying: that the Ukraine is a neuralgic place for Moscow, given the close history, the shared symbols, Ukraine’s geographic position, its economic importance and Russia’s searing memories of successive invasions from western powers, dating from 1812, 1914, and most traumatically from 1914-1945.
It is worth repeating that 27 million people died and 60-80 million were wounded out of a total population of 285 million in the USSR. As a result, the enormity of the world war is not history for Russians; the dead and wounded are still with them, they are there, ever present, a huge wound, the most important fact of Russian history, alongside the central issue of reviving traditions through the inheritance of 70 years of Soviet dictatorship. The modern western world, secularized, ahistorical, flirting with mendacious, post-modern and neo-Marxist piffle like gender ideology, exists in another world. There is deep incomprehension and mistrust.
Mearsheimer is less right because of his overemphasis on the U.S. role in expanding NATO. True, the swirl of ideas in Washington DC played a crucial role, as did the swings of Congressional and Presidential elections, the lobbying of U.S. arms exporters and U.S. ambitions to keep the upper hand in shaping European developments. But he underplays the importance of European agency, not least the determination of successive Polish, Hungarian, and Czech governments to enter NATO. They were more than eager to do so in the light of their experiences of Russian behavior in 1944, 1948, 1956, 1968, and in 1981 when General Jaruselski imposed martial law to pre-empt a Red Army takeover of his country.
Former Warsaw Pact countries did not need reminding that, though in the early 1990s Russia seemed to be at peace with the world -George Kennan’s interpretation- the political weather in Moscow could change fast. They were also very much aware that very little changed in the attitudes of senior officials in the Moscow foreign and defense policy establishment. In 2003, I gave a lecture on my book about China’s transformation to the Russian foreign office. I saw firsthand that the pre-1917 suspicion of the West and deep socialist suspicions of western motives were alive and well in Moscow.
It became evident over the course of the first two post-1990 decades that attitudes towards Moscow in Paris and Berlin developed at considerable variance to those in Washington DC. Neither capital wanted confrontation with Moscow; their businesses considered Russia a prime market for expansion, as they did for China; the German population furthermore reverted to the deeply held pacifism of the Nie Wieder movement following the disaster of the World War. Germany, it may be said, is militantly pacifist. War, under any circumstances, the conclusion runs, is not worth it.
Putin had Crimea hold a referendum in March 2014, which he won with a 95 percent vote share. His popularity in Russia sky-rocketed. Typically, Chancellor Merkel played both sides: Berlin moved for a non-binding UN resolution declaring the referendum invalid, a wink to the West. But at the same time called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, a wink to domestic opinion and the Kremlin. Paris then joined Berlin in negotiating the so-called Minsk agreements, which ceded Ukrainian territory to Russia, and provided a procedural gloss to what amounted to a serious infraction of the Helsinki agreements, whereby frontiers in Europe could not be altered without the consent of the peoples. Berlin and Paris apparently consider that frontiers can be changed by force.
But there was another, more disturbing side of the German policy towards Ukraine. There is a strong Lebensraum tradition in Berlin and Vienna, with Ukraine as its special target. Berlin in particular was keen on the proposed association agreement of 2013 between the EU and the Ukraine, which led up to the events of 2014. Here Berlin took no account whatsoever of Moscow’s sensibilities: EU association status was a red rag to the Moscow bull, and the military intervention ensued.
Democracy and nation-states of course are not categories compatible with old-style, 1940s Lebensraum. But there were affinities, which Moscow hastened to point out. The demonstrators in the Maidan were yes, pro-democracy, but they were also hostile to the pro-Russian dictator, and wanted Ukraine to turn its back on Moscow. There were also supporters of Bandera’s memory in the crowds, making it easier for Russian media to evoke western revanchism, the threat of Nazis on the march, and the need for firm action.
Moscow, of course, has not completed a full transition from Soviet dictatorship to anything resembling a western style constitutional democracy. Putin has established himself atop a kleptocracy; is reported as having built up a massive fortune, all placed abroad; killed off his opponents, whether in Russia or in the streets of London and Salisbury. There is plenty of reason for the Western powers not putting too much trust in relations with Putin’s Russia.
Indeed, the main argument for Western hardliners in extending western boundaries -it may be termed democratic as contrasted to racial Lebensraum- is to ensure that as many peoples as possible benefit from membership in the western camp. This is a recommendation for permanent warfare between a Russia with a very different perspective on the world, and on its own history. It spells the very opposite of Nie Wieder.
What Does the Ongoing War Reveal About the State of Europe?
The war reveals first and foremost that Putin has miscalculated badly about the Ukraine. His troops were welcomed in the Crimea in 2014. He no doubt anticipated a similar welcome in February 2022. His troops experienced the very opposite -a fierce opposition from the Ukrainian people, their President, and a closing of western ranks in NATO.
Which way the military confrontation will go is difficult, if not impossible, to predict. But it is clear that western support for Ukraine’s right to make its own future is mitigated by the fact that Russia is a nuclear weapons state, and never loses a chance to remind the western public of the fact. Western support for Ukraine, as in the case of Minsk, is in general mitigated by the readiness to sacrifice international rules of the game about frontiers to the facts on the ground. The incentive for Russia is thus to win and occupy the Donbass and the stretch of land through to the Crimea. The “West” is not four square behind Ukraine. Putin surely knows that.
That goes especially for Germany. The new social democrat-green coalition government has made surprise commitments to wind back on the import of Russian gas, and to deliver on a very significant increase in military spending. But those governmental positionings have barely dented popular opinion, which does not want confrontation with Russia; still remembers Gorbachev with affection (Gorbymania); and has in no way ditched its preference for militant pacifism as a central tenet for German policy. No doubts, Putin is well aware of this, so he can reasonably calculate that doubling down on the use of violence will bring Berlin crawling on all fours for a peace at any price.
France has its own Vichy tradition. That tradition says give in to the victor and make the most of it. In present terms, this means keeping French doors open to relations with Moscow, not just to keep the Russian business or to keep options open should the Lebensraum tradition in the German speaking lands ever gain the upper hand. There is also a lively realization in Paris that Russia is a major nuclear power; that there are excellent reasons for not cornering Russia in the Ukraine, providing Putin with a choice between defeat and escalation; and that the prospect of permanent war in the Ukraine is an invitation to long-term trouble in Europe. Paris is visibly tempted to sacrifice European treaty commitments about frontiers to Realpolitik.
Poland, on the other hand, has emerged, unsurprisingly, as the continental hardman. There can be no surprise here either. Poland was partitioned in the late eighteenth century between Prussia, the Hapsburgs, and Russia; recovered its independence in 1918; only to be brutally stamped on by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939-41; and then became, with the Ukraine, one of the prime killing fields of the world war. Poland regained its political independence in 1990, so it does not subscribe to the EU patter that nation states are the problem. Given that its two major neighbors, Germany and Russia, have crushed Poland in the past, Warsaw can always be counted on to give priority to NATO over the EU on security matters, and most definitely to give priority to Washington DC over Paris.
Indeed, if there were to be the slightest wobble in U.S. support for a strong NATO position in favor of the Ukraine, its right to national self-determination and to the rule of law in Europe, then it should be expected that the forces in Poland pushing for an independent nuclear weapon will prevail. Those voices regularly speak up also in the Ukraine. The Ukraine experience should speak volumes to western capitals: what its experience says is that it would have been better for the Ukraine to have its own nuclear deterrence, than to rely on the smiles and hand-shakes of passing politicians from the great powers.
Finally, this war reveals the ultimate futility of war. If ever there was a foolish war, this is it. The list of follies is long and they are not all on the Russian side: Russia has prompted Finland and Sweden to call time on their traditions of neutrality; the brutalities unleashed by the Russian invasion do not lend themselves to winning over the Ukrainian public to Moscow’s cause; victory for Moscow is most likely to be grudging and temporary; “democracy” is not a cure all, definitely if its extension eastwards is seen by Russia as a replay of Lebensraum; the rules of the game, like changing frontiers by force, cannot be airbrushed out of the picture; the policy of peace at any price is a gift to political bandits.
For all the complexities surrounding this war and its origins, onditions for peace are in fact very, very simple: Russian troops must pull back to pre-February positions; Ukraine must recuperate lost territories; Ukrainian neutrality has to be underpinned by agreement between the powers and implemented as was Finland’s neutrality during the cold war; Russia has to be included in all European security structures.
Not least, the Europeans and Americans must rediscover the post-1945 methods of governance in Europe’s complex mosaic of states which is to drop absolutist, all or nothing, policies, and attitudes. Getting by is what is called for, while keeping to the overall rules of the game. Changing frontiers by force definitely falls outside the scope of what’s acceptable.
 George F. Kennan “A Fateful Error.” The New York Times, 5 Feb. 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/05/opinion/a-fateful-error.html
 John J. Mearsheimer, “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent.” Foreign Affairs 72, No. 3 (1993): p. 50–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/20045622