BERLIN – Contrary to what Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed, and what political scientists like John Mearsheimer believe, NATO enlargement did not cause Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nor did a sudden descent into irrationality by Putin, who, starting with his Munich Security Conference speech back in 2007, has long telegraphed his irredentist intentions. The key enabler of Russia’s invasion was European division and ambivalence, which left a void where there should have been a strategy.
The contest for Ukraine commenced in early 2008. With oil prices high and Putin’s rule entrenched, Russia began to turn to its near abroad. The summer war in Georgia demonstrated the Kremlin’s resolve and ambition, but the strategic prize was always Ukraine. At the same time, the West moved to attract Ukraine into its orbit, with the launch of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership and US encouragement for a NATO membership bid.
From this point on, tensions over Ukraine were always likely to mount. But over the next 14 years, the EU and its member states pursued a dangerously confused set of initiatives. Their failure to align legal, security, and financial policy created the context in which war became possible.
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