In February 2022, began the longest military conflict in Europe’s post-World War history. But what were its main causes? Although the war in the Ukraine has inflamed emotions across the Western world like never before, the answer requires a realistic and cool-headed approach.
Aristotle, admittedly neutral as far as this conflict is concerned, outlined three elements of communication: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is credibility; people believe what is being said due to demonstrated expertise, authority, and reliability. Pathos establishes an emotional connection, making a profound, often indelible impact. Logos appeals to the sense of reason and logic.
Conversely, Russia’s military spokesman who appears in uniform on the official TV, embodies ethos. He has remained impassive throughout the war, quoting numbers of targets hit, showing maps and aerial videos of combat while displaying as much emotion as a robot. This message may appear reassuring to much of the Russian audience but, since the democratic West has banned Russian media, it does not reach Europe and North America.
Logos, in short supply in mainstream media, is needed to understand what caused this military confrontation in the first place Emotions breed double standards. According to the UN, civilian casualties in Ukraine number 6826 as of December 18, 2022. According to a 2013 Lancet article, civilian casualties resulting from the US invasion of Iraq, a country half a globe away, are estimated at ca. 200000, but some estimates exceed a million.
Yet, no economic sanctions were applied to the United States, American musicians were not barred from performing, and American airlines continued to fly around the world. Paradoxically, condemnation worked the other way. In the United States, French fries were renamed Freedom Fries and French wines were demonstratively poured into the gutters because France refused to support the invasion.
Ukraine and Russia are not only neighbors, but they belonged to the same political unit for most of their history. When former Soviet apparatchiks, headed by Yeltsin, dismantled the Soviet Union in December 1991, Ukraine’s rulers opted to base their political legitimacy on nationalism. Ukrainian diaspora, particularly in Canada and the United States, poured its intellectual resources in fomenting ethnic nationalism, while Western agencies and NGOs worked assiduously to detach Ukraine from Russia.
Though the nationalists had limited electoral weight, they enjoyed strategic Western support and were able to impose their will on the largely indifferent population. A drastically reformed education system produced a generation disdainful of their own recent Soviet history and hostile to Russia and the Russian language and culture.
During his speech at the Munich security conference in 2007, President Putin called for a more balanced multipolar world. He criticized the eastward expansion of NATO that violated verbal commitments Western leaders made to Gorbachev during the reunification of Germany. It was this speech that marked a turning point in the history of Russia, converting “Putin’s Russia” into a public enemy. As a result, western media developed a sinister image of the country and its leader.
A year later, Ukraine and Georgia were invited to join NATO.
During the fall of 2013, Russia convinced the United States to abandon its plans to bomb Syria. Several in Washington condemned this as an act of appeasement. A few days later, mass demonstrations broke out in Kiev. Several days after the Ukrainian president signed an agreement (formally witnessed by France, Germany and Poland) with the opposition to hold an early election and a peaceful transfer of power, a coup took place. This led to a violent overthrow of the Ukrainian government in February 2014.
The United States, who had spent over 5 billion dollars on Ukraine, actively encouraged the coup and took part in selecting the new government. It affirmed militant ethnic nationalism, which instantly antagonized millions of Russian speakers, many of whom dominated the industrialized south-east of the country. Several cities and regions refused to recognize the results of the coup.
This led nationalists to use force to impose their rule, which gave rise to a military conflict in the Donbass region. In one gruesome episode, nationalists burned alive fifty civilians in Odessa in May 2014.
Russia reacted resolutely by integrating the Crimea following a popular referendum. It was prompted by the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, and Sebastopol becoming a U.S. naval base. Despite this, Russia showed restraint by offering only covert support to the Donbass militias and by not intervening in the coastal region from Mariupol to Odessa. These former Ottoman territories were occupied under Catherine the Great (and named Novorossia) in the 18th century. It was mostly under her rule that major cities, including Mariupol and Odessa, were founded, and developed into cosmopolitan commercial and industrial hubs.
Critics within Russia cite this restraint as a major reason for the current conflict. They argue that a move to help the embattled Russian speakers in Novorossia in 2014, when nationalists were only gathering strength, would have spared the current massive warfare. Russia´s initiative to negotiate a new system of collective security in Europe was dismissed by the United States and NATO in December 2021 and January 2022. This was the last attempt to avert war.
Another cause of this conflict was the non-implementation by Kiev of the Minsk 2 Agreements, also signed by France and Germany, which would have allowed the Donbass to maintain a degree of autonomy within Ukraine. Former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, candidly admitted that Kiev’s constant delays in implementing the agreements contributed to the Ukraine´s acquisition of Western weapons and military training to help re-conquer the Donbass.
Ultimately, the overreaching cause of this war was Kiev’s enthusiastic embrace of the role of an American battering ram against Russia. Just imagine Washington’s reaction had Russia organized an anti-U.S. coup in Ottawa and placed its weapons and military advisors across Canada.
This conflict is often viewed as a morality play between good and evil. A rational analysis of its causes should help prevent further bloodshed. In order to avert future tragedies, logos, rather than ethos and pathos, is needed in public discussions of potentially explosive political problems.
The author is Professor Emeritus of History at the Université de Montréal, Canada