Helping Ukraine Not “Provoking” Russia But a Proper Response to Years of Global Russian Aggression
Some fools claim that the West has been the aggressor against Russia here. The best arguments against this aren’t being made enough.
By Brian E. Frydenborg
Too many analysts frame the current actions and reactions in centering on Russia and Ukraine in narrow terms, around Ukraine’s recent moves towards the West or the events of 2014. So even before the February 2022 massive escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin of the eight-year-long war in Ukraine, there has been a chorus of voices—each and every single one myopic, ridiculous, and not worthy of serious consideration—saying that, we, the United States/NATO/the West should, to some degree or another, not help Ukraine militarily (too much) and/or not increase Ukraine’s aid (too much) because, somehow, if we do, that would be a “provocation” against Russia.
At first this was just the typical “useful idiots” crowd: the hard-/far-/alt-left—often Noam Chomsky/Antonio Gramsci acolytes who think of themselves as the “Anti-Imperialist Brigade” but are more like the “Anti-West-to-the-Point-of-Siding-with-Dictators Brigade” very much in the Orwellian sense, as in, George Orwell’s views he expressed at the height of World War II on the “pacifists” of that time—aligned with Putin’s far more numerous right-wing allies in the West, whose numbers have been steadily growing for years. These mentalities have been cultivated by a “firehose” of propaganda, information warfare, and support for figures like Trump in the U.S., the recently-defeated Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and for the Brexit campaign in the UK.
But the foolishness has extended beyond that usual strange nexus of the far-left and far-right: we now have the New York Times Editorial Board, Henry Kissinger himself, otherwise respectable experts, and even Pope Francis spouting dangerous false premises that, if only some sort of “reasonable” “peace” deal could be arrived at, the war could end (so we should pressure Ukraine into negotiating with Russia!), or that Russia was somehow “provoked” into war, that war could have been “prevented” if only folks were nicer to Russia, or more accommodating, or tried to “understand” the Russian “perspective,” or some other such embarrassing naïveté.
Thankfully, the most powerful nation in NATO, the West, and on earth—the United States of America—has a leader in President Joe Biden and a government that are firmly not buying into any of this nonsense. Even so, the simply astounding blindness, myopia, and selective readings of history mentioned above must still be swiftly swatted away.
To the credit of the sensible people with real consciences defending Ukraine publicly, the solid response often given to this ridiculousness is that, clearly, Russia is the aggressor here, the one trying to chop off territory from a sovereign state and committing war crimes en masse against an unprovocative neighbor that posed no threat to Russia.
All this is true and obvious.
The Bigger Picture
But still just as true and what should also be obvious (if perhaps slightly less obvious since people seem to have incredibly short attention spans) is that Russia has been an explicit aggressor—the primary one as far as nation-states—against the West since 2007.
I have outlined some of this Russian aggression in depth elsewhere, that Russia’s establishing itself as a predominantly and consistently bad-faith actor began in 2007 with a massive cyberwarfare campaign against NATO-member Estonia followed not long after by the Russian invasion and dismemberment of Western-ally and NATO aspirant Georgia in 2008. Cyberwarfare and political interference against NATO and the West have been clear constants since then, and there has also been a steady stream of military interventions and other hostile actions, including, but not limited to:
- massive propaganda, disinformation, and hacking campaigns, including active weaponization of hacked materials in these campaigns
- obvious artificial boosting of extremists—including violent ones—as well as bad-faith operations to damage leaders and parties in power and out that are willing to stand up to Russian aggression
- active political interference in specific elections and referenda
- clear efforts to foster nationalist and sub-nationalist secessionist movements to literally break up European countries and the EU itself, with a heavy focus on xenophobic, racist sentiment
- constant brinksmanship with regular airspace and sea-space violations
- carrying out multiple assassination missions with chemical weapons on European/NATO soil
- militarily attacking Western partners and allies in Syria and Libya
- attacking, invading, (de facto) annexing, and fostering separatism in the territory of NATO-aspirants Georgia and Ukraine
While my previous work—linking the findings of many other researchers and agencies—has documented all this in detail, what is important to note here is that what this amounts to, in the end, is a war to destroy both Western democracy itself and the Western-led international order in place since the end of World War II.
Once you realize this, once you understand the sum total of the parts of Putin’s malfeasance, all of a sudden, not only can you argue that just about any aid to Ukraine and punishment for Russia is essentially justified, firm and forceful pushback against Russia’s aggression is long overdue and warrants even more pushback than we are giving now.
By looking at the big picture, it is easy to call out Russian malign aggression that has been by far the more grave set of actions, not Western moves or responses, and only a fool would equate voluntary, peaceful decisions of democratic countries in Eastern Europe joining NATO of their own free will with Russia invading and annexing parts of its neighbors or interfering with such heavy hands through illicit means in the politics of its non-threatening neighbors. One set of behaviors is free nations exercising their free will democratically, the other is naked imperialism, as I noted here writing for Small Wars Journal before.
And, yes, while during the Cold War and in centuries past the West has obviously engaged similar aggressive imperialism, we live in different era today, one where Russian dismemberment of other nations’ territory and politics is not a norm practiced by all other great powers but a unique behavior characteristic of Russia alone among major world powers. While today, the West uses the possibility of benefiting from the global institutions it leads, trade, technology, economic and humanitarian aid, and security alliances to entice cooperation and alignment—to persuade rather than conquer—Russia is still living in the past, wielding only corruption and terror: indeed, Putin is living mentally in Tsar Peter the Great’s late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which is—as Stephen Kotkin, one of the great modern historians on Russia, loves to point out—long before NATO ever existed.
The very arguments being applied by the aforementioned fools in terms of trying to limit or halt Western aid to Ukraine can and should have been applied to Russia, where they are far sounder, to caution Putin against further aggression because of the possibility that the West would respond. While the silly in the West were worried about Russia’s response if the West stood up for Ukraine, it is Russia who should have been more worried about what the West would do in response to its insane invasion.
Robustly standing by Ukraine to aid it in pushing out all Russian forces from every inch of Ukrainian territory Russia has occupied—not just in 2022 but since 2014—is a fitting and wholly justified response on moral, practical, and legal grounds to Russia’s arc of behavior in recent years, an arc of transgressions that is so great that Ukraine should neither have been the beginning nor be the end of the West’s decisive and forceful response.
Again, it is not the West that has been provocative relative to Russia but the other way around for the past fifteen years. It is long past time that the narratives presented to the public put this front and center, not just highlighting that Russia is the clear aggressor in Ukraine—which, as noted, many in the media are already doing—but that, in the grand scheme of global geopolitics, a forceful Western support for Ukraine is part of a proper response to the clear and continuous pattern of Russian aggression against NATO, the West, and Western democracy itself.