What is really at stake in Ukraine?

As the war in Ukraine rages on, there is much anger, anxiety and fear around the world. The popular consensus among media and experts seems to be that the fault is entirely that of Russia. It is certainly true that Mr. Putin instigated the current aggression against its neighbor. However, as a few scholars have pointed out, the real reason may be the one that not many experts/ scholars are talking about: NATO expansion.

            As Prof. John Mearsheimer, a renowned foreign policy expert and someone I have read quite a bit, points out, the current crisis is all about NATO expansion. Watch this video for some more context.

Source : Istockphoto.com Ukraine flag. Ukrainian flag on black storm cloud sky. stormy weather

            A few days ago, my alma mater, Virginia Tech hosted a talk by a few experts who have studied Central Asia and Russia. One of the experts, Prof Gerard Toal pointed out that “ You have accumulated resentments from 30 yrs, and it is front and center in Putin’s speech. It is one man’s emotional rational and one emotional fact – and that involves NATO expansion. We are making a mistake to dismiss it. It is imperial that we dismiss the main thing we are talking about, which is your security interest. We are saying (to Putin) that you are an autocrat and we dismiss their narrative and we go to our civilizational narrative of promoting democracy etc. Let me be clear, this NATO expansion is in conflict with Putin’s regime and it is not unusual position to have, for Putin.” He did add that “Having said that, Putin’s vision of Ukraine has lost touch with reality.”

Mearsheimer would agree with Toal, in many respects. However, the narrative among media experts and policy makers in the US is obviously not able to capture this complexity. As it often happens with policy discourses, the simpler narrative rises to the top.

It also doesn’t help that Putin is engaged in an overtly aggressive war which is killing innocent civilians.

            America’s agenda of democracy promotion around the world, including in the Middle East and Asia have resulted in much anxiety among many rulers – authoritarians in these parts of the world. This is also a part of the dynamic in the crisis, with the Orange revolution causing much anxiety in Russia.

            While there is a long history to the conflict and multiple perspectives, if one were to give the cliff-notes version, it would be this : Putin doesn’t want Ukraine to join the EU or NATO. Ukraine wants to join these institutions. This seems to be one of the main points of contestation.

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