The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea were some of the main reasons given by pro-war commentators starting in 2014 for arming Ukraine and further expanding NATO. Russia violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, they said, so it must be stopped.
But the invasion and March 18 annexation occurred in the aftermath of the February 2014 Maidan Revolution, which even the New York Times has called a U.S.-backed coup. Some commentators (e.g., John Pilger) call it a U.S.-led coup.
See Joe Lauria’s Evidence of US-Backed Coup in Kiev.
These facts certainly call into question the ferocious response of the U.S., which, after all, invaded and occupied Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and other countries — and instigated regime changes in dozens of countries — all in the name of supporting “democracy” and “freedom fighters.”
Crimea is ethnically and culturally tied to Russia, and citizens there want close ties with Russia. Far right militias such as Right Sector were violently supporting the revolution, and after the coup they became active near Russia. Indeed, the U.S. Senate and House later passed an amendment that explicitly banned funding Nazi groups in Ukraine, but the amendment was stripped and those militias were later incorporated into the Ukrainian army. A similar amendment was signed into law in 2018; see Congress bans arms to Ukraine militia linked to neo-Nazis. It’s not clear, however, to what extent that ban has been effective at keeping arms out of the hands of far right groups, especially given the lax oversight of military aid to Ukraine.
See here for dozens of articles in mainstream media documenting Nazi groups in Ukraine.
Prior to the 2014 coup, NATO had expanded aggressively into Eastern Europe, and there was talk of Ukraine joining NATO. So it is not a surprise that Russia, knowing the history of U.S. regime change operations, would feel threatened by the prospect of an(other) armed, anti-Russian, U.S. client state along its borders.
After the coup, France and Germany helped negotiate the Minsk Agreements, which “sought to end the Donbas war fought between armed Russian separatist groups and Armed Forces of Ukraine, with Russian regular forces playing a central part.” (ibid). Russian-aligned provinces would be given limited independence in exchange for security guarantees. But the agreements were never implemented. Reuters reported recently:
In an interview published in Germany’s Zeit magazine on Wednesday, former German chancellor Angela Merkel said that the Minsk agreements had been an attempt to “give Ukraine time” to build up its defences.
In other words, the intention all along was to prepare for war.
As senior U.S. diplomats including George Kennan, Jack Matlock, and WIll Burns said, aggressive NATO expansion was unnecessary and destabilizing. Russia has legitimate security concerns (LA Times), and it’s no surprise they don’t want NATO expanding right up to its borders.
How would the U.S. react if Russia or China set up armed, anti-U.S. client states in Cuba or Mexico? The U.S. doesn’t even allow vaguely socialist governments in South America.
The RAND Corporation study Overextending and Unbalancing Russia includes the paragraph:
Providing lethal aid to Ukraine would exploit Russia’s greatest point of external vulnerability. But any increase in U.S. military arms and advice to Ukraine would need to be carefully calibrated to increase the costs to Russia of sustaining its existing commitment without provoking a much wider conflict in which Russia, by reason of proximity, would have significant advantages.
The highlighted words indicate that the authors were quite aware that U.S. provocations would cause Russia to respond militarily.
Diplomats David H. Rundell and Michael Gfoeller wrote in Newsweek:
Some have presented this conflict as a morality play, between good and evil, but the reality is more complex. Ukraine is no flourishing democracy. It is an impoverished, corrupt, one-party state with extensive censorship, where opposition newspapers and political parties have been shut down. Before the war, far right Ukrainian nationalist groups like the Azov Brigade were soundly condemned by the U.S. Congress. Kiev’s determined campaign against the Russian language is analogous to the Canadian government trying to ban French in Quebec. Ukrainian shells have killed hundreds of civilians in the Donbas and there are emerging reports of Ukrainian war crimes. The truly moral course of action would be to end this war with negotiations rather than prolong the suffering the Ukrainian people in a conflict they are unlikely to win without risking American lives.