Ukraine: Foundations of the Conflict Trap

by Ivo Rens

Honorary Professor 

Faculty of Law

University of Geneva

June 6, 2022

The demise of the USSR and later of the Warsaw Pact represented an international change that compared only to two precedents, i.e., the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and the end of the First World War. These two precedents resulted in respectively, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the Versailles Treaty in 1919, both of which attempted to bring peace among the nations. As Richard Sakwa remarked, the breakdown of the USSR and subsequent disappearance of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 had not been followed up by a similar attempt. (1) How do we explain this shortcoming?

It is now clear that Presidents Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, contending with the collapse of an empire, did not have the leisure of taking initiatives to reorganize international relations. The ideological abandonment of communism earned them the benevolence, or even the enthusiastic support, of the Western powers and world public opinion, if not that of Russian citizens. One of Gorbachev’s priorities, and then Yeltsin’s, was to ensure that the reunification of Germany did not lead to the rearmament of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) territory. 

On February 9, 1990, during discussions with Mikhaïl Gorbachev, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker gave assurances that NATO military forces would not settle in Eastern Germany after the German reunification, any more than in the Warsaw Pact countries that were in the process of dissolution. “Not only for the Soviet Union but also for other European countries, it is important to have guarantees that if the United States maintains its presence in Germany as part of NATO, not one inch of NATO’s current military jurisdiction will move further east.”(2) In his speech on June 24, 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker had clearly been inclined to include Russia in “a Euro-Atlantic community that would extend eastward from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”(3) 

Thierry de Monbrial shared his perspective on Russia’s position at that time, as follows: “From Moscow’s point of view, the alternative is relatively simple: either the Westerners take the East-West reconciliation seriously, in which case the Atlantic Alliance would have to disappear as an alliance and NATO would become the secular arm of collective security; or the Alliance retains a defensive character with regard to Russia, but any enlargement would then be considered an act of hostility. Washington is well aware of this dilemma, but justifiably, does not want to deal with it until things are ripe, hence the nervousness in Central Europe. By proposing a Partnership for Peace (PfP), the Americans sought to gain time.” (4) 

President George H. W. Bush, who succeeded President Reagan in 1989, had not been truly hostile towards Gorbachev or Yeltsin, but perhaps he felt that, given its uncontested power, the United States could manage without international consultation. It was President Clinton who, in 1994, made the fatal decision to progressively enlarge NATO to include Eastern European countries without taking into account the consequences of breaking the previous administration’s agreement. It should be noted that Bill Clinton had no experience in international affairs and that his presidency resulted in a disastrous intervention in Somalia, a reprehensible failure to act during the Rwandan genocide, and the bombing of Serbia.

This decision was ratified by the U.S. Senate within the framework of its foreign policy competence despite the opposition of several international policy experts, including that of George Kennan, theorist and father of the containment policy.  “I think it is a tragic mistake. (…)This expansion (of NATO) would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves. (…) Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.” (5) 

At that time, in the 1990s of the last century, Kempf, author of the encyclopedia on NATO, which we have already quoted, considered it normal for Moscow to retain a certain distrust of NATO. Its representatives expressed their preference for another organization, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), created in Helsinki in 1975, which later became, in 1995, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which had many more member States than NATO at that time, and even today, including the U.S. and Canada, and some States in the Near East. André Koryzev, then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, stated that, if NATO could not be replaced, “the CSCE’s purpose should be to coordinate the activities of NATO, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the WEU and the CIS (6) to reinforce stability and security, promote peacekeeping and protect human rights and national minorities.” (7) U.S. and NATO country officials did not follow up on this extremely constructive proposal. And so, Russia looked on helplessly as NATO enlarged to include the Baltic states that had once been part of the USSR.

Originally made up of twelve member States, NATO now has twenty-eight in Europe and two in North America. Hostile to the very process of enlargement, Russia never hid the fact that it considered it unacceptable for Ukraine to become a NATO member. There were many reasons, i.e., historical, cultural, military. The introduction of ballistic missiles in Ukraine would increase the vulnerability of the Russian Federation’s nerve centre. Moscow strongly felt NATO’s war against Yugoslavia, more specifically against Serbia, at the end of the last century. But in 2007-2008, following NATO’s Summit declaration in Bucharest to welcome Ukraine as a NATO member, tensions turned into a crisis. (8)

Even amongst NATO supporters, voices questioned the wisdom and opportunity of this option. Kempf stated, “Like Rome, whose infinite expansion caused its downfall, is the Atlantic Alliance not suffering, potentially, from overextension? (…) The Alliance’s survival may depend on its non-imperial character. From this point of view, if incorporating the ex-Yugoslav states seems to be appropriate, then including Ukraine or the Caucasian countries would constitute a Pyrrhic victory. A murderous victory that would kill the winner crowning him.” (9)

The Russian leaders watched, with great apprehension, the United State’s growing presence in the Ukraine and its increased control in Ukrainian political circles since the beginning of the 21st century. Culturally and informationally speaking, it was the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), that is, the Foundation for democracy, heir to the CIA’s legal work since 1983, that had been most active.  In 2013- 2014, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was so bold as to go to Kiev to protest with opponents on Independence Square. Since then, we learned that she plotted with Washington ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, the replacement for Ukrainian President Yanukovych in defiance of diplomatic law and political decency. (10) 

The rest is history. At the beginning of 2014, the so-called Maidan “revolution” in Kiev led to the fall of “pro-Russian” President Yanukovych, then the Ukrainian Parliament’s abolition of the linguistics rights of the non-Ukrainian-speaking people, that is, a large minority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians living in the east and south of the country.  Crimea, mainly Russian-speaking, seceded and its parliament held a referendum that decided, by an overwhelming majority, to join Russia. Part of Donbas, around Donetsk and Lougansk, also seceded, leading to a deadly conflict that lasted eight years and that, by August 2015, had already caused massive destruction, close to 8,000 civilian and military deaths, the departure of more than 2.3 million people from Donbas, most of whom had settled in Ukraine, and also in neighbouring countries and where more than 300,000 found refuge in Russia. (11) Of course, these numbers only increased between 2015 and 2022… 

While this was happening in the Ukraine, relations had evolved between the West and Russia since the collapse of the USSR, from understanding to differences and then to disagreements and misunderstandings. Almost always, it was the U.S. that chose to betray the trust and compromise security. “As such, the United States gradually withdrew from all Cold War arms control agreements: the ABM Treaty (2002), the Open Skies Treaty (2018), and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (2019). This trend has continued under Trump and Biden…” (12) 

We have tried to describe the sequence of main events relating to the ongoing conflict. But how can we explain Washington’s obvious and increasing hostility towards Moscow during this period? Some might say that the Russian military intervened in Georgia in 2008 and in Syria as of 2015, questionably so, yes, but which did not overshadow Washington. However, it should be noted that the first of these two campaigns had been strictly limited in scope and duration and the second had been carried out at the express request of the Syrian government, in the midst of an Islamist uprising falsely presented in the West as being committed to democracy. 

Much more fundamental, it would seem, was Washington’s hegemonic obsession, as evidenced by, on one hand, the outrageous level of its military budget, which, at the beginning of this century, is on the same order of magnitude as that accumulated by all the other States on the Planet (13), and, on the other hand, by its nuclear arsenal which has no world equivalent other than Russia’s. (14) While these two points seem critical, a third perhaps is just as decisive, i.e., American leaders’ and the deep state in Washington’s internalization of Russia as an enemy, notwithstanding any ideological justification and the economic complementarity of Western Europe and Russia. However, it should be noted that declining economic exchanges between Russia and Europe offered Washington the possibility of killing two birds with one stone by marginalizing both Russia and Europe. 

Let us speculate on Washington’s dual objective with regard to the Ukraine, if not since the decision to enlarge NATO to the east, in 1994, then at least since the beginning of the 21st century: on one hand, continue to contain Russia, though freed from communism, by inertia as it were, and continue to maintain NATO as sole guarantor of the projection of American hegemony in Europe. On the other hand, induce the Russian adversary or enemy to adopt a behaviour likely to incur general, if not universal, condemnation, i.e., a behaviour that would be doomed to failure. This dual objective is the only cause, we believe, to account for Washington’s and the U.S. protectorates’ policy to enlarge NATO to Eastern Europe. At the beginning of the 20th century, President Putin had expressed his desire for Russia to be associated with the European Union and the Western world. (15) Proof of this was Russia’s involvement in the Conference for Peace and Security in Europe, which became the OSCE in 1995. At the same time, Moscow had expressed its disapproval of NATO’s enlargement and constantly reiterated the unacceptable nature it attached to Ukraine’s membership in NATO. 

« Unacceptable » is a mobilizing word for Washington because it designates a target. The United States had some difficulty in getting the NATO Summit in Bucharest to adopt the policy decision that Ukraine should join the Alliance. They expected Russia to use force to oppose this, and if it could not be sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, its aggression would be universally condemned and, in any case, doomed to failure. Admittedly, Crimea seceded and was annexed by Russia, but without violence and with the massive support of the population consulted by referendum. There had also been the secession of two Russian-speaking regions of the Donbas, Donetsk and Logansk, which gave rise to the deadly war of positions mentioned earlier, the continuation of which was clearly unacceptable to Moscow. There are indications that Washington and NATO provided substantial assistance to Ukraine in fighting the Moscow-backed Donbas separatists. 

Finally, on February 24, 2022, Moscow did what the U.S. had expected it to do: it launched a military offensive against Ukraine, in clear violation of the United Nations Charter and international law. President Volodymyr Zelensky succeeded in galvanizing the resistance of the population and armed forces, in demanding aid, especially in arms, from NATO countries and in imposing his acting, directing and producing skills—his previous profession—on the unprecedented worldwide press campaign and media outpouring against Russia. The campaign was unique because of its borrowings from hybrid warfare and cyber-conflicts. (16) Zelensky used any means available to him. (17) With no ties to the far-right nationalists, a small minority in Ukraine, Zelensky made a point of systematically integrating extremist groups, such as the neo-Nazis in the Azov Regiment and the Pravy Sektor, and other similar movements, into the Ukrainian armed forces. 

Washington and the NATO countries, followed by several others, including Switzerland which, at that time, had forgotten its neutrality and “good offices” tradition, proceeded with several waves of increasingly severe sanctions against Russia, aimed at its assets abroad, against a certain number of its political or economic leaders and their assets abroad, etc. To date, many of these sanctions could backfire on the States that have endorsed them as numerous countries seem to have crossed the threshold of lawfulness by not been respecting the binding standards of international law. (18) Moreover, they risk causing serious economic difficulties for many of the States involved and famine in several countries that will no longer be able to import wheat from Ukraine and Russia, two of the world’s largest producers. Egypt and the Maghreb countries are among those most threatened by famine. We prefer not to dwell on the significant risk that the conflict will spread and possibly end in a nuclear holocaust, and hope that those fighting will soon reach a peaceful resolution, probably thanks to the “good offices” of a third State.

 How is it that Western political leaders and their diplomats have not risen up against the prospect of the abovementioned disasters? (19) Perhaps it is due to the mediocrity of some and the subservience of all. We believe that both of these factors may have equally contributed to the replacement of diplomacy with the imposition of penalties and to the good conscience of Western crime pushers. Let us recall that, in the 1970s, American policy focused on dissociating China from Russia. On May 11, 99-year-old Henry Kissinger noted that Western policy, since the beginning of the 21st century, had reversed the former objective by cementing relations of all kinds with these two giants! (20) Therefore, it has strongly contributed to strengthening the de facto alliance between Moscow and Beijing! 


(1) Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine. Crisis in the Borderlands, Bloomsbury Academic, 347 pages, pp. 3 and 4. 

(2) Paul Danieri, Ukraine and Russia, From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 282 pages, pp. 60, 1, and Jacques Baud, Poutine, maître du jeu ?, Max Milo, 2022, 297 pages, p. 29. 

(3) Olivier Kempf, L’OTAN au XXIe siècle. La transformation d’un héritage, Editions du Rocher, undated 2nd edition but after 2014, 613 pages, p. 238.

(4) Olivier Kempf, L’OTAN au XXIe siècle. La transformation d’un héritage, op.cit., p. 248. The PfP (Partnership for Peace) is a category of non-hostile states, which are not NATO members, that agree to foster military interoperability with NATO. This includes Austria, Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, but also Ukraine and Russia. 

(5) The New York Times, February 21, 2022.

(6) The Commonwealth of Independent States was formed following the dissolution of the USSR. Olivier Kempf, L’OTAN au XXIe siècle. La transformation d’un héritage, op.cit. p. 287. Also see Paul Danieri, op. cit. p. 59 and Jacques Baud, op. cit. p.35. 

(6) The New York Times, May 2, 1998, quoted in an article by George Kennan in Wikipedia. 

(7) Olivier Kempf, L’OTAN au XXIe siècle. La transformation d’un héritage, op.cit., pp.287, 8.


(9) Olivier Kempf, L’OTAN au XXIe siècle. La transformation d’un héritage, op.cit., p.266. 

(10) Richard Sakwa, op. cit., p. 87. “Top U.S. official visits protesters in Kiev as Obama admin ups pressure on Ukraine President Yanukovych.” CBS News, December 11, 2013. – “Ukraine crises: Transcript of leaked Nuland-Pyatt call”, BBC News, February 7, 2014. 

(11) Richard Sakwa, op. cit., p. 278. Other authors mention a higher number of civilian and military deaths in 2014: 14,000 according to Jacques Baud, Poutine maître du jeu ?, Max Milo, 2022, pp. 136, 7. 

(12) Jacques Baud, Poutine maître du jeu ?, Max Milo, 2022, pp. 122,3. 

(13)épenses_militaires(2019), pp. 122,3.

(14) etats-par-arsenal-nucleaire-monde.php (2021) 

(15) Jacques Baud, Poutine maître du jeu ?, op. cit, pp. 39 et seq.

(16) François-Bernard Huyghe, Olivier Kempf and Nicolas Mazzucchi, Gagner les cyberconflits. Au-delà du technique, Collection Cyberstratégie, Editions Economica, 2015, 175 pages.

(17) Guy Mettan, La face cachée de Volodymir Zelensky

(18) Nguyen Quoc Dinh, Patrick Daillier and Alain Pellet, Droit 

international public, 5th edition, LGDJ, 1994, 1,317 pages, pp. 896 et seq. 

(19) This perspective inherent to the Ukrainian crisis led the author of these lines to launch the blog “La paix mondiale menacée” in August 2014 as mentioned in the introductory note of this blog.

(20) May 11, 2022, 99-year-old Kissiger shares some negative comments about the strengthening of the de facto alliance between Moscow and Beiking:

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