by Giovanni Mennillo

The condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine must remain firm and unquestionable. The aggressor and the victim of invasion are blatantly obvious. However, this latest act cannot absolve us from attempting to understand the complex historical and political phenomena that led to the conflict. Theorising on what’s “good” and “bad” seems insufficient compared to the complexity of the events, an understanding of which seems to us to be one of the prerequisites for establishing a dialogue for peace. The risk of a moral crusade is, after all, that of fuelling the very logic of power that led to the conflict.

Much has been said about the role played by NATO and of its so-called ‘expansionism in the East’. Apart from biased analyses and unacceptable pro-Russian justifications, it seems necessary to understand the evolution of relations between Russia and the West over the last thirty years and to understand the logic behind their reciprocal behaviour. Simone Paoli, Professor of History of Transatlantic Relations at the Department of Political Science, University of Pisa, tells us about this.

After the collapse of the USSR, what were the relations between Russia and the West?

After the dissolution of the USSR, the West tried to integrate the Russian Federation into the international system emerging from the post-Cold War context. There are several evidences of this: Russia’s inclusion in the G7, its involvement in the Council of Europe, the EU’s commitment of technical assistance with the TACIS programme, and finally the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Europe and Russia. Obviously, this integration was not and could not take place on an equal footing: there was a strong subordination of the Russian Federation, heir to a country that was to all intents and purposes defeated. It was a country in enormous economic, social and political difficulty. It was difficult to consider it an equal partner.

Was there an immediate promise not to enlarge NATO eastwards?

There has been much debate as to whether or not James Baker, US Secretary of State, made a promise not to enlarge NATO eastwards to Gorbačëv. The historiographical debate is still open, even if recently declassified archive documents seem today to support this thesis. In my opinion, however, it is not so important: at that juncture, in general, the hypothesis of enlargement was accompanied by various reassurances on the part of NATO. The West did not seem to be threatening Moscow directly. It is, on the other hand, evident that this enlargement was not appreciated by Russia. In fact, the Federation had no means of opposing it, it was subordinate to Western interests, withdrawn into itself, incapable of playing a powerful role.

Did Russia accept this state of subordination?

Already in 1996, with the appointment of Evgenij Primakov as Minister of Foreign Affairs, this relationship, considered too subordinate, began to be questioned in Moscow. The signs, therefore, were already there before Putin became Prime Minister three years later. 1999 was also an important moment for another reason: for the first time, the Russian Federation stood in clear opposition to the military strategies of the West, contesting the NATO bombing of Serbia, its historic ally. A second phase of relations then began, favoured by an objective strengthening of the country, which regained control over its hydrocarbon companies and benefited from the increase in the international price of energy resources. Russia was thus able to return to playing a strong role on the international stage, relying on greater internal stability and a greater capacity for external projection.

What characterised this period?

The BRIC was created, made up of four countries that were in their own way ‘revisionists’ of the international system. Russia sought a more active role also at the European level, as testified by the military intervention in Georgia, making it clear that it wanted to defend the Russian-speaking minorities scattered in the post-Soviet space, also through the use of force.

At the same time, the eastward enlargement of the EU and NATO, which arrived at the Russian Federation’s borders between 1999 and 2004, became a reality. Moscow also looked unfavourably at American unilateralism: the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were seen as overly assertive actions by the US. A willingness to engage in dialogue remained, however: the NATO-Russia Council was created, and assurances were given that there were no plans to install nuclear weapons and permanent military bases in the new eastern members. There was still hope for ‘peaceful coexistence’, but the first significant rifts began, also due to the ‘coloured revolutions’ in various countries of the post-Soviet space.

Russia seemed to want a superpower role, yet in 2008-2009 relations improved…

It opened what has been called the attempted reset. In 2009 the leadership changed in Moscow, with Putin as Prime Minister and Medvedev as President, and in the US with Obama.

Medvedev was perceived externally as an interlocutor more in tune with the West, capable of giving a neo-liberal turn to Russia. But perhaps the most important element was Obama’s change of strategy. From the rethinking of Bush’s failed policy, the desire to manage the world in a more cooperative way emerged. Russia also became an important player in redefining the balance of power, and the US sought a common approach on certain issues, starting with the fight against nuclear proliferation.

Then the perception of the enemy began to change: the US considered that the European front was not the central one and China seemed to become the new geopolitical competitor. The European front, therefore, had to be silenced and a dialogue with the Russians was needed to close that potential conflict front. Russia also sought a relationship with the West to rebalance the partnership with China in its favour. There were results: the ‘New START’ on nuclear reduction was signed, there were reassurances from the US that Georgia and Ukraine would not join NATO in the short term and that the announced missile defence systems would not be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic; there were also joint military operations.

How did we get to the present stage?

Everything changed in 2011-2012. Geopolitical differences over Libya and Syria began to emerge. Putin’s return as president of the Russian Federation obviously weighed heavily, ending the hope of a liberal path; at the same time, Russia’s perception of itself as a superpower increased. In 2012 there was also the first agreement on an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine, which was followed by President Janukovyč’s step back and his dismissal after Euromaidan. On the economic level, meanwhile, Russia realised that it was too dependent on gas exports to the West and chose to widen and diversify its sphere of influence and action, “expanding” towards Africa, strengthening its relationship with Beijing, deciding to intervene directly in the Syrian civil war and joining OPEC.

Why was there no dialogue?

Historians have yet to analyse these phenomena, which are still too recent. I have the feeling that there are several factors. First of all, there was no interdependence to justify an alliance between the United States and Russia: in particular, there was no real economic interdependence such as that which explains the strange alliance between China and the United States or the close relationship which, for a long time, sustained the relationship between Europe and Russia. Then there was the role of the past, the mutual perception still linked in many ways to the Cold War. Finally, the entry of the Central and Eastern European countries could not fail to have an effect, changing perceptions of the alliances, rightly or wrongly. Today’s conflict is the culmination of this failure.

Was the pro-European choice in Ukraine piloted against Moscow?

The US and Europe certainly supported the protests against Janukovyč, but it is difficult to know whether they promoted them and how much they affected their development and effects. This is something that historians will have to clarify, but the fact remains that it was a protest in which the ‘people’ took to the streets in a pro-European sense. In addition to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova also signed an association agreement with the EU. It was an act that strongly changed the system of alliances: three countries of the former USSR sided with the European Union. This worried Moscow greatly. The reaction was not long in coming: Russia incorporated Crimea and a conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine.

There has been a lot of talk about ‘expansionism in the East’, what do you think was the logic behind it?

Enlargement responded to different, albeit intertwined, logics, depending on whether we are talking about the EU or NATO. There were economic considerations on both sides. There was also a strong political-psychological value: the idea of reunifying a Europe that had been divided by the Cold War. NATO enlargement had a security element, as it was a purely military alliance. Membership made the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the three Baltic republics feel protected against possible Russian revanchism. On the other hand, NATO probably perceived Russia’s weakness and felt entitled to expand its sphere of influence. This is conjecture, however: no historian has had access to archival documents; it is an open debate. The feeling is that both dynamics played a role: the desire for security of the Central and Eastern countries, and the Western desire to expand its sphere of influence and security.

Was there a Russian threat then?

Let me answer with a historical comparison: was there a German threat after Versailles? Certainly not in the short term, since Germany was in a state of total security.

There was, however, the risk of a future German threat from which France tried, unsuccessfully, to secure itself. Similarly, Russia in the 1990s had neither the strength nor the will to ‘re-annex’ the countries of Central and Eastern Europe; it could, however, represent a threat in the medium to long term and, by joining NATO, those countries wanted to protect themselves. This was a classic security dilemma, which always carries with it the risk of creating a spiral.

Was NATO’s behaviour irresponsible?

NATO felt it had to respond positively to that demand for security and, perhaps, to take advantage of Russian weakness. Having said that, it is clear that the enlargement of the EU or of NATO itself would have marked a key moment that was objectively risky. It is not my task to say whether it was right or wrong; what is certain is that, at the moment in which the hope of entry was given to countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, one was aware of touching a raw nerve for Russia.

The end of the Soviet bloc had led to the illusion that we could also put an end to the logic of power, but this was not the case…

In 1992 an essay by Francis Fukuyama, translated as ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, was enormously successful. In it, he hypothesised that with the collapse of the USSR the world would move towards peaceful globalisation where values of democracy, civil rights and the free market would dominate. That reading seems embarrassingly naïve today. A year later, Samuel P. Huntington, in an article titled The Clash of Civilisations challenged that reading and explained that perhaps the idea of political and ideological conflicts would come to an end, but that these would continue along civilisational fault lines. This theory seemed to be confirmed after the attack on the Twin Towers, giving the impression of a return to a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam.

Perhaps, however, they were both wrong. Like them, it is plausible that I am also wrong, but I believe that today we are at something much more similar to the first post-war period: there was a post-war peace and order based on an extremely unstable equilibrium, with revanchist forces that wanted to redesign the geopolitical system. The main differences that, we hope, could lead to a different outcome concern a world that is no longer Eurocentric and, of course, the availability of nuclear weapons, until now an effective antidote to a generalised war between superpowers.

The logic of power has probably never come to an end, but has only been concealed by the irenical idea of the end of history and then by the more reliable but simplifying idea of a clash of civilisations. Today we see that there is still a politics based on nation-states and their quest for security and influence.

Is recognising the complexity and mutual ‘hostile’ behaviour a prerequisite for discussing a new order of peace?

I believe that we historians have an important mission at this stage. The task is not to put on the helmet of one side or the other but to use our knowledge to try to understand and explain what is happening, to put it in a context. That said, we must stand firm in our condemnation of military aggression, which, as such, must be denounced and deplored without equivocation. It will then be up to politics and diplomacy, with the active involvement of civil societies, to find negotiated solutions to the crisis.

But how is this war being reported?

It must be accepted that, even if it has not been formally declared, we are in fact a country at war. The heavy sanctions imposed and the fact that we have chosen to send arms make us a country at war. Hence the way the information has moved. It seems to me that war information has already been triggered, although obviously it has not been done formally and from above. The public debate, then, has taken on more of the characteristics of a clash between factions rather than a serious attempt to explore the underlying reasons, scenarios and possible ways out of this terrible war.

Isn’t sending weapons risk fuelling the clash between ‘blocs’?

We are facing something unprecedented; one need only think of Germany which, after the Second World War, had always self-limited its use of force. In Atlantic circles it was said, with a joke, that the Germans are ‘fierce campers’, underlining their disengagement despite joining NATO. Today, Germany is increasing its military spending to 2% and sending weapons. Neutral Sweden participates in sending arms while Switzerland itself aligns itself with the choice of imposing sanctions. The EU, long described as a ‘civil power’ also chooses to support this effort.


Is this a contribution to peace? Certainly not, at least in the short term. It is clear that by sending weapons one wants the Ukrainian resistance to continue and, if possible, to win. As well as contributing to Ukrainian independence, they probably want to prevent future imperialist claims by Putin, or send a message to China about Taiwan. But it is clear that this attitude has huge risks. It reinforces tensions with Russia. It prolongs the conflict and contributes to making it more bloody. It increases the opportunities for possible incidents with NATO countries.

I may be wrong, but I do not see a military exit from this war, only a diplomatic route. No one could benefit from an all-out war with superpowers equipped with atomic bombs. The fate of all mankind depends on it.


The article reflects the opinions of the interviewee. 
Cover Image: Photo by Антон Дмитриев on Unsplash