scroll to top arrow or icon

Russia-Ukraine war: How we got here

Russia-Ukraine war: How we got here
Russia-Ukraine War: How We Got Here | Quick Take | GZERO Media

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here and happy Monday to you all. Plenty going on. Of course, still very much focused first and foremost, on the war in Ukraine, the Russians continuing to fight, shifting the battle ground primarily to the southeast around Donbas but of course, engaging in bombing and artillery all over the country and negotiations frankly nowhere close to resolution.

But I wanted to talk a little bit about how we got here, why this happened. And it goes without saying, but still needs to be said that of course, the direct responsibility for this invasion is on President Putin 100%. There was no justification, you could not remotely claim that Ukraine's government needed to be denazified. There was no act of genocide being committed against Russians on the ground in the occupied territories. This was all fake and Putin is responsible for the atrocities on the ground for the damage to the Ukrainian economy, for the incredible loss of life we see happening across the country, including to his own forces. He's responsible for all of that.

But how did we get here? Why did it happen? And if you want to have that conversation, you can't just talk about Russia, you have to talk about the West. And I think it's worth spending a little time on that.

First of all, and perhaps the biggest point is that historically the Russians were ignored after the Soviet Union collapsed. Keep in mind that there was a European Union for all of these former East European Warsaw bloc aligned states. And indeed, the EU expanded dramatically, and that meant full integration into those institutions, an incredible wealth that they would be able to develop. And it's been a great success story for most of them. Look at where the Polish economy is today compared to where it was in 1989. It tells you almost everything you need to go. There have been some political successes, there have been others that have been somewhat less so. Look at Hungary and look at Viktor Orbán being able to solidify his win in an only somewhat free and not particularly fair election. But overall, that's been extraordinary. NATO too expanded and allowed all of these countries right up to the Russian border to have national security, to be engaged in a collective security process where their militaries would be trained properly, where they would be defended by the entire alliance if they were unjustly attacked.

What did Russia get? And the answer is not very much. They got shock therapy, they got a bunch of Western economic advisors that were willing to go in and say, "Here's the way you should restructure and reform your economy." Some of which was intelligent, some of which was theoretically correct, but had no recognition of the realities on the ground. Certainly, when I think about all of the auctions that occurred and just how corrupt and incapable the Russians were to actually privatize large areas of the society that instead got wholly ripped off by a bunch of oligarchs, there was no Marshall Plan for Russia. There was no strong effort to integrate Russia into global institutions and architecture even when Yeltsin was president, who was strongly aligned with the United States and had a cabinet around him that really wanted to be a part of that. Instead, you got the NATO-Russia joint council, which was never really anything other than meetings that the Russians could attend but with no intention or effort to try to integrate them. Then you got the G7 plus one. What's a plus one? It's not your spouse, plus one's a date. Next time you come, you'll bring a different plus one. It was very clear to the Russians that there wasn't a lot of interest.

Now, why not? Why didn't the Americans and the Europeans try after end of the Cold War, when the Americans won and the Democrats won, why didn't they do with the Russians what they did after World War II with the defeated Germans and the Japanese? And I think a big piece of it is because the Americans didn't fight a war, because the win basically fell into our lap. And the reality is that if you have this peace dividend, you have to be willing to spend a fair amount of it to keep it. And instead, it was basically treated as free money. It was treated as, this is a great success for globalization and the Russians will eventually find their way in. So, I think that was an enormous missed opportunity. And it was basically, if the Russians were going to fail well, it wasn't the American's responsibility or the allies' responsibility to do a lot about it.

Furthermore, when the Russians getting angrier then started to take steps to redress a global order that they felt increasingly left behind and humiliated from, the West didn't pay much attention and furthermore didn't uphold their own principles. So, the US opened NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine back in 2008 at the Bucharest Summit. They promised that both of those countries would be able to join, but they didn't really have any intention of how they'd bring that about.

And when Russia then invaded Georgia just a few months later, it was August if I remember correctly because a lot of these things happened in August, nothing. I mean very... There was a discussion internally in the Bush cabinet and Dick Cheney was angry and said, "We've got to defend these guys." But the reality was nothing was done. There was no intention to have crippling sanctions against the Russians that would destroy their economy or provide weapon systems to Georgians. Very much a democracy led by someone who was a bit of firebrand that wasn't trusted very much in the US, Mikheil Saakashvili, much in the way that Zelenskyy by the way was felt about, was responded to in the United States before the war in Ukraine. But of course, we didn't have social media back then, you didn't have the global perspective of what was happening on the ground and the United States basically did nothing.

Then in 2014 when the Russians invaded Ukraine, and not only annex Crimea, but also took and denied taking territory on the ground in the Donbas in southeast Ukraine, what did the Americans do? And the answer is not very much. Again, not providing weapons, not providing much support, limited sanctions. And in fact, in 2018, when the Russians held the World Cup, a lot of you remember this, and they're still invading, they're still occupying this Ukrainian territory, active fight is still going on across the line of conflict, a bunch of European leaders actually fly to Russia to meet with Putin and attend the World Cup.

I mean, so obviously not many consequences for all of this. And so as a consequence of all of that, the Russians, I think themselves had good reason to believe that they could get away with engaging in and redressing what they felt was an unjust humiliation and the West wouldn't do much about it. Now, more recently you have a people that did indeed feel increasingly humiliated. The Russian economy not doing very well, you'll remember when President Obama said that Russia wasn't a great power, a regional power and they're in decline. Now by the way, analytically, I agree with that. But if you're president of the United States, why do that? When you are winning, why do that? You never punch down.

It reminded me of Obama when Trump was there at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And by the way, Obama had plenty of reasons to be very angry with Trump? Keep in mind this was the guy that started the birther movement against Obama and said that he's born in Kenya, born in Indonesia, prove it, show your passport, show your birth certificate. And it became a really big deal. So if you're Obama, you absolutely have personal animus against Trump. But then you're president of the United States and you're up there giving a speech of the WHCD, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and there's Trump in the audience and the right thing to do as president is nothing. The right thing to do as president is be graceful. You've made it. Never punch down. And Obama couldn't help himself. Took a victory lap, stuck his thumb down. He made Trump look like an idiot. You could see the humiliation and the anger on Trump's face. And in retrospect, was this something that probably motivated him more to take on politics, motivated him more to go after Obama on every single occasion when he could and undo everything Obama had done when he became president? Yeah. Yeah. That's the kind of thing that I think someone like Trump would absolutely take personally.

And does Putin take it personally against the United States for decades of what he sees to be as not only not paying attention, but stick in your finger in and saying, "These guys are no good, these guys are worthless"? Absolutely. So I think that there is a bunch of that. And also from the Russian perspective, the United States itself is hypocritical, doesn't have much of a leg to stand on.

When Russia annexed Crimea, a lot of the language that they used to justify the annexation was taken from the American decision to recognize the independence of Kosovo, which again, from a human rights perspective, the Americans had a lot of reason to do it. But in terms of international law, was actually a breach of international law. There's no justification for it so the Russians say, "Well, see, the Americans can do it, we can do it too." Let's keep in mind the Americans promised international law to defend Ukraine in 1994, signed an agreement together with the UK and the Russians. The Ukrainians gave up their nuclear weapons, we're going to ensure that we defend their territorial integrity. Wasn't worth the piece of paper it was printed on because when the Russians invaded 2014, the Americans don't even talk about this document. Well, why would they care in 2022? It's a big question.

Iraq, Afghanistan, these are wars of choice, massive human rights abuses by the United States. So is it just that the Americans call themselves, ourselves, I'm an American, the leader of the free world. If you're Russia, you say, "Look, this is all just moral relativism, everyone's equally bad, no one's telling the truth so I should be able to get away with whatever I can do from a power position"?

Again, I want to be clear. Putin is the one supporting and committing war crimes. And no, I refuse to compare what he is ordering against the democratic country that has done literally nothing but want to govern itself. And there aren't Nazis running the country, that's insane. No, this isn't the Taliban chopping off heads and hands, the most abusive country in the world towards women, harboring bin Laden. No, it's not Iraq with a massive human rights abuses under Saddam Hussein historically, after they invade Kuwait and the Americans come back and attack them.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose American history of intervention and unjust war. That is not the same thing as what the Russians are doing right now to the Ukrainian people. But we do need to be accountable for how we got here. And if we want to be honest with ourselves about that, well, then we have to broaden the conversation beyond just the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So that's a little bit for me.

For more of Ian Bremmer's weekly analyses, subscribe to his GZERO World newsletter at


Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter