Why did Russia launch a full-scale war in Ukraine? Due to the differences in global narratives and the breadth of scholarship it can certainly be difficult to understand why the war began. It was the realist scholars like Mearsheimer (2014), that predicted the conflict. This research aims to develop upon those realist understandings of the Ukraine crisis to understand the extent to which NATO is responsible for provoking Russia into launching a war. This study puts forward original analysis based upon already exiting conclusions and is supported by primary and secondary sources. It asks the question, Is NATO a threat to Russia and how did NATO provoke Russia into launching a full-scale war? The first question is explored in great depth in this study which finds that the NATO alliance is a threat to Russia. It shows how US influence over NATO is decisive and how US and Russian interests in Ukraine clash at the fundamental level. Using a realist framework, it will show how the war was a product of a geo-strategic and geo-political standoff over the orientation of Ukraine. This study demonstrates how understanding the geopolitical significance of Ukraine is pivotal to grasp the stakes at hand. The US seeks to ensure it remains the global hegemon and Russia cannot afford to lose influence in Ukraine for it would cease to be a global power. The study analyses Russian insecurity and finds that Russia’s fear of NATO enlargement has robust grounding. The study also assesses the developments leading upto the war showing how it was NATO expansion which provoked Russia into war. This was because Ukraine was slowly but surely becoming a defacto member of NATO as evidenced by the military training (prior to the Feb 2022 war), consistent progression towards NATO accession and the arming of Ukraine.


Preliminary Remarks and Relevance

Russia’s launch of a full-scale war in Ukraine in 2022 surprised many except for the realists International Relations (IR) scholars who had warned of the risks of conflict for many years (Mearsheimer, 2014). However, there has been significant debate as to what caused the war. One prominent argument suggests that the war is the result of Putin’s ‘imperial dreams’ and is supported by Putin’s 2021 essay on Russian and Ukrainian history (Dickinson, 2021). However, there is little evidence to show that Putin has any imperial ambitions (Carpenter, 2022; Cheng, 2022). This more contemporary view of Russian aggression is ‘essentially baseless’ and the narrative only began in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea (Mearsheimer, 2022). Scholars like McFaul (2014) and Sestanovich (2014) argue against Mearsheimer, putting forward ideas of internal Russian political leadership change, the lack of Russian concern for NATO enlargement and Putin attempting to rectify his own policy mistakes. The literature is filled with back and forth between scholars wielding different analytical frameworks to support their theories. 

Due to the differences in global narratives and breadth of scholarship it can certainly be difficult to understand why the war began. Herein lies a significant opportunity.  The argument that the casus belli of the war was NATO enlargement remains most convincing (Conetta, 2022). This is especially true if one utilises a realist IR analytical framework. However, the argument does not satisfy the question of the extent to which NATO holds responsibility for provoking Russia into war. Much of the literature refers to the threat of NATO expansion to Russia as merely a figment of Russian imagination rooted in Russia’s traditional indefensibility due to its geographic nature. The gaps and opportunities identified in the literature review are several. First, the literature does not explicitly show how NATO is a threat to Russia. Second, due to the contemporary nature of the conflict, the scholarship has not yet truly satisfied the underlying question of how NATO provoked Russia to go to war. This requires a closer analysis of the developments which led to the war and a deeper understanding of the relevance of Ukraine. 


Is NATO a threat to Russia and how did NATO provoke Russia into launching a full-scale war? 

Sub Questions

    • What specific reasons did Russia have to fear NATO?

    • To what extent is NATO responsible for provoking Russia into war?

    • Which specific developments led Russia to opt for war?

    • If the issue for Russia was NATO expansion, then why Ukraine and not some other eastern European nation?

Research Aims and Objectives

The aim of this research is to find the extent to which NATO is responsible for provoking Russia into war in Ukraine. The research also aims to introduce an understanding which emphasises how NATO enlargement poked at the deep insecurity in Russia and swelled it to new heights. It aims to show how US foreign policy, the geopolitical importance of Ukraine, and the developments leading upto the war all intersect via NATO expansion. The objectives of this study are to assess the threat NATO posed to Russia by looking at the historical and strategic underpinnings of the war and relating these to the developments leading upto the war. To explore how US and western interventionism and democracy promotion provided the grounds for Russian insecurity which contributed to such a hostile geopolitical environment. It will explore the geopolitical significance of Ukraine to better understand why Russia decided to go to war over it and to help understand why it was so difficult to come to a diplomatic, negotiated resolution without violence. It will assess the level to which the US influences NATO and it will assess US foreign policy as it relates to Russia in the context of this study. 

Research Layout

This thesis has two empirical chapters. The first chapter will explore the historical and strategic underpinnings of the war. It will begin by discussing the assurances made to Gorbachev regarding NATO expansion. This is relevant because it shows the historical grievance which Moscow still cites as one of the reasons for its distrust of the US. Then it will discuss European security architecture in the context of Russia. This subsection aims to contextualise the security dynamic in Europe as related to the research topic. After this it will explore in detail, US grand strategy, US influence in NATO, and Ukraine’s geopolitical significance. These subsections will help to situate the problem of NATO expansion in the context of great power and geopolitical competition. Thereafter, the chapter explores the relationship between NATO and Russian insecurity. This begins by discussing Russian insecurity in the context of the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, then it discusses Russian foreign policy and follows on by demonstrating what Russia’s red lines are (and were) and shows the extent to which US policy makers and strategists understood this. Finally, the chapter looks to the case study of the 2011 Libya regime change. This is significant as it synthesises the key issues above such as US foreign policy, democracy promotion, the threat of NATO and Russian insecurity. This subsection should allow the reader to better realise the grounds on which Russian insecurity exists beyond the purely traditional aspects of Russian insecurity. The first chapter is the more significant chapter as it discusses the broader underlying problems which created the foundations for which the downturn in relations occurred.

The second chapter will analyse the developments and downturn in relations which led to war in the context of the conclusions and themes of the first chapter. This approach will allow it to show how Russia’s strategy failed to compete with US and western strategies, which ‘forced’ Moscow to resort to more violent means to achieve its political ends. It begins by exploring the Russo-Georgian war, as this saw the beginning of the steep downturn in Russia-US and Russia-West relations. Then it will use the example of Russia’s Eurasian Union to demonstrate how Russia’s soft power policies failed during the momentous Euromaidan ‘uprising’. Thereafter, it will discuss the Minsk Accords and some key developments which can help the reader to understand how much NATO enlargement provoked Russia towards choosing a full-scale military solution to its perceived problems. It uses the primary evidence to propose a potential, final turning point which saw its fears realised and resulted in a policy change and a build-up of troops along the border with Ukraine in the year before the war.  Lastly, this study will provide some concluding remarks and reflect upon the significance, relevance and quality of the research conducted. The contribution of this research to the broader field of research in international relations will also be discussed as that will help to evaluate its importance. Finally, it will explore the flaws and limitations and provide recommendations for further exploration and investigation. 

Theories and Methods

This study does not hope to provide the only legitimate explanation for which underlying issues were primarily responsible for causing the war. This study will utilise the framework of realism in IR to assess and analyse the events and developments which led to the war in 2022. The realist framework places emphasis on states being the major actor in international relations and that states place national security concerns above all others due to the inherent distrust that can only exist in an anarchic world where people and states are largely self-interested (Camisão and Antunes, 2018). It is primarily focused on self-interested states, national security threats, and suspicion. While the nature of the subject matter at hand also directly relates to major institutions such as NATO and the EU, realism can still be used as an analytical framework because the study focuses on security issues and great power competition. NATO is viewed as a strategic arm of US foreign policy, and this is discussed in subsection 1.3. In addition, the EU’s relevance in this study is largely discussed in relation to Russian national security and so the framework of realism remains useful. 

The research is strictly qualitative in nature and will be conducted using primary and secondary sources. It is an empirical study which draws heavily upon the secondary sources to determine the significance of developments and events while also consulting primary sources such as political statements, official documents, and press releases. The data is collected via analysis and interrogation of the secondary research via an extended literature review focused on the overarching research questions. This helped to establish which pieces of primary and secondary evidence is useful and significant. The secondary sources largely amount to scholarly works and are relevant for their perspective and their analysis. The relevance of the primary sources cannot be understated as they act as evidence which supports the validity of the research. 

The validity of the primary and secondary research is assessed by deep consideration of the analytical framework, plausibility, and other real-world correlating evidence such as policy and reactions, as explained below. For example, this study utilises the words of Putin via some of his statements and responses to questions. But speeches and statements made by leaders should not always be taken as fact or truth. Because the usefulness of such rhetoric can vary depending on the purpose, audience, and timing. This research has evaluated the validity of these sources by taking into consideration the limitations described above and it has purposefully utilised evidence which it has deemed to be valid and useful based upon the analytical framework of realism and the plausibility of the conclusions which are also supported by secondary sources and by the ‘real’ developments following politicians’ speeches. For example, this research calls upon Putin’s speech during the 2007 Munich conference. The speech displayed the sense of security concern and saw a more assertive Russian foreign policy shortly thereafter as evidenced by the Russo-Georgian war and higher Russia-US tensions. Here, Putin’s words can be understood to be valid and useful to gain a better understanding of the Russian viewpoint. 

As the reader may have already noticed, some words are used synonymously and interchangeably. This is due to the different understandings and narratives which exist, reflecting the different views of states, actors and scholars. For example, this study uses the words ‘enlargement’ and ‘expansion’ interchangeably to describe the growth in membership and the territory of the NATO alliance. For Russia, this research will synonymise Putin with Russia because his personal views are effectively the view of the state and because it analyses the policies of the Russian government rather than other Russian actors. This conclusion is based upon the fact that Putin has been in power as President or Prime minister for over 20 years. Such tenure at the very centre of power makes him the equivalent of the Russian state and so for the purposes of this research, it will be understood this way. Likewise, the terms, Ukraine ‘war’ and Ukraine ‘crisis’ have distinct meanings in this study. The war in Ukraine will be defined as the military incursion of Ukrainian territories by Russian forces on the 24th of February 2022. The annexation of Crimea and the conflict beginning in 2014 was relatively low-intensity and so is defined in broad terms as a crisis and not a war.


This chapter will explore the historical and strategic underpinnings of the Ukraine Crisis. This discussion will begin with an exclamation of the sore distrust Moscow has displayed of western intentions by discussing the ‘promises’ made to Gorbachev. Then it will discuss the Security architecture of Europe, focusing on the issue of NATO and the concept of ‘Indivisible security’. Then it will discuss US control over NATO followed by US primacy, Ukraine’s geopolitical significance and NATO expansion. All the discussion will be relevant and will relate to Russia and Russian foreign policy. The chapter will explore the drivers of Russian insecurity, including a sub-chapter on the Libya intervention, showing how it impacted and affected Russian leadership, policy and Russian relations with the West. 

1.1.  Old Grievances – Gorbachev’s legacies – ‘Not an Inch’

Before the demise of the USSR, Moscow had insisted that a unified Germany within NATO was unacceptable. After it had become clear that they would not be able to stop this development, Moscow pressed for guarantees the NATO would not expand eastward. Notably this is where US Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev informally that ‘not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction’ (Blanton et al., 2010, pp.675–684). However, Gorbachev failed to get this ‘guarantee’ of sorts, in writing. However, he later argued that NATO expansion was a ‘violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made’ in 1990 (Kórshunov, 2014). The Russian understanding is that NATO did offer a gentlemen’s agreement in that year but then severed the agreement by its decision to expand later thus ruining the potential for an inclusive peace and security architecture in Europe (Wolff, 2015). Here lies another grievance of the Russians who were humiliated and mocked for not getting any formal, written form agreement regarding NATO expansion eastward. While these discussions were taking place between Gorbachev and the US, before the USSR had dissolved, the ‘question of NATO expansion’ had arisen within the West and ‘entailed discussions of expansion not only to East Germany but also to eastern Europe’ (Sarotte, 2014). This story of high-level negotiation led to these grievances and along with the actions of NATO in later years resulted in a deep-rooted distrust of the US and NATO by Russia. 

1.2.  European Security Architecture

First and foremost, it is crucial to understand the underlying problem which plagued eastern Europe after the collapse of the USSR. While NATO expansion provided the solution for much of Europe, problems arose as the NATO alliance found itself bordering Russia. NATO argued that its enlargement should have been of no concern to Russia and that it was purely defensive alliance.  

The security architecture of Europe was seriously flawed from the beginning. This is because creating a security architecture in Europe without considering and taking into account the interests of Europe’s weightiest members would not have worked (Art, 1998). While Russia is not the economic superpower that the EU or the US is (or was), it is a great military power due to its nuclear arsenal (comparable to that of the US) and its ability to delivers such warheads where it pleases. In addition, ever since the collapse of the USSR, Moscow viewed itself as a great power and defended its status as such. The underlying problem was, as Art (1998) described, the security architecture of Europe did not consider Russia’s ‘vital’ interests, and this resulted in increased geopolitical competition and higher tensions between Russia and the West. The vital interests of Russia are best understood in geopolitical terms and relate to Russia’s great power status (this is further discussed in detail in 1.3.) The security architecture also failed to consider that Russia’s soft power was no match for the soft-power capabilities of the west (Nast, 2022). As a result, it eventually resorted to using hard power to achieve its political ends. 

For NATO to try to incorporate nations in Russia’s borderlands which also happen to have ethnic Russians living within them while simultaneously not allowing Russia into NATO, certainly justifies Russia’s ‘fears of encirclement by, and exclusion from, the west’ (Art, 1998). Russia would not accept US or European military stations in the ‘heartlands of Russian power’, Ukraine the ‘geopolitical centre of Eurasia’ (Cheng, 2022, p.98). Furthermore, Russia was unable to prevent prior NATO enlargement due to its weakness after the USSR collapse. It is therefore plausible that Moscow would have challenged NATO in a meaningful manner earlier had it been economically and politically stronger.

Russia repeatedly recalls the concept of ‘indivisible security’ as put forward in the 1975 Helsinki act, the 1990 Charter for a new Europe and the 1997 Founding Act which are all treaties signed by Russia and the West (Wintour, 2022). The concept is also featured in the OSCE’s 1999 ‘European Security Charter’ and the 2010 ‘Astana Declaration’. The documents assert that nations should be free to decide and formulate their own security arrangements and alliances on the condition that they “will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states” (Ivanova and Rathbone, 2022). Yet the enlargement of NATO into Russia’s borderlands strengthened NATO member nation security while being detrimental to Russian security. This is because of the institutional overlap of NATO and EU members, which provide security, economic and political benefits to the nations within the institutions and less so for the nations outside. Thus, by incorporating all eastern Europe into the EU and NATO, Russia would see its interests in both security and economic terms, diminished. This begs the question of Ukraine’s significance which is explored in the next subsection.

1.3.  US Primacy and Ukraine’s Geopolitical significance for the US and Russia

This sub section will explore US hegemony and why the war erupted in Ukraine and not some other nation. It will detail the strategic importance of Ukraine to both the US and Russia. In doing this, it will also explain what Russia’s vital interests are. The US has long fought to gain upon and maintain its hegemonic status in the world which it gained after World War 2. This is important because it directly relates to this discussion as US hegemony requires domination over Eurasia. This is because the distribution of power on the Eurasian continent is of ‘decisive importance to America’s global primacy’ (Brzezinski, 1997, p.194). While Eurasia may no longer be the sole geopolitical arena of the world, hegemony is fundamentally that which guides US foreign policy in Eurasia and therefore relates to US policy towards Russia.

Ukraine geographically speaking, sits at the centre of Eurasia. It produces a considerable sum of wheat and other commodities, it transports Russian gas to Europe, and it held a huge border with the black sea and with Russia (this changed with the annexation of Crimea). Ukraine was geopolitically important, and control over it would allow the US to disable any ambition of Russia to work towards or even act as a great power, for “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire” (Brzezinski, 1997, p.46). Furthermore, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union Moscow had become acutely aware that without the former eastern European states in it grasp it would become an Asian power. Thus, losing its great power status which only came with being a major power on both continents (Petersen, 2011, p.107). According to Brzezinski (1997, p.41) Ukraine plays the role of being a ‘geopolitical pivot’. Geopolitical pivots are states which find that their importance is based upon their ‘sensitive location’ and their vulnerability to the actions of ‘geostrategic players’ (Brzezinski, 1997, p.41). The sensitive location of Ukraine combined with several other factors such as its ethnic Russian population and the border it shared with the black sea along with the Crimea are what made it so vitally important to Russian interests. The rivalry between Russia and the EU (Mead, 2014) over Ukraine showed how Ukraine was important to all geostrategic players in the region which include the US, NATO, EU, Russia, and Turkey. 

The work of Brzezinski (1997) effectively spelled out the importance of Ukraine to the US for the maintenance and consolidation of US primacy. It then follows that Russia found NATO expansion into Ukraine such an existential threat. Not only would Russia’s land border with NATO increase significantly but Russian interests and explicit foreign policy objectives would be lost to Russia’s primary adversary, the US via the world’s most powerful military alliance, NATO. Not to mention the fact that the Russians viewed EU expansion as a ‘stalking horse for NATO expansion’ (Mearsheimer, 2014). Interestingly, Brzezinski (1997, p50) also pondered if the EU’s eastern borders ‘should’ be synonymous with NATO’s eastern borders, noting that the question of NATO expansion was a US decision given the ‘decisive’ voice of the US in NATO. This hinted that the geostrategic goals of the US were very much aimed at ensuring the junior status of Russia and maintain an unequal power relationship in the long-term. No surprise the Russians were so opposed to western expansion into Ukraine. Not only would the land border with NATO massively increase, but Russia would lose any hope of being a respectable great power and be considered a less important Asian power.  

1.4.  US control of NATO policy.

In the context of US global hegemony, this short section will explore how the US dominates NATO policy and explores in more depth why Russia is so concerned about NATO.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union (USSR), many wondered what NATO’s purpose was (Larrabee and Gompert, 1998; Sandler and Hartley, 1999). Discussions had already begun however, within the US about expansion to past East Germany into eastern Europe (Sarotte, 2014). Those who pushed for enlargement clung to the ‘specter’ that Moscow was still a threat and so the collapse of the USSR provided an opportunity to ‘extend NATO’s geo-strategic reach’ in preparation for the event where Russia decides it wishes to dominate its neighbours again (Goldgeier, 2010). US policy makers clearly still viewed Russia as an adversary. Or, at the very least, peddled this notion for the purpose of continuing the long-term grand strategy of ‘primacy’ and ‘hegemony’ (Porter, 2018). Clinton’s administration disregarded the idea that expansion could ‘provoke’ hostile reactions from Russia due to the ‘perceived threat of humiliation or encirclement’ (Porter, 2018). This disregarding of Russia’s security concerns is a common theme and is reflected in Moscow’s frequent frustrations. 

The US has pursued regime change in countries all around the world (O’rourke, 2018). NATO is led by the US and, NATO acts as a mechanism for the interoperability of US, Canadian and European forces and “shapes the national security priorities of its members consistent with American strategic objectives” (Sperling and Webber, 2019). The interventions and regime change efforts carried out in the name of democracy also happen to be instances of supporting ‘staunchly pro-American’ forces (Smith, 2012). While Smith (2012) discusses the regime change missions in, Nicaragua, Panama, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, Grigoryan (2020) points out that this also applies to the cases of Ukraine and Georgia. Ukraine represented a geostrategically important piece of land (Marples, 2017) and western foreign policy objectives were not in the name of democracy, instead, were about geo-political strategy and thus, were very much provocative to Russia (Grigoryan, 2020). This idea is backed up by the fact that the west and NATO did not support the Armenian peoples’ democratic desires in the way they did for Ukraine (Grigoryan, 2020). The major difference is that Ukraine has major geo-strategic advantages for NATO (Blaj, 2013). This shows that the US holds considerable influence over NATO and that it is in both the US’s and NATO’s interests to gain influence and power in Ukraine even at the expense of Russia.

1.5. What security concerns?  – Russian Insecurity

On the one hand, NATO expansion and membership had provided an increased security dynamic in Europe. It reduced the risk of interstate violence and provided a shield which also protected members from any attempts from more powerful nations such as Russia to intimidate or invade them. On the other hand, it faced continuous and repetitive words of protest from the Kremlin and eventually led to a hostile geopolitical environment. In addition, it provided the foundations for the security concerns and increasingly violent geopolitical competition which led to the Ukraine war. 

After President Clinton’s first round of NATO expansion, NATO remained on course to continue to consolidate power by extending invitations to ‘aspirant’ countries and launching the MAP (NATO, 2020a). This was followed by further enlargement of NATO, therefore increasing NATO’s military power and influence. Yet, in 2008 it became clear that NATO could no longer expand easily like it had after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By this point Russia had experienced many years of robust economic growth and was able to assert its national security interests in a confident manner. Gone were the days where the preservation of stability and security were sufficient for Moscow (Stent, 2008). While remaining in a ‘essentially defensive posture’, Moscow felt its national interests were better defended with a more assertive foreign policy (Tsygankov, 2009). This was evidenced by Putin’s 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference. Putin criticised US ‘unilateralism’ and argued that the US had ‘overstepped’ it borders specifically mentioning the political, economic, cultural, and educational policies that the US ‘imposes on other nations’ (Putin, 2007). 

The criticism of US unilateralism also demonstrated fear and is reminiscent of the long-dated Russian insecurity. “Russia’s fear of NATO resulted from a historically enduring perception of the alliance as a key security threat” (Tsygankov, 2018). This perception is rooted in the traditional understanding of the indefensibility of Russia due to its enormous geographic scope (Steil, 2018) and the way the US squeezed the ‘land-locked’ Soviet Union during the Cold War. NATO expansion also produced tensions because of the difference in interpretive frameworks used by Russia and the West. Russia uses a geo-political framework to understand NATO enlargement while the West uses a framework grounded in liberalism (Wolff, 2015). When one also factors in the neo-conservative tendency to promote democracy in line with strategic interests (as discussed in the previous subchapter) and considering the Libya affair (as discussed in section 1.8.) Russia had good reasons for this fear and insecurity. 

Tsygankov (2018) argues that there have been three major crises in the Russia-NATO relationship since the fall of the USSR. The first being the NATO intervention in Kosovo, the second and third being the fallout in relations during the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 and then the Ukraine crisis which began in 2014. After this crisis, relations between the West and Russia have soured to a point where they are engaged in a full-scale proxy war with each other over Ukraine. NATO refused to recognise the security interests, the security concerns, and the important role that Russia played in Europe’s security architecture. The protests of the Kremlin over NATO expansion were repeatedly ignored. NATO continued to enlarge the alliance and accepted nations which bordered Russia into its alliance. The Kremlin began to view NATO as a mechanism by which the US (and by association, the West) would continue to advance its hegemonic ambitions. This development in perception was fuelled by the strategies and policies of regime change, democracy promotion and growing criticism of Russia’s human rights record (Tsygankov, 2018).

The first major crisis in Russia-NATO relations was in 1999 when the West intervened in Yugoslavia and began a bombing campaign. Much force was used and for Russia this was seriously problematic because the Slavic and Orthodox people in Yugoslavia were traditional allies. To make matters worse, the Kremlin was not even consulted about the matter. 

Moscow responded in four ways. First, it gave an official statement which alleged NATO’s aggression was in violation of both UN jurisdictions and the Helsinki’s act on sovereignty.  Second, it withdrew its military mission from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Third, it ordered NATO representatives to leave Russia. Finally, it suspended its participation in the Russia-NATO Founding Act agreement (Tsygankov, 2018). This demonstrated the negative attitudes that existed within Russian society and foreign policy community towards NATO and the West. 

Russia also found a new source of concern after the NATO intervention in Kosovo. That the Kosovo intervention would serve as a model for future interventions, particularly within Russian territory or its borderlands. According to Perlmutter (2000, p.147) this intervention only occurred due to the strategic concerns of the US in stark contrast to the claimed humanitarian purpose of the mission. The Russian concerns were realised when Georgia and Azerbaijan made the request for NATO support and intervention for their own internal conflicts. The Georgian President Shevarnadze argued that the Kosovo model would work in Georgia to deal with the conflict in Abkhazia (Antonenko, 1999). It is important to recognise that the Russia-NATO crisis in 1999 was not a turning point in relations between Russia and the West (Samokhvalov, 2019). But it was the first crisis between them which set deep-rooted foundations of national interest and security concerns in Moscow. These concerns would be brought up to the surface during the future crises and the turning point was the regime change in Kyiv in 2014 (Conetta, 2022) and the subsequent annexation of Crimea. 

1.6.  The makings of a revisionist power

In 2007, the Kremlin began to signal that its political and security interests ‘could no longer be ignored’ in the post-soviet space or elsewhere (Walker, 2016). This was also evidenced by Putin’s highly critical speech at the Munich Conference where he lambasted US unilateralism. 

In direct relation to Ukraine, on the 2nd of April 2008 NATO held a summit in Bucharest and Vladimir Putin attended this event. During this event Some of NATO’s European members such as France and Germany, blocked President Bush’s plan to offer Ukraine and Georgia a MAP (Stent, 2014, pp. 165-74) citing their concern about Russia perceiving it in a negative manner. Despite this, NATO reminded the two nations (Ukraine and Georgia) of its open-door policy and that the opportunity may arise again in the future. The NATO alliance ‘reaffirmed’ to Russia, that their open-door policy and missile defence ‘efforts are intended to better address the security challenges we all face, and reiterate that, far from posing a threat to our relationship, they offer opportunities to deepen levels of cooperation and stability’ (NATO, 2008). 

In direct response, a day later, on the 4th of April 2008, Putin openly warned that NATO enlargement into nations bordering Russia represented a ‘direct threat’ to Russia’s national security (Putin, 2008). Putin’s view, that the national security of a nation cannot be based on the ‘promises’ of the West (Putin, 2008) is a view that echoes the realist tradition of international relations. His view demonstrated the distrust and the suspicions he held of the intentions of the US and NATO. Russia again repeated that it would prevent expansion of the alliance and extension of its membership to Georgia and Ukraine – and that it would do so with everything in its power (RFE/RL, 2008). This part is crucial as it shows how Russian policy was reacting to Western policies as opposed to taking its own course. Not only this, it showed that his was a red line for Russia which should not be crossed.

1.7.  Red Lines and Strategic Doctrine’s

US officials had a comprehensive understanding of Russia’s insecurity and the impact NATO enlargement had on it. The US understood how NATO enlargement, specifically into Russia’s borderlands were likely to be considered a security threat by Russia (Suny, 2022). The testimony of Gilbert Burns in his memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice where he stated that ‘Ukrainian entry into NATO is the bright-est of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players . . . I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests’ (Burns, 2019: Senate, 2022). Gilbert Burns now serves as director of the CIA and evidently holds a viewpoint in contrast with the Biden Administration. During a Congressional meeting (on February 10th, 2022) a Senator cited Burns memo and then mentioned that the concerns aforementioned were not an invention of Putin (Senate, 2022). This implies a strong understanding (from elements within the US government) that the concerns and red lines were not purely figments of Putin’s imagination, but a reflection of Russian policy understanding.

The senator then discusses the Monroe Doctrine and cedes that the US, under the Monroe Doctrine ‘has overthrown at least a dozen countries throughout Latin America, Central America and the Caribbean’ (Senate, 2022).  This evidence shows the internal debates among US politicians about the security concerns of Russia. In addition, it demonstrates that there is an understanding that Russia and Putin had a ‘legitimate’ concern for Russian national security interests. The Monroe Doctrine is an important historical fact. This is because the doctrine saw the US claim South America as its exclusive ‘backyard’ which no other empire was allowed to set a foothold in. The reasoning behind this Doctrine, was grounded in national interests as the US wanted to ‘keep out the Europeans’ (Gilderhus, 2006). The Kozyrev Doctrine saw Russia create a ‘variation’ of the Monroe Doctrine which was predicated upon the concept of Russia’s ‘near abroad’ (Litera, 1994). This referred to the former soviet states which bordered the Russian Federation. As such, it can be concluded that one of Russia’s problems with NATO enlargement was that it was violating Russia’s perceived right to its near abroad. This perception was to some degree based upon the same national interests which the Munroe Doctrine was based upon. Couple this with Russia’s seemingly perpetual insecurity, and one can understand Russia’s frustrations about NATO enlargement into Russia’s ‘rightful’ sphere of influence.

1.8.  The Curious Case of Libya – Underpinning Russian Insecurity

While NATO has been involved in regime change all around the world, the case of Libya is particularly relevant for this research. This is because of the Russian involvement, criticism, reaction, future implications, and Putin’s view of it.

NATO pursued regime change in Libya (Zenko, 2016) in violation of international law (Terry, 2015). This shook Russia to the degree that Russia ‘reverted’ the UN Security Council to its ‘former paralysis’ (Terry, 2015). That of one where Russia and China both of whom abstained on the Libya Resolution 1973 vote would no longer support any mandates for action as seen in their response to the Syria resolution proposals (Terry, 2015). In fact, Russia repeatedly insisted that the mandate of the resolution had been exploited to ‘support the insurgents’ (Larssen, 2016). Critics point to Russia’s decision to abstain in the vote of resolution 1973 and its harsh criticism of the Western mission in Libya as that of a contradiction (Vanhoose, 2011). However, this is not contradictory, Medvedev (2011b) said the resolution did ‘reflect’ the Russian perspective, ‘but not completely’. 

The resolution was put forward to create a no-fly-zone over Libya to prevent any ‘massacre’ which Hillary Clinton predicted. Yet this humanitarian intervention quickly turned into a brazen regime change attempt. Obama said Gaddafi had ‘lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave’ (Al Jazeera, 2011). This indicated a clear desire for regime change by the US and reflects the ‘not completely’ part of Medvedev’s statement. That desire came to the fore with a proposal from the senate, pushed by Senator Cornyn, to make regime change the ‘explicit’ goal of US policy in Libya (Rogin, 2011). The following violent course of events and a NATO intervention saw the ‘removal’ of a leader who was ‘antagonistic to western interests’ (Davidson, 2016). Russia also happens to be antagonistic to western interests as evidenced by their opposition to the enlargement of NATO and this is why the case of Libya is so crucial.

The humanitarian pretext used to justify regime change and question the legitimacy of the state and its leadership certainly shook Russian leadership to the core and this was shown by its response. Russia viewed attempts to dethrone Gaddafi as a violation of international law (Reuters, 2011). The response of Putin was the most significant. During an interview with media, while acting as Prime Minister, he spoke in clear terms. He criticised the US and NATO, noting that he was troubled by the ‘persistent tendency’ by which the US would use force in international affairs (Bryanski, 2011). He then recalled the bombing of Belgrade, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq in which the US used a ‘invented, false pretext’ to affect total regime change. ‘Now its Libya’s turn’, he argued citing the use of the pretext of a humanitarian mission wherein civilians are killed by air strikes (note the inherent contradiction which he points out). Most relevant to this research, he said that ‘today’s events, including in Libya, confirmed our decisions on strengthening Russia’s defence capabilities were correct.’ (Bryanski, 2011). This is one of the most important pieces of evidence which demonstrates how NATO represents a threat to Russia and clearly demonstrates Russia’s hostility towards NATO. 

Adding further to the relevance of this study, Putin views democracy promotion efforts (particularly that of the US) as ‘thinly veiled attempts to undermine his legitimacy’ (Kendall-Taylor and Edmonds, 2019). All while NATO and its most powerful members openly talk of how undemocratic Russia is, which alludes to the fact that they would prefer to see a change in the leadership and the ideological underpinnings of the Russian constitution (Wolff, 2015). Moscow would also point to President Biden’s forceful statement, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” (Biden, 2022) as further evidence that proves the level of the threat they have faced and continue to face. This statement is not so dissimilar to Obama’s expressed desire to undermine Gaddafi’s legitimacy as a leader. Russian insecurity finds strong grounds when taking these factors into account. From their perspective, many similarities can be drawn between the nature of their state and Libya’s state in relation to the US. 

1.9.   A Short Summary of Chapter One

This chapter has explored the historical and strategic underpinnings of the crisis in Ukraine. In doing so it has provided the reader with an in-depth understanding of the many problems which underscore Russia-US and Russia-West relations vis-à-vis Ukraine. The key takeaways from the first chapter are that the security architecture of Europe was inherently flawed and that it was the geopolitical competition over Ukrainian territory which caused such a hostile environment. The huge geopolitical significance of Ukraine cannot be refuted. In addition, Russian insecurity was fuelled significantly by the West and is shown to have contributed to the toxic relationship between Russia and the western powers. US grand strategy was inherently detrimental to Russian interests. US democracy promotion, along with western intervention demonstrates the seriousness of NATO’s threat to Russia. The threat is not merely a misguided Russian perception, but it is an observable fact. In summary, the Ukraine crisis was predicated upon two major factors. The first being geopolitical competition which is best characterised in this case by US hegemony and Russian insecurity. The second factor is the geopolitical significance of Ukraine. While Ukraine saw itself between several geostrategic players, the US (and by extension NATO) and Russia were the key players that fought for influence. Therefore, NATO (and NATO expansion) represented a significant threat to Russian security and national interests.


This chapter will build upon the work of the previous chapter. It will explore the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, the Euromaidan Protests, Crimea and other important events and developments which led to the war. This chapter will help the reader to understand how the political developments led Russia to opt for more hard power solutions and by doing this it will demonstrate the dimensional change in competition between Russia and the West. The dimensional change is the change from soft power competition to soft and hard power competition as Russia’s policies failed quite dramatically in Ukraine in early 2014. This chapter will allow the reader to see more clearly, the extent to which NATO expansion provoked Russian aggression. 

2.1. By any means Necessary

Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion manifested itself in many ways over the years. In 2008, to deter Ukraine and Georgia, Russia sent a clear message, that it was willing to destroy the territorial integrity of the two states should they actively pursue NATO membership (Mandel, 2016). In Ukraine, Russia worked on the development of separatist attitudes (Yassman, 2008) and in Georgia, Russia began to increase its military assistance for the secessionist Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the case of Georgia, the US and NATO openly supported Tbilisi and limited their (US) public criticism of the actions and policies of the Georgian government (Hill et al., 2014). The problems and skirmishes in the region provoked Tbilisi into a trap. In August of 2008 President Mikheil Saakashvili, ordered his military into the disputed territory of South Ossetia despite the many warnings from western officials that this was a bad idea (Walker, 2016). Moscow responded with an invasion which resulted in a clear defeat for Georgia and ended their desire to assert sovereignty over Abkhazia or South Ossetia for the ‘foreseeable future’ (Walker, 2016). This marked a serious low point in Russia-US relations and effectively set the stage for the future. Russia had acutely demonstrated that it would continue to defend its interests by any means necessary. 

Also in 2008, Obama was elected to office in the US and had opted for a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia. This softened the tensions between the US and Russia at the time given the context of the Russo-Georgian war. But the concerns of the Kremlin regarding the security system in Europe were not addressed and effectively nothing had changed (Zygar, 2016).  Yet, Medvedev’s more open approach saw signs of progress and even resulted temporarily in deeper cooperation between the US and Russia. This is in part, a factor which opened a door for a security resolution to be passed on Libya in 2011. Something that would never occur again. After that affair, Putin’s distrust of US ambitions and intentions became somewhat entrenched (Yaffa, 2022) and Medvedev demonstrated and clearly expressed his problem with ‘endless’ NATO expansion. Thus, when the Euromaidan protests erupted in late 2013, a political and security crisis of massive proportions began and created the very conditions for the full-scale war in Ukraine today. 

2.2.  The Eurasian Union, and the return to hard power politics

Putin had developed a foreign policy objective of creating a separate economic union in Eurasia. He realised the security, stability and power of Russia could be multiplied if he could create a competitor to the EU (Standish, 2015) and maybe one day even NATO. Ukraine, due to its size, population, economic build up, geographic location and ethnic mix, was to play a huge role in this plan (Cornell, 2014 p.182). It would become a Russia-aligned state which would provide huge economic, political and security benefits to Russia and would make up a significant part of the EEU which Moscow hoped to build to compete with the EU and build a bipolar Europe (Popescu, 2014). Ukraine, a highly corrupt, politically unstable nation which had a relatively weak economy, and was geopolitically vital, made a perfect opportunity for Putin and he hoped he would be able to sway the nation towards Russia. 

But the EU also wanted to expand and had already offered Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other countries an Association Agreement. The Kremlin was certainly concerned as it represented a direct challenge to Moscow’s aim to consolidate its geopolitical advantage and build its own economic union. This agreement would prevent the nations from joining Russia’s EEU and the AA also included discussion which promoted foreign policy, security and military cooperation (Tragniuk, 2016). The Kremlin viewed this as a potentially irreversible step towards total incorporation into the institutional order of the west (Walker, 2016). Not only this but it would almost certainly also mean that eventually these nations would join the NATO security alliance as some of them had already expressed the desire to join and NATO had promised Ukraine and Georgia that they would join someday (NATO, 2008). Furthermore, it was well understood that NATO expansion was in some ways dependent on EU expansion (Brzezinski, 1997). Indicative of its fear of losing Ukraine to the West, Moscow’s response was strong. It implemented a varied approach including overt and covert measures (Walker, 2016) depending on the differing level of leverage it held against the nations. This strategy proved to be somewhat effective as Armenia announced it would join the EEU instead of the EU. Kiev’s Yanukovych was indecisive at first but also followed the steps of the Armenians (Walker, 2016), accepting a large aid package from Russia and refused to sign the EU’s Association Agreement.

However, it was not so simple and easy for Yanukovych. His decision on the 21st of November 2013 sparked the Euromaidan ‘uprising’ and a counter anti-maidan mobilisation in east and south Ukraine. These protests quickly resulted in a deterioration of the stability and legitimacy of Ukraine’s government.  However, what happened next quickly spiralled into a full-blown crisis. The 2014 change in the Ukrainian Government was a decisive end to Russia’s long-game in keeping Ukraine in the grips of Moscow via its soft-power policies. Yanukovych fled the country and the Kremlin reacted by implementing what was likely a contingency plan for the occupation and annexation of Crimea (Walker, 2016). This move by the Kremlin was reactive and suggests a very high level of concern from Moscow about its bordering regions. It does not imply nor suggest any underlying desire of Moscow or Putin to rebuild the Soviet Union but instead, it reflects the security concerns of Russia. 

In fact, Putin himself complained again about the attitude of the Western powers, “We’ll be told, ‘This doesn’t concern you’, and NATO ships will dock in Sevastopol, the city of Russia’s naval glory.” (Putin, 2014). He then discussed the military threat NATO would pose if it deployed its forces in Sevastopol and articulated how it would be ‘geopolitically sensitive’ for Russia. These remarks mirror the remarks Putin made in 2008 after the NATO summit and they show the geopolitical lens with which he views NATO expansion. It also reflects the sentiments of Brzezinski (1997) regarding Russian power (as noted in the Ukraine sub-chapter). During the interview Putin also put forward that the annexation of Crimea was not a long-dated plan but instead was a reaction to the political developments on the ground. The geo-political significance of Crimea for Russia which Putin explicitly discussed, has remained very high for over a century due to Russia’s strategic goal of projecting power in the black sea (Toucas, 2017). Thus, this annexation can be reasonably understood to be a sudden reaction to the abrupt change in leadership in Ukraine reflecting a failure of Russian policy to keep the political leadership in Ukraine oriented towards Russia. 

2.3.  Democracy Promotion or Interference and Regime Change?

The subheading above accurately describes the leading narratives relating to western involvement in Ukraine during the Euromaidan protests. This short section explores this and shows how western interference in Ukraine cared less about democracy and liberal ideals and more about regime change. First and foremost, the protestors and the government that seized power in Ukraine held fascists in their ranks (Foxall and Kessler, 2014). U.S. Senator John McCain found friendship with these people and was on stage with Oleh Tyahnybok during the ‘revolution’, a man who had been ‘accused of being an antisemitic neo-Nazi’ (Taylor, 2013). This fraternisation with non-savoury characters indicates the level of US involvement in the Ukrainian ‘revolution’ because political elites would not associate with fascists if not to achieve political ends. Senator Nuland met with and shared sandwiches with Pro-EU protestors and police in ‘independence square’ and US and EU officials were meeting with Yanukovych and held a heavy presence in the country at the time of the protests. This included meetings with the opposition leaders. Thus, portraying the ‘revolution’ as a ‘purely indigenous, popular uprising’ would be ‘grotesquely distorting’ the reality (Carpenter, 2017). No surprise then that Russia assumed that the west had organised a coup d’état to ‘install’ a staunchly pro-western government which would also be anti-Russian. 

The evidence which demonstrates the nature of US involvement the most is the phone call between then, Secretary of State Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine Pyatt, which was leaked by the Kremlin (Keating, 2014). In this phone call (BBC News, 2014) Nuland and Pyatt discuss the potential of candidates within the Ukrainian leadership. It demonstrated that the US had a gameplan in Ukraine to place the opposition in power and were ‘indisputably’ trying to steer Ukraine to a decidedly westward facing orientation (Hunter, 2022). This does not suggest that Russia was not interfering in Ukraine, they believe they have that right. But it shows how US interference led to the abrupt failure of Moscow’s soft power policies in Ukraine. 

2.4.   The ‘Glimmers of Hope’ the Minsk Accords offered.

After failing to ensure a Russia-friendly government remained in power in Ukraine, Moscow was faced with an emboldened anti-Russian leadership. The Kremlin adjusted its strategic approach accordingly. It began to explicitly adopt the old soviet methods of deceit while using its military to support separatists in the east of Ukraine (Åtland, 2020). Supposedly, internal warfare in a state would serve as a temporary guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO.

Yet eventually it seemed that Russia concluded that the West was simply buying time to arm and prepare the Ukraine forces for a Russian military incursion in order to avoid the outcome witnessed in Crimea. At least this was the strategy employed by the West as per former German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Schwarz, 2022). This revelation is supported by the fact that the Ukrainian leadership did not want to implement the Minsk agreements and was effectively forced to sign the document in 2014/2015 in part due to their weak military capabilities (Wittke, 2019). During the years between 2014 and 2022 Ukrainian forces found support and training from the western powers. In fact, the joint military exercises in 2021 would prove to be one of the last straws for Russia and it began to prepare its forces and rapidly build up troops alongside the Ukrainian border while trying last-ditch attempt at achieving its goals. 

The Minsk Agreements were both failures because both parties (Russia and Ukraine) did not wish to compromise on their red lines and so the agreement were relatively vague and open to interpretation (Wittke, 2019). In addition, most of the articles were never implemented, some were only partially implemented, and none were fully implemented. This happened to be one of the main complaints of the Russian leadership. Interestingly, Russia views the implementation of a negotiation as part of the entire ‘process of negotiation’ (Åtland, 2020). It then follows that the distrust between the west and Russia was only increasing. The unwillingness of the US to change policy and Russia’s inability to surrender any prospect of being a great Eurasian power only served as catalysts which propelled the train towards the catastrophe of war. A war which would be initiated by the weaker nation whose policies which aimed to solve the problem failed effectively forcing it to resort to utilising the more violent mechanics of political strategy. 

2.5. When in Doubt, Escalate

During the 2016 Warsaw summit, NATO agreed to establish a forward presence in north-east and south-east Europe which was in response to ‘Russia’s behaviour’ and increased instability on NATO’s periphery (NATO, 2022). This was viewed as an act of hostility by Russia but effectively had no major impact in the context of already strained relations between them. Then in 2017 the deployment began with the US sending upto 2000 tanks into Poland to increase presence to which Russia repeated that the actions represented a direct threat to Russian national security (MacAskill, 2018). US sanctions on Russia steadily increased from 2017 onwards due to various reasons including Russian involvement in Syria, Crimea, and Ukraine as well as others (Letsas and Polyakova, 2019). This didn’t change Russian policy, but it demonstrated how US-Russia relations were deteriorating in the context of a standoff over Ukraine. 

During the time between 2014 and the 2022 war, the west made significant effort to increase the Ukrainian military’s readiness and capabilities (Mills, 2021). The UK via Operation Orbital and then via the multinational Operation Interflex trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian military personnel (Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, 2022). The Trump administration approved the sale of ‘defensive’ weapons to Ukraine in 2017 the first time the US sold weapons to Ukraine since 2014 (Robin, 2017). The British later decided to begin supplying Ukraine with ‘defensive lethal weaponry’ in 2021 as Russia’s military continued to build up (Mills, 2021). The training of Ukrainian troops and supplying of weapons provoked fears in Moscow that its low intensity conflict in Ukraine (via separatists) would not prevent Ukraine from becoming a ‘de-facto’ member of NATO (Mearsheimer, 2022). This again points to Russia’s insecurity and concerns over the US and the west’s continued expansion. 

In June 2020, NATO welcomed Ukraine as the 6th Enhanced Opportunity Partner which aims to ‘deepen cooperation between allies and partners’ (NATO, 2020). This development occurred less than two years before Russia launched their invasion and likely made clear to Russia that Ukraine would join NATO in the future. This development is arguably one of the most important as is demonstrated the close ties Ukraine had developed with Russia’s military adversary. It clearly indicated that Moscow’s strategies would not succeed in preventing Ukraine from one day joining NATO and likely informed the Kremlin’s thinking and planning. During a meeting between Biden and Putin in June 2021, Putin restated the ‘impossibility’ of Ukraine joining NATO(Sanford, 2021; Yaffa, 2021). Then on December 17th, 2021, Russia made it clear in the two draft treaties sent to Washington and Brussels, that their primary concern was NATO’s continued eastward expansion and the threats this posed to Russia’s security (Richter, 2022). The fact that the letters were also sent to Washington makes clear the great power competition element of crisis. 

The proposed treaties were sent against a backdrop of Russian military build-up along the Ukrainian border and explicit US warnings of a potential invasion. Yet these proposed treaties were wholly rejected by NATO as it would require a change or exception in the open-door policy (Pifer, 2021). Yet it is important to note that the fact that they had proposed a treaty indicated they were open to negotiation (Hunter, 2022). As such it can be understood that the treaties reflected a last-ditch attempt at diplomacy, but such a negotiation would have had to be very serious and productive as the build-up of troops showed that Russia did not believe that the decades long problem of Ukraine would be solved via negotiation. 

Therefore, it was the combination of training, arming, and supporting Ukraine against Russian separatists, as well as the formal recognition of Ukraine as an EOP, which likely served as the final turning point for the Russian leadership. There was very little time between the formal recognition of Ukraine as EOP (June 2020), the military build-up alongside Ukraine’s border (March/April 2021) and the launch of the ‘special military operation’ within Ukrainian territory which saw over 150,000 men invade Ukraine. This short time period increases the likelihood that the formal recognition of Ukraine as a NATO partner triggered a fundamental change in Russian strategy. As such, it appears logical to come to the conclusion that NATO expansion into Ukraine was the primary driving force of Russian insecurity and resulted in Moscow’s decision to launch a full-scale war in Ukraine.

2.6. A short Summary of Chapter 2


To summarise, the war in Georgia saw the beginning of a breakdown in Russia-US and Russia-West relations which Obama’s ‘reset’ did not undo. The failure of Russia’s soft power policies as shown by the outcome of the Euromaidan protests resulted in Russia’s decision to opt for hard power solutions to its problem. The interference of the US and European states provided grounds for Russia’s escalation. The failure of the Minsk accords was rooted in the unwillingness of Russia and Ukraine to compromise on their respective red lines. Furthermore, western powers used the deadlock to advance alternative strategies which would see Ukraine become a defacto member of NATO. NATO members began to arm and train Ukrainian forces and then in 2020 NATO welcomed Ukraine as an EOP. This undeniably played into Russia’s fear of Ukraine joining NATO and less than two years later, following repeated warnings that Russia would not allow Ukraine to join NATO and last-ditch diplomatic efforts, Russia invaded Ukraine. Thus, it can be concluded that Russia was provoked into war by the threat of NATO expansion into Ukraine.



This research has vigorously assessed the casus belli of the war in Ukraine utilising the realist IR analytical framework. It has shown the extent to which NATO expansion into Ukraine was the underlying issue which resulted in Russia’s aggressive responses. It has provided some original analysis of the key underlying historical and strategic underpinnings of the crisis. This study showed that NATO did threaten Russia and it demonstrated how and why NATO expansion was detrimental to Russian national security interests. It showed that NATO provoked Russia in a military escalation by consistently developing relations with Ukraine. Ukraine happened to sit at the geopolitical centre of Eurasia and control over it would secure Russia status as a global power while US control over it would limit Russia’s power and isolate Russia. Placing this in the context of a ‘democracy promoting’ US led western alliance, which has a history of unlawful regime change, Russia had strong grounds for its fear and insecurity. This research also showed how US policy which is guided by long held ambitions for continued and strengthened global primacy, is a decisive force within NATO. As such, the US effectively controls the strategic mission of NATO. 

The US is a geopolitical competitor of Russia and both states wanted influence in Ukraine. Thus, the threat of NATO expansion exacerbated these fears and between the years 2008 and 2022, these fears were vindicated by various events including, US interference in the Euromaidan ‘revolution’ which was seriously detrimental to Russian interests. This resulted in the reaction which saw Putin annex Crimea. The developments thereafter only continued to stoke tensions by the behaviours and policies of both Russia and Western powers. Ultimately, it was the threat of NATO expansion and the view that Ukraine would join NATO that saw Russia begin to build up forces alongside the border and then when last-ditch attempts at diplomacy were thrown out the window, Russia launched its war.

Reflections and Broader Relevance

This study found it useful to analyse the strategic similarities and differences between the US and Russia relating to Ukraine and in terms of their own respective ‘grand’ strategies and important geopolitical considerations. This research focused on great power competition, geopolitics and how certain developments resulted in all-out war. It contributed to the broader field of research by providing original analysis and further perspective to assess the casus belli of the war in Ukraine. As this research is limited by a 10,000 words limit, some of its conclusions will require further investigation. For example, this research finds that the 2020, NATO welcoming of Ukraine as an EOP was the development which resulted in Russia’s leadership deciding to use its military to prevent Ukraine’s accession into NATO. However, this requires further examination as pinpointing when Moscow decided to prepare for fully fledged war is no easy task due to the uncertainty such decisions have. This is because deciding on when to make final preparations for war is contingent on a host of dynamic factors. 

This research focused on the bigger questions of great power competition and US hegemony as well as exploring the way in which developments provoked Russia to resort to more violent means. This research can be reconstructed and replicated using the same analytical framework to assess the validity of, and to verify the conclusions it derived. The overarching conclusion in this study, that NATO provoked Russia into war, is a contested and controversial one. This research has been guided by realist dictates and acknowledges the fact that there are other interpretative frameworks which can be used to determine what the primary cause of the war is. Such frameworks when asking the same questions may well come to starkly different conclusions. While this thesis is sure of its conclusions, it does not intend to serve as the only explanation that exists. 


Al Jazeera (2011). Obama says Gaddafi must leave. [online] www.aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2011/3/4/obama-says-gaddafi-must-leave [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].

Antonenko, O. (1999). Russia, NATO and European security after Kosovo. Survival, [online] 41(4), pp.124–144. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/713660137.

Art, R.J. (1998). Creating a Disaster: NATO’s Open Door Policy. Political Science Quarterly, 113(3), pp.383–403. doi:https://doi.org/10.2307/2658073.

Åtland, K. (2020). Destined for deadlock? Russia, Ukraine, and the unfulfilled Minsk agreements. Post-Soviet Affairs, 36(2), pp.122–139. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/1060586x.2020.1720443.

BBC News (2014). Ukraine crisis: Transcript of leaked Nuland-Pyatt call. BBC News. [online] 7 Feb. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26079957 [Accessed 17 Nov. 2022].

Biden, J. (2022). Remarks by President Biden on the United Efforts of the Free World to Support the People of Ukraine. [online] The White House. Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/03/26/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-united-efforts-of-the-free-world-to-support-the-people-of-ukraine/ [Accessed 23 Mar. 2023].

Blaj, L. (2013). Ukraine’s Independence and Its Geostrategic Impact in Eastern Europe. Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 21(2-3), pp.165–181. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/0965156x.2013.841797.

Blanton, T.S., Blanton, T., Chernyaev, A.S., Matlock, J.F., Savranskaya, S. and Zubok, V. (2010). Masterpieces of History : The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989. Budapest: Central European University Press, pp.675–684. Document No. 119: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker, February 9, 1990.

Bryanski, G. (2011). Putin likens U.N. Libya resolution to crusades. Reuters. [online] 21 Mar. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-russia-idUSTRE72K3JR20110321 [Accessed 13 Feb. 2023].

Brzezinski, Z. (1997). The Grand Chessboard : American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York: Basic Books.

Burns, W.J. (2019). The back channel : a memoir of American diplomacy and the case for its renewal. New York: Random House.

Camisão, I. and Antunes, S. (2018). Introducing Realism in International Relations Theory. [online] E-International Relations. Available at: https://www.e-ir.info/2018/02/27/introducing-realism-in-international-relations-theory/ [Accessed 29 Dec. 2022].

Carpenter, T. (2017). America’s Ukraine Hypocrisy. [online] Cato Institute. Available at: https://www.cato.org/commentary/americas-ukraine-hypocrisy [Accessed 19 Nov. 2022].

Carpenter, T.G. (2022). Many Predicted NATO Expansion Would Lead to War. Those Warnings Were Ignored. policycommons.net. [online] Available at: https://policycommons.net/artifacts/2269615/many-predicted-nato-expansion-would-lead-to-war/3029415/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2022].

Cheng, M. (2022). The Ukraine Crisis: Causes, Conundrum and Consequences. Journal of Social and Political Sciences, [online] 5(2), pp.96–111. Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4099347 [Accessed 15 Jan. 2023].

Conetta, C. (2022). Did NATO expansion prompt the Russian attack on Ukraine? [online] Available at: https://www.comw.org/pda/fulltext/Did-NATO-Expansion-Prompt-the-Russian-Attack-on-Ukraine.pdf [Accessed 20 Oct. 2022].

Cornell, S.E. (2014). The European Union: Eastern Partnership vs. Eurasian Union. In: S.F. Starr and S.E. Cornell, eds., Putin’s Grand Strategy: The Eurasian Union and Its Discontents. [online] Stockholm: Institute for Security and Development Policy, pp.179–190. Available at: http://silkroadstudies.org/resources/pdf/publications/15-1409GrandStrategy-Cornell-Europe.pdf [Accessed 26 Apr. 2023].

Davidson, C.M. (2016). Shadow wars : the secret struggle for the Middle East. London: Oneworld Publications Ltd.

Dickinson, P. (2021). Putin’s new Ukraine essay reveals imperial ambitions. [online] Atlantic Council. Available at: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/putins-new-ukraine-essay-reflects-imperial-ambitions/ [Accessed 17 Nov. 2022].

Foxall, A. and Kessler, O. (2014). Yes, There Are Bad Guys in the Ukrainian Government. Foreign Policy, [online] 18. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/03/18/yes-there-are-bad-guys-in-the-ukrainian-government/ [Accessed 7 Feb. 2023].

Gilderhus, M.T. (2006). The Monroe Doctrine: Meanings and Implications. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 36(1), pp.5–16. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-5705.2006.00282.x.

Goldgeier, J.M. (2010). Not Whether but When: the US Decision to Enlarge NATO. Brookings Institution Press.

Grigoryan, A. (2020). Selective Wilsonianism: Material Interests and the West’s Support for Democracy. International Security, [online] 44(4), pp.158–200. Available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/754068 [Accessed 20 Nov. 2022].

Hill, C., Toje, A., Splidsboel Hansen, F., Mouritzen, H. and Wivel, A. (2014). Explaining Foreign Policy: International Diplomacy and the Russo-Georgian War by Hans Mouritzen and Anders Wivel. International Politics Reviews, 2(1), pp.31–47. doi:https://doi.org/10.1057/ipr.2014.8.

Hunter, R. (2022). The Ukraine Crisis: Why and What Now? Survival, 64(1), pp.7–28. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/00396338.2022.2032953.

Ivanova, P. and Rathbone, J.P. (2022). What is ‘indivisible security’? The principle at the heart of Russia’s ire against Nato. Financial Times. [online] 7 Feb. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/84a43896-2dfd-4be4-8d2a-c68a5a68547a [Accessed 29 Jan. 2023].

Keating, D. (2014). US suggests Russia is behind leaked Ukraine phone-call. [online] POLITICO. Available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/us-suggests-russia-is-behind-leaked-ukraine-phone-call/ [Accessed 26 Apr. 2023].

Kórshunov, M. (2014). Mikhail Gorbachev: I am against all walls. [online] Rbth.com. Available at: https://www.rbth.com/international/2014/10/16/mikhail_gorbachev_i_am_against_all_walls_40673.html [Accessed 13 Feb. 2023].

Larrabee, F.S. and Gompert, D.C. (1998). America and Europe : a partnership for a new era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larssen, A.K. (2016). Russia: The Principle of Non-Intervention and the Libya Case. In: D. Henrikson and A.K. Larssen, eds., Political Rationale and International Consequences of the War in Libya. [online] Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.67–85. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198767480.003.0004.

Letsas, F. and Polyakova, A. (2019). On the record: The U.S. administration’s actions on Russia. [online] Brookings. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/09/25/on-the-record-the-u-s-administrations-actions-on-russia/ [Accessed 14 Apr. 2023].

Litera, B. (1994). The Kozyrev Doctrine – a Russian Variation on the Monroe Doctrine. Perspectives, [online] (4), pp.45–52. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23615773.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A503d0cc41e22da85468056ee48ff3b73&ab_segments=&origin=&initiator= [Accessed 20 Apr. 2023].

MacAskill, E. (2018). Russia says US troops arriving in Poland pose threat to its security. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/12/doubts-over-biggest-us-deployment-in-europe-since-cold-war-under-trump [Accessed 5 Feb. 2023].

Mandel, D. (2016). The conflict in Ukraine. Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 24(1), pp.83–88. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/0965156x.2016.1171011.

Marples, D. (2017). Ukraine in Conflict An Analytical Chronicle. [online] London: E-International Relations. Available at: https://www.e-ir.info/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ukraine-in-Conflict-E-IR.pdf [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].

McFaul, M., Sestanovich, S. and Mearsheimer, J.J. (2014). Faulty Powers: Who Started the Ukraine Crisis? Foreign Affairs, [online] 93(6), pp.167–178. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24483933?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed 12 Nov. 2022].

Mead, W.R. (2014). The Return of Geopolitics. [online] Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2014-04-17/return-geopolitics [Accessed 20 Apr. 2023].

Mearsheimer, J. (2022). John Mearsheimer on Why the West Is Principally Responsible for the Ukrainian Crisis. [online] The Economist. Available at: https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/11/john-mearsheimer-on-why-the-west-is-principally-responsible-for-the-ukrainian-crisis [Accessed 11 Oct. 2022].

Mearsheimer, J.J. (2014). Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin. Foreign Affairs, [online] 93(5), pp.77–89. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24483306 [Accessed 14 Nov. 2022].

Medvedev, D. (2011). Statement by Dmitry Medvedev on the situation in Libya. [online] President of Russia. 11 Mar. Available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/10701 [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].

Mills, C. (2021). Military Assistance to Ukraine. [online] commonslibrary.parliament.uk. Available at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn07135/ [Accessed 14 Apr. 2023].

Nast, C. (2022). The Soft-Power Politics That Exploded Into War. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-soft-power-politics-that-exploded-into-war [Accessed 7 Jan. 2023].

NATO (2008). Bucharest Summit Declaration – Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Bucharest on 3 April 2008. [online] NATO. Available at: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_8443.htm [Accessed 22 Jan. 2023].

NATO (2020a). Enlargement. [online] NATO. Available at: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_49212.htm [Accessed 23 Feb. 2023].

NATO (2020b). NATO recognises Ukraine as Enhanced Opportunities Partner. [online] NATO. Available at: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_176327.htm [Accessed 20 Feb. 2023].

NATO (2022). Boosting NATO’s Presence in the East and Southeast. [online] NATO. Available at: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_136388.htm [Accessed 26 Feb. 2023].

O’rourke, L.A. (2018). Covert regime change America’s secret Cold War. Ithaca, New York: Ithaca And London Cornell University Press.

Perlmutter, A. (2000). The corruption of NATO: The alliance moves east. Journal of Strategic Studies, 23(3), pp.129–153. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/01402390008437803.

Petersen, A. (2011). The World Island : Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger Security International, p.107.

Pifer, S. (2021). Russia’s draft agreements with NATO and the United States: Intended for rejection? [online] Brookings. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/12/21/russias-draft-agreements-with-nato-and-the-united-states-intended-for-rejection/ [Accessed 14 Apr. 2023].

Popescu, N. (2014). Eurasian Union: the real, the imaginary and the likely. Paris: EU Institute for Security Studies.

Porter, P. (2018). Why America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed: Power, Habit, and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment. International Security, 42(04), pp.9–46.

Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street (2022). UK to offer major training programme for Ukrainian forces as Prime Minister hails their victorious determination. [online] GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-to-offer-major-training-programme-for-ukrainian-forces-as-prime-minister-hails-their-victorious-determination [Accessed 14 Apr. 2023].

Putin, V. (2007). Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. [online] en.kremlin.ru. Available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/copy/24034 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].

Putin, V. (2008). Press Statement and Answers to Journalists’ Questions following a Meeting of the Russia-NATO Council. [online] Kremlin. 4 Apr. Available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24903 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023]. Putin makes clear that NATO on Russia’s borders represents a ‘direct threat’ due to it being a powerful military ‘bloc whose members are subject in part to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty’.

Putin, V. (2014). Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. [online] President of Russia. 17 Apr. Available at: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20796 [Accessed 21 Mar. 2023].

Reuters (2011). NATO war in Libya violates U.N. mandate, Russia says. Reuters. [online] 19 Apr. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-libya-idUSTRE73I26D20110419.

RFE/RL (2008). Russia Again Vows to Block NATO Enlargement. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. [online] 9 Apr. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/1144088.html [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].

Richter, W. (2022). NATO-Russia Tensions: Putin Orders Invasion of Ukraine. German Institute for International and Security Affairs, [online] pp.1–8. Available at: https://www.swp-berlin.org/publications/products/comments/2022C16_NATO-Russia_Tensions.pdf [Accessed 16 Nov. 2022].

Robin, J. (2017). Opinion | Trump administration approves lethal arms sales to Ukraine. Washington Post. [online] 20 Dec. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2017/12/20/trump-administration-approves-lethal-arms-sales-to-ukraine/ [Accessed 14 Apr. 2023].

Rogin, J. (2011). Cornyn to introduce resolution on Libyan regime change. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/04/05/cornyn-to-introduce-resolution-on-libyan-regime-change/ [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].

Samokhvalov, V. (2019). Russia in the Balkans: Great Power Politics and Local Response. Insight Turkey, [online] 21(2), pp.189–210. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26776081?seq=4 [Accessed 13 Feb. 2023].

Sandler, T. and Hartley, K. (1999). The political economy of NATO : past, present, and into the 21st century. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sarotte, M.E. (2014). A Broken promise: What the West Really Told Moscow about NATO Expansion. Foreign Affairs, 93(5), pp.90–97.

Schwarz, P. (2022). Former German Chancellor Merkel admits the Minsk agreement was merely to buy time for Ukraine’s arms build-up. [online] World Socialist Web Site. Available at: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/12/22/ffci-d22.html [Accessed 20 Mar. 2023].

Senate (2022). Ukraine. www.govinfo.gov, [online] 168(27), pp.S632–S636. Available at: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CREC-2022-02-10/html/CREC-2022-02-10-pt1-PgS632-2.htm [Accessed 1 Feb. 2023].

Smith, T. (2012). America’s mission : the United States and the worldwide struggle for democracy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Sperling, J. and Webber, M. (2019). Trump’s foreign policy and NATO: Exit and voice. Review of International Studies, [online] 45(3), pp.511–526. doi:https://doi.org/10.1017/s0260210519000123.

Standish, R. (2001). Putin’s Eurasian Dream Is Over Before It Began. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/06/putins-eurasian-dream-is-over-before-it-began/ [Accessed 20 Apr. 2023].

Standish, R. (2015). Putin’s Eurasian Dream Is Over Before It Began. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/06/putins-eurasian-dream-is-over-before-it-began/ [Accessed 20 Apr. 2023].

Steil, B. (2018). Russia’s Clash With the West Is About Geography, Not Ideology. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/02/12/russias-clash-with-the-west-is-about-geography-not-ideology/ [Accessed 4 Mar. 2023].

Stent, A.E. (2008). Restoration and Revolution in Putin’s Foreign Policy. Europe-Asia Studies, 60(6), pp.1089–1106. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/09668130802161264.

Suny, R. (2022). Ukraine war follows decades of warnings that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe could provoke Russia. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/ukraine-war-follows-decades-of-warnings-that-nato-expansion-into-eastern-europe-could-provoke-russia-177999 [Accessed 14 Oct. 2022].

Taylor, A. (2013). John McCain Went To Ukraine And Stood On Stage With A Man Accused Of Being An Anti-Semitic Neo-Nazi. Business Insider. [online] 16 Dec. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/john-mccain-meets-oleh-tyahnybok-in-ukraine-2013-12?r=US&IR=T [Accessed 7 Feb. 2023].

Terry, P.C. (2015). The Libya intervention (2011): neither lawful, nor successful. The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa, [online] 48(2), pp.162–182. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24585876?seq=2 [Accessed 12 Nov. 2022].

Toucas, B. (2017). The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region: A Brief History. Center for Strategic and International Studies. [online] 17 Feb. Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/geostrategic-importance-black-sea-region-brief-history [Accessed 21 Mar. 2023].

Tragniuk, O. (2016). European Union and Ukraine: Some Issues of Legal Regulation of Relations – From Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to Association Agreement –. KritV, CritQ, RCrit. Kritische Vierteljahresschrift für Gesetzgebung und Rechtswissenschaft / Critical Quarterly for Legislation and Law / Revue critique trimestrielle de jurisprudence et de législation, [online] 99(1), pp.44–63. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/44504905.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A944d580cabba59af107b3df53062e400&ab_segments=&origin=&initiator=&acceptTC=1 [Accessed 20 Apr. 2023].

Tsygankov, A.P. (2009). Russia in global governance: multipolarity or multilateralism? In: Contemporary global governance : multipolarity vs new discourses on global governance. Bruxelles ; Bern Berlin Frankfurt, M. New York, Ny Oxford Wien: Pie Lang, pp.51–62.

Tsygankov, A.P. (2018). The sources of Russia’s fear of NATO. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, [online] 51(2), pp.101–111. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/48610517 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].

Vanhoose, H. (2011). Understanding the Russian Response to the Intervention in Libya. [online] Center for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/understanding-the-russian-response-to-the-intervention-in-libya/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2022].

Walker, E.W. (2016). Between east and west: NATO enlargement and the geopolitics of the Ukraine crisis. In: R. Sakwa, ed., Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives. Bristol: E-International Relations Publishing.

Wintour, P. (2022). Why does Russia focus on ‘indivisible security’ in Ukraine standoff? [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/03/why-does-russia-focus-on-indivisible-security-in-ukraine-standoff [Accessed 27 Feb. 2023].

Wittke, C. (2019). The Minsk Agreements – more than ‘scraps of paper’?. East European Politics, 35(3), pp.264–290. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/21599165.2019.1635885.

Wolff, A.T. (2015). The future of NATO enlargement after the Ukraine crisis. International Affairs, 91(5), pp.1103–1121. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2346.12400.

Yaffa, J. (2021). Why Is Russia Threatening to Invade Ukraine? [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/why-is-russia-threatening-to-invade-ukraine [Accessed 14 Apr. 2023].

Yassman, V. (2008). Russia Prepares for Lengthy Battle over Ukraine. [online] RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/1109572.html [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].

Zenko, M. (2016). The Big Lie About the Libyan War. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/22/libya-and-the-myth-of-humanitarian-intervention/ [Accessed 27 Feb. 2023].

Zygar, M. (2016). The Russian Reset That Never Was. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/12/09/the-russian-reset-that-never-was-putin-obama-medvedev-libya-mikhail-zygar-all-the-kremlin-men/ [Accessed 20 Jan. 2023].


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *