Doug Klain for Newsweek: No, Biden Didn’t Force Russia to Invade Ukraine

2024-01-05 | Expert publications

Doug Klain is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a policy analyst at Razom for Ukraine. Find him on social media @DougKlain.


The opinion was originally published on The Newsweek.


As Russia escalates its campaign to sap Western support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s invasion, it’s critical to set the record straight not only on where responsibility for the Russo-Ukrainian war lies, but on the reality of American aid to Ukraine.

Some “experts” fundamentally misunderstand why Russia is waging war against Ukraine and argue a conspiratorial view of President Joe Biden‘s motivation for aiding Ukraine. Many of these arguments, bizarrely, deny any agency to Ukraine and Russia, instead argue that the blame for this war somehow lies with Biden.

They say Russia was forced to invade Ukraine because the Biden administration pushed Ukraine toward NATO membership and Putin would never allow NATO to take up residency along 1,000 miles of his nation’s borderland. By trying to push it into NATO, the argument goes, Biden signed Ukraine’s death sentence.

Except none of this ever happened. Ukraine was officially neutral in 2014 when Russia first invaded it, causing Ukraine to reverse course and decide that joining the military alliance would be the best way to safeguard against further Russian aggression. Far from “pushing” Ukraine to join, the United States and its allies kept Ukraine out of NATO for fear of provoking Putin. Ukrainians emphatically desired NATO membership, with a majority of the public supporting accession in December 2021, and Ukraine’s foreign minister pleading to join earlier that year.

Why did Ukrainians want NATO membership? Because they knew Russia wanted to conquer them, as it is trying to do now. Additionally, the idea that Putin would never allow NATO to border Russia was directly refuted when Sweden and Finland—which shares an 830-mile border with Russia—launched their bids for membership because they feared Russia might invade. In response, Putin declared “there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion (of NATO) to include these countries.”

So, if NATO had no intention of admitting Ukraine and Putin sees no immediate threat from the alliance bordering Russia, why did Russia really invade Ukraine? Just ask the Russians themselves. To Putin, Ukraine is not a real independent nation, and its land and people are the rightful property of Russia. Ukrainian identity is not real, and Ukrainians are actually Russians denying their identity. The Ukrainian state was established “by accident” according to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

We see this motivation in both the rhetoric of Russia’s leaders and the conduct of Russia’s authorities in occupied Ukraine. Ukrainians under occupation are encouraged to Russify their names, signs in the Ukrainian language are replaced with Russian ones, and tens of thousands of children have been abducted into Russia where adoption laws have been changed so that they can be raised instead as Russians—a clear case of cultural genocide under international law.

This cultural erasure has nothing to do with Russian security and everything to do with extinguishing the idea of Ukrainians as a separate and distinct people. Russia’s mass missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian maternity hospitals, schools, and apartments have nothing to do with security—only trying to terrorize and bludgeon the Ukrainian people into submission. When people try to argue that Russia is merely trying to protect itself, they somehow refuse to grapple with what Russia actually does.

Which brings us to another bizarre idea being floated: Russia isn’t really responsible for killing tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Biden is. One columnist has written that “Biden chose to use the American people as the cash cow and Ukrainians as the flesh to throw in Putin’s meat grinder,” and “If Congress doesn’t stop Biden, the slaughter of Ukrainians will continue through 2024 and beyond.”

The writer seems to think that without a bloodthirsty Biden fueling the conflict by providing military support to Ukraine, the war would simply end. The Ukrainian people have made clear that with or without aid, they’ll fight on because this war is about their very survival against a hostile power bent on their destruction.

After exhuming the mass graves, hearing the horror stories of mass sexual violence, and witnessing the torture inflicted upon those Ukrainians suffering Russian occupation, who could blame Ukrainians for wanting to fight on until they have liberated all of their people? If the United States were in Ukraine’s position, it’s hard to imagine Americans being willing to surrender their fellow citizens to these kinds of horrors.

The United States is not fueling the war in Ukraine and Biden is not responsible for the Ukrainians being killed by Russia’s invasion force. Russia, fighting a war of aggression and choice, is responsible. The rapes and torture inflicted are cruel crimes perpetrated by Russian soldiers. By providing aid, Biden and the American people are extending a lifeline to Ukraine, not only giving Ukrainians a fighting chance at freedom but also preventing Russia from following through on its stated aims of widening this war beyond Ukraine and invading more countries in Europe, including NATO Allies.

Another common Russian talking point being parroted by some in the West is that “Ukraine, the most corrupt country in Europe, is no more of a democracy than Russia is.” It’s an absurd and easily refuted claim.

Russia’s elections have been rigged to keep Putin and his clique in power for more than two decades while the free press, political opposition, and civil society have been eviscerated.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has competitive elections, and no president has been re-elected in two decades. The Ukrainian people have taken to the streets twice since gaining independence to successfully revolt against corrupt leaders. Ukraine’s vibrant civil society has been a key asset to the country’s resilience against Russia’s invasion, and its free press has heroically reported both on the war and the Ukrainian government’s own failings so that it can be held accountable. That’s democracy in action.

At the same time, there are fair questions about when Ukraine will next hold elections as well as the role of political opposition and media during wartime. Ukraine’s leading civil society organizations themselves are asking for elections to follow the British model during World War II—don’t let the enemy target voters in polling stations with air raids and wait until the war stabilizes, as the Ukrainian constitution currently requires. Media and Western governments rightly continue to push President Volodymyr Zelensky‘s government to fulfill its democratic obligations.

The United States is at a pivotal moment as it heads into 2024. Russia’s best hope of defeating Ukraine is if Americans turn their backs on the Ukrainian people. As Congress delays aid, there are plenty of anti-Ukraine forces in Washington strategizing on exactly how to make that happen. Experts pushing these falsehoods aren’t about calling for peace, they’re calling to abandon Ukraine to the horrors of Russian occupation.