Getting the Story Right: A Personal Journey Through 2+ Years of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian flags. Photo: Barks/ Shutterstock
Photo: Barks/ Shutterstock

By Paul Shannon

“The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it” (Mark Twain as quoted by former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman, “The Many Lessons of the Ukraine War”). 

“The Ukrainian SSR solemnly declares its intention of becoming a permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs and adheres to three nuclear free principles: to accept, to produce and to purchase no nuclear weapons”   (Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, July 16, 1990, implemented in Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence, August 24, 1991)

“I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. Nobody was threatening anybody else” George Kennan (on the decision to expand NATO in 1998)

“All roads lead to Putin”,  Nancy Pelosi 

“We must prevent the darkness of Mr. Putin’s world from befalling more of humanity”, Senator John McCain

“For God’s sake, that man cannot stay in power”, Joe Biden in 2022

“Our most serious mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much. And your mistake is that you took that trust as weakness and abused it”, Vladimir Putin


Getting the Story Right: A Personal Journey Through 2+ Years of Russia’s War in Ukraine

In the Ukraine war we are faced with 2 contradictory narratives that claim to make sense of the war. The first tells the story that Russia is seeking to take over Ukraine through an unprovoked aggression similar to Hitler’s. And if successful it will lead to Russia expanding its hegemony over other parts of Europe. The U.S. is fighting not only to support Ukraine’s independence, but to halt Russia’s general imperialist ambitions. Short and sweet. You may be familiar with this narrative.

The second narrative tells us that a 26 year expansion of NATO toward Russia’s border — and especially the threat of Ukraine becoming part of that expansion — posed a serious national security threat to Russia. However illegal in its initiation and deadly conduct, Russia’s invasion was defensive in nature, seeking to prevent 1. the establishment of a hostile nuclear armed military alliance on its border and 2. the persecution and subjugation of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine by armed Ukrainian ultra-nationalists (“neo-nazis”) that played a key role in overthrowing Ukraine’s constitutional government. You may not be familiar with this narrative, though it is held by prominent academics, Russian scholars, diplomats, journalists and intellectuals, as it is not allowed to be expressed in the most prominent print and broadcast media outlets in the country or their online platforms.

Based on my experience confronting these 2 contradictory stories I have come to believe that the key issues focused on in each narrative have missed an issue that is essential in understanding the war. While they focus on Russia’s motivation, they do not focus on the question that is at the heart of the matter for us in the U.S: What is the U.S. goal in Ukraine? What is it that the U.S. government is trying to achieve in Ukraine? Is it to support Ukraine’s independence and democracy while at the same time weakening Russia so it cannot engage in aggression elsewhere? Is it to protect our national security? Is it to expand NATO to Russia’s border, whether to limit Russia’s options for aggression or, conversely, to keep Russia in its place in a unipolar world? Has it been all along to carry out regime change in Russia?

For the first year of the war I would wake up in the morning and go to bed late at night with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach – dread that nuclear war is a real possibility today or tomorrow or the next day; dread at what the war means for any prospects of addressing our impending self-destruction by global warming; dread at its implications for ever creating a sane and just world; and dread at the prospect of my country completing its transformation into Sparta while our needs for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are trampled . And then, of course, there is the horror at the carnage, devastation and pain taking place in Ukraine on a daily basis.

After more than 2 years of reading and watching everything I could from contradictory perspectives, I would like to offer my own story about this war. Understanding that I am certainly no scholar or expert or historian when it comes to Ukraine, and understanding that I could very well be wrong on key factual pieces, I would ask the reader to try my story on to see if it helps make sense of the confusion surrounding a war that is not only an enormous threat to world peace, not only a disaster for the people of Ukraine, but which is also presently the most likely crisis on earth to lead to our nuclear extermination. Furthermore, its continuation guarantees that the kind of international cooperation needed immediately to seriously address global warming cannot take place, resulting in certain global ecological catastrophe during this century, but starting now.

My Story

The Beginning

To understand a story, you have to know how it starts. If you start in the middle or toward the end, you will have an incomplete understanding of the story. For me the story starts around 1990 with the end of the cold war. It starts with the meetings between Gorbachev and the Bush senior administration to deal with that post cold war world and the dismantling of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact. As is well known now, in exchange for the Soviet Union allowing the unification of Germany and the accession of that unified Germany to membership in NATO, the United States and the West pledged that NATO would not move one inch closer to Russia’s border.

But why would the West feel it had to make that pledge? Clearly it was because the Soviets (and later Russia) would experience such expansion of NATO toward their border to be a threat. But why? With the ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union, weren’t the U.S. and Russia going to be great buddies now?

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin emerged as Russia’s president. He was our kind of guy. U.S. economic advisors poured in to help Russia set up a free enterprise system and National Endowment for Democracy money poured in to train Russians in setting up a democratic government. Finally, we were told, Russia might prosper under democracy.

The reality was quite different. Yeltsin’s policies wrecked Russia, brought economic ruin to the lives of millions of Russians, created a class of oligarchs through theft of public property, gave rise to massive corruption, and inflicted humiliation on a proud people. Life expectancy dropped precipitously and poverty deepened. Despite these painful realities, and despite Yeltsin’s military assault destroying the Russian parliament, and a brutal war in Chechnya, Yeltsin was seen as our man in Russia.

Despite his widespread unpopularity, U.S. election advisors with access to the Clinton administration intervened to make sure Yeltsin would win the 1996 election (The July 15, 1996 cover of Time Magazine features a cartoon of Yeltsin waving and American flag next to the headline, “Yanks to the Rescue”.) As far as the U.S. government and media were concerned this was a period of sunshine and renewal in Russia. Today our media looks back on the Yeltsin years as some kind of Golden age in Russia.


By the late 90’s after a heated debate in U.S. power circles over the expansion of NATO — and dire warnings from even the likes of George Kennan — a well funded effort by major U.S. arms manufacturers came together with the support of President Clinton and other powerful officials to begin the process of a vast expansion of NATO. Of course this policy was exactly what U.S. officials had promised Gorbachev would not happen. Even Yeltsin railed against this expansion, but Russia was too weak to do anything about it and the U.S. told him not to worry.

Of course that Golden age came to an end, slowly at the beginning and then in the form of a political tsunami with the emergence of Vladimir Putin at the head of the Russian regime. At first George W Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and thought he saw a man that we could work with as we built an American based new world order.

The Putin Years

Putin’s governments stabilized Russia, raised living standards and re-established Russian pride with its regime of limited authoritarianism at the time. With his goal of building a truly independent Russia he sought close economic ties with the U.S. and western Europe. But continuing NATO expansion toward Russia's border, despite the fact that at the time Russia posed no threat to any European country, was met by growing protest by Putin. And George Bush’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the historic ABM treaty was seen by Russia as a dangerous step toward the U.S. developing a first strike nuclear capability against Russia.

By 2004 U.S. goals for Russia (the Yeltsin model) and Russia’s goals for itself were diverging, leading to dark portrayals of Russia and its leader in the U.S. polity and media. This despite Russia’s collaboration with the U.S. on important U.S. priorities. But then came 2008 and the announcement that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO. Putin and the Russian elite were enraged and let the world know that Russia would not accept an increasingly threatening NATO expand to its border. U.S. diplomats in Russia sent numerous warnings to Washington, the implication being that Russia would go to war to prevent Ukraine from becoming a NATO base. Putin pleaded with the west to take Russia's concerns about its security into account and help construct a framework in which the security concerns of all Europeans were taken seriously. NATO expansion toward Russia's border continued and powerful players in the U.S. foreign policy establishment saw NATO expansion into Ukraine as its crowning jewel.

Tensions were growing rapidly now as Russia was incensed over NATO’s key role in the assassination of Khadafy in Libya and as Russia and the U.S. supported different sides in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. goal was to overthrow the Syrian government which invited Russia in to help save it. Russia began heavy bombing raids against Jihadist military groups that came to dominate the opposition to the Syrian regime.

2014: The Fateful Year

But it was events in Ukraine that lit the fuse of war in 2014. The country was politically divided between western Ukraine which sought to become part of the European Union and Eastern Ukraine whose population was mainly Russian speaking who wanted to maintain good economic and cultural relations with Russia. In addition there were strong ultranationalist groups who considered the Russian speaking citizens of Ukraine to be subhuman. These groups traced their beliefs back to Ukrainian leaders such as Stefan Bandera who had collaborated with the Germans during World War II, slaughtering tens of thousands of Poles and Jews. These were extremist groups that the U.S. congress would declare to be terrorists. But today Bandera is commemorated as a hero by the present Ukrainian government and ultranationalists are welcomed in Washington and trained by U.S. soldiers.

When Ukraine’s elected President Yanukovych returned from an EU meeting without joining the EU, there were massive demonstrations and clashes in Kiev. U.S. money poured in to support EU membership and key U.S. officials participated in the demonstrations. In late February a political resolution was worked out by Germany and other Europeans to defuse the crisis with Yanukovych moving up new elections. But at the end of January Victoria Nuland, a U.S. state department diplomat, had been caught on tape working behind the scenes with the U.S. Ambassador talking about their choice for who should head any new power-sharing government. Their conversation made it clear that vice president Biden had signed on to make their decisions “stick”. (Even before this crisis of 2014 the U.S. had already pumped into Ukraine about $5 billion in political and educational money to support U.S. goals in Ukraine. Now that money would pay off.) Before the ink was dry on the political deal worked out by the European leaders, ultra-nationalist groups carried out a coup, forcing President Yanukovych to flee the country — as he was told to do by vice president Biden. The Obama administration immediately recognized the new regime established by the illegal coup d’etat. Nuland’s choice to head the new government was appointed Prime Minister.

Seeing that the new Ukraine government would abrogate the treaty giving Russia rights to its Black Sea naval base in Crimea and eventually turn it over to NATO, Russian forces illegally seized the Crimean Peninsula and annexed it back to Russia (it had been part of Russia until 1954).

2014-2022 Civil War

Under the sway of the extreme right and ultra-nationalist groups, the coup government would ban the official use of the Russian language and proclaim Ukraine would be part of NATO despite that fact that fundamental Ukrainian Law declared that Ukraine was a neutral country and would not join any military alliance. When Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in eastern Ukraine, with Russian support, rose up against the new government that had overthrown their elected leader, in April of 2014 the regime in Kiev declared a terrorist operation against them. It sent in Ukraine’s army to launch attacks, beginning a civil war in the Donbas that would kill thousands in the following years. Ultra-nationalist soldiers, such as those in the Azov Battalion, played the key role in this attack on Russian speakers in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions who had announced independence referendums for mid-May. In response, Russia provided military support and troops to the anti-coup fighters in eastern Ukraine — even though it opposed their decision to secede from Ukraine — and a deadly 8 year civil war ground on. Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Ukraine became the seat of real power in the country.

You may have heard of an agreement called the Minsk accords? Negotiated by Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 were an attempt to stop the bloodshed and end the political crisis that lay behind the civil war. It called for a ceasefire, separation of forces, restoration of Kiev’s control to Donetsk and Luhansk, autonomy of these 2 independent republics who would remain part of Ukraine, and restoration of the rights of Ukrainians to the official use of the Russian language. The Minsk agreements did significantly reduce the bloodshed but did not stop it. More significantly, Ukraine’s Parliament refused to take steps to grant the Donetsk and Luhansk republics the promised autonomy. The failure of the Minsk Agreements to end the war should come as no surprise as the leaders of Germany and France who negotiated them, together with Ukraine’s president at the time, would later brag that they never had any intention that the deal would be implemented. Rather, it was seen as buying time to build up Ukraine’s army so it would be strong enough to militarily take back the Donbass from Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Crimea from Russia and the residents of Crimea who supported Russia.

The Zelensky Years

In Ukraine’s 2019 election, Volodymyr Zelensky ran on the platform that he would end the deadly civil war and bring peace. He won an overwhelming victory. At first Zelensky tried hard to implement the Minsk Accords, visiting the frontlines and telling Ukraine’s neo-nazi units that they had to obey the ceasefire. Though he was threatened by these ultra-nationalist elements, he did get these military units to partially disengage and the fighting lessened. But the Ukraine Parliament refused to grant autonomy to the Donbass republics and the war continued though on a lesser level. In Russia Putin was enraged that these internationally negotiated agreements had failed, and felt Russia had been stabbed in the back by their violation and by the fact that Ukraine continued its march toward membership in NATO. By the beginning of 2021 actions taken by President Zelensky against his political opposition made it crystal clear that he had abandoned the peace platform on which he had run for President in 2019.

In February of 2021, Russian started massing its troops on the border with Ukraine.

From 2014 to 2022 billions of U.S. dollars worth of military support poured into Ukraine, a massive NATO trained army of hundreds of thousands was built up — a force larger than the combined armed forces of England, France and Germany. Ten thousand of those Ukraine troops were being trained each year by the U.S. itself. And a close military-political-intelligence collaboration between Ukraine and the U.S. was consolidated. In 2019, much to Russia’s consternation, the Trump administration had unilaterally withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty. In June 2021 NATO reaffirmed its decision to bring Ukraine into NATO. On September 1, 2021 the U.S. and Ukraine signed a Joint Statement on the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership covering military, political and economic affairs. The U.S. CIA had already established a numerous joint bases with Ukrainian intelligence throughout the country. In many ways, Ukraine’s membership in NATO was now secondary. Ukraine had already been transformed into a U.S. bulwark against Russia.

And as 2021 ended Ukraine gathered its troops around the Donbass and prepared for a major offensive against Donetsk and Luhansk in early 2022. Also, in December 2021, Russia sent to the U.S. for discussion a “Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees” calling for the restoration of Ukrainian neutrality, banning the stationing of U.S. forces on Russia’s border and rolling back deployment of intermediate range and shorter-range missiles in NATO countries.

At the end of January 2022 the Biden Administration responded that it would not discuss such matters in the Russian proposal, telling Russia that Ukraine's membership in NATO was none of Russia’s business. On February 24, 2022 Russian troops invaded Ukraine seeking to prevent its integration into NATO and its alliance with the U.S. and upending Ukraine’s planned invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk whose independence from Ukraine Russia recognized for the first time.

Are we finally at the end of this story, with all hope of preventing this war lost?

Not yet. Less than a month after the invasion, Ukraine and Russia entered into negotiations mediated by Turkey and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. They put together a tentative agreement the basis of which included a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal of its invasion force if Kiev declared neutrality and accepted limits on its armed forces. By the end of March President Zelensky publicly declared that Ukraine would be a neutral country if it got security guarantees as part of a peace agreement with Russia. Zelensky trumpeted his support for a preliminary draft of an agreement and a meeting was being planned between him and Putin to finalize the agreement.

NATO, and especially the U.S. and United Kingdom, were not pleased. They rushed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Kiev to tell Zelensky that if Ukraine was ready to end the war, NATO was not. They told him to back out of the agreement and that NATO would make sure they had the military help to defeat Russia on the battlefield. As Israeli Prime Minister Bennett explained, the west had decided “to crush Putin rather than to negotiate”. Zelensky folded under NATO pressure and the war was on.

So how does this story end? That’s up to us. It could end very badly for Ukraine. It could end very badly for the world. Or it could end by going back to the principles embodied in the Russia- Ukraine agreement that NATO scotched in April of 2022. Would Russia now agree to a ceasefire and a “reasonable” peace agreement? We don’t know, though it is unlikely that having invested so much treasure and lives in keeping Ukraine out of a military alliance with the U.S. and now integrating the Donbass into Russia that it will offer the same terms it did in March of 2022. But we will only know what’s possible once those negotiations that began in March 2022 can resume. If this opportunity for ending the war is squandered, heaven knows what dire consequences lie ahead for the peoples involved and for all of us. Congressional passage of the $61 billion in new aid to Ukraine in April 2023, with no accompanying call for negotiations, is an ominous development.

So that’s my story. Does it help you make any sense of what’s going on in Ukraine? If not, throw it away quickly. The last thing you need is another pile of nonsense. We seem to be swimming in it everywhere. But if it is helpful, I’m glad. And I hope it will lead you to act on its implications. For those implications are of existential importance for our country and our world.

The End (or The Beginning)

Paul Shannon is the chair of the MAPA priority campaign “Ukraine: A Time for Peace ”