In this unequal war, the biggest and possibly the only advantage to Ukraine is its geography. Ukraine is bordered by Moldova and four NATO members, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, besides Russia and its all-weather friend Belarus. Belarus is itself bordered by Poland on the west and Lithuania on the north, both of which are NATO members. Should the war linger and spill over into a protracted resistance, Russia will find itself embroiled in another Afghanistan-like situation of its own making.
Moldova is neutral as per its constitution, but it has cooperated with the USA and NATO in the past and has an icy relationship with Russia over its breakaway republic of Transnistria, a narrow strip of land along its border with Ukraine garrisoned by Russian troops. Although it may not like an overt confrontation with Moscow, it may covertly cooperate with Ukrainian resistance, in case that become a reality. A successful insurgency needs unbroken supply lines and cross-border sanctuary beside fighters to sustain it indefinitely.
No one knows it better than Russia which had bloodied its nose in Afghanistan, just like the USA had in Vietnam. If the war gets protracted, it may spiral out of control and turn into a catastrophe in terms of human suffering and loss of lives. Further, Ukraine is an independent democracy recognised by the world including Russia. Even though one fifth of its population are ethnically Russians, Ukrainians are extremely unlikely to give up the democratic liberties they have enjoyed now for three decades for a de-facto authoritarian rule by Russia.
Russian aggression has already driven the country far closer to the West. In December 2021, 58 per cent of Ukrainians favoured NATO membership, compared to 25 per cent before 2014. In a recent poll, 55 per cent of Ukrainians said they would resist Russian aggression by military or non-military means. The erstwhile USSR had badly treated Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians were killed by a manmade famine during Stalin’s rule in the 1930s and memories of that Holodomor (killing by starvation) cannot be easily erased from the Ukrainians’ collective consciousness.
In fact, the present crisis arising from Russia’s security concerns due to NATO’s advancement up to its doorstep, a genuine concern Putin is using as a pretext for invasion, is in a way the making of Soviet Russia. NATO itself was a creation of the policies of USSR, whose collapse Putin has described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century.
Post World War-II, USSR consolidated its sphere of influence in East Europe and then looked to extend it beyond to countries like Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and even Greece. The USA responded by applying the famous Kennan Doctrine of Containment that advocated firm resistance to any additional expansion of Soviet communism, which had led to several major wars across the globe involving the USA in subsequent decades.
In 1948, when the Allied powers decided to introduce a single currency, the Deutsche Mark, for the entire West Germany uniting areas occupied by them, the Soviet occupation forces in East Germany began a blockade of all rail, road, and canal connectivity between sectors of Berlin under Allied control which were like islands within the Russian-occupied East Germany, denying access to food, electricity and fuel to 2.5 million residents. The move backfired and was defeated by a massive Anglo-American airlift. This first major crisis of the Cold War drove Western nations to forge the military alliance of NATO to combat the increasing Soviet threat.
Putin himself admitted the past mistakes of Soviet policy in Eastern Europe in an earlier essay: “The Russophobia that we see in Eastern Europe today is the fruit of those mistakes.” But in his actions, he has so far refused to take this important lesson from history. The separatist “republics” in Donbas themselves were created during the crisis precipitated by him following Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014.
In November 2013, as the Ukrainian Parliament was preparing to sign an “association agreement” with the European Union which would have taken the country closer to Europe, paving the way for a possible future entry into NATO like all former Warsaw Pact countries, at Putin’s bidding and with financial support, the then-president Viktor Yanukovych who came from Donbas, killed the deal. As street protests broke out, people were bludgeoned by his security forces in Kyiv’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, which the protesters occupied for months.
In February 2014, 130 people were killed in three days resulting in Mr Yanukovych fleeing the country to take exile in Russia, and separatist rebels supported by Putin proclaiming their “republics’ in Donbas. In the following election, a pro-West minister, Mr Poroshenko, became President in 2014. Immediately after, to assert his control, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. A worried Ukraine now became keen to join NATO for its own security and made this aspiration a part of its Constitution.
NATO has weathered many crises since its formation and was rendered almost irrelevant by Donald Trump when he threatened to pull the USA out of it. Though neither NATO nor the USA seem to have any appetite for fighting Russia to save Ukraine, the crisis has breathed new life into it. It may just end up becoming what Putin fears the most ~ a bigger, stronger and united NATO. Even countries which have always remained neutral, like Sweden and Finland, may no longer remain so.
A moratorium on NATO’s expansion was Putin’s condition for peace, and his actions may just undo this. NATO is certain to support any future Ukrainian resistance with money, arms and sanctuary, in case the war lingers, triggering many more crises with Russia. As the chasm between Russia and the West deepens, it is becoming clear that much more than a guarantee for NATO’s non-expansion, what Putin actually seeks is “nothing short of the complete dismantling of Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and a rollback of fundamental international agreements governing states’ rights to self-determination ~ an outcome the United States and its partners and allies will never accept”, as Alexander Vindman and Dominic Cruz Bustillos wrote in Foreign Affairs.
The war is already sending shock waves throughout a Covidbattered global economy, with soaring oil prices and the possibility of supply bottlenecks, financial turmoil, still higher inflation and lower growth. Putin couldn’t care less. Russia being an oil exporter, he is not affected by higher oil prices and hopes to offset the effect of stiffer Western sanctions by finding a new major buyer in China.
Of course, Russia would suffer from loss of trade with EU which buys 27 per cent of all Russian exports ~ double that of China ~ but in future, if Russia, if blocked out of the SWIFT banking transaction system or its tech firms, face Huawei-type restrictions, it would still be able to weather the storm by relying on its domestic System for Transfer of Financial Messages and the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System.
But Putin cannot be oblivious of the fact that increased dependence on China also increases the risk of being a junior partner in an unequal relationship in which China views Russia more as a source of cheap materials than as a trusted ally. But more importantly, any victory in Ukraine may inspire China to become more aggressive towards Taiwan, knowing the reluctance of western nations to risk the lives of their troops for defending what they so assiduously proclaim to be right of every nation for freedom and democracy.
More ominously, a decisive Russian victory may radiate instability and uncertainty in the entire Central and Eastern Europe, imperilling the security of all Europe. The sanctions too will not be without their costs to Europe. As the former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said, Europeans must brace for a “brave new world” in which they would be paying £2,000 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas ~ indeed, the spot prices exceeded this level in December 2021.
After the Soviet disintegration, for some time at least, Russia seemed to be settling into the global political order as “an honest partner complying with the established rules of the game”, as Andrei Kozyrev ~ Russia’s first post-Soviet foreign minister wrote in 1992, while warning that many Russians may still welcome politicians with a “vision of restoring Russia in its grandeur to the borders of the former USSR”. The prediction proved prophetic ~ an era of “muscular intervention” started with Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, followed by Crimean annexation in 2014.
With NATO expanding right up to Russia’s door and Ukraine irrevocably out of the Russian orbit, Putin has got an excuse to “react to the Western encirclement”. It is in line with Russia’s long history of outward expansionism in order to pre-empt any external attack. As Princeton Professor Stephen Kotkin wrote in 2016, “Smaller countries on Russia’s borders are viewed less as potential friends than as potential beachheads for enemies.”
Putin’s nostalgic dream of Making Russia Great Again has led to the most serious military conflagration in Europe since World War II. Ukraine may not be the last example of this Russian expansionism, if the USA and the West, shy of engaging their hard power, fail to stand up to him. The next targets of Putin’s irredentism could well be the former Soviet republics and now NATO members ~ Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
(The writer is a commentator, author and academic. Opinions expressed are personal)