The invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 is likely to turn into a milestone in the life of Europe for sure, but no less certainly so in the realm of the broader geo-political landscape of the 21st century. The experience of World War II had given shape to a kind of world-system where national developments that could have repercussions both within and outside the national borders were meant to be approached from an international framework, with the United Nations being its institutional shape. For almost half a century since then, the two superpowers, USA and USSR, dominated the global geopolitical landscape, and most major issues tended to be addressed with at least some involvement from them. The fall of the Soviet Union opened up briefly a period when the USA posed as the global sheriff, representing some kind of rough-and-ready justice in a manner that almost befits a Hollywood movie on the Wild West. However, ever since the Americans got stuck in the quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan, they had begun to show a propensity for pulling back from the world for a while. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be partly an outcome of that US determination to pull back from the world and curl up in a corner.
The Making of a Crisis
For sure, the crisis over Ukraine has been coming for some time. Its roots go back to the time of the collapse of the USSR in 1989-91, and the rise of Ukraine as an independent state. At that stage, Moscow lost its grip over not only the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, but also over some of those regions that were not overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Russians. Thus, the Baltic regions of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia broke away from Moscow in a tearing hurry, being of largely non-Russian (even non-Slavic) stock.
This was not strictly true of Ukraine. When the USSR disintegrated, it was initially through the decision of the three Slavic Orthodox Christian countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia — amicably settled between Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stansilav Shuskevich in 1991. Kravchuk, himself an old party apparatchik, did not drag Ukraine away from Russia, instead concentrating on running Ukraine as an independent country for the first time ever in its history – the same path was taken by his successor Leonid Kuchma. A section of the present Ukrainian population happens to be Russian, descending from those who had immigrated to the region in late 19th century to cultivate new lands, and helped turn Ukraine into the “bread basket” of the Russian empire. These people of Russian descent had no reason to not continue living in Ukraine when the USSR fell apart, because the Russian people are ethnically, linguistically and in religious terms very close to the people of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s entire economy was configured around the Russian one. Moscow took it for granted, as indeed it had reason to in the 1990s, that these states would remain firmly within its sphere of influence.
By the late 1990s, the European Union and the NATO began expanding eastward and opening the doors for countries that used to belong to the Warsaw Pact countries beginning with Poland (1999) inter alia, and then even those that used to belong to the former USSR (Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) — at that point Russia began to feel slightly alarmed at the rapid loss of her influence in what used to be her hinterland. She fumed and fretted, but was around that time too weak to stop it. As one country joined after another, Russian discomfort continued to grow, till Ukraine also began to show signs of leaning westward. In 2008, matters came to a pass when at the Bucharest summit USA agreed that Georgia and Ukraine should be considered for membership of NATO, which would have brought the alliance right along Russia’s border with Europe (since Poland was already a part of NATO). Russia went to war with Georgia (ostensibly over Abkhazia and South Ossetia) to prevent Georgia’s drift westward and remaining in occupation of the two separatist regions since then, presumably making it clear that this was a red line that NATO should not cross.
More than Georgia, Ukraine is an extremely resource-rich country, and many Ukrainians think their country would probably prosper even more if it entered into closer ties with EU. This prompted a section of the Ukrainian political establishment to try get closer with the EU, which was welcomed by the bloc. However, right through the Kravchuk and Kuchma periods, the close ties with Russia did not make Ukraine suffer in any way, and strong ties of network and inter-dependence were continued and new ones developed with an equally significant section of the Ukrainian establishment. The beneficiaries of these close ties with Russia became bitterly opposed with the leaning towards the West that began under Kuchma’s successor Viktor Yuschenko. By the time Yuschenko came to power (2004), the votaries of closer ties with the West succeeded negotiating for closer ties with the West, and Yuschenko pushed for entry not only into the EU but also NATO, particularly after concerns over Russia’ s war with Georgia. This prompted a reaction from the pro-Russia lobby, who brought Viktor Yanukovich to power when Yuschenko’s term in office came to an end. True to his supporters’ desire, Yanukovich tried to block Ukraine’s closer relations with Europe, which led to a popular revolution (with considerable American support) that toppled Yanukovich and brought to power the pro-West Petro Poroschenko.
Poroschenko’s election split Ukrainian society wide open, with those determined to stay aligned to Russia taking up arms, instigated and supported by Russia. This was because by then Moscow was determined to hold on to the Crimean peninsula, a naval station that Russia cannot afford to be denied access to, because it allows her access to the Mediterranean Sea. Russian occupation of Crimea further encouraged the creation of the two insurgent regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as virtually autonomous regions within Ukraine under the Minsk Agreement, which was effectively a stand-still agreement. In the years that followed, both sides wilfully violated the Minsk Agreement – Ukraine repeatedly tried to recover the whole of the disputed Eastern Donbas region, and Russia persisted in its support of the ethnic Russian enclaves. It was with Russia’s recognition of these two insurgent republics as independent states, that this present round of conflict has begun.
The Broader Geo-strategic Landscape and the American Angle
Strategically, Russia finds Ukraine’s drift towards the NATO unacceptable because it brings NATO within striking distance of Russia’s presence on the Black Sea (and through it to the Mediterranean) – something (known as “warm water policy”) that the Russian state has been trying to safeguard from the days of Tsarist rule in the 19th century. There is little doubt that if Ukraine (which Moscow sees as its own hinterland) had not been seeking closer alignment with the West, both economically and strategically, and the West had not reciprocated these gestures, Donetsk and Luhansk would not been considered important enough by way of a casus belli.
By contrast, Russia’s disposition makes it sensible for any Ukrainian politician to seek NATO cover of collective security—which it does not have at present, and makes the situation a catch-22. Ukraine desires the security cover that only USA can provide against Russia through NATO, but any attempt by Kyiv to join NATO would cause war with Russia, as it did in 2014 and then again 2022.
America is of course relieved that Ukraine is not a part of NATO, so Washington does not have the responsibility of springing to its defence – which America would not want to do just at this moment. Right from the onset of this round of the conflict, Washington DC was unusually clear and forthright in emphasising on one point – regardless of what happens, there would be no direct or indirect military intervention by the USA. Such clear and categorical foreswearing of options are rare to the point of being inexistent. The Americans maintain that they are determined to prevent the conflict from escalating beyond Ukraine into a regional war, especially because Russia is a nuclear power – hence their foreswearing of the option of intervention. Indeed, the USA has put in place a very harsh sanctions regime against Russia, doubled up by the diplomatic support extended by the other NATO allies, virtually freezing a third of Russia’s total gold and forex assets, and denying Russia access to many important instruments of the world economic order (such as the SWIFT mode of bank transfer, use of credit card portals like VISA and Mastercard), and America has even introduced a ban on the import of Russian oil and gas that would be fully operational before the end of the year. However, Russia has been spared so far the kind of sanctions regime that Iran had been slammed with, that would have invited sanctions on whoever brought oil and gas from Russia – which may have brought Russian economy close to collapse. American strategists have advised against such a crippling regime, lest – once again – an exasperated Russia decided to broaden the conflict beyond Ukraine.
American policy of limiting the scope of the conflict is quite intelligible to everyone, (but for Ukraine), because a conflict with Russia always risks going nuclear. However, for Ukraine’s East European neighbours, the very prospect of Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine (even if it turns out to be brief) is disconcerting because of their own experiences in the not-very-distant past, and that was the whole reason why they joined NATO. If Ukraine is denied the advantage of collective security by NATO simply because of the technicality that the process of Kyiv’s induction was not completed, suspicion is certain to mount if NATO can be counted to provide the promised security in the occasion of an actual Russian invasion, which would have the same prospect of a nuclear war in the event of ‘escalation’. This is partly the reason why Ukraine’s neighbours such as Poland and Hungary, as well as those powers who are situated quite close to the Russian frontier (such as Finland, Sweden, the Baltic states) are quite restless, keen to help and support Ukraine in any way possible – including Warsaw’s willingness to even provide Ukraine with military aircraft to deny Russia domination of the sky. Washington DC, of course, immediately discouraged Warsaw from sending the aircraft, lest that allowed Russia to “broaden the scope of the conflict.”
It is a moot point whether Russia would actually want to broaden the scope of the conflict at all, given the manner in which the vulnerabilities of Moscow’s military strength have been exposed by the course of the conflict. What is of much greater consequence is what is one to make of the American position. Of course, one can take American position at face value, that Washington DC is playing it safe simply because the adversary is Russia. But if there is any point on which the Administrations of Obama, Trump and Bush have been consistent, it has been in their eagerness in exiting old conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) and not entering into new ones (Libya, Syria and now Ukraine). It can even be argued that while Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 was a knee-jerk reaction to American instigation behind the toppling of Yanukovich, the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 had far less instigation (NATO reconfirmation of Bucharest summit decision to let Ukraine join NATO). It is not far-fetched to speculate that America’s increasing determination to withdraw from its past active role in the global arena has actually emboldened Putin to reach out for Ukraine at this time, secure in the knowledge that the country does not constitute any core interest of the US yet – hence, ‘if it were done, then it were well, it were done quickly.’ A feeling that the precipitate and the unfortunate manner of American pull-out from Afghanistan did nothing to discourage.
Russia may well have over-estimated her own military capabilities in invading Ukraine, under-estimated the resolve of both Ukrainians and the Europeans in not letting her get away with it easily, or even the resolve of the Americans to try every measure short of war in making Moscow regret her misadventure. But if Moscow has got only one thing right in deliberating about the invasion of Ukraine, it is that America is determined to not be dragged into the conflict. Washington DC’s responses since then have given many others to draw the same conclusion. Whether this is an accurate reading of American policy or not, is not significant. What is significant is that the suspicion has begun to dawn that American determination to reduce her footfall world-wide no longer allows anyone to take her security cover for granted. There is a good possibility that the Ukraine invasion constitutes the dawn of a new era of uncertainty in the arena of global politics.