War in Ukraine, or not War in Ukraine? That is the question…!

Happier times! All boys together in Geneva, June 2021. Image from Foreign Affairs.

“Social entropy is toxic. It is not recommended to work with it at home. It needs to be taken out somewhere far away; exported for dispersal to a foreign territory. For Russia constant expansion is not simply an idea, but a genuine existential reality of our historical existence.”

Vladislav Surkov, Former Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation.

As translated by Brian Whitmore on The Power Vertical Podcast; Putin’s War at home, January 28th 2022.

When Brian Whitmore, who knows infinitely more about Russia and Russian politics than most everyone bar a very select few, says something I try to take notice.

The above quote, which he translated directly from Russian media, is attributed to Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s ex-right hand men. Surkov, so says Brian, is known for telegraphing Putin’s intentions and policies, so when he (Surkov) writes that basically Russia needs to expand or die and that Russia needs to be an Empire, we should be taking that admission seriously.

Brian goes onto to say that there has been a decisive uptick in the Russian media at large about the potential for Russian expansionism and the possibility for a new Russian Imperial project to re-unite the three Slavic, ex-Soviet, nations of Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine, in what would amount to a New Soviet bloc; a sort of USSR MkII if you will.

Brian then joked that many people responded to this in the social discourse indignantly saying, ‘What about Kazakhstan?’ ‘Don’t forget about Kazakhstan!’

But all joking aside, is it likely, is it possible even that Russia will invade Ukraine and bring full-scale war back to the European continent for the first time since 1945?

Putin has long understood the threat that a prosperous, and an increasingly democratic neighbour or two could pose to his authoritarian style of leadership. This is one reason why he has been so keen to keep the lid on Ukraine’s democratic and Western-leaning aspirations; the risk that a democratic spark might ignite similar hopes in Russia has always been a risk that he has sought to mitigate ever since he came to power.

And now, as the West pushes the panic button in response to the continued Russian troop build up, the questions of analysts, diplomats and Presidents are left hanging, unanswered, rendered sterile by the veiled mystery that is an increasingly emboldened Vladimir Putin.

There is no doubt that much of Putin’s new confidence comes from the many set backs and inconsistencies that the West has endured these past years. Military debacles in Iraq and Libya for example. The failures of policy and strategy in Syria and Afghanistan. An inability to live up to much publicised redlines. And then came Trump’s erratic, chaotic and highly unpredictable presidency that included the breaking of treaties, the flagrant mistreatment of allies, the cosying up to illiberal and would-be dictators, Putin himself included. The eventual breakdown of democratic norms and the sowing of widespread divisiveness politically, socially and racially not only in the US, but in many democratic nations. All these things and more have weakened the West and been food and drink to Putin.

He has pushed and pushed again and found the West wanting, weak and divided, and he has taken advantage, big time! Assassinating and poisoning enemies on European soil, interfering in the democratic process and disrupting elections, launching cyber attacks against government agencies, private companies, electrical grids and banks, supported and aided other strongmen in Venezuela, Syria and Libya, has moved troops forcefully and illegally into the Crimea, the Donbas, and parts of Georgia and Moldova, or by induced invitation by way of supposed support in Belarus and now Kazakhstan.

But with all his posturing on Ukraine has Putin now overstepped the mark? Has he walked himself down a blind alley with nowhere left to go but into the Ukrainian badlands?

Redlines can bring their own kind of jeopardy, as Obama found out in Syria, and can work both for or against those being threatened. And Putin has continually warned that military action would be unavoidable if the West continues what he sees as an increasingly aggressive and provocative line.

And whilst Putin doesn’t have to worry about mid-terms of local bi-elections, he does have a certain image in Russia, cultivated over many years, and to back down — if it came to that — over Ukraine would not fit well with that image. So if the West doesn’t in the end cede to Putin’s unrealistic and bullying demands can Putin back down without losing face or has he tied himself into a potentially costly and unavoidable war that may break Russia?

U-kraine your neck that way, and I’ll go this way; let’s see what we can see…

So let’s address the elephant in the room first off! Is an invasion of Ukraine imminent?

I bow once again to from someone who is far better placed than me to answer that question; that of Carnegie Moscow Centre director, Dmitri Trenin, who says emphatically ‘no!’ An invasion in the next few weeks, possibly months even, is unlikely.

But for the longer term, Trenin says ‘he has questions’.

And to be honest, I must agree. Putin is not likely to invade with everything that is now stacked up against him. Not that any invasion wouldn’t succeed, because it might well, but because the costs right now have probably become prohibitive.

Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s inscrutable and highly intelligent Foreign Minister, looking suitably intense.

Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s dour faced Foreign Minister and, I would guess, not a man to say anything lightly, has repeatedly put his demands to the West and last week the West responded in the form of two letters, one from the U.S. and one from NATO, which answered security proposals put forward by Russia in December 2021. And many of these security ‘proposals’ — such as the removal of all NATO troops from Eastern Europe and solid assurances that both Ukraine and Georgia will not join NATO — are now common knowledge and are widely regarded in the West as outlandish, if not ridiculous, and just plain not feasible.

Lavrov also wrote to the Baltic nations of Sweden, Norway and Finland asking for written confirmation that they will not ‘strengthen their security at the expense of others;’ namely the Russian Federation. To be clear, Norway are already a member of NATO, whilst Finland and Sweden are not, but it seems that discussions may ongoing.

And the wording of that last sentence is what forms the foundation of Russia’s security concerns, and refers to a particular section of the 1999 Istanbul Agreement reached by the Organisation for the Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) where the ‘indivisibility’ of each participating nation (of which there are 57 spread across Europe, North America and Asia) is defined and states that ‘each participating state has an equal right to security’ and ‘they (the states) will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states.’

This section of the Istanbul Agreement, said Lavrov during an interview on Russian radio, is being ignored by the West in favour another, what he called ‘slogan’ from the document which states that each country should be ‘free to choose its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance.’

So, does Russia have a point?

Writing in Foreign Affairs this month Michael Kimmage writes ‘The alliance (NATO) is not the cause of regional instability, but as a non-neutral presence and an object of Russian enmity, it cannot be separated from this instability.’

He argues that NATO is now too big and bulky to be of practical use in the 21st Century and that, through its open door policy (to membership) has ‘extend(ed) deep into the cauldron of eastern European geopolitics,’ making it (now) ‘too large, too poorly defined, and too provocative for its own good.’

In fact as far back as 2008 then President, George Bush, was warned in the wake of a NATO announcement that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join the bloc, that such an expansion would provoke a preemptive response from Putin. Fiona Hill, national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at that time, says that warning went unheeded, and 4 months later Putin marched his troops into Georgia. But, she says, Ukraine got the message loud and clear, immediately pulling back from the brink.

She tells how she over heard Putin talking to Bush in 2008, perhaps presaging the writing of Surkov when he said, “George, you have to understand that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.”

Years later Henry Kissinger in 2014 too warned that the West was playing with fire by seeking to continually expand NATO’s borders. ‘The West must understand,’ he wrote, ‘that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.’

And whilst Ukraine held back from the West for some years, it once again unwittingly provoked Putin into action when it moved close to signing an association agreement with the EU later on in 2014, perhaps considering that a non-specific economic agreement might be ‘a safer route to the West’ and might not inflame Putin to action.

They were wrong! And within months the Crimean peninsula was annexed and the proxy war in the Donbas, in the South-East of Ukraine, was initiated with Russia’s explicit backing, and continues to this day.

What about the Ukrainians? Don’t they get a say?

In the 8 years of conflict that has followed those Russian incursions some 14,000 Ukrainians have lost their lives, with the subsequent displaced peoples (with possibly as many as 1m having fled the Donbas) being mostly accommodated by the rest of Ukrainian population.

There is no migrant crisis here!

And during the whole time, despite Russia’s best efforts to destabilise and break the rest of the Ukraine apart, it has remained steadfast and resolutely proud, something which one can only imagine (and hope) must be intensely frustrating for Putin, and gives a firm illustration of the fortitude and resilience of the Ukrainian people. This resilience perhaps personified in the giant form of Vitali Klitschko, one-time heavyweight World Champ and now the Mayor of Kiev who, when asked on Channel 4 news, what he would do if the Russians moved into Kiev said flatly, ‘I would fight!’

That alone must give Putin pause for thought!

Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, a one time TV comedian, shot to power in 2019 campaigning in large part on a promise to make peace with Russia, but things soured pretty quickly leaving Putin and Zelensky with more than one reason to distrust and dislike each other.

But it’s not only Zelensky that Putin has a problem with. His distrust of the West, and more specifically the U.S., goes back a long way; 30 years in fact to the break up of the USSR, and especially with regard to what Michael McFaul calls ‘the greatest sin of all,’ namely the break up of the Slavic peoples into different nations and then, what he (Putin) saw as the “systematic and consistent push (given to) Ukraine to curtail and limit economic cooperation with Russia.

McFaul stresses though that even if Putin managed to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO he wouldn’t be satisfied. Nothing less than the total and complete collapse of the Western liberal order will suffice.

Yet, for all this insight, for all this data on troop movements, for all the psychoanalysis of Putin and his intentions, no-one knows for sure what will happen. Until it actually happens.

McFaul again says the problem is that Putin is a man apart, not a man that fits easily into any box. He recalls just such an admission from the man himself when in 2011 and speaking to of all people, then V.P. Joe Biden, Putin said, “You look at us and you see our skin and then assume we think like you. But we don’t.”

And maybe that’s the point here. Putin remains ‘stuck in the USSR,’ his project an imperialist one while all pretence at Empire building in the West has been archived decades ago. And we in the West just don’t understand Putin’s needs for a revisionist agenda.

But Putin feels the loss of the USSR as an unjustifiable and unforgettable crime and, as man who knows his history and lives with own history every day, the desire to turn the clock back and seek retribution against those who he holds responsible for the destruction of the USSR, is an obsession.

And he is not alone.

As Surkov confirms (Power Vertical podcast — see above), ‘In the coming years Russia will receive its share of new lands. As was the case in the era of the Third Rome, or the Third International (see note below), Russia will expand, not because it is good, or not because it is bad, but because it is physics.’

So will Putin invade Ukraine?

Your guess is as good as mine, but perhaps for now it is a bluff, but in the longer term…let’s just say, I’m not a betting man!

In the final wash, perhaps those who know Putin best are the Ukrainians, and, for better or worse, the Ukrainians are getting on with life. After 8 years of war with Russia nothing Putin does is a surprise to them anymore. They even have time to make jokes about the ongoing war and Zelensky’s call for women to get prepared to be called up for military duty. Social media jokes ran amock with images of men lying in bed, thought balloons saying, ‘When will they get on with it and mobilise her?’

Note: The Third Rome is a doctrine that says that Russia, or more specifically Moscow, is the legitimate heir of Rome and the Byzantine Empire. The Third International, or The Communist International, was a 1919 agreement drawn up by Lenin that advocated for world communism with Russia as the pre-eminent state and leader.

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