Russia has attacked Ukraine on a broad front with overwhelming military power, and this without being directly provoked. It is a war of aggression to gain territory and political advantages and hence is a clear violation of the UN Charter. This is the first major war between sovereign states within Europe since NATO’s equally illegal war against Serbia in 1999. Russia, and indeed, Putin, carry a heavy responsibility. But the West also is to blame for this war.
With this military intervention, Putin has abandoned all hopes of reaching an agreement with the West on recognizing Russia’s security interests. Thus, Putin’s attack is not so much directed against Ukraine, as against the West and in particular the US; Ukraine serves ‘only’ as the battleground in a conflict among great powers over influence and power. What at first might have looked like a Russian suicide mission seems to be more well thought out than most commentators would have us believe. With this illegal military operation, Putin could bring about a new European security architecture that is not in the interest of the West and certainly not in the interest of Europe.
What if Putin wins his gamble
Press reports that Ukrainian President Zelensky has made the offer that his country will not join NATO seem tempting, but is not very realistic. He does not have the power to make such an offer, nor to guarantee its implementation. It would violate a recently added article of the Ukrainian Constitution and thus meet with vehement opposition in large parts of the country, especially among the powerful nationalist militias in West Ukraine. Also, such an agreement would hardly make sense without the signatures of the US and NATO, and they are unlikely.
It is much more likely that Putin plans to seize the large areas of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River, that is, areas that were incorporated into the newly formed Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic under Lenin in 1922 and were traditionally not part of Ukraine. His goal could be to form a new larger Russian Federation with Belarus, the conquered territories of eastern and southern Ukraine and Transnistria. Since these are territories with a majority Russian-speaking population, he might hope to meet little resistance there.
A military conquest of the whole of Ukraine is rather unlikely. Especially in the western parts of the country, the Russian army would have to reckon with considerable resistance. And while Putin might see Kiev as a price of great symbolic value, any attempt to conquer Kiev would cost a lot of blood and military resources. For historical reasons alone, the majority population of this modern city with its three million inhabitants would strongly oppose permanent rule by Moscow.
Should Putin succeed with such plans – and that is not at all certain – it would amount to a partition of Ukraine. Russia’s borders would move further west again.
This would create a new security architecture based on a new division of Europe. A new ice age between the West and Russia would emerge, that could last for many years. Russia would be cut off from the rest of Europe, something most Russians, seeing themselves as European, will not like. For the European Union, such a development would be a disaster. Not only would the EU’s economy itself be hit hard by renewed and tougher sanctions against Russia, but it could also be cut off from gas and raw material supplies from Russia and Central Asia, as well as from the land bridge to the lucrative markets in Asia. Europe would once again have to reorient itself solely towards the West – although the economic engine that also drives Europe’s economy is not so much the USA anymore, but increasingly China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and countries in Southeast Asia.
And what if he fails?
If Putin’s plan does not work, the dangers for Europe could be even greater. Ukraine could descend into years of war with Russia and an armed conflict between pro-Western and pro-Russian militias. Since all sides will have access to the most modern weapons systems, this conflict could completely destroy Ukraine. After all, Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe, and war and chaos there would inevitably spread to the rest of Europe.
In the event of a drawn-out war that can no longer be won, increased resistance could also form within Russia. But the West should not hope that Putin’s departure would lead to a friendlier Russian policy towards the West. The alternatives to Putin would more likely look like the Stalinist Communist Party or the right-wing nationalist Liberal Party. Even a Navalny, who is highly praised in the West as an opposition figure, has his roots in this radical right-wing nationalist scene. Russia has the second largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world and, despite all the antipathy the West may feel, Putin remains the best grantee for stability in Russia, a vast and difficult to govern country. It should be in the West’s own security interests to avoid a breakdown of state order in Russia and risk a declining nuclear superpower falling into chaos.
With this war, Putin has taken an enormous gamble. This can only be explained by the fact that not only Putin, but also a large part of the Russian population, feels deeply hurt by the West. For decades now, the West has simply ignored Russia’s security interests, moved its military to Russia’s borders, confronted it with sanctions and threats and treated it with an appalling arrogance and an attitude of superiority.
The deeper root of the conflict between Russia and the West lies probably in the fact that Russia turned out as the big loser at the end of the Cold War – and not Germany that had been responsible for WWII aggressions and genocides that killed about 27 million Soviet civilians and soldiers, most of whom were Russians. Suddenly, Russia found itself having been pushed back to borders that were once imposed on them at Brest-Litovsk at the end of WWI by what was in effect German and Austrian militaristic juntas. At the Versailles peace negotiations, the Brest-Litovsk agreement was described by Western allies as a predatory peace and declared it null and void. Today, the same Western states insist that the Brest-Litovsk borders are immovable.
The West has also to blame itself for this war
Of course, the Eastern European states that emerged from the breakdown of the Soviet Union have their full right to exist and a right to territorial security. But the West could have done better to show some empathy for the dramatic situation Russia found itself in at that time. Instead, the West took advantage of Russia’s weaknesses and internal turmoil in the 1990’s and pursued the threatening military approach of NATO expansion. The West would have done better by not excluding Russia, but embracing it by developing a new inclusive European security structure. For Russia, today’s map of planned NATO expansion looks very similar to the maps of the German army advances in WWI and WWII. Should we be surprised about Russia’s increasingly aggressive reactions?
Putin had made several attempts at proposing a common European security system and finding an accommodation with the West over its security concerns. Why has the West always ignored them? As recently as 22nd June 2021, Putin made proposals to this effect in the German weekly Die Zeit. In response, these were summarily dismissed by a German commentator as ‘poison’. During the build-up of Russian forces repeated opportunities existed for the West to reach out to Russia and find some compromise solution. Why have there never been any serious efforts made?
Had the West taken Russia’s security interests a little more seriously, mutually agreed solutions might not have been so difficult to find. Russia’s demands to respect its security and not to be faced with NATO missiles that could strike Moscow in five minutes is completely understandable; the USA, in particular, should be able to understand Russia’s concerns from its own experience. This has not happened, and by now, the conflict has gotten completely out of hand. It will be difficult to put back the bad genies all sides are guilty of having called. As a result, the West will find itself in a worse and more dangerous situation. Even if we decry Putin as a war criminal and impose sanctions, the West could end up as the loser. The European Union in particular has failed catastrophically here. Apart from slogans, it has done nothing to prevent such a war. The EU only came alive when it was about one of its preferred policies in its tool kit: sanctions. This will cost us Europeans dearly.
Perhaps it is time to stop our lamenting and war cries and think a little more calmly about how this situation could be turned around for the better. In doing so, we could draw on Henry Kissinger’s advice on how to resolve the Ukraine conflict, which he outlined in the Washington Post back in 2014. He can hardly be accused of having fallen for Russian propaganda; he is simply wiser in suggesting what would be in the West’s best interest. It would have saved Ukraine the ordeal it is now going through, kept Ukraine united and preserved peace in Europe.