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A world of trouble

Iranian nukes, rattling Russian sabres on Ukrainian border and the ‘forever war’ — over to you, President Biden

US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andrew Harnik / POOL) | Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ALEXEI DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL)

The Ukrainian-Russian standoff continues to be troublesome, especially with the injection of thousands of Russian troops for exercises right at the border. Meanwhile, Americans find other diplomatic issues occupy their attention. This is good business for diplomats looking for work to do.

There is a familiar joke from Eastern Europe where a reporter asks an old man where he’s from and the elderly bearded fellow replies: “As a very young man I lived in Austro-Hungary, then I lived in Czechoslovakia, for a while in the German lands, then the Soviet Union, and now I’m living in Ukraine.” “Wow,” responds the young reporter. “You’ve really moved around.” “No, not at all” replies the old man. “I’ve never moved from this village, this very house behind me. The armies came and went, the borders changed, it was magic.”

And so it had been for the entire 20th century in that part of the world. Before that, of course, that very same village might have been Polish, or part of the Lithuanian Commonwealth, the khanate of the Golden Horde and, possibly, way, way back, a settlement in Kievan Rus’ as well.  

A scholar like Anne Applebaum beautifully describes this world in her book, Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe. These lands run in a wide swathe from Lithuania by an arm of the Baltic Sea in the north, all the way to the Carpathian Mountains, and then southwards to the city of Odessa and the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. It is a broad expanse of territory with no obvious frontiers until the final stretches of the Danube River. 

Consequently, the many wars and subsequent settlements have shifted boundaries this way and that and sometimes moved whole populations. There have been vast movements of peoples such as the expulsions of Germans to the West after World War 2, the forced removal of the Crimean Tatars to central Asia to allay Stalin’s fears they might become a pro-German force during the fighting there. Of course, a major share of Holocaust victims came from these places.

This region’s lands have been fought over or subject to invasion as far back as the Varangians (Vikings). In the past 100-plus years, massed battles involving millions took place in those same lands between Soviet and German soldiers during both world wars.

In the immediate post-World War 2 settlement, the Ukrainian republic, a province of the old Soviet Union, actually gained a seat in the UN General Assembly along with Belorussia. But when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the aftermath of the coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Ukraine also opted for real independence, with its national capital in Kyiv (Kiev), an expression of a real sense of unique national identity, separate despite centuries of subordination to the larger Russian universe.

One historic irony, of course, was that the earliest origins of the Russian state were in what is now Ukraine. A potential later flashpoint parked for a future reckoning was that the Crimean peninsula was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 from the Russian republic as a kind of “reward” for Ukraine’s suffering and service during World War 2.  

But, as the Soviet Union broke up, it took the successor states of Russia and Ukraine years to sort out the disposition of the old Black Sea Fleet — and where and how it would be based. Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula, had been the traditional base for the fleet, but at Ukraine’s independence, the port was now part of the new Ukrainian nation. 

Meanwhile, in the years of the old Soviet Union and well before tsarist Russia, ethnic Russian populations had spread well into Ukraine. As the latter became independent, like the other new states, significant ethnic Russian populations were left parked inside the new state, largely in the eastern industrial and coal-mining areas and around Odessa. That would clearly be a source of potential trouble on the national integration front and would, in time, become fertile ground for Russian mischief-making, revanchist thinking, agitation and military action. 

The de facto Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 took place through the pretext of protecting Russians via a faux plebiscite under the eyes of Russian military uniforms. This was paralleled by support for an ethnic Russian rebellion in the Donbas region, right along with Russian military backing — but this time without the soldiers wearing their Russian army insignia.

Ukrainian armed forces were less than an entirely effective match for that rebel force, especially with the stiffening from Russian regulars. At about the same time, Ukraine was overturning a longtime ruler who had been particularly sympathetic to the former fatherland, replacing him with a democratically elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, whose orientation faced West instead.

The Putin regime seemed unwilling to find a way out of the growing confrontation, save on its own terms. Its forcefulness was abetted by the obsequiousness of the previous American president towards Putin — and Russian foreign policy generally. After much pressure from within the Trump administration by defence policy specialists and diplomats both, the president finally released shipments of military hardware that helped stiffen the ability of the new, democratically elected Ukrainian president to hold the line in the Donbas, although not reverse its opponents’ gains. 

Circumstances seemed to have settled into a kind of an unresolved, but largely non-active stalemate for years, but in the past several weeks Russia has been carrying out a major military build-up both in Crimea and on the eastern Ukrainian/Russian border. Russia has claimed that this deployment of — reportedly — up to 50,000 military personnel is simply part of planned military exercises. This is in addition to some stepped-up Russian naval activity in the Black Sea (presumably in response to some planned Nato naval actions in the same waters). 

Less starry-eyed observers, right about now, may be seeing this as the military equivalent of some serious muscle flexing to make the point that the actual national border and Russian support for those rebellious folks in eastern Ukraine are still unresolved issues, even as the ultimate status of Crimea most definitely is not something that is up for discussion.

By midweek, senior Americans were holding consultations with the Nato secretary-general about future steps, and one could easily see the screws tightening on the international crisis scale. Also along the way, President Joe Biden had, reversing the decision of his predecessor, indicated that the proposed downsizing of American military personnel stationed in Germany would not now be taking place. Moreover, there have been announcements from other Nato members that new, small contingents of troops and equipment will be positioned on the territory of some of Nato’s easternmost members. 

The sanctions will be among what President Biden’s aides say are ‘seen and unseen’ steps in response to the hacking, known as SolarWinds; to the CIA’s assessment that Russia offered to pay bounties to militants in Afghanistan to kill American troops; and to Russia’s yearslong effort to interfere in United States elections, according to American officials and others who have been briefed on the actions.

Taken together, these signs and portents could easily make a historian or military strategist review the vast literature that traced the run-up to World War 1. Back then, the two opposing alliance networks in Europe began positioning themselves for hostilities after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the heir to the Habsburg throne) in Sarajevo in June 1914 by Gavrilo Princip. (Princip was a young Bosnian Serb eager for Bosnia to be liberated from Austro-Hungary and merged with Serbia, and he had hoped that death would contribute to that outcome in the general confusion.)

In the current circumstances, it might not be too much of a stretch to see this “pre-planned” Russian military exercise as a test for Biden and the Nato alliance, and the willingness (or the lack of it) by the Ukrainians to address this challenge and stand resolute concerning the chance of further Russian pressures on them. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is strongly hinting that a much deeper round of sanctions than any previously is about to be directed at Russia as a result of its continued cyberhacking and mischief-making during the US election — as well as a not-so-veiled remonstration about meddling or worse with Ukraine.

As The New York Times reported: “The Biden administration is set to announce on Thursday a string of long-awaited measures against Russia, including far-reaching financial sanctions, for the hacking of government and private networks and a range of other activities, according to people who have been briefed on the moves.

“The sanctions will be among what President Biden’s aides say are ‘seen and unseen’ steps in response to the hacking, known as SolarWinds; to the CIA’s assessment that Russia offered to pay bounties to militants in Afghanistan to kill American troops; and to Russia’s yearslong effort to interfere in United States elections, according to American officials and others who have been briefed on the actions.

“The moves will include the expulsion of a limited number of diplomats, much like the Obama administration did in response to the Russian efforts to influence the election five years ago. But it is unclear whether this set of actions will prove sufficient to deter Russia from further hacking, influence operations or efforts to threaten European countries. 

“The sanctions are meant to cut deeper than previous efforts to punish Russia for interfering in elections, targeting the country’s sovereign debt, according to people briefed on the matter. Administration officials were determined to draft a response that would impose real costs on Moscow, as many previous rounds of sanctions have been shrugged off.”

By midweek, though, things just possibly seemed to be evolving in other ways simultaneously. Biden had spoken to Russian leader Vladimir Putin by phone to propose a face-to-face summit with his Russian counterpart, rather than just more public exchanges of annoyance and the usual huffing and puffing. While neither the specifics of the agenda nor its venue has been announced yet, it takes no particular genius to imagine that the circumstances around the Ukrainian-Russian disagreements will be at or near the top of the agenda.

Of course, right behind this set of challenges to the new Biden administration, there are those ongoing discussions in Vienna with the remaining members of the six-party agreement on Iranian nuclear developments, including the US and Iran at a careful distance from one another. These negotiations may even have been helped (or harmed) by the recent attack on the power plant of Iran’s Natanz uranium centrifuge facility (presumably by Israel) that took place as Iran had announced it would be upping its processing of more highly concentrated fissile uranium. That attack may help impel some Iranian flexibility — or stiffen its responses.

There are now also continuing efforts by China to demonstrate its own resolve over the status of Taiwan by sending growing numbers of air patrols into the Taiwanese air traffic control zone over the Strait of Taiwan. The consequent US rejoinder that Taiwan’s security and the American connection are governed by US law — the Taiwan Relations Act — seems to have put the US somewhat more firmly in the position of offering direct responses to China over Taiwan’s territorial security. That would fit with American efforts to build up the concept and the reality of the Quad — the partnership between the US, India, Australia and Japan in a balancing effort to Chinese assertiveness.

Meanwhile, there has also been Biden’s announcement that America’s participation in its “forever war” in Afghanistan will come to a close, 20 years after it began on 11 September 2021. The number of US military there is a tiny fraction of what it was years earlier, and it is a good bet the US will continue to supply the Afghan government with military materiel, but now without boots on the ground.

This is a gamble on whether the Taliban and the Afghan government can find enough common cause to bring about some kind of non-military settlement there, now without an overwhelming US presence. This will be quite a gamble. DM

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