WAR IN EUROPE
Explained – Putin’s gamble of keeping Ukraine on a knife-edge beneath his own Damocles sword of sanctions
Russia’s attacks on several Ukraine targets creates a new chapter in the tangled history of their Eastern European neighbour.
We first published this piece in Daily Maverick 168 on February 19. We republish an updated version now as Russia attacks various targets across Ukraine as an explainer to how we got to this point.
To review, in the aftermath of the collapse of the old Soviet Union and its political system, Ukraine declared its independence, just as 13 other constituent republics did, leaving only Russia as the remaining core of the earlier Soviet Union and inheritor of much — but not all — of the USSR’s military assets. For Russian president Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is something of an illegitimate state that instead should be following its destiny as part of greater Russia.
Historically, Ukraine was the origin point for Russia around a millennium ago, beginning with the Varangian (Viking) entrepôt fort on the site of what is now Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. For many Russians, the two nations largely have a common culture and close linguistic affiliations, have a shared history, and more. Indicative of Putin’s thinking has been his often-quoted view that the breakup of the Soviet Union (and most especially this split between Russia and Ukraine) was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.
In real-life examples of this intermingling, the great Russian novelist, Nikolai Gogol, was actually of Ukrainian ethnicity and one of his most famous works, Taras Bulba, had portrayed the sweeping saga of a Ukrainian Cossack tribe. And the late Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was of partially Ukrainian heritage.
Importantly, what is the current Ukrainian nation exists in a landscape that has few real natural borders. For centuries, the western part of the country was held by Poland-Lithuania, then Habsburg, Austria, and eventually by a reborn Poland. Only the post-World War 2 territorial settlements brought much of those territories into the Soviet Union. Much of Ukraine’s more easterly parts were once controlled by Tartar and Mongol khanates and then the Ottoman Empire, and only eventually came under Czarist Russian control at the end of the 18th century. From this history, the Ukrainian nation has come to include Ukrainian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and ethnic Russians, among others.
Prior to the break-up of the old Soviet Union, Ukraine had had a brief episode of independence in the aftermath of the collapse of Czarist Russia, and then a period of German rule during much of World War 2.
Ironically, at the founding of the UN, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin had insisted Ukraine was as independent as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were from Britain. As a result, the territory had attained an eerie, quasi-independent international status — at least at the UN — until declaring independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Coming out of all this history, however, Ukraine is now a sovereign nation, even if Russia’s leader cannot quite embrace that truth. And he has, throughout his time in office, repeatedly argued that Ukraine should again be joined with Russia for the rebirth of a great nation — politically, militarily, economically, and even spiritually.
Following the end of the Cold War, formerly Soviet-dominated Eastern European nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic eagerly lobbied to be allowed into Nato and the EU, along with the newly independent Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. For some Russian international relations strategists, this marked a new, subtle (or not so subtle) encirclement strategy. By contrast, Western policymakers and commentators saw this geopolitical moment as a near-inevitable expansion of the democratic family of nations to countries previously dominated by a failed economic and political model.
As Putin gained power and restored Russia’s military capacity and political stability, his international policies responded to that new European security architecture with little enthusiasm. This became increasingly pronounced after the Ukrainian people publicly rejected the corrupt leadership of Viktor Yanukovych that had maintained a fawning respect for Russia. Instead, they elected as president the more Ukrainian nationalist figure of Petro Poroshenko in 2014. Subsequently, in 2019, they selected Volodymyr Zelensky — a former television satirist who promised a more open political life and articulated the dream of becoming more closely linked to Western European values, economics and political circumstances.
During Poroshenko’s presidency, Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula with military action and a sham referendum. Historically, Crimea was territory “awarded” to the Ukrainian Republic in the Soviet Union in 1954 as a reward for the region’s suffering during World War 2. Crimea had for centuries largely been inhabited by Tartars, but they were deported en masse to Central Asia when their loyalty during the war was questioned, and the region’s population became largely ethnically Russian.
Poroshenko, and then Zelensky, have had to deal with an insurgency in the eastern part of the country by ethnic Russian separatists, supported and armed by Russia, in effect punishing a Ukrainian government trying to tilt towards the West. Neither the Crimean annexation nor the Donbas separatist movement have been recognised by any nation besides Russia. Nonetheless, these have laid the table for Ukraine’s current troubles.
The 17 February Washington Post World View newsletter explains Ukrainians have continued to cling to the hope they can make their reorientation westward a permanent geopolitical fact.
“In 2019, Ukraine even enshrined its will to join the West in its constitution. ‘Ukraine will join the EU, Ukraine will join Nato!’ declared a jubilant Andriy Parubiy, Ukraine’s speaker of the house, after the measure passed.
“Western powers — even if never in agreement, or fully committed, to letting Ukraine in — dangled the hope of access to those rarefied clubs for years. Now even the distant chance that existed before of Ukraine joining Nato or the EU is quickly evaporating.
“US and European leaders stopped short of giving Putin what he has publicly demanded — a firm promise that Ukraine will never join Nato. But they have acknowledged no immediate plans to let Ukraine in, largely citing lingering problems with corruption and a weak rule of law that haven’t helped its case to join the West’s premier clubs. Washington and major European powers have also said they will not send ground forces to defend Ukraine against the Russians — something they would have had to do if Ukraine was part of Nato. The EU, under the bloc’s rules of collective defence, would have also been bound to respond had Ukraine joined its 27-member union.
“Boxed into an impossible position with neither membership card, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week edged closer to acknowledging reality… On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Ukrainian leader was even weighing a possible referendum that could keep his country from joining Nato, acquiescing to a key Putin demand.
“… [Zelensky’s] ruminating underscored the frustration of a nation that has sought to escape the orbit of Russia and grasp for the kind of prosperity witnessed in former Eastern Bloc countries like Poland that joined both the EU and Nato. Membership in Nato and the EU are two different things; but they were fundamentally similar in purpose: To incorporate Ukraine into the West.”
Accordingly, a confrontation with no obvious denouement is now in place. The Russians have a large and menacing military virtually surrounding Ukraine. They appear to be fully prepared to move on command, even if, Russian sources have now declared a portion of those forces have returned to their bases after the end of joint military exercises with Belarus — even though this claim has not been verified by Western intelligence sources. In a possible foreshadowing of hybrid warfare, cyber attacks against Ukrainian institutions have also been taking place, although it is not clear if these were officially sanctioned by the Russian government.
Caught in these circumstances, the Ukrainian economy is taking heat as foreign investors shy away from future investment until the situation has been clarified. Should Ukraine face real military hostilities, its exports, including very large bulk grain shipments around the world, could be cut. Hostilities would also introduce major uncertainties into global forex markets and commodity prices. None of that is good news.
On the other hand, if Putin gained the reassurances he seems to want from the West and Nato, would this lead to a more general discussion of Europe’s security architecture?
From the Russian perspective, these seem to include a tacit understanding Ukraine will not be a candidate for Nato membership, that Western military forces would draw down from positions in Nato nations in the east, and that the current emplacement of anti-missile installations, ostensibly designed to guard against potential incoming Iranian missiles, would be relocated.
The Americans (and their Nato allies) appear to be in agreement that Russian military action against Ukraine would trigger the imposition of severe economic and financial sanctions, among other responses, although no Nato “boots on the ground” on Ukrainian battlefields.
Thus, as a face-saving effort, could formal negotiations for the totality of European security architecture for the 21st century encourage Russia to dial back on the possibility of actual hostilities?
Or, instead, despite the potential economic and other harms to Russia, could the current landscape actually encourage Putin in the belief that his cause is a just one, and, since he has the West and Ukraine on their back feet, it is time to settle things while the tanks are ready to create a new reality? DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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