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The Four Horsemen ride again: Putin’s attack on Ukraine could inspire China and Iran

The Four Horsemen ride again: Putin’s attack on Ukraine could inspire China and Iran
A group of people from separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine crosses the border into Russia at the checkpoint in Avilo-Uspenka on 24 February 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a military operation in Ukraine. (Photo: Olga Maltseva / AFP)

The Russian military machine is now advancing into Ukraine. It will unleash an enormous ripple of effects, many of them unpredictable, but all of them very unpleasant.

The mythical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are the biblical embodiment of the horrors of conquest, war, famine and death.Whether one is a believer or not, soon it will not matter very much. At the very least, the Ukrainians are about to discover a very real version of this ancient image. The repercussions will inevitably spread far and deep, even if the fighting does not. 

As of Wednesday morning, the Russian military is now moving south from Belarus over good roads towards the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, only about 100km distant. Meanwhile, missile strikes or bombs have reportedly struck military targets in several Ukrainian cities. There are also credible reports of Russian troops landing at the Ukrainian ports of Odessa and Mariupol, as well as Russian troop movements from Crimea into southern Ukraine – presumably to provide a secure land bridge from Russia to Crimea, land seized by Russia eight years ago. 

Not surprisingly, there are now long queues of vehicles filled with frightened people hurriedly fleeing Kyiv to the presumed greater safety of the far-western reaches of the country or onward to neighbouring nations. There are no reports – at least not yet – of major military responses by Ukrainian forces against these incoming Russian convoys.

All of this came about after Russian troops had, a few days earlier, moved into the so-called independent republics in Luhansk and Donetsk proclaimed by ethnic Russian insurgents. These republics have not been acknowledged or recognised by any nation besides Russia, of course. With these new military movements under way by the massive forces Russia had previously stationed in a near-circlement around Ukraine during the past several weeks, the crisis has become a fully military one, rather than the earlier war of words and diplomatic feints and meetings that had been ongoing.

Photo Essay: Attack on Ukraine

At least at this point, it is impossible to determine the ultimate endgame envisioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Is it a complete conquest of Ukraine; is it the creation of a supine, servile regime in Kyiv living on a very short leash; or is it an effectively partitioned Ukraine with more chunks hived off from it, as with Crimea and the two eastern so-called independent mini-states? Statements from the Russian government after the military movements had begun argued the goal was not to occupy Ukraine in full; but the Russian military manoeuvres that are now ongoing would seem to belie such reassurances. 

The fact is that any final resolution will come from Putin on his own, as he communes with his inner demons stewing about the humiliations of Russia at the end of the Cold War. (Earlier in the week, a broadcast meeting of Putin with his collected national security advisers made it clear there is only one place where decisions are made. Even the most modest of demurrals was crushed in a public humiliation of his intelligence chief.) Nevertheless, given the insights that can be gleaned from Putin’s speech on Monday evening, his decisions are nurtured by some serious, dangerous mischief- and myth-making of his own creation.

That public unravelling by Putin of his grievances that took place live on international television had ostensibly been meant to justify everything that would follow – and that is now taking place, live on global video screens. In brief, Putin’s argument was that Ukraine was an artificial nation (and was actually an integral part of the Russian world) that had been foisted upon the world by a mistake of the old Soviet Union’s government that came about when that regime disintegrated. Moreover, he continued, Ukraine was merely a stalking horse for Nato’s further expansion, designed as an existential threat to the safety and security of Russia. Further, American anti-missile defence systems now in position in Poland and Romania could easily be reconfigured to become nuclear missiles that would represent deep threats to Russian security. In addition, Ukraine was itself poised to develop its own nuclear weapons that would further threaten the heart of Russia, and Ukraine was carrying out a genocide against ethnic Russians living in the eastern part of Ukraine. 

A woman prays on Independence Square in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where air raid sirens rang out as cities across the country were hit with what Ukrainian officials said were Russian missiles and artillery on 24 February 2022. (Photo: Daniel LEAL / AFP)

Taken together, per Vladimir Putin’s argument, these charges served to fully justify the harsh measures that could be taken to protect the Russian nation. Moreover, any Western responses to such efforts – whether via economic and financial sanctions or from the provision of more defence materiel support to those neo-Nazis who control Ukraine – would inevitably result in major damage to Western economies. The West must beware of what it unleashes.

Up until Wednesday morning, Western responses had been the imposition of limited financial and economic sanctions on individuals and organisations in the two so-called independent mini-states. But preparations for a much wider, harsher, deeper run of sanctions to be imposed if needed are well advanced. They undoubtedly will begin to come in force after American President Joe Biden and his senior officials meet other Nato counterparts today (presumably via virtual meetings) to ensure a unified response – and a timetable for that response. It is important to remember that a key goal for years for Putin has been to weaken (or even dissolve) Nato. Ironically, the lead-up to the attack on Ukraine, and now its reality, is at least initially having the opposite effect. Nato has not been this united in its public posture since during the worst periods of the Cold War. 

Central European countries condemn Russian attack on Ukraine, prepare for refugees

A further bitter irony for Putin is that before this campaign began, it was at least possible to see Russia having in Ukraine a state in which many residents continued to hold divided loyalties and who could be influenced by the blandishments of an appeal to the common cultural and historical roots of the two states that do exist. That possibility, however, has now largely evaporated as Ukrainians face the reality of missiles exploding and Russian tank columns headed towards their capital and other major cities.  

Still, it is not yet possible to see clearly what the outcome of this military adventure will be. Will the Russian military actually be able to impose its control over Ukraine after the initial attacks, or will Ukrainian forces demonstrate a real will to fight back and will fighting by the military and irregulars harass Russian forces without let-up. Further, will Russian troops eventually come to feel the disillusionment of a betrayal by their leaders that had so deeply affected the Soviet military’s rank and file during its decade of intervention in Afghanistan – a defeat that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union itself? 

In the more immediate future, will some form of accidental military encounter between military aircraft provoke actual hostilities between the Russian military and Nato forces operating near Ukraine’s borders with Nato members, or between competing naval forces in the Black Sea? Such encounters have happened in the past, but if such an event were to happen in these current circumstances, would there still be sufficient diplomatic wiggle room and time to forestall a wider and more devastating conflict? 

Moreover, will this moment in world politics also give China the sense that it is now the best time for some real action towards Taiwan, an island the Chinese consistently claim to be an integral part of China, but one that is just temporarily governed by a kind of rebel regime. Similarly, would Iran see this moment as the time to deal decisively with its enemies on the Arabian Peninsula and Israel – or vice versa? 

These possibilities are all terrifying to contemplate, but they have moved much closer to reality than they were just a few months ago, what with the US and Nato partners now deeply engaged in the European crisis that comprises Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More difficult, still, will be how Europe and America deal with a Russia-dominated Ukraine, should that come to pass, and the new political and potentially military pressures that could be inflicted on other smaller nations like the Baltic republics with their own sizeable, ethnically Russian minorities. Inevitably, there will be those tragic columns of refugees fleeing the fighting and the other humanitarian crises of those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that will come to be. 

Explained – Putin’s gamble of keeping Ukraine on a knife-edge beneath his own Damocles sword of sanctions

For certain, this advance into Ukraine will be an integral part of hybrid warfare. We will certainly see cyber attacks on internet networks in Ukraine and into the West as well as in Russia – including those potentially vulnerable networks that manage all types of infrastructure in most nations. 

There will be massive amounts of disinformation unleashed, and influential individuals in the West will be found defending Russian policies and military efforts. Within the Republican Party and its electronic herd in America there are already prominent figures such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News and ex-president Donald Trump whose public comments have come very close to an endorsement of Russian efforts. This is taking place even as some Republican senators have also been attacking Biden for not acting swiftly or harshly enough towards Russia. Expect much more of that kind of muddle on the part of influentials throughout various Nato nations. 

Not surprisingly, this outbreak of hostilities has already had a major impact on the prices of commodities, shares and forex rates. Such volatility will continue, threatening the still-fragile recovery from the worst of the Covid-19 period over the past two years. A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks described the era we were about to enter as “The Dark Times”. He appears to have been right. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Phil Evans says:

    Putin has not taken into account the depth of Russo-Ukrainian solidarity and the extent of powerful anti-invasion sentiments within Russia.
    Wait until the body bags start arriving in Russia; there will be many, as the Ukrainian military are no pushover and thanks to Western/US military equipment as well-equipped as they are trained.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Has South Africa condemned Purim’s move?

    Not that anybody else cares, but it would be interesting for South Africans…

  • Jairo Arrow says:

    Indeed, these are “Dark Times” for the world. We already have a madman in Russia seeking his equivalent in NATO to play Russian roulette.

  • Edwin Blake says:

    Thank you for pointing out the dangerous precedent it creates with China. I’ve been wondering why no one seems to mention this terrifying possibility! The Chinese attitude to Taiwan and the threats of war there makes this a very frightening prelude to a worldwide conflict. One wonders if there were secret agreements concluded between Putin and Xi Jinping recently?

    • Johann Olivier says:

      Everyone is mentioning this…& well aware. Especially the Americans. Of course, Taiwan is a different kettle of fish. More akin to Israel. It has the very best weapons on earth & would be a terrible foe. And…a great question about the Xi-Putin cozy up at the Olympics.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Ukraine ‘s only chance is to wage unconventional warfare against the Russian Bear. And I’m positive that will happen.

  • Ian McGill says:

    Ukrainian nationalism goes back many years ,eg. during the Russian civil war in the early 20’s and before. During WW2 the Ukraine was home to many partisans , deja vue here we come.

  • Nos Feratu says:

    As I seem to remember the four horsemen were War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. This could indeed be the beginning of the “Dark Times”.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    ‘The West must beware of what it unleashes’. Really? I thought it was Putin who has invaded a sovereign country. It is no less than a war crime, and should be pursued as such. Putin is the classical school playground bully who too young to pronk around during Soviet days in the KGB, and he is now trying to relive what he sees as a ‘glorious era’ for Russia, and to re-establish the USSR. His problem is going to be his own young people and the people of Ukraine-they have tasted freedom, and they like it. While we seen the tip of the iceberg of Russian and Ukrainian youth-the privileged traveling in the west, there are millions more who have been knowledge sinks about the west. They are not going to hunker down to the old repression years.

    • Craig King says:

      His idol is Peter The Great not the USSR. His nature is that of Ivan The Terrible as the Ukrainian partisans will discover. He has succeeded in causing deep divisions in NATO already, vis the row over SWIFT , and at 69 he has sufficient years left in him to go after the Baltic states.

      Putin is a ruthless criminal but he isn’t stupid and he will take full advantage of Western social incoherence to advance his ambitions. Xi will follow suit.

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