On 24 February 2022, at the time that a UN Security Council meeting had been called to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a full-scale attack on the state, claiming that the purpose was “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine.
To date, Russia’s missile attacks have resulted in the devastation of several Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv, Borodyanka and Chernihiv. The crisis assumed a more dangerous turn on 4 March when the world woke up to the news of a potential nuclear disaster after a complex in the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant site (the largest in Europe) was set ablaze by Russian projectiles. As it happened, the fire was swiftly extinguished, the safety systems of the six reactors were not affected and, thankfully, no radiation was released.
A historical analysis is required to understand this ongoing crisis.
Rivalry among great powers such as Britain, France and Germany for global dominance, epitomised by the two World Wars, was an important feature of the twentieth century. After World War 2 (1939-1945), the competition for global hegemony between the two superpowers, the US and USSR, resulted in the Cold War. The ending of World War 2 created a power vacuum following the devastation of Japan and Europe, especially the British Empire. The situation engendered the emergence of superpowers with distinctive ideologies to spread around the globe, each with its own spheres of influence and massive stocks of nuclear weapons.
International relations in this period reflected the interactions between them as Washington and Moscow strove to spread the gospels of capitalism and communism, respectively. As one would expect, this resulted in an arms race as each superpower endeavoured to outdo the other in military superiority. The consequence was a perpetual security dilemma — one superpower’s action to guarantee its own security, such as deploying its military arsenal, created fear in the other.
The economic decline of the USSR sparked the need to look inward and address domestic challenges. This resulted in a loss of appetite for the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell in 1990 and East and West Germany united. Between 1989 and 1990, elections ousted communist regimes across Eastern Europe and in 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 independent states including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Uzbekistan. This marked the end of the Cold War.
As the major state that emerged from the defunct Soviet Union, Russia inherited the USSR’s nuclear stockpile. However, its influence in international affairs declined significantly as its economy was fragile, it was surrounded by weak states and the US began to establish a military presence in erstwhile USSR entities such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
This resulted in a schizophrenic foreign policy as Moscow struggled to find a balance in its relations with the West and the East in the face of Washington’s emergence as the sole superpower in international affairs. While the USSR’s military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, was dissolved following the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the US maintained the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) despite Russia’s opposition.
The Putin effect
Since the emergence of President Vladimir Putin in the Russian political space in 2000, Moscow has displayed a new assertiveness in international affairs and has pursued foreign policies that promote Russia as a great power to be reckoned with, especially through its balance of power politics. This did not prove difficult given the country’s remarkable economic growth since 2000 and the increasing importance of its gas and oil in its region and beyond. Putin has called for an end to the dominance of the US dollar in the international political economy and has played a counter-hegemonic role in organisations such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the UN Security Council. For example, the US’s positions on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes and the Syrian crisis have been thwarted.
Putin’s approval rating at home has always been high, averaging about 79% in his first 20 years in office and reaching its peak of 89% less than a year after annexing Crimea in Ukraine in 2014. This is attributable to his charisma and his efforts to secure great power status for Russia in the international system, to bring back the glory days of the USSR. In the ongoing crisis, Putin has benefited from the “rally round the flag” syndrome as 69% of Russians compared to 61% in August 2021 now approve of Putin and polls suggest that half believe that the current crisis was caused by the US and Nato as against 16% and 4% who regard Ukraine and Russia, respectively, as the aggressor.
The 2014 Ukrainian crisis
Russia has previously engaged in wars and annexation of former USSR territories when it felt threatened by Western encroachment in its primary sphere of influence. It is in this context that the 2014 Ukrainian crisis ensued after domestic protests that resulted in the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych’s rejection of a deal (apparently due to pressure from Putin) for robust economic integration with the European Union (EU) triggered the uprising. Coupled with Russia’s concern with Ukraine’s increasing rapprochement with the West, particularly Nato, this prompted Moscow to invade Ukraine and take control of Crimea (a largely Russian-speaking peninsula) and subsequently annex it in March 2014 after Crimeans voted to join Russia in a controversial local referendum. This ignited ethnic divisions in some parts of eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian secessionists in Donetsk and Luhansk held referendums to declare independence from Ukraine. It led to perpetual conflict between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatist forces in these territories.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis
Turning to the current crisis: in October 2021, Russia began to deploy troops along Ukraine’s border, although it claimed that it had no intention of mounting an attack. Once again, this was triggered by Ukraine’s increasing rapprochement with Nato and the EU despite Russia’s opposition. Moscow has often insisted that Kyiv should not join Nato and that the organisation should reverse its eastward expansion as this threatens its domestic security. In December 2021, Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement calling for the US and Nato to halt their military engagements in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and cessation of Nato’s eastward expansion. It also called for Ukraine not to be admitted as a member of Nato.
The US and Nato rejected these demands and threatened to impose tough economic sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine. Washington provided further military assistance to Kyiv and the countries that share borders with it, including the deployment of about 3,000 troops in Poland and Romania in February 2022, ostensibly to counter Russia’s troops around the Ukrainian border and to reassure Nato of its support for Ukraine.
The tension came to a head when Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Putin has since set his nuclear arsenal on alert, threatening the West, especially the US, that they will witness “consequences the like of which you have never seen” should they attempt to stop him from achieving his goal.
French President Emmanuel Macron described this as a turning point in Europe’s history, while his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, stated that “Putin wants a Russian empire”. Nato subsequently deployed its troops in Poland and the Baltic states and the West has imposed sanctions on the Russian economy and individuals.
For example, the US, UK, Canada, Japan and the EU have denied major Russian banks access to the international Swift payment network; the UK, Canada and the EU have denied Russian airlines access to their airspace; the US, UK and the EU have imposed sanctions on Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; Russian media channels, Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik have been banned across the EU; and Fifa, the International Olympic Committee and Uefa have suspended Russia’s national teams and clubs from international sporting competitions. Russia has effectively emerged as a pariah state in the international system.
China is the major power that has not joined the bandwagon. Aside from the role its membership of BRICS would have played in its stance, Beijing will monitor the situation very closely in light of its policies in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Despite Nato’s apparent open-door policy that dictates that any sovereign state that meets its membership criteria can join the military alliance, it is fair to say that Nato should not have expanded towards a region that Russia considers its primary sphere of influence. This can only lead to unnecessary tension and in light of the US’s declining global power and loss of appetite to engage in a full-blown war, the current crisis could have been avoided.
In February 1990, the then US secretary of state James Baker assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — who embarked on the policies of perestroika and glasnost (restructuring and openness) — that if Germany was not prevented from reuniting with Nato, the security alliance would not expand eastward. However, this agreement was not codified in writing. This has allowed Baker to deny making any formal pledges.
That Russia would feel threatened by its activities informed why top US officials including diplomat George Kennan and former defence secretary William Perry opposed Nato’s post-Cold War expansion, while former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott originally opposed it, but later changed their stance. At the 2008 Nato summit in Bucharest, George Bush’s administration nominated Ukraine and Georgia for Nato membership, a move that the former US ambassador to Nato Ivo Daalder described as a “cardinal sin”.
The US would never allow Russia or China to forge a military alliance with states such as Canada and Mexico, strategic locations that Washington considers as its primary sphere of influence. It is thus critical that the West not only recognises, but accepts that the Ukrainian question is a matter of vital national security for Russia and that the Kremlin, like any other great power, would go to any lengths, including the use of excessive force, to defend its primary interests.
The critical question is this: is the West ready to go head-on with Russia and risk a potential Third World War? Indeed, the Biden administration has reiterated that the US would not engage in a war to defend Ukraine.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis presents a Catch-22 situation. Although, as a sovereign state, Ukraine should be allowed to determine its own security alliances, Russia’s national security concerns are understandable. Indeed, this is a case of a security dilemma that can only be resolved by mutually beneficial agreements. DM