Will Russia invade Ukraine? It has been a perplexing question at the beginning of 2022. Media speculate what the real Russian objectives are, but the best answer one can find in the New York Times column (January 20, 2022) titled “Fears of an Invasion. We explain the latest on Russia and Ukraine.” After presenting the opinions of notable experts, the author quotes one of them: “The expert opinion that I can authoritatively declare is: Who the heck knows?”
Just hours later, the Russians, it seemed, showed their cards.
What does Putin want?
In 2014, with Russian support, insurrection started in two of Ukraine’s eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, commonly known as Donbas. Before that insurrection, it was a vibrant industrial area with coal mines and the metallurgic industry. After eight years of destruction and about 15,000 people killed, everybody wants peace. Ukraine is getting stronger, economically and militarily, and hopes that the fatigued rebels might be ready to negotiate.
For Putin, it would be a loss. On January 21, 2022, the message came from Russia that the Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, would discuss recognizing as independent states the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Things like that do not happen without coordination with the Kremlin. If Russia recognizes the two current provinces of Ukraine as independent states, it could respond to the request from these provinces to protect their sovereignty from an outside aggressor. With that logic, Ukraine defending its territory is the only possible “aggressor.” In Putin’s interpretation, the Russian military amassed now on the Ukrainian border would not be an aggressor; it would be “defending” the newly recognized republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia pulled the same trick in 2008 to take control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two disputed regions in the Caucasian country of Georgia. There was an uproar in the West, but it calmed gradually. Putin is testing whether he can do it again, this time on a bigger scale. He took Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 practically with no consequences.
Frequently, Putin and people from his circle argue that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation divided because of the political intrigues of their adversaries. Logically, one can expect that “uniting” Ukraine with Russia is his goal. By looking at the map, one can see the strategy.
In Moldova, which lies southwest of Ukraine, the Russian minority there, with support from Russia, organized Transnistria, a self-governing territory that practically exists only because of support from Russia, but is not recognized by any government. In basic human terms, the very existence of Transnistria is a product of the criminal activity of Russia. It is in the center of Europe, where everybody sees it. However, no one asks to take Russian politicians, most likely Putin, in front of the judges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Also to the south of Ukraine, in 2014, Russia positioned itself by taking Crimea from Ukraine. In the eastern provinces of Ukraine, Russia is fomenting mutiny.
It does not take a genius to see that Russia’s next move would be taking southern Ukraine to connect Donbas with Crimea and Transnistria. Conveniently, in the Russian political jargon, that part of Ukraine is called Novorossiya, which means New Russia. Then, Russia will ask for the center of Ukraine called Malorussia, which means Small Russia. If that happens, there will not be much of Ukraine left.
The Russian sphere of interest
I recall a loose comment that George W. Bush made at the beginning of his presidency; I could not find it on the internet. According to my memory, he said that we should not demonize Russia, should do more business together, and hope that our disagreements would gradually dissipate. I bring it up today because the same thinking, not always explicitly stated, is behind the reasoning for avoiding any major confrontation with Russia.
When Russian politicians complain about Western countries encroaching into the Russian sphere of influence, it troubles me that no one asks what it means.
A story my uncle told me somewhere in the late 1970s comes to mind. At that time, Poland was in the Soviet sphere of influence. My uncle was in a leadership position in the government administration in Katowice. He had studied in Moscow and once, he was asked to serve as a translator during a visit of industry executives from the Soviet Union. In the office of a major local corporation, a Soviet politician from the delegation noted a picture on the wall. It was an original painting by a local artist. Complimenting the picture, that politician said that he would like to have it in his office. Everybody thanked him for the kind words and forgot about it. When delegation was leaving a few days later, that politician asked where the painting was. He was upset that he had not been given, as a gift, the picture he liked. His request went up to the top level, and he got that painting.
That is an example of how some Russian politicians perceive the sphere of influence. They believe they deserve to get something they did not earn. They expect to get tributes from their sphere of interest. It is contrary to the Western concept of cooperation as in the aforementioned comment by President Bush, where both sides profit from the common business ventures.
The present hostilities between Russia and Ukraine started in 2013 when Ukraine opted for the trade deal with the European Union instead of closer economic ties with Russia. Russia did not see the opportunities to profit from its neighbor advancing, thanks to the help from the European Union. Russia saw it as a loss of its ability to extort its neighbor.
That approach is the old imperial Russian and Soviet styles of governing. In the modern world, despite imperfections, the freedom to trade is the standard. Putin seems to be uncomfortable with that concept and prefers the old ways. Surely, some large businesses in Russia go along with Putin, especially if they are the few benefiting. But, 30 years after the fall of the Soviet system, millions of Russians got some firsthand business experience. They are competing in the worldwide market. For them, a flourishing Ukraine next door opens endless opportunities for profits. A festering Ukraine is their loss. They can shape the Russia that President Bush was talking about. They are the reason that the world today needs to dam the imperial inclination of the Putin regime.
Is NATO a threat to Russia?
It is if one listens to Russian propaganda.
Originally, NATO was formed to contain the Soviet expansion in Europe. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a valid question as to whether NATO was still needed. However, prevailing were the concerns of the former Soviet Bloc states, which worried about a reemergence of Russian imperial aspirations. To overcome Russia’s concerns, the NATO-Russia Council was established. It practically has not been functioning since 2014 after the Russian occupation of Crimea and the stirring of rebellion in Donbas.
None of the European countries has any claim to the Russian territory. Because of Russia’s natural resources and size, every European nation is interested in peaceful economic cooperation with it. In the business-minded world, no one can benefit from harming Russian interests if they are within Russia itself. We have a problem when Russia uses its military might to impose its will on other sovereign nations. No one considered Ukraine joining NATO until it became clear that, without NATO protection, Ukraine might be wiped out by Russia.
NATO military presence in the former Soviet Bloc countries was symbolic until the Russian invasion in Georgia in 2007, followed by Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014. Russia claims that Ukraine joining NATO would justify Russia’s military presence in Caribbean countries at the American back door. Putin speculates about actions far away but pretends he does not see his enormous advantage over NATO just under his nose. It is in the Kaliningrad region. It is a small piece of Russia’s territory squeezed between Poland and Lithuania, NATO member nations. From there, Russian missiles have a shorter distance to Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, or Copenhagen than any potential NATO missiles from the territory of Ukraine to Moscow. If Russia worries about Ukraine joining NATO, the answer is that as soon as the Kaliningrad enclave is demilitarized, Ukraine’s membership in NATO is up for discussion.
Is Russia an international gangster?
After WWII, we had many regional conflicts but avoided a global one. Major world powers acted responsibly in the moments of crisis.
When gaining independence, Ukraine was in physical custody, but not operational control, of an arsenal of nuclear bombs. Under international pressure, Ukraine gave them to Russia in exchange for signing the Budapest Memorandum, which guarantees Ukrainian sovereignty within its borders. Russia signed it, so did the United States. After Russia annexed Crimea, disagreements emerged as to whether that document was legally binding. So what was it then? If it is not binding, does that mean that American promises are not worth even the paper they are written on?
Meaningfully, I did not notice any mentions of the Budapest Memorandum in the major media during the current crisis. Most American politicians and commentators suggest tough talk with Russia but opt against military confrontation. They bring up that Americans just got out of two unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They omit the merits of military involvement on the side of Ukraine. By standing aside, American politicians would act consistently: They screwed up America when going into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they screw up America when trying to avoid wars that might be inevitable, like in Ukraine.
For people who know the history, the Munich Agreement 1938 comes to mind. Some may say that times are different, and the players are not easily comparable. History repeats itself but never repeats literally. It is predictable that, like the aftermath of Munich 1938, if Russia gets today what it wants, it soon will ask for more. Then, negotiations will not be an option.
This reading of history implies that the only way to avoid Americans dying for Donbas is to tell Putin we are ready to do it today and take actions so that the Russians will have no doubt that we mean what we say.
Some Russians still are nostalgic about the old empire. But many know better. They want to participate in worldwide business. They prefer to have a better standard of living instead of conquering Ukraine. Russian soldiers might not have enough motivation to kill their brotherly neighbors. Some of them might have family members and friends in Ukraine.
Military leaders are usually more realistic than ideology-driven politicians. Russian military leaders know well that they can overpower Ukraine in short order. They can win battles, but trying to win the war may lead to the end of Russia as we know it. Also, in any prolonged field operation, Covid-19 can eliminate more soldiers than bullets can.
We should hope that besides the negotiations that the media report, our leaders talk with Russian military chiefs privately. So, in case Putin pulls the trigger, there will be serene Russian military leaders who would put Putin on a plane and drop him at the doorsteps of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.