Since June 1997, when 50 Foreign policy experts co-signed a letter to President Clinton criticising NATO expansion, senior advisors, Congress representatives, a string of US diplomats and even a former US Russian ambassador have written open letters to the White House warning of the dangers of NATO expansion. When even Russian critics of President Putin acknowledge Ukraine is culturally and historically entwined with Russia and that any effort to bring it into NATO would be a Red Line to the Russian elites, heed should be taken.
George Kennan, the architect of America’s containment policy during the Cold War, wrote in 1997, that expanding NATO to the east ” would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era”.
Ten years later on 10th February 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Annual Munich conference speech, said;
“NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders,” although as yet, we “do not react to these actions at all.” NATO expansion, he stated, “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?”.
Adding more context, between 1949 and 2020, NATO expanded by a further 18 countries from the original 12, amounting to a total of 30 nations. In 2021, NATO also officially recognised Georgia, Bosnia, and Ukraine. In this same year strong relationships with Serbia and two neutral nations in Sweden and Russia’s neighbour Finland have also been formed.
NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly stated that for 70 years, NATO has been wise and cautious (particularly in Europe), resulting in a prolonged and sustained period of peace. But this has now changed. Somehow NATO sleep-walked into this geopolitically-charged quagmire, complete with historical nuances dating back over 1000+ years. One such nuance or cultural fact is that Kyiv is the cultural/ historical capital of the Slavic (Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) people.
On Thursday 24th February, 190,000 Russia troops launched a unilateral attack, on multiple fronts, into Ukraine its neighbouring ‘cousin’. This act has rightly been condemned internationally. But to label Vladimir Putin as the sole architect in this Ukrainian crisis is overly simplistic. Yet much of the media have focused solely on this narrative.
History tells us who the winners and loser were. History tells us who ‘behaved’ badly. History provides evidence which enables opinions and judgements to be formed. History provides clues as to the causes, triggers, and flashpoints of conflicts. It literally is a ‘smoking gun’ when dissecting the very worst of human nature. But most of all history has a knack of repeating itself.
Not enough people are asking the question or looking at recent history to understand just how we got to a full-scale war on mainland Europe in 2022. I believe the five points below identify the path in how we got to this pivotal moment;
1. NATO gambled on continued expansion to suppress geo-political threats
2. President Zelensky over estimated western support
3. Ukraine misread its importance to the west
4. NATO and US misunderstood or ignored Ukraine’s cultural bonds with Russia
5. Ukraine misread President Putin’s real intent
Conflict as Volodimir Zelensky the president of Ukraine maintained would not occur with Russia and that the west would ‘back him’. He believed this, right up to 24th February. And upon the invasion assumed and then pleaded for NATO military support.
This is where I have a real problem with how we (NATO, US, UK et al) have managed regional relations. Where are our ‘Statesmen’. Where is the country maintaining relations between the two warring nations? This person/ nation would and should be dialling down the rhetoric and threats to orchestrate some form of negotiated future for Ukraine – a future that sees all parties limp away with some semblance of dignity and pride. But to date all we have are two very entrenched political positions.
Would it be inaccurate to assert that the West has emboldened Ukraine to ‘provoke or challenge’ Russia over NATO inclusion? After the 2014 Crimea incursion, we all knew what Russia was capable of. What is so unpalatable about Ukraine taking an official neutral stance like Sweden? This way both Russia and NATO would have a land buffer.
Now Ukraine will be pummelled into submission and all NATO, EU and the rest of the world can do is effectively watch on from the side lines. And as the Ukrainian resistance slows down Russian advances, the Russian military are likely to use even more indiscriminate force to minimise their own casualties. Presented another way, President Putin must have a ‘win’ to show his ego, the Russian people, the general staff, and his oligarch friends – who are losing assets left, right and centre.
As widely reported, the war has not gone as swiftly as Putin would have liked with thousands of soldiers killed, including the loss of six senior generals and significant equipment destroyed or captured. But putting this conflict into context, Russia is attacking a motivated and well-armed defender, a defender protecting the second largest land massed country in Europe complete with a battle-hardened army due to the Crimea and Donbas insurrections. This invasion was never going to be completed in two-three weeks and was always going to be keenly contested. The western media are remiss in not sharing this operational context with the world. But as grinding and mud-bound as Russia’s advance may be, an advance it still is.
The Russian withdrawal around Kyiv is testament to over-extended logistics support, lack of access/control of arterial bridges across Dnipro, Sula and Desna rivers amongst others and spring thaw, restricting Russian-armoured vehicles cross country and thus encircling movements.
To subjugate the Ukrainian people, especially the western Ukrainians, fuelled and armed to the teeth with a hefty arsenal of insurgency weapons, Russia will increase the level of indiscriminate force it employs in Ukraine, which it has largely refrained from doing so far – when compared to Grozny (Chechnya). This is likely to be more reminiscent of the military might brought upon the Chechnyans in 1994. As the Russians tighten their grip on Ukraine’s major cities, the defenders will melt into the civilian population and this is where most civilian casualties, war crimes and Russian casualties will emanate from. The reports and footage out of vacated Bucha is testament to this. The world should be very concerned with what Russia will do militarily to bring an end to their shocking casualty rates.
Many commentators have stated that Putin is after restoring the footprint and sphere of influence of the former Soviet Union. “He’s empire building”. After all he’s a dictator, an autocrat and former FSB (KGB) general. Why else would he be destroying his closest culturally aligned neighbour.
If Putin wanted an enlarged Russia and a return to the ‘glory years’ of the Eastern Bloc, why did he wait until 25th February 2022. Why not make this play during the height of the US led Afghanistan war, or during the Second Iraq war, when the world’s attention was diverted elsewhere? Why not support and prop up the pro – Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych (former Ukrainian President 2010 – 2014) when crowds in the streets and squares of Ukraine were baying for his departure back in 2014?
At this point, the West had the opportunity to push Ukraine into neutrality or envelope it into NATO and we did neither. We saw the very real threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and did nothing. Now if we react, where does it end? Moreover, Zelensky was adamant up until Christmas in public speeches that NATO and the US would support Ukraine militarily. How did he form such conclusions…why was he so assured of Ukraine’s protection? Where did he obtain such security assurances?
So, to be clear here – we (NATO) are partially culpable for Ukraine’s suffering. Yes, we are not the military aggressors, but it’s far more nuanced that this. NATO and the west had clear warnings of Russia’s capabilities in 1994 (Chechnya), 2008 (Georgia) and 2014 (Crimea) – we simply lost first move advantage.
Aside from the weaponry with which the west has flooded the Ukrainian cities and countryside, a very modern and digital form of warfare has also been employed. Economic warfare in the form of sanctions, asset seizures and the populist cessation of international business operations have been applied in a way like no other.
Both methods will ultimately bring this conflict to a grinding halt. But when that is, only a risk taking, nationalist, former FSB officer locked away in a Siberian bunker can say.
Currently the Ukrainians have been calling for a ‘no fly zone’. But to enable NATO fighter aircraft to patrol the skies over Ukraine, troops for forward air bases, air defence units, anti-air defence ground units etc. would be required. This would be a clear escalation to Russia and justify long-range conventional ballistic attacks on staging NATO bases.
A ‘no fly zone’ would not just mean stopping Russian war planes flying in Ukrainian airspace. To fulfil this requirement, NATO would have to fly over Ukrainian air space themselves. This would mean that our aircraft would be attacked by Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) based in Russia. To enforce this plan, NATO would have to attack Russian air defence assets – in Russia itself! I believe this reality has been made clear to Volodymyr Zelensky and his ministers. Therefore, I believe a cease fire and brokered peace talks is the most likely route to ending the bloodshed and destruction.
Zelensky’s statement on 19th March calling for peace is a marked change from the pressure he placed on the US Congress or the German Parliament in the preceding days. He appears to have now read the room and realises that NATO cannot intervene in the way he would like (ground troops/no fly zone implementation) and so is doing the thing that will stop this devastating loss of lives and civil society. Simply put, all other options result in more loss of lives. Now finally understanding his foe, in Putin, Zelensky is showing a way that should enable all parties to save face.
We can see the damage that unified and unprecedented sanctions have caused the Russian government and economy. Sanctions have become a ‘non-lethal’ tool in international conflicts. But sanctions rarely depose dictators. They can go on for many years and often hurt the ordinary people, more than the targeted leaders, who sadly become collateral damage. As a result, sanction-hit countries can endure this form of economic punishment for a prolonged period. You only need to look at Cuba, South Africa, Iran, and North Korea as examples of countries operating for decades under international sanctions.
Another likely and unwanted scenario of sanctions is that they will most likely push targeted countries into the arms of other pariah states. In fact, the timing couldn’t be more convenient. Russia and China are enjoying their friendliest relations for decades. According to research group AidData, between 2000 and 2017 Russia borrowed and benefited from Chinese overseas lending to the tune of $151 billion – making Russia its largest beneficiary.
Another outcome of protracted sanctions is the unpredictability of sanctions. The targeted state eventually finds and develops coping strategies and mechanisms to overcome the sanctions. The likelihood of a nation developing alternative financial and technological infrastructures increases the longer sanctions are applied.
China is pushing hard in this direction by creating its own swift alternative called CIPS, which enables cross-border payments in yuan. They are also advancing their digital currency infrastructure and boosting its chip-making capabilities. With the unexpected force of the economic sanctions on Russia’s central bank, it can safely be assumed that establishing the yuan as a reserve currency will be a key focus of Liu Kun (Chinese Minister of Finance). With a key focus on protecting its $3.3 trillion of reserves from America’s grip.
Whilst this attritional conflict rages, the main loser is Ukraine, followed closely by Russia. But running along in the background is the flexibility of the Russian financial system, which is in effect staring down the west’s fossil fuel dependency on Russia in the most modern of geo-political ‘stand off’s’.
Mr Putin’s regime has built up reserves (totalling $630 billion) and is reportedly shifting its composition away from dollars to avoid the economic carnage coming down on the Russian economy. Though usage of the yuan as a currency for international payments is on the increase, at just over 3 per cent of the total, it’s still a poor relation beside the dollar, at 40 per cent. Even so, potential moves towards independence from the American-dominated system pose a significant dilemma to the West and potentially weaken their hand in the long run.
Europe will do everything to get rid of this dependence in the coming months and years, to hurt Putin’s Russia even harder. Even if Russia managed to take full control of Ukraine, it is certain that the country would remain outside the global economic and financial system for a very long time. These consequences will be felt more and more in the medium and long term.
While the west is still partially dependent on Russian gas and oil, Russia still has economic leverage in any peace deals. Paradoxically, the longer the Russian offensive goes on, the more the west will be less reliant on Russian exports, thereby weakening the Russian hand.
Currently, my fear is Chechnya….or even Georgia and Russia’s inevitable creativity around rules of engagement. We’ve allowed Ukraine to stand in ‘harm’s way’ when we should have been pulling them away. It is only a matter of time before the Ukrainians feel completely hung out to dry – and this is where we don’t want to be. With many other fledgling democracies around the world not trusting the west’s assurances, as they ponder on leaving behind them historic and systemic autocratic pasts with volatile neighbours seeking to take advantage.
So, we now have a simple choice… we either end this war on terms all parties can except, or we see Ukraine become another Cambodia, El Salvador or more recently Chechnya.
Our best bet is to ‘insist on a cease fire’ with full de-militarisation of Ukraine. I think the Russians, Zelensky and NATO would take that and nobody would lose face.
In a new look map, I see Crimea, Donbas, and the connecting of a ‘land bridge’ either enveloped into Russia or set up as a ‘puppet’ state akin to Belarus. A neutral Ukraine will rebuild quickly, a puppet state or Russian occupied Ukraine will lose 1-2 generations of growth and stability overnight with the ongoing mass exodus out of the country.
I would hazard a guess that Taiwanese officials are very nervous right about now with China’s rapidly growing navy etc. and its Indo-Pacific expansion, not to mention with Beijing’s recent utterances towards QUAD (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States). This pattern of poorly thought out and executed western polices in the form of Afghanistan withdrawal and NATO’s eastward expansion, is destabilising regional balances and ultimately making the world a more dangerous and volatile place.
It is very difficult, if not impossible to predict the future of Ukraine and Russia or even Taiwan. But know this, both Slavic cousins’ futures are once again inextricably intertwined like they’ve been over the past millennia.
The problem with proxy wars is, that it’s not our brothers, sisters, friends, and family dying out there in an elongated and partial civil war. Coupled with the fact that you never quite know what political forces emerge out of the power vacuums that this type of chaos creates. History also teaches us this, too.
Bayo Alaba is a social mobility advocate and Managing Director of Onit Events. Twitter@BayoAlaba