Are we heading to World War III? We certainly are in the makings of one if the U.S and European Union (EU) do not examine the tripwires that could lead the world down such a spiraling path.
It will become easier to understand Russa’s invasion of Ukraine by viewing the ongoing situation through the lens of history.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is history happening at lightning speed. The world order as we have known it since the end of World War II is currently shifting, maybe even being upended.
It is unlikely that the war unfolding now is Putin merely testing the waters of the U.S-NATO alliance. Putin knows that the world order is not static, it is able to be changed and shaped. Moscow under Putin has been dedicated to a strategy that re-asserts Russian influence that can counter Europe and build on regional wins like Crimea, heightening Russian national identity and ensuring his popularity remains high.
So is the current war about Putin gaining more wins by constructing an “ us vs. them” narrative?
Is he suddenly an irrational actor?
Let’s try to understand the politics from the facts.
Just within the past decade alone, Putin has directly assailed NATO’s eastward expansion surrounding its borders. He not only views it as a territorial encroachment but an existential security threat to Russian ability to project power from its own turf.
Here is a map of NATO aligned countries that surround Russia.
The current invasion of Ukraine can be traced back to U.S and European desire to have Ukraine join NATO.
Stemming back to the Bucharest Declaration of 2008 you can see the seeds sown for the current conflict. NATO gives an open welcome to Georgia and Ukraine to become members of the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
Russia immediately lays out its cards on the table. Russia’s responds by saying this would be “a huge mistake which will have most serious consequences for pan-European security.”
This leads us back to today.
At the root of the problem, Ukraine’s entry into NATO would be seen as the collapse of Russian power. Ukraine has a complicated but intertwined history with Russia, and if Kyiv were to join NATO it would be seen as an existential failure of Russia’s ability to protect is borders. If Kyiv joined NATO, the once traditional buffer state on Moscow’s borders would become a Western aligned country with military bases and weapons aimed at the heart of Russia. Kyiv is too strategic and historical an asset for Russia to allow to be converted into a strategic card for the West.
Remember the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. That was caused by the Bucharest Declaration and Georgia’s miscalculation of NATO’s power to back Tbilisi’s political ambitions.
Next we have February 22, 2014. Russia’s security dilemma deepens when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych starts talks with the European Union to form an agreement that would begin Kyiv’s incorporation in the European Union (EU). Putin puts pressure on Ukraine and offers his own deal to Yanukovych. The deal is rejected by the Ukrainian people.
The Maidan protests begin as a response to Yanukovych backing away from EU integration, with many in Kyiv believing that Moscow had too much power over the ruling class in Ukraine.
Protesters did not want new elections to take place under the sponsorship of Russia and waged increasingly violent street clashes.
Russia responds by taking advantage of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Moscow takes Crimea to show case its serious concern over NATO expansion and its ability to maintain territorial integrity over strategic assets. Look at the map, Ukraine is not a strategic asset for Washington, but it is for Moscow. Do Western elites really see logic in using NATO’s Article 5 (you know, the total war doctrine for collective defense) to protect Ukraine? Is there really strategic depth to having Kyiv under the Western security umbrella when we know it’s blatant red line for Moscow’s security interests?
As you can see from this brief overview, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not because Putin felt like it would be fun to experiment with rebuilding the former Soviet empire. Moscow is a declining power with an unsteady economy. Looking into recent history it is hard to find an example of any Russian military aggression, expect for Afghanistan, that was not preceded by a logical cause to use hard power. Remember, logical does not mean “right or moral.” The world still operates on the perception of threats and how those threats can weaken one’s leverage.
Can we still define this moment as democracy vs. illiberalism? Sure, on the surface we do have this element. But it’s not the full picture.
What we are seeing is geostrategic. Ukraine being incorporated into the greater Russia project is not going to elevate Russian power to as it was during the Soviet Union.
So what is Russia gaining from all-out war?
Ukraine is a fulcrum for massive change to come, the difficulty being defining and understanding what Putin sees as the next steps once Ukraine is too damaged for the West to control.
If Putin succeeds in destabilizing Ukraine, he is likely to have a bumpy standoff with the West, leading to a significant financial crisis that forces his military to withdrawal. If Putin can glide past an economic freeze and popular discontent, it’s possible he can develop a new iron curtain that solidifies his power, giving him the ability to launch various attacks on NATO allies.
If we are not led into a major world war because of Ukraine, is there more to the story here for Putin? Can he take further advantage of the West dancing around deterrence?
In the short term, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it extremely unpopular on the world stage. A blast of sanctions and expulsion from the SWIFT system (financial-messaging infrastructure) will surely affect Russia’s economy and the patience of Russian citizens. But two of Russia’s major banks, Sberbank and Gazprombank, were exempt from the SWIFT ban, meaning the West does not want to take such an extreme action of financial severance against Moscow.
Is there something to be gained in the long-term if the Ukraine crisis stays at a stalemate (with it ultimately losing political autonomy) and if Russia can ride out a major recession?
One of Russia’s long-term goals is to crash the U.S dollar and disable it from being the primary currency of exchange. If Russia can crash the U.S dollar (I won’t get into the theories on how it can be done in this blog), can it bring about a new world order where Russia wields significant influence throughout Eurasia? Can a new Eurasian regional order, with China operating in alliance with Russia and using their own version of SWIFT effectively compete, or dominate, the U.S?
One recent development of interest happened at the United Nations vote to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. Sensing the need to balance their economic and geopolitical interests with Russia, India and China abstained from voting on the motion. At the worst, this is a sign of a possible alliance system forming, the direct implication being the formalized demise of American hegemony.
At this point, neutrality for both India and China can count as a win. The U.S and EU will have to take careful consideration on where their red line is drawn concerning Ukraine. If military tactics are out of the question due to the threat of all-out war, then planning for the aftermath of how to politically deal with a war-ravaged Ukraine is the only next step.
In light of all of this, it should be no surprise to Western elites that balance of power politics still matter in the 21st Century.