Putin and Ukraine: the beginning of a wider war?

Feb 10, 2022
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. (Image: AP)

The only rationale for NATO’s existence is that Russia is a threat. Since the Cold War ended, the alliance has found no alternative reason to be.

The world is awash with warnings about the potential outbreak of war in Ukraine, with a number of Western countries including Australia calling on their citizens to leave that country. Russia has stationed a large number – the usual figure given is 100,000 but a figure as high as 175,000 was reported initially – of troops on its border with Ukraine, and some ships reportedly sent to the Black Sea.

Some diplomatic discussions have been held between Russia, the US and Europe, but the only outcome of those has been increasingly shrill warnings from the West to Russia not to invade. Increased sanctions have been threatened, some weaponry has been shipped to Ukraine from the West, and there have been some hints about the possible despatch of small numbers of personnel. The situation does indeed look threatening. What are we to make of this?

Perhaps the first thing to say is that most observers agree that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is unlikely. Although Russian force structures vastly outnumber those of the Ukrainians, the consolidation of control by an invading force would be both messy and difficult, with the likelihood of some form of continuing resistance being mounted against it. So despite the claims of the British government, it is unlikely Putin wants to place a puppet government in power in Kiev on the basis of Russian arms. Some argue a more limited strike is possible, aiming either to fully take over those parts of eastern Ukraine currently held by separatists and the subject of low intensity armed conflict since 2014, or to create a land link between Russia and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. Both are possible, but as Putin knows, likely to be very costly. So what does he want?

Peter Hartcher in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age argues that this is essentially about Putin testing his thesis that the era of US dominion has passed. My contention is that the pressure has been mounted on Ukraine precisely because Putin accepts that the US is no longer the dominant power it was. He is not trying to establish whether this is true; he is acting because he believes this is so.

This has been the case since 2014-15 when Barack Obama’s warning that if Bashar Al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people this would be a red line, but when Assad did this Obama did nothing. The perception of American weakness was reinforced by the Trump presidency and, for those who accept this view, illustrated by the retreat from Afghanistan. So this perception of American weakness, plus the evident disagreement among the Europeans over Russia, created the vacuum for Putin to act.

The key to understanding what Putin wants is, I believe, reflected in the series of demands Russia has made of the West. These are essentially two: agreement that Ukraine and Georgia will never be part of NATO, and the withdrawal of NATO troops and weaponry from the countries of the former Soviet bloc. These demands, presented as part of a proposed agenda for talks seeking a diplomatic solution, were immediately and vociferously rejected by the leaders of the US and NATO. If you are seeking a diplomatic solution, which the US claims to be doing, it is a strange step to reject out of hand the opposing point of view. Perhaps the problem lies in the language in which these demands were couched.

It is a clear principle upon which all would agree that countries should be free from the threat of external military force. Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland which all border Russia (Poland borders the Kaliningrad enclave; Belarus also borders Russia but is allied with her) should all be free from pressure of any sort, be it military, political or economic. This goes without saying. But the same applies to Russia. What the Russian demands amount to is a call for NATO forces not to be stationed in the immediate vicinity of its borders. Paradoxically, the mirror image of this is what is at the heart of current Western criticism, the stationing of Russian troops on Ukrainian borders. If the demand not to have opposing military forces on one’s borders is acceptable for the Ukrainians (as it surely is), why is this not also acceptable for the Russians?

Some may argue that the removal of NATO troops and weaponry from what was formerly called eastern Europe would constitute a re-working of the security architecture set in place at the end of the Cold War. It certainly would, but if it produced greater stability and peace in the region wouldn’t it be at least worth talking about? What could this look like?

We can go back to the Cold War for a model of how this might work. Both Finland and Austria were essentially neutral in the Cold War, although in practice both looked primarily to the West rather than the USSR. Both pursued independent foreign policies, but in the shaping of those policies they always factored in what was acceptable to the USSR. No one spoke of them as a Soviet “sphere of influence”, which is how Russia’s contemporary demands have been characterised.

How would this work? It would mean that the line of countries bordering Russia would cease membership of NATO. In return they would get NATO security guarantees while remaining free to pursue independent policy lines in all spheres, and Russian guarantees of non-interference. This worked for Austria and Finland. The question of EU membership is more difficult, but the compromise position may be the status quo: existing members (Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) remain members, those outside (Ukraine) remain outside.

Of course there are clear difficulties in achieving such an outcome. It relies upon trust, and there is precious little of this towards Putin and Russia. It also relies on the countries that would shift into this neutral zone agreeing to do so, something that would be difficult for elites that had built their careers in part on opposing Russia and may be a difficult political sell to their populaces.

But a NATO security guarantee accompanied by a Russian undertaking of non-interference should safeguard their security. It would also need future governments to continue to act in accord with the agreement, something that might be difficult given the assumed political advantages domestically that may be seen to accompany a beating of the anti-Russia drum.

But this would also need a leap of faith on the part of the Russians. They were given earlier undertakings that NATO would not expand towards its borders and those undertakings were breached. The whole of the post-Cold War period has seen Russian suspicion of Western action and intentions, and this would need to be overcome.

A final problem is NATO itself. The only rationale for NATO’s existence is that Russia is a threat. Since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has been unable to come up with a clear rationale for its existence aside from defence against Russia. This means that it is in the interests of the NATO leadership and those who support the alliance to continue to emphasise the Russia threat, something that may underpin the increasing shrillness of current Western commentary on the Ukraine situation. Furthermore acceptance of the above schema would be seen by many as giving in to Putin’s demands But if everyone’s security was enhanced by an arrangement of the sort outlined above, wouldn’t it be at least worth discussing?

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