Whilst the Ukraine war is local, its implications are global

Mar 15, 2022
Ukraine flag against a dark sky
War is far too complex to be boiled down to a simplistic struggle between good and evil. Image: Pixabay

I must confess.  I did not predict the invasion of Ukraine. My mistake for being rational and assuming that all sides would sit down to negotiate peace.

History will decide whether war could have been avoided. All we know now is that war has complicated everything.

My heart cries out for all victims of the Ukraine war, just as it does for those in Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries caught between the tides of war. History comes in cycles of war and peace.

The 5th century BC Chinese strategist Sunzi opened his classic Art of War thus: “War is the most important affair of state; the zone between life and death; the path of survival or destruction; it is imperative to study it.” 20th century Ukrainian/Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (19879-1940), the first Commissar of War for the 1917 Russian Revolution, observed that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” We need to understand what is going on in Ukraine. Whilst the war is local, its implications are global.

The February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has brought war back to Europe after nearly eighty years of peace. Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) made two dictums in his treatise “On War”: “War is merely the continuation of politics with other means” and “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen war to achieve Russia’s strategic goals after NATO and US rejected his demands for guarantees on Russian security. We all need to think through what comes next, not that it will be easy or simple.

So far, nothing can be taken for granted because we cannot rule out even nuclear options and outcomes as Ukraine has four nuclear power stations, which if attacked, could cause meltdowns with devastating consequences.  If NATO planes carrying armament supplies to Ukraine are shot down by Russians, World War 3 literally begins. That is how delicate the current situation is.

War is far too complex to be boiled down to a simplistic struggle between good and evil. Just wars, like the Crusades, end up with so much slaughter that no one knows what was just or not.

There is nothing inevitable about war – it can happen by accident or because someone has decided to start, stop or continue the slaughter. War may be started by individuals, but ultimately it is fought collectively. There is never a simple reason why war starts, but once started, the complexity multiplies so much that no one can fully understand what is going on because so many things change at the same time – sometimes called “the fog of war”.

Theoreticians who think they understand war are time and again confounded by what can happen in a war – the weak side can win; nature intervenes; battles can be lost and yet the war is won; peace comes after mutual exhaustion. There are very few quick wars. The Iraq War was won with overwhelming power, but the War on Terror lasted more than two decades.

In his classic “The Second World War”, British wartime-leader Winston Churchill famously summed up his real war experience: ““In War: Resolution; In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity; In Peace: Good Will.” Churchill believed in history: “the farther you can look back, the farther forward you are likely to see.” History gives many lessons how these important individual and national psychological attributes shaped decisions to go to war and also who wins, who loses. The biggest mistake in war is to underestimate your enemy and overestimate your own capabilities.

Psychological factors arise because war is both a mix of the rational and the emotional. There are rational calculations about relative power and resources, but ultimately it is not just a contest of hardware, but clash of wills as to who will prevail, under what conditions. War is not fought just by individual dictators, but those who represent the collective emotion of why their people chose war. US President Abraham Lincoln fought the US Civil War to prevent the US from splitting up – it was North versus South, Northern belief in equality and Southern insistence on slavery and self-determination. Lincoln wanted to stop his country from splitting up. Democracies do fight as much as autocracies.

Thus, war is not just about dictators or states greedy for power, but more often than not from grievances or fear of others. The Thucydides Trap from the Greek Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) is framed as an incumbent power (Sparta) worried about the threat of a rising power (Athens). After the Spartans and Athenians joined forces to beat off the Persians in the preceding Greco-Persian wars (499 – 449 BC), the two main Greek powers began their rivalry for supremacy, but often dragged into outright war by allies who sometimes created conflict over relatively minor issues.

In the animal kingdom, lions, tigers or bears fight over territory to remain the alpha male. War is about power, hierarchy and identity.

To understand the Ukraine/Russian war, we need to understand the Russian identity.

Russian history originated from its founding in 862 AD by King Rurik of Rus, uniting Slav people who conquered Kiev in 882 AD to create the Kingdom of Kievan Rus and adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988. After Kievan Rus was conquered by the Mongols (1237-40 AD), Moscow became the centre of Russian resistance, forming the Tsardom of Russia in 1547. Peter the Great (1672-1725) modernized the state to become a European power. Tsar Paul I took over Alaska in 1799, whilst Alexander II grabbed all areas north of Amur River from the Qing Dynasty in the Second Opium War (1858). Alexander II also sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. In 1905, Russia lost Southern Sakhalin Island to Japan after her defeat in the Russo-Japan War, but the island was reoccupied at the end of the Second World War.

The Russian empire gained strength and wealth from exporting food and commodities to Western Europe, a trend continued today through wheat and oil/gas exports.  In the 19th century she became an important player in the Great Game between European colonial powers struggling with the Ottoman Empire for control of Central Asia. The prevailing geopolitical thesis during this period was British geo-strategist Halford Mackinder’s (1861-1947) famous quote: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who Rules the Heartland commands the World Island {Eurasia}; Who Rules the World Island commands the World. Russian command over Central Asia and the Mediterranean depended on her Black Sea naval port of Sebastopol, located in Crimea. Ukraine is the key to the Heartland, since her borders spanned Belarus in the north, Russia to the east, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland to the west and Moldova and Romania to the Southeast.

The Ukrainian population is complicated. In the 1920s, the capital Kiev was one third Jewish, one third Ukrainian and the rest of Russian, German and Polish origin. The Ukrainian Jewish population suffered greatly during the Holocaust, complicated by some Ukrainians fighting on the side of the Germans. Three former Soviet leaders, Brezhnev (1964-82), Chernenko (1984-1985) and Khrushchev (1953-1964) were Ukrainians, with the last transferring Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

In his book Gates of Europe (2015), Ukrainian Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy summed up three key historical issues as “Russia’s attempts to reestablish political, economic, and military control in the former imperial space acquired by Moscow since the mid-seventeenth century; the formation of modern national identities, which concerns both Russians and Ukrainians (the latter often divided along regional lines); and the struggle over historical and cultural fault lines that allow the participants in the conflict to imagine it as a contest between East and West, Europe and the Russian World.”

But why is Ukraine so critical in geopolitical space? It is a polyglot country of which the West is largely Catholic, speaking Ukrainian, whereas the Eastern part is largely Orthodox and Russian-speaking. Henry Kissinger offered words of wisdom: “if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s (East versus West) outpost against the other – it should function as a bridge between them.”

Russians see Ukraine as part of their history and identity, but Western Europe sees Ukraine as part of liberation and freedom. From a military perspective, for Ukraine to join NATO and allowing hypersonic missiles on Ukrainian borders which lie 300 miles from Moscow was interpreted by Putin as a “knife in Russia’s throat.” Putin seems to think that this would be a national insecurity that Russia cannot accept.

By invading Ukraine, Putin has precipitated what Kissinger called “Russia’s history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the United States.” Russia felt humiliated by the loss of the Soviet Union.  Western Europe and the United States view Russia as declining and aging very fast. Even though Russia has only the GDP the size of South Korea, she has one of the most formidable nuclear arsenals and military forces around. Rightly or wrongly, Putin sees Russian identity as protecting the Russian motherland of which he thinks Ukraine as an integral part.

The Cold War which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union should have led to the dismantling of NATO, an organization designed to contain the Soviet Union. Indeed, after he became President in 2000, Putin was interested in joining NATO but was rejected or laughed at. This led the Russian elite to conclude that the aim of NATO was to contain and humiliate Russia, especially after NATO membership moved closer and closer to Russian borders.

There are three possible outcomes to the present situation – a Russian win, a stalemate, or a Ukrainian win that expels Russia. All three options are terrible for everyone.

First, the biggest loser will be Ukrainians, who will suffer huge losses from all three options. A Russian military victory will meet continued resistance that will not help the recovery of the economy. Russia will have to spend money not only on rehabilitating Ukraine, but also defend it as well as facing global sanctions that hurt the Russian economy.

The second more likely outcome is protracted stalemate. This will bleed both Russia and Ukraine, and if it continues too long, Russians may lose stamina and change leadership or sue for peace. The danger from this option is that in the interim, the whole region may be dragged into the conflict as Europeans will also lose from declining exports. Worse, the longer the war drags out, the more the risks of accidental escalation into nuclear war.

The third option, a Russian defeat, could lead to destabilization of not just Russia, but the whole of central Europe and central Asia. The region could suffer more border conflicts like what happened to Yugoslavia, as different groups want independence and separation into smaller and smaller states. Even if NATO wins, the re-building of the regional economy would take resources equivalent to another Marshall Plan. Spending on defence will accelerate carbon emissions and cut resources away from NetZero commitments and domestic social spending. The outcome may be global stagflation – low growth, more conflicts and higher inflation.

In sum, the outlook for all three scenarios is bleak, and one can paint different scenarios, but it would be hard to be optimistic, because war and deaths damage chances of reconciliation, making peace and recovery even more difficult.

Although ASEAN is far away from Ukraine, we are not immune from the risks of Balkanization in which the Great Powers may intervene to stir up trouble between ASEAN members through proxy wars. Peace and neutrality form the foundations on which ASEAN built more than fifty years of development into middle class levels, contributing to global growth and stability.  If ASEAN is dragged into war, there will be no peace in our lifetimes.

In short, war only complicate matters. Truth and lives are sacrificed on the altar of war. To avoid it, we have to simplify differences and focus on peace and stability. The alternative price is too heavy to bear.

This article was originally published the Edge Malaysia, https://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/condivergence-simplifying-complexity-war

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