Trying to understand Russia and Russians is to understand its history and culture, which is a lifetime endeavor. My journey started when I read Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev from my Dad’s Russian library, while at the same time reading Steinbeck, Hemingway and Nevil Shute.
Without any doubt Russia is an remarkable and mysterious country with a civilization which has great depth. Russian society has been greatly influenced by the Romanov dynasty which ruled for 304 years; by the brutal destruction during the Russian revolution of October 1917; and by the line of autocratic leaders which balanced the different interests and have ruled the country often with an iron fist, remaining firmly committed to defend authoritarianism and to extinguishing popular support for uprisings within its borders, whereby the rule of fear in the system of fear has a long tradition in the Russian culture.
To understand Russia is to understand its culture, history and position it claims in the world. A history which has made Russia feel vulnerable and insecure about the control of its own geographical space, evidence how on different occasions through its history foreign troops (Nazi Germany, Napoleon, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and others) have invaded the country, whereby Ukraine has been often used by hostile foreign states to attack Russia.
Moscow which was first attacked and occupied in 1238 by the Mongols, has known different occupations and total destructions throughout its history. This has led Russia’s centuries-long efforts to dominate its neighbors, which are not seen as partners or friends but as potential beachheads for enemies.
Having said this, the current unjustified events in Ukraine are absolutely devastating, an egregious violation of international law, which deserve righteous indignation, but also deserve a strategic calculated response, instead of the unlimited moral outrage which can be daily found on the airwaves.
The war in Ukraine is a tragedy for the citizen of Ukraine, but also for Russia and Europe in the years to come, which suffering and economic consequences could have been avoided by acknowledging and addressing the concerns on both sides.
However the bigger picture deserves attention and scrutiny, as what we witness is less about Ukraine, but more about the struggle for global and the decline of the US primacy in the world. I suggest in the struggle for global hegemony, on the global chess board as noted in Ukraine Is Only A Pawn In The Battle For U.S. Influence(1) On The Eurasian Balkans for which Europe is its bridgehead, with permanent U.S. military presence in the east.
However, change and decline are part of the ever changing cycle of history, the question we are faced with is not if the present world order over time is changed and replaced, but what will replace this world order.
To dismiss the complains of Vladimir Putin about the eastwards expansion of NATO, which complaints date back to 1990’s, as spurious as is habituality done by neo-conservatives, liberal interventionists and other war minded sections in Congress who in order to protect U.S. hegemony view America as an indispensable nation in world affairs, seems unserious and can only be viewed as self-serving.
There have been verbal promises made by the Americans during and after the collapse of the Berlin wall, that NATO would not ‘even advance an inch to the east.” Many on the US side dispute such promises and have interpreted this differently, or have argued that it had been meant for eastern Germany.
But whatever the reality is to some, after a meeting on 2.2.1990 in Washington with the US foreign minister James Baker, the German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher stated “Wir waren uns einig, dass nicht die Absicht besteht das Nato Verteidigungsgebiet auszudehnen nach Osten. Das gilt nicht nur für die DDR sondern ganz generell.”
On 12. September 1990 The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the four victorious and occupying powers of the Second World War (USA, France, Great Britain and Russia) signed the “Two Plus Four Treaty” in Moscow.
Vladimir Polenov one of the participants in the negotiations in 1990 stated later “It was a mistake not to put in writing these assurances to the Soviet Union that NATO would not be expanded in the East. That was a very big mistake. Now we have to spoon up the soup and live with the consequences of this mistake.”
Also in 1991 the British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd had assured Russia the same that there “were no plans in NATO to include -countries of eastern and central Europe in NATO in one form or another.”
Russian leaders are not irrational and given the strategic culture in Russia, the recent events were a predictable and avoidable calamity as the current condition of Europe has been in the making since the end of the cold war, influenced by the eastwards expansion of NATO and EU; sanctions against Russian interests effecting the economy and stability of the regime; and how Vladimir Putin has been riding the tiger of nationalism.
In the same manner political leaders in Ukraine have been riding the tiger of rising nationalism, similar to the Balkans in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, where Slavic Serbs and others sought independence and autonomy from the political domination of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, which led to the Balkan League formed in 1912 by Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro.
The gods of war seldom miss the opportunity to create havoc in deeply fractured societies and the simplest way to bridge over the rifts is to bring the beast of nationalism to the surface and rally the people around the flag.
The same nationalism which first became widespread in Europe at some point in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, became generally more aggressive at the beginning of the twentieth century, and corresponds with the incidence of wars in Europe in the modern period and was a significant cause of World War I .
This happened at a time Europeans had grown apathetic and dismissive about the dangers of war, very much like today and we Europeans are slow walking into a larger conflict. The tragedy of Russia and Ukraine is both countries lack real stateman-like leadership which could have avoided this nationalist trap.
Nevertheless the predicament Russia is in, a historic error, is the result of its own decisions, erosion in the sense of security and the building blocks of their strategic culture, whereby todays close proximity to Kaliningrad, St, Petersburg and Sebastopol is a direct challenge to Russia’s national security. But whatever President Putin’s apprehensions are about NATO, they do not justify this unprovoked and unjustified assault on Ukraine and its civilians.
Looking back thirty years, at the changes in Europe during the 1990’s, leading to the German unification, which was a remarkable and historic event, an event of which the consequences of the rapid development were not overseen, but also that the enlargement of the European Union was a tremendous opportunity.
At the same time the enlargement served more American interests than European interests. In fact the eastwards expansion weakened the EU, as was its purpose Zbigniew Brezinski notes in his excellent book The Grand Chessboard, American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives.
The result has been that the integration and creation of a more integrated European Union was side-lined and Europe failed to recognize Europe is better served to manage its own defense and divorcing itself over time both militarily and politically from the U.S. and strive for its own strategic independence.
Senator Joe Biden, was one of the loudest voices during the late 1990’s in championing NATO enlargement and played a key role in NATO’s widening and voted in the US Senate in favor of expanding NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Senator Joe Biden declared in 1998 “This is, in fact, the beginning of another 50 years of peace.”
Others saw this differently, like the former U.S. Ambassador (1987-1991) to Russia John F. Matlock Jr. who in 1997 was asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relation Committee and believed to take on new members into NATO to be a blunder and misguided.
So did George F Kennan, the architect of America’s Cold War policy of the 1940s and ’50s, called the NATO’s expansion in 1998 “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”
George F. Kennan and John F. Matlock Jr. were hardly alone. The case has been made by many the US and the Allies have acted deceitful after the German unification and during the enlargement, and trying to bring both Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was reckless, ignoring what Russia considered to be a threat directed at Russia and at its vital national interests.
Much of the same conclusions about the underlying issues are reached in the memoirs The Back Channel of CIA head William J. Burns, one of the few Russian specialists and backed by the former Defense Secretary William Perry and by the noted scholar Professor John Mearsheimer.
As Professor John Mearsheimer notes great powers, and Russia a great weak power, behaves as a great power, which guard their security through spheres of interest. The US has a history of this in the form of the Truman- Monroe doctrine and more recently in the Carter doctrine, which extends America’s interests to the Persian Gulf. If necessary, those zones are defended with force, and anyone who fails to recognize and respect this fails to grasp the violent logic of international relations.
As Dr Henry Kissinger noted “I think a resumption of the Cold War would be a historic tragedy. If a conflict is avoidable, on a basis reflecting morality and security, one should try to avoid it.”
But here we are!
War is always savage and is the result of a longer period of history and this war has been in the making for the last 30 years, during which time the conflict could have been avoided in the same manner the conflict was created by recognizing for Russia, a country with thousands of nuclear weapons, there are core strategic interest are at stake. Which begs the question what core strategic interests are at stake for the US and the Allies?
As Fiona Hill warned in a Washington Post Op-Ed in 2015, titled How aiding the Ukrainian military could push Putin into a regional war. (2) Hill and Clifford Gaddy, both with the Brookings Institution said “The United States is on a dangerous trajectory in its relations with Russia, a nuclear superpower that believes itself to be under direct threat.”
For its part, Ukraine with wild ambitions of NATO and EU memberships failed to recognize the boundaries of its influence and limits of EU and NATO enlargement, which enlargement limits have been reached and greater strategic clarity would be beneficial.
Just as Ukraine as a neutral state in world affairs would have been beneficial, similar to Belgium of 1930’s and Finland and Austria during the cold war, whereby Ukraine would agree to be neutral between NATO and Russia in all regards This would have been a satisfactory conclusion in order to overcome the present difficulties which would also be in line with the 1991 founding act of Ukraine and the 1996 constitution.
The lesson of history is that Russia will no more accept a NATO presence in Ukraine or Georgia for that matter than the U.S. accepted the German-Mexican alliance in 1917; or Soviet Missiles on Cuba in 1962; or China accepted U.S. presence on China’s border with North Korea; or Pakistan accepted a Indian foothold in Afghanistan in 1994-2020.
This is a view which has been recognized by U.S. officials among them William J Burns U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2005-2008 who stated in a memorandum of February 2008 to Condoleezza Rice “Ukraine’s entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite(not just Putin).
From a Russian perspective, allowing Ukraine, a buffer state against democracy, to secede from Russia’s sphere of influence and to enter into the western orbit has never been an serious option and must be avoided, also given the repercussions this would have for Russia and the region.
A western orientated Ukraine, able to reduce the level of corruption (which will take decades) adherence to the rule of law and integrated into the west, thereby showing modest growth would be an influential and powerful counterexample of today’s authoritarian Russia and the region which opens the door to the Eurasian Balkans.
Although Russia has adamantly apposed the enlargement to the east for the last thirty years, the eastward expansion was less of a serious issue at the turn of the new millennium, despite opposition as outlined in the Primakov doctrine in 1996, named after Yevgeny Primakov, the pragmatic Foreign Minister (1995) which clarifies this.
Nevertheless, in 2001 after 9/11 Russia offered support to NATO and in 2002 spoke favorable of European culture, the European Union and NATO was not in the doghouse as an adversary. In 2003 with the war in Iraq the first cracks came to the surface and also laid bare the difference which existed within the international community and made Russia, China and other nations turn away.
Shortly after the 2008 Bucharest summit during which President George W Bush urged to extend Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine and Georgia, but failed to reach agreement given opposition by some of the members. Bush was supported by east European member states who saw Ukraine membership as “an important historic opportunity to cage the bear.” The final declaration included “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro Atlantic aspirations for membership of NATO.
Russia reacted to this provocation with the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. The overthrow of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych regime in 2014, a revolution supported by the West, antagonized Russia further and the pushback continued when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and with activities in the Donbas region.
Today’s Russian invasion, a unprovoked attack against the territorial integrity of Ukraine has no justification and has only worsened the situation, an aggressive war in violation of Article 2(4) the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of another state.
Perhaps the motives of US wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were nobler and the methods less brutal, although with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in mind this is a difficult case the make, but the US and Russian motives are the same. The war in Ukraine is no different from President George W Bush war against Iraq, or the Russian-German invasion of Poland in 1939, a preventive war: its justification was that a designated enemy might, at some point in the future, pose a serious threat.
According to the Nurnberg Tribunal definition, this is an international war crime for which gallows were erected to execute the responsible held Nazi leaders, but as the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima confirmed the victors of war write the history books.
But no situation is the same and life is not as simple as our dreams and global politics and the geopolitical environment has changed.
In hindsight the first signs of the Ukraine invasion came after the Iraq war which changed the winds of time and when in 2005 Vladimir Putin organized the Moscow reburial of Ivan Ilyin, the most important fascist thinker of his time. Ivan Ilyin was fully rehabilitated and his ideas are being used in speeches to explain the past and why Russia has to undermine the decadent west, the European Union and had to invade the Ukraine as being an element of Russia.
In this concept the European Union and Liberal order are seen by the present leadership, all men in their sixties who have all experienced the dramatic events surrounding the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, as an existential threat to Russia. The liberal order can indeed be seen as an existential threat to Russia, given the way the EU enforces its laws, generates prosperity and distributes its wealth to members and people.
Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, 2007 articulated various dimensions of the global political transformations that took place in the Post-cold war arena, in particular the global security architecture and the failure of the unipolar world order to maintain peace and stability. The speech was a harbinger of the things to come and the desire to return Russia to geopolitical relevance.
This desire to return to Russian geopolitical relevance in fascist form, is the basis for Vladimir Putin’s article of 4 October 2011 in the newspaper Izvestiya entitled A New Integration Project for Eurasia: A Future which is Being Born Today.
Vladimir Putin announced that the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space being created by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan would be developed into a Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would join the three original members. He added: ‘We are not stopping at this point and place before ourselves the ambitious task: to go to the next, higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’ Since 2013 the principles of Eurasia have guided Russian foreign interests.
The end-product of Eurasia, restoring Russian influence and greatness requires the weakening and disintegration of the European Union in order to integrate Europe into the Eurasian Union, a Union without adherence to the rule of law or influence of the United States in Europe. There should be no illusion about the aggressiveness of the Russian bear and the forward strategy when cornered, as the only strategy left.
This fallacy of Vladimir Putin, who made the choice for hatred and revenge and not for reconciliation and cooperation shows his entire policy has been designed to ignore limits to his territory, with a total disregard to accepted international and moral principles. With this policy Russia ignores that the stability of the international order depends on the degree in which its components feel committed to its equilibrium.
With the savage war in Ukraine Vladimir Putin, a skillful tactician, though scarcely a great strategist has made a grave strategic mistake, which will leave Russia diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and internally divided. Given its vulnerabilities, it’s hard to see to see the future of Russia in terms of a revived empire, also in the face of a more united Western alliance which is intend and committed to discourage the present Russian antagonistic approach.
It is thereby worth noting, modern states distil their military power from their economic base, by this measure Russia is a minor power, too weak to matter in the great power competition and far too weak to pose a serious challenge to the US or its NATO allies.
Looking at our messy European history and with the expected military stalemate between Russia and Ukraine in mind, some pragmatism is in order when reviewing the three strategic alternatives:
• The conflict turns gradually into a “frozen conflict” and Russia and Ukraine continue the present hostilities and trade territory in small increments in the same manner as during the last eight years, which can always flare-up and return to a low-grade war. This will leave Ukraine weakened, unable to rebuild and on depending on streams of EU/US money and military equipment.
• A lasting peace settlement in which the conquered territory, Crimea, the Donbas and likely the land bridge will be conceded to Russia. In such an settlement a security arrangement is agreed which enables Ukraine to rebuild which the possibility to join the EU in the distant future.
• Escalation, provocation with the US being plagued by lack of rhetorical discipline with the calls for “regime change” and the weakening of Russia” and sleepwalking this proxy war to nobody knows where and into a larger conflict.
Our European history has known more than enough family disputes, regional conflicts and world wars, which disputes were settled by concessions and land swaps, whereby the reasonable proposition is that a neutral Ukraine in world affairs would be the best possible outcome in order to end the hostilities, avoid more bloodshed, destruction and to save lives. Or the words of Henry Kissinger to reach some kind of solution “The test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction.”
The universal truth is, all wars end in negotiations and belligerents negotiate either when there is a winner and a loser or when both sides are exhausted. The balance of power on the battlefield is the determining factor which today points in the direction of a stalemate.
The question Ukraine must answer is: What is the balance of power? What is the cost of the war? What are the likely outcomes? What is the best achievable goal at the minimum cost to Ukraine? In this case one can only hope both parties see the rationale for negotiations sooner rather than later.
However, there should be no doubt about the difficulties to reach a negotiated settlement. Also even if such a agreement is reached, interpretation of what has been agreed will likely be a issue, just as the permanency of such an agreement is.
Regardless of the messaging and oratorical abilities of this poor little fellow Volodymyr Zelenskyy turned President Zelensky about WW III, the misplaced U.N. attacks, against EU member states and the expressed obligation for the EU to admit Ukraine, they are contra-productive as he bites the hands which feed Ukraine.
The calls to the west to enter the conflict or to arrange a no-fly zone must be rejected in order to avoid a much larger conflict whereby it’s worth noting the balance of power in Europe has not been changed or is threatened by this regional conflict and support can be given via other means.
Despite deep compassion for Ukraine and respect for the resilience of Ukrainians, it is reasonable to reflect seriously on the desirability and problems involved of Ukraine membership of the EU at a more opportune time and preferable in a less volatile emotional climate. Also at a time when the economic and financial effects and the in many ways unpredictable damage caused by the massive sanctions (energy and otherwise) to the financial eco system has been determined.
To expedite the possible EU membership of Ukraine, a weak regime with unsound institutions and a society which has been ruined by corruption, a state which is entirely dependent on outside support for its economy (in the period 2014-2021 the EU supplied Euro 17 billion in grants and loans) and is expected to be tripled and this can be hardly called prudent or in the interest of the European Union which has reached the limits of its expansion and needs to consolidate.
Frankly, I am uncomfortable with a possible EU membership of Ukraine, which is is undesirable and bears the fruits of the destruction of the European Union, resulting in a split and divorce between the traditional “Maastricht” and “CEE” countries.
Nevertheless, we usually get what we least expect and with dictators and autocrats war is often more likely than less likely. At this time the EU is forced to regard Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a clear and present danger, which in time may possibly threaten the balance of power in Europe, a declared adversary, which Russian position is diametrically opposed to Tsar Alexander I dream of a United Europe and his Act of the Holy Alliance of 1815.
1. Ukraine A Pawn On The Global Chessboard
2. Giving Weapons To Ukraine Could Goad Putin Into A Regional War