In order to understand the conflict in Ukraine, we must first reflect on the history of the tug-of-war between Russia and the West
The fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’ meant significant territorial losses for Russia through the detachment of republics from the former USSR, loss of resources and markets and especially the abandonment (considered humiliating for the Russian establishment and a large part of the population) of world superpower status. The 1990s, which by Western standards should have led to Russia’s democratisation, the establishment of civil liberties and a market economy, has in fact led to institutional chaos and widespread corruption. The year 1999 marked the coming to power of Vladimir Putin and his loyal KGB team, with strong popular support for a change of state affairs.
The early years of this century were marked by attempts at rapprochement between Russia and the West, through EU association projects and treaties to reduce strategic weapons and ballistic missiles.
In 2008, Russia proposed a new European Security Treaty on the principle of ‘no dividing lines’ that sought to stop NATO membership for former Soviet republics.
In 2010, Russia proposed a joint defensive perimeter for ballistic missile management that would lead to a ‘de facto’ military alliance between Russia and NATO.
All these initiatives failed amid the second wave of NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe, that included Romania and Bulgaria joining, and especially after the Bucharest Summit in 2008 as the USA and NATO announced admission plans for Ukraine and Georgia, with Putin anticipating civil strife in Ukraine as a result. Their accession was then blocked by France and Germany, with Ukraine and Georgia receiving a promise to join on an unspecified date.
The West’s lack of reaction to Russia’s demands for respect for its political sphere of influence, as well as the West’s suspicions of Russia’s neo-imperialist ambitions, together with indirect military conflict in Syria, have led to irreparable relations and escalation of a new Cold War.
Since returning as president in 2012, Putin has made significant changes in terms of military doctrine and political rhetoric, as well as concrete preparations for future armed conflicts. These have included:
- Focusing domestic and foreign policy on the idea of gaining full sovereignty, eliminating foreign influences on Russia’s domestic policy and invigorating nationalist rhetoric. The launch of the ‘Russian World’ project marks the introduction of a new concept designed to promote Russia’s national interests globally and to occupy the position of exclusive leader in its ‘space of historical domination’. Thus the ‘Russian World’ is seen as a distinct civilisation, associated with traditional Russian values, including the Eastern Slavs of Ukraine and Belarus. Defining the ‘rossiiskiy’ state nationalism meant to transform the Russian Federation into a leader and centre of attraction for the whole of Eurasia and, for the first time in modern history, Russia rejected Europe both as a mentor and as a model.
- Contesting the unipolar global order personified by the USA, by raising barriers to the promotion of democratic concepts, norms and practices according to which Western societies operate, as well as established arbitration mechanisms.
- The transformation of Russia into the centre of a large geo-economic unit called the Eurasian Economic Union strengthened by political, cultural and security components. It would be built on the foundations of the former USSR in order to free Russia from the economic pressure coming from the EU and China and to become a viable competitor to them worldwide. Including Ukraine, this supranational project would include a population of over 200 million people.
- Massive priority investments in the armament industry in order to equip the army with the newest weapons, while investments were also seen as a locomotive for the reindustrialisation of Russia.
- Redefining the West as a strong competitor, a significant rival and the source of most military risks and threats.
- The inclusion of opposition protest movements in Russia’s internal intelligence area, associated with military dangers, and their inclusion in the sphere of ‘external threats’.
- Consecration of a new type of war, called ‘hybrid war’ by perpetuating the state of war on territory of confrontation between different combatants, participation in military actions of irregular armed troops and private military companies, and indirect and asymmetric intervention in conflict regions. This new type of war has been successfully implemented by Moscow in Crimea and Donbas.
- The inclusion of the legitimacy of a military response to a “military aggression on its territory, either of an aggression against its allies, or to Russian citizens living outside the Russian Federation”.
Once this ideological, doctrinal and military package was created, the opportunities for its implementation were not long in coming.
In 2009, the EU launched the Eastern Partnership project with six countries in the former Soviet bloc: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The year 2013 marked the competition between the EU and Russia to lure the Ukraine into one of two major projects: the European Union or the Eurasian Economic Union promoted by Moscow. Under pressure from Moscow, the then Ukrainian president suspended negotiations with the EU, but what the Russian media claimed was a major victory for Russia’s grand Eurasian plan was called into question by the Kyiv revolution known as the Euromaidan. Under the spectre of the return to power of the representatives of the pro-Western Orange Revolution, the centrifugal movement of the former Soviet republics and thus the collapse of all his revisionist and expansionist plans, Putin made the decision to annex Crimea in March 2014.
Taken by surprise, Western countries have had a very pale reaction. Sanctions have been unconvincing, especially because of the significant economic interests of some European countries towards Russia. However, these sanctions have led to an increase in popular support in Russia for Putin, with sanctions being interpreted as a Western attack on the Russians. This extremely easy victory validated Putin’s strategies and assessments as well as the theory of the new hybrid war.
However, Ukraine’s long-awaited destabilisation plan failed and the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine did not react to Putin’s plans to challenge power in Kyiv and to federalise the country.As can be seen, this overestimation was repeated in February 2022, with major consequences to the detriment of the invaders.
Instead, the Crimean ‘victory’ brought to the fore a new Putin project called Novorossiya (New Russia). This new Russia would include the eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine from Kharkov to Odessa, areas supposedly populated mostly by ethnic Russians favourable to Moscow’s plans. At the same time, it revealed to the whole world the mechanism by which Russia intends to impose a New World Order, namely through territorial conquests and the reconfiguration of borders.
The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is therefore a clear consequence of Russia’s new military doctrine and Putin’s imperialist plans. Although all these plans were public, the West did not react and did not prepare a coherent response until the annexation of Crimea. However, it is difficult to take seriously the ambitions of a country whose GDP is almost as much as Spain’s, crushed by corruption, with a poorly equipped army and an economy dependent almost exclusively on the West and the export of raw materials, but still the owner of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
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