It may be time to take a fresh perspective on why Russia has recklessly invaded its neighbor Ukraine. In our hearts, we see what the war has wrought and we know it is wrong. Because war disgusts all good people. What gives Vladimir Putin the right to continually attack his neighbors without consequence? Why doesn’t somebody do something to contain them?
In his mind, history accords him that right. But I don’t think Putin is operating from a pre-WW2 mindset, as he is often accused of doing. I don’t even think he’s operating in a 2014 mindset either, Because he’s been taking little chunks from other countries for years before the Ukranian revolution. Where is Putin coming up with the justification for annexation and invasion?
In today’s carefully managed defense of territorial integrity, annexation by force is a highly unpopular move. In modernity, anyone who tries to pull it is severely disciplined by the world community. Saddam Hussein learned that when he tried to begin his ideas of a Greater Arabia by annexing Kuwait; he ended his quest dangling from a hangman’s noose. Slobodan Milosevic also had dreams of a Greater Serbia and committed genocide to achieve it; he too was executed for his crimes. The only country in the world who has not been punished for annexation per se is Israel. That’s a complicated one because the Palestinians never declared statehood, so the view seems to be that they are taking no sovereign territory. However, their occupation of the Golan Heights is definitely straining the definition of occupation and pushes closer to annexation as they continue to hold it, year after year. (UPDATE 4/6: Papa Chomsky reminded me that Trump allowed the official annexation of the Golan Heights. Oops!)
However, in the case of Putin, it’s very hard to discipline him. A bombing campaign will not stop a Russian advance, nor will a counter-invasion of Ukraine. Russia, you see, has nuclear weapons. A lot of them. And they have made it clear that any move that threatens the existence of the state will be met with annihilation. So we have to be very careful how to play this one. And the world has been. We have been pouring every low intensity asset available we can into Ukraine to make this invasion super painful for the #2 military in the world. There’s two ways this invasion can go: one is to turn Ukraine into Afghanistan II for them. This, like Afghanistan, could take years and kill millions. The other is for Ukraine to cede control of hostile areas around Ukraine that are Russian-friendly and end this terrible siege.
The second option disgusts many. Who would countenance the loss of territory like that? Would the United States cede states, as some are fond of saying?
In our case, the answer was no. But we paid a dear price to preserve our Union in the years of 1861-1865. People are still arguing about why it happened. To my mind, it was about consolidating and retaining power. Since 1776, America worked and warred its ass off to become and remain The United States. And I figure Lincoln wasn’t going to let a perfectly good union go to waste after cultivating it for almost a hundred years.
In contrast, how long has Ukraine been Ukraine? How far do you want to go back? Empires wax and wane, so let’s just start with modern Ukraine. They had a revolution in 2014 which would eventually skew Ukraine’s ties closer to Europe. As you might imagine, Russia didn’t like that at all, for reasons I’ll try to address later. They saw the revolution as a good a time as any to return Crimea to Russian control. No blood was shed, and the Ukrainians relented and allowed Crimea to become autonomous, protected and run by Russia-friendly leaders. But peace was not established yet. War broke out in the Donbas region, and two pro-Russian separatist states declared their independence from Ukraine. This time Ukraine was going to fight for its territory and subdue the rebels. And up until February 2022, they were still at war. But as we all know, Ukraine had bigger problems than Donbas. Russia began to surround Ukraine with its military, and here we are today, wondering whether World War 3 is going to start.
Ukraine had only been Ukraine for eight years, if we take the various separatist movements into account. It was a country in revolutionary flux, and Putin picked a good time to weaken it and make it something unpalatable and indefensible to Europe.
Or so he thought. We may not want to start a nuclear war, but most of the world, respectful of territorial sovereignty, has made sure that Russia will be punished by playing an old conventional game of violent imperialism. And we’re doing it without directly causing a single casualty at our hands.
There’s a lingering question though: what does Russia really want from Ukraine? You can find it in today’s papers. It is, as it has always been, “the special operation”, which Russia has invented some bullshit reasons for. Now it may look like Russia wants to eat Ukraine whole and return it to old Russia, but as you can see, they’re not getting very far if that is the plan. It’s purely a strategic move; to connect Crimea to the Donbas breakaways via land. Contiguity is what Putin wants, plus he wrests access to the Sea of Azov from Ukraine. I believe any military action not in Donbas is to distract and disperse the Ukrainian military so that it can no longer defend its eastern flank. What is the crown jewel in the special operation? Where does the connective tissue between these little secessionist republics begin?
Mariupol. As I write this, Russians have kidnapped tens of thousands of its civilians and is demanding that the city surrender. What Volodomyr Zelenskyy decides to do next will probably determine just how long Ukraine remains under siege. This is a flashpoint. Let’s say Russia wants to make a deal-ending the invasion for the surrender of Mariupol. Can they be trusted? To me, the answer is yes. They can see damn well that this war is not going to plan and they are probably eager to get back to some semblance of normalcy and deal with all of the economic, political and military fallout from the incursion. Putin will have paid heavily for his land bridge if this is the direction Ukraine wants to go. No one is going to “win” the battle for Mariupol. But as of now, Zelenskyy is holding firm, refusing to give up the city. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but it will not be pretty. And if anyone really thinks the West is going to do anything about it, they’re kidding themselves. Because the reality is, Ukraine was like a DMZ to the EU and NATO. This war is still on “cold” setting, and will likely stay that way so long as Russia blunders around in the DMZ. That is a tragedy for Ukraine, and I hate it. They’ve been caught between two power blocs and a newly adventurous Russia.
So, let’s circle back to the question of just where Putin’s head is at and what year he thinks it is. To do that, we must look at the recent history of the EU and NATO, and ask ourselves if we too have been “annexing” countries by pledging to defend them. Are we playing the imperial game as well? Did World War 3 start without a shot several decades ago? In Putin’s mind, this is undeniable. For the EU and NATO, their goal is simply to defend democracy. It’s probably a bit more complicated than that. It seems obvious that the goal is to hem Russia in, ending its influence upon the states that surround it. We did that during a time when Russia was at its weakest. Just like we finally came together to bring Germany to heel, ensuring it would never be a threat to Europe again. Nothing remains of its Nazi past for continental domination. This is what we wanted from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. To ensure it would be crippled so it could not threaten the world with its weapons of mass destruction.
But Germany had to be utterly destroyed for us to stop the Nazis; it was not the way we defeated the Soviets. The USSR fell to internal pressures; we just sat back and watched it happen. A deal was made between Russia and NATO in 1991 to dissolve the Warsaw Pact, and in return we would not accept former pact members into NATO. But that’s exactly what we did. The US and the Eurozone, to Putin, were “annexing” its old stomping grounds.
1991 is where Putin’s head is at. That was the year he quit the KGB and began running for office. Like it or not, he turned the country around in a lot of ways. I imagine he had grand plans to “Make Russia Great Again” and that’s what he thinks he’s doing right now. His own personal Monroe Doctrine. He’s been fucking with its neighbors ever since, trying to amass more territory and more power where he can. Whenever he sees chaos, he exploits the conflict. He saw the conflict in Ukraine. Trying to pull Ukraine into Europe’s orbit was a last straw, and he’s going to make the fledgling government pay for its eagerness to do so with land loss. And it’s doing it through old conventional imperial techniques like force. Whether he pulls off this special operation is unknown. Ukrainians have shown themselves to be tough as nails, but now we have to worry about hostages.
In no way am I excusing Putin’s actions any more than I am blaming NATO for its actions. But it’s important to dispassionately look at the possible “why?” for the invasion of Ukraine and armed with that knowledge, figure out how the hell to make it stop without blowing the world to kingdom come.