Russia in Ukraine: an Explainer
By: Andani Umf
I see so many people reflexively proffer vituperative condemnation of Putin and Russia on this momentous occasion of Russian military incursion into Ukraine. On one hand I understand the urge but on another I see the ignorance and the huge unsaid assumptions behind this posture.
A little bit of history.
In international politics, we have what we call polarity or in layman’s terms international power and politics. In short, a multipolar world is where we have multiple fairly matched global and regional powers. At the end of the second world war, the world was generally accepted to be a multipolar (some will say bipolar) world where the USA and USSR (now Russia) were equitably matched. This allowed for the eastern block led by the USSR and the western block led by the USA. Vying and posturing for influence and new members to be added to their block between the USA and USSRA was what we ended up calling the Cold War. The USSR formed the Warsaw Pact while the Americans formed NATO. Suffice to say that the USA won that cold war and the USSR collapsed.
But before this collapse and after the collapse, there have been multiple treaties and agreements between the United States and Russia regarding expanding too close to each other’s borders and causing a significant security threat. These overtures got into full swing after the world nearly saw a nuclear war after America threatened to bomb Cuba because Russia stationed nuclear weapons in Cuba. So the understanding between the USA and Russia has been that they will not militarily expand too close to each other and destroy the other’s security blanket.
Unfortunately, most analysts in the 1990s believed that Russia was no longer a credible global power and was merely a regional power like China. So the world was now a unipolar world with America the sole hegimon. And it appears the Americans believed the same given their posturing with NATO expansion. They did have a great deal of reasons to believe so. After the Soviet Union collapsed, small states emerged from it and left the successor state to the union, Russia, barely a threat to the western alliance! It wasn’t helped by successive weak and corrupt leadership in Moscow.
Things started to change after Vladimir Putin, a KGB (Russia’s version of the CIA) agent took over the country. Now, agreements between the USA and Russia stipulated that NATO will not expand into the Russians’ backyard too much. But given weak leadership and economic troubles in Russia, NATO crept ever close to Moscow with multiple NATO member states now bordering Russia or one small country away from the Russian heartland.
Putin has always reminded the United States of their previous promises not to creep too close with NATO expansion. But the Americans always play the ground game where they ensure that realities change on the ground and then shift the parameters of the negotiations to reflect those new realities. They simply encourage countries to join behind the scenes and when these countries supposedly independently vote to join NATO, the Americans tell Russia that they can’t compel countries (wanting to ensure their security) not to join NATO of their own volition. But as Putin put it, you cannot get your security at the expense of another, especially not a world power armed with nuclear weapons. It seems like the Americans forget or act oblivious to this fact regarding Russian worries about NATO expansion.
Now, Putin always said that the Americans don’t take Russian red lines seriously because the Russians always held back and have not acted with the hysteria America acted with when Russia placed nuclear weapons on Cuban soil. So Putin has been warning America to stop the expansion to deaf ears. So he had to act or be continually encircled. That is suicide.
This is a do or die situation for Russia as a super power. You and I may buy the American line of “every country has freedom to choose NATO” but that is not how geopolitics work in the great power powerplay. America is still punishing Cuba for daring to allow Russia to station nuclear weapons near its borders. No world power comes anywhere near North or Central America. The Americans call it their backyard and no one dares encroach. But of course they do not think that Russia, who they consider a regional power, deserves the same.
Russia is extremely vulnerable right now. Why? Over 80% of the Russian population lives near Moscow in the south western part of Russia. The terrain or environment is what we call an open plain. It will be easy to attack Moscow with conventional weapons like the Nazis did in World War II. That was part of the reason the Soviets occupied much of Eastern Europe all the way to Germany to prevent their homeland being so open for easy attack again.
Now NATO has all but taken over much of the open plains making it easy to cripple Russia militarily if they so choose. No super power will allow that. And Ukraine poses an even bigger threat than that. The current Ukrainian border is less than 600km to Moscow. Allowing it to join NATO means that NATO will be within a few minutes striking distance from Russia’s capital. No super power can accept that. America will never accept that. Heck, they threatened nuclear war if Russia didn’t remove the nuclear weapons in Cuba. And Putin thinks Russia cannot accept that either.
Obviously, I am biased towards the Americans. America is like a second country to me. All my friends and some family are there. So I instinctively hope America gets its way but getting its way doesn’t always mean that they are right. In fact, Putin has stayed his hand too long. If America was in his shoes, it would do more. Because in a multipolar world (at least if Russia perceives it that way), nothing is more important to a global power than ensuring its security.
As for the shouts, screeching, and feigned outrage about international law, any serious minded person will throw it into the rubbish dump where it deserves to be. Super powers don’t respect international law. Russia doesn’t. China doesn’t. And the USA certainly have never respected international law in their multiple military escapades abroad!
© Chow Vladimir Chang