A historical pattern and the Ukrainian conundrum

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A vicious conflict in Ukraine rages on. US President Joe Biden stated that Ukrainian President VolodymyrZelenskyy had underestimated American warnings about Russian invasion in Ukraine; even then, American support for Ukraine would subsequently increase, averred Biden. It indicates possible amplification of America-led Western support to Ukraine.

   In reality, it could tantamount to NATO gaining a crucial foothold in Ukraine, as it has in the neighbouring Baltic countries. This blood-spilling orgy might have been averted had the Western countries paid heed to Putin’s insistence that while robust relations with the West was alright, Ukraine should not be embowered by any Western security alliance.  Additionally, the Western countries, led by the United States, could have wisely withheld sanctions on Russia.

   After the ceremonial end of the “Cold War” in 1991, the erstwhile Soviet Union had an unceremonious melt away. From the grip of that former Communist behemoth, emerged several sovereign countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The principal protagonist of that empire, metamorphosed into a relatively leaner, flexible, and yet a geographically sprawling Russian nation. After the triumphant victory of the US-led West in the Cold War, it was apparent to one and sundry that Russia had gracefully accepted it, and wanted to leave behind no ill wills surrounding that episode. It graciously joined the new world order and hoped to be made an honourable constituent of it. But, with the passage of time, Russian authorities, to their growing mortification, realized that a “new world order” no longer meant an arrangement between equals; it meant the gradual domination of Western principles and influence. Beginning in the 1990s, Western powers started an ambitious experiment to bring a considerable part of the world over to what they considered “the right side of history”.

   That slowly started setting off alarm bells within the Russian security infrastructure. For centuries, Russian security strategy has been built on defense: expanding the space around the core to avoid being caught off guard. Being a country of great plains, Russia has experienced devastating invasions more than once. Therefore, the Kremlin has long seen reinforcing “strategic depth” as the only way to guarantee its survival.

    This crucial aspect determines the resentment of Russian authorities and its people, at large, toward the West, for supposedly under-appreciating Russia’s uniqueness and importance. It has led to a phenomenon, whereby, Russian governments have generally oscillated between seeking closer ties with the West and recoiling in fury at perceived slights, with neither tendency able to prevail permanently. The Russian onslaught on Ukraine is an outcome which showcases the effects of Russian inference of being attempted to be driven to a corner, by the West, perceived or real, or in whatever combination of both attributes. Russia concluded that in order to pre-empt the danger which might arise with the West’s further aggressive expansions by bringing Ukraine within its fold, an onslaught upon Ukraine was necessary. That could be a deterrent to further contra-Russian steps by the West, at present.

   Russia is still a superpower, but with reduced capabilities than before. But, it has proved remarkably resilient. That has been expressed differently over time: as the Third Rome, the pan-Slavic kingdom, and the world headquarters of the Communist International. Nevertheless, today’s version involves Eurasianism – a movement launched among Russian émigrés in 1921 that imagined Russia as neither European nor Asian but a sui generis or unique fusion. Like several other Russian rulers before him, current Russian President, Vladimir Putin, also views smaller countries on Russia’s borders less as potential friends than as potential beachheads for aggressors or enemies.

   Unlike former Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin, at present Putin does not recognize the existence of a Ukrainian nation separate from a Russian one. Nevertheless, like Stalin, he keenly views all nominally independent borderland states, which includes Ukraine, as weapons in the hands of Western powers intent on wielding them against Russia. That is another indicator that Putin-administered Russia would be prone to proceed to subdue Ukraine, if the threat level from any apparent dalliance between Ukraine and the Western powers is beyond what Russia is prepared to countenance.

   In the horrifying and harrowing images and scenes from Ukraine, entailing escapes, sufferings and deaths, and fighting back of Ukrainian armed forces, a reflection crosses the mind as to why is Russia continuing with this aggression on Ukraine, even before any declared pact between Ukraine and Russia’s potential antagonists have even been officially announced? The clue arises from Russia’s perennial quest to be a strong state. According to Russian thinking, in a dangerous world with few natural defenses, the only guarantor of Russia’s security is ultimately a powerful state, which is willing and able to act aggressively in its own interests. Nevertheless, it should be paramount for Russia to realize that unnecessary spilling of blood of Ukrainian civilians and forces, of other countries’ nationals residing on Ukranian soil, and of Russian armed forces, could be limited, if not wholly avoided, if the incessant Russian attacks are withheld forthwith.

   Putin sees Ukraine within the Russian zone of influence. He definitely hopes that relations with the West will improve. He does not dream of World War. He aspires for a new Yalta Conference: the peace conference that took place in Crimea in 1945 and brought Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill together. Back then, the leaders of the countries that won the Second World War divided the World into zones of influence. Today, Putin wants a new zone of influence and new rules of the power game of global politics. He wants the West to admit that territory that once belonged to the USSR, should, at present, be areas of Russian responsibility. He wants guarantees and the honours he feels he deserves. But, Western public personalities like Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, and current US President Joe Biden opine that these spheres of influence no longer exist in the modern world. Putin rejects that as outright hypocrisy.

   This is the essential imbroglio that has given way to incendiary circumstances in Ukraine. Russia should realize that despite being a great power, it has relatively declined in strength, prestige and influence. The US-led Western countries, in their part, should appreciate that edging Ukraine to enter a framework viewed as hostile by Russia, would invite tensions and dilemmas.

  The concentric circles of regional influence, external diplomacy, and the arrangement of international power structures need to be in harmony to enable a workable, effective pattern. Otherwise, unnecessary ripples would cause unpleasant whirlwinds, risking degeneration into pernicious aftereffects.

Writer is  a columnist based in Calcutta. His areas of specialization are International Affairs, Economy, and Indian Politics.

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