THE MOMENT OF THE WRITING of this column, was at the end of day one of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The air campaign was in full swing and there are reports of airplanes down on both sides, bombing runs of communications and defense infrastructure and killed military and civilians.
The day ends with images of civilians hunkered down in Kyiv subways.
At this instant, we don’t know yet how it will play out or when … or if … it will end, or perhaps worst of all, escalate. World leaders around the planet have all condemned Vladimir Putin’s actions and news pundits are in overdrive parsing out the details of what’s going on.
Figuring out what this is all about, is rife with a huge amount of complexity, and involves history and more recent political happenings.
A short history lesson:
The Tsarist Russian Empire and Habsburg Austria were in control of what we today call Ukraine, for a hundred years until the Russian Revolution in 1917 when Nicholas ll and he and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks.
In the aftermath of the revolution, a Ukrainian national movement for self-determination emerged, and the internationally recognized Ukrainian People’s Republic was declared on 23 June 1917 and it became a founding member of the Soviet Union in 1922.
During the years of Soviet rule, the Russian people and the Soviet ladders of power did not recognise Ukraine’s history or autonomy as a distinct people. In the Russia and Soviet sphere, they were Russians and the land was Russia itself.
As an aside, some readers may remember that in the west, Ukraine was referred to as ‘the Ukraine,, as a way to differentiate the land mass itself regionally from others, and this was intentional by Moscow. Their intent was to erase the history of the independence of Ukraine entirely and sublimate it as a sectional landmass of Russia itself.
To Russia and Russians … Ukraine as an entity did not exist, and does not exist today. When you hear Putin say that, this is what he is referring to. His justification for war is to “return the land and people to Russia”
… regardless of history or truth.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet regime disintegrated. In 1991 Ukrainians voted in a referendum to secede from Russia and gain independence. Ninety-two per cent voted in favour … a massive number, making it absolutely clear that Ukraine wanted to not just go on their own, but actually reinvigorate the declaration of independence from 1917.
Due to hyper inflation after the Soviet collapse, Ukraine separated themselves from the Ruble and in 1996 introduced their own currency, the Hryvnia. From there Ukraine’s foray into democracy has been difficult and cantankerous, but in the end successful. The country is recognised by all countries as well as the UN, they are … regardless of what Putin says … a sovereign nation on paper and in reality.
Although today considered the poorest country in Europe, they are the largest grain exporter. They are also now a card-carrying member of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) of the EU and is a general economic EU member, but have maintained their own currency instead of assume the Euro.
We could continue the history lesson into 2014, as a lot happened in the Ukraine and the Crimea during this time, but we will pass on it for now, and move up to today.
Suffice to say that culturally, those citizens living in the eastern regions of Ukraine see themselves as ‘more Russian’ culturally, and those in the west see themselves as ‘more western European.’ In the east there are splinter rebel separatist groups, proxy armed by Putin for years now, and the Ukrainian army has seen support by western nations, NATO and the UN, and has been fighting these separatists on the ground.
To date it’s been a proxy war that today, Putin decided to take direct control of.
The Russian leader has also said that one of the goals of the offensive was to “denazify” the country, part of an effort by Putin to sell the incursion to his constituency at home.
The rhetoric around fighting fascism resonates deeply in Russia, which made tremendous sacrifices battling Nazi Germany in World War II. In his narrative, the West overlooked the role the Soviet Union played in the fight.
When Putin was growing up, the Second World War was at the center of Soviet identity and the enemies were the fascists. It is ironic that Putin appears to be fighting a war the way that actual Nazis did, invading neighbors on the pretext that their borders are irrelevant.
His attempt to recast Ukraine’s government as fascist drew widespread condemnation considering Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish.
Earlier this week Putin announced, “I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago – to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Both these regions are on the outermost eastern reaches of Ukraine, along the Russian border.
These two regions are where these Putinesque separatists are, but there is more to it than that. It’s actually an interesting ploy by Putin to legitimize an extended border region between Ukraine and effectively … NATO, from the Russian border itself.
Fact: Ukraine is not a NATO countr, but has applied for membership. Putin has clearly said he will never allow Ukraine to become a NATO country. If Ukraine does become a full NATO country, under the agreement the west (U.S., Great Britain, Germany, etc.) will be able to move military equipment right up to the Russian border.
During the cold war, exactly where borders sat mattered very much. You need some distance to your enemy to effectively retaliate, once an attack has been launched against you. Having some added distance to the point where your adversary knows you have time to launch yourself … creates the stalemate. A NATO line of rockets on the Ukraine border, minutes from Moscow, eliminates this stalemate. A ballistic attack on Russia could be fired, and Russia would literally not have time to retaliate at all.
Putin realizes that Ukraine becoming a NATO member changes the chess game balance, and Russia loses a major component needed to keep the mutually assured destruction safety net in place. This is one of the main reasons he is moving against Ukraine now; it is a military quagmire, and a massive loss of situational control if he doesn’t.
Moscow’s Boris Yeltsin begged the west not to push NATO to Russia’s borders. It would risk, he said, “the flames of war bursting out across the whole of Europe,” and Putin is working from the same playbook … paranoia.
The west blatantly derided Yeltsin’s advice. NATO leaders feasted on victory in the ‘90s, recruiting members eastwards through Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states. Pleas from Russian moderates were ignored. The result was predictable.
In 1999, Vladimir Putin took power on a populist, patriotic ticket. Putin was a master of articulating “the sense of humiliation Russians felt after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” He exploited NATO’s aggressive expansionism for all it was worth. When in 2008 America’s George W. Bush backed extending NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine (a move that was vetoed by Germany and France) … Putin seized land in both.
Putin emerges as the original Russian nationalist, clouded by the politics of oligarchy, kleptomania and violence. His strategic outlook is not complicated, it is rooted in traditional Russian pride and paranoia. He has no desire to conquer Europe, even if the west, battered by Iraq and Afghanistan, believe otherwise.
He also does not want the return of communism to Russia, that would require some sort of politburo, or shared decision-making body. Putin’s goals are much more simple — pure crowned empire, the return of pure tsarist type rule, intertwined with closed elections and what he calls ‘Russian democracy’ but in the end an autocratic dictatorship.
Where we can watch little dictators be overthrown like Khadafi, Saddam Hussein or Marcos, when you are talking about the fifth largest and the second most powerful military power in history, with control of a third of the world’s oil and gas reserves … this is a different level. He has very real economic and military power.
As 150,000 troops pour in from three sides into Ukraine from Russia, U.S. President Biden announces sending 3,000 fresh troops to Poland, and reiterates that he is not sending U.S. troops into Ukraine. Note the discrepancy in those numbers.
Mr. Putin reminded the world on Thursday that Russia “remains one of the most powerful nuclear states” with “a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons.”
In effect, Mr. Putin’s speech, intended to justify the invasion, seemed to come closer to threatening nuclear war than any statement from a major world leader in recent decades. His immediate purpose was obvious: to head off any possible Western military move by making clear he would not hesitate to escalate.
Given Russia’s nuclear arsenal, he said, “there should be no doubt that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.” He added: “All necessary decisions have been taken in this regard.”
We need to remember he considers Ukraine to be Russia itself. This is hard ball. he is not kidding, and all other leaders know it.
The response? Terse words, pointed fingers, underwhelming military help and sanctions.
in other words, they have all given up on Ukraine on day one.
He is not interested in taking a fine scalpel to Europe’s security order, but rather a blunt knife to carve out, Cold-War-style, what’s mine and what’s yours … and other leaders have so far … caved.
But what about those sanctions?
Today’s news is all about economic sanctions from the U.S., Canada and most other western nations, targeting Russia’s elite and banking industry.
Let’s be really clear here; Putin does not care about sanctions in the slightest; they do nothing to get in the way of his goals. Sanctions will affect the Russian people on the ground, which the Russian leader doesn’t care about.
Putin would only respond to real force, and it’s obvious that except for the Ukrainian army desperately trying to defend its own country from attack, Putin will probably not see any real force used against him or his army from anyone.
He is saying that the only thing that will stop him is someone launching nuclear missiles into Moscow unexpectedly. The problem is, he has at his disposal missile detection and destruction technologies and hypersonic weapons himself, which could mean that his aggressor will be on fire before the missiles even land on Russia, and other leaders know this.
What will happen now?
He will defeat and absorb Ukraine, and install a puppet leadership to continue with the appearance of independence and sovereignty, and NATO aspirations will vanish.
And … that’s if everything goes well, and this doesn’t escalate in an unexpected way. History is chock full of single moments that change the course of history.
Or I’m wrong, and history will show a different outcome … I can only hope.
But it’s not looking good.
Otherwise, today we watch Ukrainians set up camp in their subways… and we cross our fingers for them.
David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.