Patrick Nopens / Mar 2022
Today, we are experiencing the opening salvos of a forcible attempt to reintegrate the Slavic parts of the former Russian Empire into a Greater Russia. Belarus, Ukraine are the primary targets, but Nothern Kazakhstan, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Moldova could follow soon. The next step would be to demand a buffer zone to protect this Greater Russia against NATO encroachment. Hence, the Draft Treaties on Security Guarantees Russia proposed to the US and NATO in December 2021 demand that NATO deploy no forces or weapons in countries that joined the Alliance after May 1997.
However, there seems to be a widespread misunderstanding as to the motives of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Firstly, many analysts underline that Putin's political survival is the real motive. A democratic Ukraine, economically integrated into the EU, undoubtedly threatens his regime. Therefore, Putin depicts the government that came to power through the Maidan movement as a neo-Nazi junta that ousted a democratically elected head of state. These analysts presume that the crisis will cease once Ukraine undergoes a regime change sympathetic to Russia. A short and successful war in Ukraine would unquestionably boost Putin's regime.
Secondly, some analyses assume that Putin's goal is a neutral Ukraine that would constitute a buffer zone between Russia and NATO. However, Russia would not be satisfied with a mere neutral status for Ukraine without effectively controlling the country and establishing a buffer zone between Ukraine and NATO.
Finally, most analyses overlook that Russia already has taken over Belarus without firing a single shot. To survive politically, Lukashenka has sold out his country to Russia. Russia has been able to deploy its forces freely throughout the territory of Belarus to launch an invasion on neighbouring Ukraine from the north, stabbing it in the back and relegating Belarus to a Russian vassal. On 27 February, Belarus pledged troops to participate in the invasion of Ukraine. It also approved hosting Russian Nuclear weapons and Russian troops permanently on its territory. The Ukrainian, Russian and Belorussian soldiers who took part in the Great Patriotic War must be turning in their graves.
The underlying reason for the invasion of Ukraine is Russia's enduring superpower hangover and distorted view of its importance. To paraphrase Thucydides, as the core state of the USSR, Russia was strong and did what it could. After the implosion of the USSR, Russia was weak and had to suffer what it had to. Still, notwithstanding an economy that is only slightly larger than the BENELUX's and a dwindling population, Russia considers it its birthright to be the centre of one of the major power centres in a multipolar world and be treated as an equal by the US.
However, despite its nuclear status, geopolitical position and abundant natural resources, Russia realises that, without Ukraine and Belarus, it does not have the necessary mass to compete with the United States, the EU, China, or other upcoming powers. Therefore, Russia has to reunite the Slavic lands into a Greater Russia or Triune Russia. Hence Russia cannot afford these countries drifting towards the West and the urgency of consolidating a union of some sort.
This urge has become obsessive but is by no means new. In his state of the nation address in 2005, Putin stated that "First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory." In February 2017, Putin made it clear in Munich that Russia rejected the post-Cold War European security architecture.
Moreover, this mission of reuniting a Greater Russia is not limited to lands inhabited by ethnic Russians. Already in 1994, Putin stated that "Territories, which are impregnated by Russian or Slavic blood, have a right to remain forever in Slavic possession." In his speech in the Kremlin on 18 March 2014, Putin once again linked territory with the past and spilt Russian blood. In July this 2014, at a meeting with Russian ambassadors in Moscow, Putin extended this duty of protection not only to ethnic Russians, but equally to everyone who feels they belong to the Great Russian World: "When I speak of Russians and Russian-speaking citizens, I am referring to those people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community, they may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people." Therefore, at least the northern part of Kazakhstan, Moldova, Transdniestria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia or anywhere with a Russian minority or where Russian soldiers spilt blood are candidates for incorporation in a Greater Russia.
So, those who think that what is happening in Ukraine today is merely the consequence of a deranged head of state trying to save his regime should do some urgent rethinking. The strategic objective of Russia is to reunify the Slavic populations of the former Russian empire in a Greater Russia and, in doing so, change the security structure in Europe. Reinstating its control over Belarus, Ukraine, and Northern Kazakhstan are intermediate objectives to reach this. In Belarus, Russia achieved this without military force. In Ukraine, Russia has to use military force. Kazakhstan should be feeling uncomfortable, especially after the CSTO intervention last year under Russian command to quell civil disturbances. Russian support to stay in power comes at a price, as Lukashenka is experiencing today.
Whatever the outcome of the present Russian aggression in Ukraine, Russia has already lost the hearts and minds of Ukrainians for generations to come. Even then, it will not be easy to roll back Russian control of Eastern Europe and influence in Central Europe if Putin succeeds in reintegrating Ukraine by force. In the best case, this will lead to a new Cold War.
On the other hand, the Ukrainian adventure could mean the end of Putin's reign. Suppose the Russian forces get bogged down, and Putin becomes even more erratic. Putin could order an escalation of the Russian violence and already has put his nuclear forces on higher alert. This type of erratic behaviour could provoke a palace coup mirroring the removal of Khrushchev in 1964. It is doubtful that a successor coming from his inner circle would be less nationalistic than Putin. Still, hopefully, he would be more rational.
For thirty years, Europe neglected its military forces. Meanwhile, the US needs to focus its attention on China. Merely equipping our forces with weapon systems to fight in Mali or Afghanistan is no longer sufficient. Europe will need time to rebuild its military forces. Central European countries have already started this process. Western European countries have to step up urgently. Germany's decision on the 27 February to finally spend at least 2% of its GDP on defence will hopefully set an example.
However, Europe does not only need to rebuild its hard power. Eight years to the day before the Russian invasion, the former prime minister of Belgium and European member of parliament Guy Verhofstadt stood on the Maidan. With great verve, he thanked the Ukrainian people for "defending European values, European principles, and European democracy". He made the hollow promise to continue supporting Ukraine, saying, "we are with you, we are not going (away), we (are) staying with you". Only the EU was not able to follow up on these promises; it was not prepared to support or even arm Ukraine until the invasion had begun. Even then, despite the EU's remarkable turnaround following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it could be too late.
Hopefully, Europe is relearning that soft diplomacy does not get one far without carrying a big stick. It will have a considerable task rebuilding its international credibility. Europe as a geopolitical player is still far off.
In the meantime, it remains to be seen what price Ukraine will have to pay for peace in our time so we can rebuild our armed forces. Let us hope that, once the crisis subsides, we do not revert to our old habits of complacency.