The Ukrainian standoff between the West and Russia has echoes of the rivalry that existed between the United States and Russia during the Cold War. While the Ukrainian crisis officially started in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, there has always been nostalgia to return to pre-1954 when Crimea was a part of the then Soviet Union. In a millennium-spanning treatise titled, “The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin insisted that the separation of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus into separate states today is artificial, due largely to political mistakes during the Soviet period and, in the case of Ukraine, driven by a malevolent “anti-Russia project” supported by Washington since 2014. There is no doubt that Russia has managed to maintain some level of political, socio and economic influence over eastern European and central European states that were once part of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the West led by the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has tried to balance Russia’s influence in both east and central Europe by stationing troops in former Soviet bloc countries a move Russia has viewed as a threat to its hegemonic role in the region.
The question of whether Russia will invade Ukraine has been on the forefront of foreign policy analysts; however, it looks like Vladimir Putin is still the only person who can answer that. Several military artillery has been placed on Russia’s shared border with Ukraine as well as in Russia annexed Crimea and Belarus (a close ally of Russia and northern neighbor of Ukraine). In 2014, there was little to no reaction when Putin annexed Crimea. Then US President Obama had warned that “there will be costs” for Russia if it invaded any part of Ukraine but the warning was later ratified to “there will only be meaningful costs for Russia if it launches a second invasion, targeting some other part of Ukraine.” The walk back by Obama arguably encouraged the Kremlin to not cede Crimea back to Ukraine because they realized that Washington was not going to do anything. However, almost eight years later the Kremlin is again trying to cement its hegemony over Ukraine while testing the extent to which it can maneuver without facing any consequences from Washington.
Since the Cold War, the Kremlin has engaged in the risky ‘game of chicken’ politics but maintains a fivefold strategic framework to guide or influence its military and foreign policy decisions. The strategic tiers are; 1) a trigger; 2) local support; 3) anticipated military reaction; 4) technical feasibility, and 5) relatively low anticipated political and economic costs. Russian leaders have systematically pushed the envelope to see how far they can go without facing direct consequences for their actions. This in part, has been a poker strategy that Russia assumes would undermine the West and NATO’s influence and efficacy. The opposite, however, is true. The Kremlin’s actions have served as an energizing factor for the organization’s mandate. Denmark sent troops to the Baltic Sea against Russia, the Netherlands is moving fighter jets to Bulgaria, France has offered to put troops in Romania under the NATO command and the US has put 8500 troops on heightened alert in case they need to be deployed in Eastern Europe. It can be argued that Putin’s miscalculation of NATO and his continuation with raising the stakes in the game of chicken could have dire consequences for Russia. However, NATO, the European Union, and the US should not give in to Russian pressure.
There is a broader structural framework for understanding and anticipating Russian military interventions in the post-Soviet space that can perhaps be a more useful guide. Putin would not benefit from a war with Ukraine considering the economic sanctions that would be imposed on Russia’s gas and oil exports which would cripple the Russian economy. This is not to say that war is impossible. It remains a probability for as long as Russia continues to escalate the situation or if Ukraine feels backed up in a corner with diminishing alternatives but to engage in a war with Russia. There is some consensus among political analysts that Putin’s ultimate end goal is not to annex Ukraine but to stop NATO’s expansion. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a draft proposal on Dec. 17, 2021 asking for a formal halt to NATO’s eastern enlargement, a permanent freeze on further expansion of the alliance’s military infrastructure (such as bases and weapons systems) in the former Soviet territory, an end to Western military assistance to Ukraine, and a ban on intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Thus Ukraine’s possible NATO membership is to some extent a contributing factor to the rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia. In more ways than one, the crisis in Ukraine could also be labeled a proxy by the product of the tensions that have existed between the West and Russia since the Cold War.
The chances of Ukraine becoming a member of the Atlantic Organization are at this period very low due to the NATO member states’ lack of consensus on the matter. While at this moment, Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, NATO’s mission is to defend all free states of Europe from external threats. That also means any possible Russian aggression toward Ukraine would result in NATO and Russia going head to head. Additionally, it would be a miscarriage of NATO’s mandate to turn away a European government whose self-determination and security are being threatened by its neighbor even if that said government is not part of the Alliance. Russia’s geopolitical imperatives, which frame all manners of Moscow’s decision-making will determine the Kremlin’s next move. For instance, Moscow was willing to go to war in Georgia in 2008 and subsequently in Ukraine in 2014 to stop NATO’s spreading influence in the former Soviet sphere of influence.
In this case, even though the odds are against a possible military confrontation, it does not dismiss other alternative forms of engagement to cripple Ukraine that Russia might use. The Kremlin has been known to resort to non-conventional methods of statecraft for instance propaganda, spreading misinformation, and the use of cyber-attacks. There is still room for the crisis to de-escalate from a military confrontation through diplomacy. However, diplomacy would be successful if Russia’s demands of Dec. 17, 2021 (mentioned above) are acknowledged as possible concessions. That would entail Ukraine’s wishes of one day joining NATO being dismissed in favor of de-escalation to the current crisis. On the other hand, Ukraine would also seek some guarantees against future Russian aggression. Conclusively, as long as NATO or the Western powers seek to encroach upon what is perceived as Russia’s geographical sphere of influence such escalatory tensions will remain. The relationship between these two parties is founded in historical and political polarization and has now become more geographical than ideological. Ukraine, caught in the middle is finding out what it means to be caught in between the horns of two political spheres — the West and the East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Ian Fleming has an M.A. & B. A. in International Politics by the University of South Africa. He has been published in Asian Journal of Peace. His areas of research include nuclear diplomacy, cybersecurity, and foreign policy. He is currently serving as the Editor in Chief for IAPSS journal ADV and is the Chairperson of the IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime. Furthermore, he is a member of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization Youth Group. In addition, he is a board member of the British American Security Information Council’s Emerging Voices Network.