However, if Russian aggression against Ukraine becomes a military one, it could mean the end of the experiment that Vladimir Putin has been testing for the last two decades. In any case, it will result in a much smaller Russia.
Historically, Ukraine has suffered under Russian rule since the 17th century, when it liberated itself from the Polish-Lithuanian Union. Eventually, the country was absorbed by the Russian Empire and later by the Soviet Union. The ‘Holodomor’ – the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians under Stalin’s command – still has a weight in modern Ukrainian history, which has made Ukrainians extremely suspicious of Russia’s attempts to portray the two states as ‘Slavic brethren’.
A number of more recent events have further affected the idea of Slavic solidarity, given that Russia launched a war against Ukraine in 2014, after the country left its Eurasian Economic Union. The aggression was both open (through the illegal annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas region) and undercover (through sabotage, propaganda and cyber attacks). Unknown in most parts of the West and mistaken for a civil war or a separatist movement, the conflict has been directed and supported by Russia.
Russia is in a better economic and strategic position than in 2016
But the origins of Russia’s current rattle of arms differ from the events of 2014-2015. Putin’s capture of Crimea in 2014 was made from a position of weakness, an opportunistic move facilitated by the withdrawal of the West, and especially the United States, from Central and Eastern Europe. Today, Russia is in a better economic and strategic position than in 2016, aided by US policy.
President Biden’s refusal to impose sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has given Putin a strategic advantage that, coupled with restrictions imposed by its own energy producers in America, has also created a ‘stick’ with which Western Europe could be hit. . In short, Putin has many more diplomatic and military levers to exert pressure that two years ago did not even exist.
So why Ukraine, and why now? Most of the analysis focuses on Ukraine’s prospect of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But another key issue can be found in Russia’s domestic policy. An unpopular Putin means a dangerous Putin.
Ukraine has become a much stronger “actor”
His war in Chechnya in 2000, the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the conquest of Crimea in 2014 were all popular events, raising Putin’s popularity in opinion polls. In 2021, Putin’s popularity plummeted, primarily due to Moscow’s mismanagement of the covid pandemic. With a mortality rate approaching 800,000 people since the onset of the pandemic (the official report on covid-related deaths indicates 278,000 deaths), Russia has been severely affected by the virus. At the same time, Russia’s revenues fell by more than 10% between 2014 and 2020. With declining popularity, Putin was quick to rally the Russians around the flag.
Without Ukraine, Russia can no longer be an empire
Unfortunately for him, Ukraine has become a much stronger ‘actor’, both economically and militarily, than it was in 2014. Unlike Russia’s pre-occupation actions in Crimea and the Donbass, the current merger Russian military is in sight, giving Ukraine time to fight back. Any direct military attack would severely affect Russia in a manner similar to that of the USSR in Afghanistan, but with the increased impediment of the country being at the gates of Europe, with clear fronts of NATO countries. Although there is little hope of a direct NATO intervention, the danger of a guerrilla war and a bloody and prolonged insurgency could serve as an obstacle to any hasty action.
Without Ukraine, Russia can no longer be an empire, but Russia will also cease to be a great power if it tries to conquer the rest of Ukraine. Moscow is simply too dependent on basic necessities, and the covid has weakened the population’s support for a regime that enjoys international prestige, but too little for anything else. Any armed operation in Ukraine will bring the Russian economy, still weakened, to the brink of collapse or perhaps even beyond it.
Consequently, it is imperative that the West show itself united against Russia and continue to raise the price of any aggression on its part. This means that, despite the temptations of Biden and perhaps the German Foreign Ministry, Putin will not be easily won over by his belligerent spirit. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, sacrificing Ukraine to maintain the unstable balance of Europe would be like choosing dishonor without necessarily preventing war. (Rador)