One would think a war would change much, but in terms of strategic goals surrounding the Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022 not so much has changed for the direct participants, Russia and Ukraine. And even in their cases there is great continuity. Russia is adhering to its national security culture’s vigilance against Western encroachment. The U.S. driven Western policy is to maintain NATO enlargement as a mechanism for expanding democracy globally, particularly in Eurasia. Ukraine remains caught between two flames, repeating the historical experience of Cossacks, Poles, Baltic and many other eastern European and western Eurasian peoples. The conflict’s intensity in duration is putting an end to the dream of NATO expansion, threatening the survival of Ukrainian statehood, and creating the potential of a major, perhaps regime-crippling quagmire for Russia and its bullyish president Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s Security Vigilance and NATO in Ukraine
Russia is seeking to prevent Ukrainian membership in NATO, end NATO’s presence in Ukraine, and eliminate Ukrainian military risks to its Donbass client states. This all was true before the war and remains true during the war. What has surprised is Putin’s early resort to massive military force. Although I have warned for years that NATO expansion to Ukraine, Georgia, or more hypothetically Belarus would lead to military conflict with Moscow, I did not expect that Putin would resort to such a massive use of force at this stage in the NATO-Russia standoff. As I noted in a previous article, he still had many options – one of which he chose, recognition of the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic – in particular the ‘military-technical’ options he threatened in December (https://gordonhahn.com/2022/01/10/putins-military-technical-and-other-options-if-strategic-stability-and-ukraine-talks-fail/). Taking one, several, or even all of those steps – none of which were kinetic – would have been a far better way to impress upon the West the Kremlin’s determination. Such a military-technical escalation of the new cold war would have incurred far few fewer costs on all parties, especially Moscow and Kiev, left the door open for a compromise between Moscow and the West, and the potential for improved Russo-Ukrainian relations in the more distant future.
Instead, Putin chose a ‘nuclear’ option of sorts, declaring full war on Ukraine, reestablishing an iron curtain between Russia and its allies, on the one hand, and the West, on the other hand, and eliminating the room for maneuver and alternative courses of action that in the past had been Putin’s mode of foreign policy practice. He has chased himself, his regime, and his country into a corner, from which it will be extremely difficult to be extricated. If he is perceived as having lost the war gambit, his stock inside the elite and state apparatus will plummet, leaving himself vulnerable to some sort of machination, especially as the 2024 presidential election now looms just over the horizon. As I mentioned in a previous article, small cracks have already formed inside in the elite though not inside the state apparatus/ruling group, as far as they might be visible at an early stage. In terms of the state/regime’s position within society that has become clearly less stable, as the continuing anti-war demonstrations, albeit not massive but persistent, continue into their third week. With the draconian ‘sanctions regime’ – really a nearly full economic islation of Russia – being instituted by the West; some ratings agencies are forecasting a Russian default in April or May, the ruble has collapsed, and inflation and unemployment are about to soar to levels unprecedented since Putin’s rise to power at the beginning of the century. By the time Putin must announce whether or not he will seek re-election – a possibility he expended considerable political capital in arranging through the 2020 constitutional amendments – the economy could be in a deep depression. His country on the international stage has been irretrievably banished from the West and set firmly in the grasp of rising China, with few options for Putin to limit Russia’s economic, political, and military dependence on Beijing. Putin may have escaped the Big Reset but not the Big Rise of China over the east. India remains Russia’s single alternative for a respite from China’s grasp, but even here Russia becomes tied into the dilemma of potential Sino-Indian conflict.
U.S. Revolutionism, NATO Expansion, and Ukrainian Tool
For the West, the driver is American messianism–the expansion of democracy globally. The strategy continues to be ‘color revolutionism’—that is, to parlay the war in Ukraine into the fall of the Putin’s regime or at least of Putin. The large supply of financial, military, and other Western assistance to Ukraine is intended to prolong the war such that the economic and military costs of the war become so high for the Russian elite or populace that a coup or uprising is induced. This is a continuation of the West’s revolutionist regime change policy that helped to bring the world the present mess in Ukraine. Western democracy-promotion is part and parcel of NATO expansion. The fall of the Putin regime will allow Ukraine to become a NATO member ‘someday’ as NATO documents for years have promised. Ukraine is both the tool and object of NATO expansion. Its defeat of Russian in the present war and Ukraine’s entry into NATO would pave the way for Georgia, Moldova, Finland, and Sweden to soon join. Therefore, Kiev must hold out at all costs, drive the price up for Moscow over time, and eventually spark regime change in Moscow and Ukraine’s victory over Russia. The cost for Kiev could be tens of thousands of Ukrainian casualties, and Putin still might not fall in the bargain. In this way, the West’s wager is now no less than Putin’s risky gambit. Much of Ukraine may be sacrificed and along the way escalation of the war beyond Ukraine becomes a greater and greater risk.
Thus far, we have been able to avoid WW III on two of three counts. First, the West has so far rejected the idea of establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine; something that would bring NATO and Russia into direct military conflict. A group of out-of-touch hysterical anti-Russian military and politicial operatives proposed a partial no-fly zone to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aide and keep open evacutation corridors for civilians. But this has been accomplished by Russian and Ukrainian coordination, so the real purpose of this proposal is to draw NATO into the war, hoping that it will lead to a coup in Moscow. The actual likely outcome of such a war would be a nuclear holocaust. The second bullet dodged was the West’s backing down from lans to send fighter jets, Mig 29s, from Poland to Ukraine. The Poles got cold feet and decided to slough off responsibility for such a decision to Washington and Brussels by announcing they would deliver the Migs to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for US approval and dispatch to Ukraine. Washington thought twice and dropped the plan. The third bullet is still heading towards our collective head. The sending of fighters from across Europe, with several states legalizing the dispatch of sich volunteers to fight the Russians is a casus belli. Moscow is likely to see this as a move to send undercover to Ukraine former and present Western military, special forces, and intelligence officers.
Although the sanctions being orchestrated by the West are comprehensive they are not nuclear. GazProm continues to rake in profits from Western countries, and the West refrained from cutting GasPromBank from SWIFT—a signal that the West does not want to burn all bridges and chase the Russian people into a corner, where they may be more likely in the short-term to rally around Putin rather than turn against him.
But while the US and the West have made these negative (avoidance) contributions to ‘peace’, they have done little to nothing to pursue an end to the war. Instead of merely providing weapons and other assistance to Kiev, it should support Kiev’s negotiations with Moscow. For example, there has been no US and NATO in response to Zelenskiy’s call for security guarantees not just from Russia – should Kiev agree to non-bloc neutral status – but from a Western country. But neither Washington nor any other Western capitol has stepped in to say they would support such a move. Zelenskiy noted on March 11th: “I think that this in principle is another approach and it should be so. I think that our Western partners and leaders have not been sufficiently drawn into this yet, because if we are speaking about points regarding guarantees of security for our state then they simply cannot trust Russia in Ukraine after such a bloody war. Therefore, besides the Russian Federation, other leaders also should offer these security guarantees” (https://strana.news/news/381439-situatsija-v-ukraine-12-marta-karta-boevykh-dejstvij.html). Here also Zelenskiy is proposing what should have happened long ago: US involvement in the peace process (https://gordonhahn.com/2019/12/19/hope-against-hope-in-paris-vvp-ze-and-some-from-the-west/; https://gordonhahn.com/2017/11/27/a-un-peacekeeping-mission-for-ukraine/).
Ukrainian Fealty and Potential State Dissolution
Zelenskiy simply has nowhere else to go at this point, despite his realization during this war that his and his predecessors’ fealty to the West and NATO was misguided – it was Poroshenko who engineered the insertion of a clause into the Ukrainian constitution declaring the goal of Ukrainian membership in NATO. Kiev’s fealty to the West and NATO had opened up Ukraine to the threat of a Putin push to preempt NATO expansion and its creeping build up of arms and infrastructure before February 24th. Had Putin not started this larger war, then Kiev might have woken up to the fact that Ukraine was being hung out as bait on the altar of eternal NATO expansion. Putin should have used the threat of war and the feckless Western policy in talks with Zelenskiy, but alas…. Despite the West’s misguided operational assumption being that Putin is ‘evil,’ a ‘murderer’, and bent on far-flung expansion rather than security against NATO expansion, it nevertheless continued to insist that Ukraine (and Georgia) will some day be in NATO. But at the same time, the West and NATO said that Ukrainian membership would occur in the distant future and if Russia invaded Ukraine it would do nothing militarily to stop it. This truly irrational policy met its inevitable just deserts on February 24th. The Ukrainian armed forces and perhaps, more so, its allied informal neofascist volunteer batallions added the coup de gras with its massive artillery bombardment of Donbass on February 18th – a coup de gras underscored when Zelenskiy hinted Kiev would seek nuclear weapons.
Zelenskiy now appears to underdstands fully just how much he and Ukraine was set up by Washington and NATO, but he needs them now more than ever to stop the Russian invasion and secure the withdrawal of troops. Moreover, Kiev is now faced with having to bid farewell to Donbass as well as Crimea and in written form and perhaps also a major reorganization of the political landscape in what remains of Ukraine under Moscow’s demands for ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification’. Thus, despite all the Western and insistence, assurances, and promises regarding ‘Ukrainian sovereignty’ and freedom to make ‘its own choice’ in security matters, Ukraine is poised to lose not just more territory but a major Russian intervention into its sovereign internal affairs.
From Zelenskiy’s and other top Ukrainian officials’ public statements, the Ukrainians are more than ready to forego NATO membership—the primary cause of the war to be removed regretfully after rather than before war. It is a much tougher choice for Kiev to agree and codify in a peace agreement Donbass independence and Crimea’s annexation. Should the military situation for the Ukrainian army continue to slowly deteriorate, then Kiev may be more forthcoming on thise issues as well. In reality, there are few if any prospects of these territories ever being returned to Ukraine short of a major European war in which Russia is defeated. Will Kiev agree to limits on their military? Maybe. Will it agree to “de-nazification”? Depends on what that means. If it means arresting all the neofascists or banning them all from politics, then Zelenskiy will be hardpressed to allow the Russians or order the Ukrainian military and/or police to arrest the numerus neofascists and even simply banning them from public office would expose Zelenskiy to charges of treason and the risk of assassination or a coup. If denazification means an end to discrimination against the Russian language in education, media and the like, then Zelenskiy probably could agree to and enforce that. Will the Russians demand a ban on propaganda of Bandera, UPA, and OUN? Zelenskiy would be in trouble, particularly in western Ukraine, if he agreed to that.
The only way for the war to end on more acceptable terms for Kiev is if the Russian offensive really does begin to falter, drag out, or even be turned back. Then Putin may be more willing to compromise on some of these issues in order to avoid an elite and/or public backlash and still come away with something he can call a victory. The other difficulty is actually withdrawing Russian troops, and, depending on the nature of the agreement, what control Zelenskiy will have over the neofascist independent armed formations. In the end, it may be impossible for Kiev to control disparate bands of isolated army units and neofascist batallions. Putin may not be able to withdraw and be forced to drive to the Polish border, where guerialla warfare may some day force him to restore some rump of a Ukrainian state in western Ukraine. Exhaustion will help both sides be more accommodating, but tens of thousands of casualties are now unavoidable.
Exhaustion and fear are already setting in and concentrating minds on both sides. Each appears intent on continuing the peace talks, suggesting a determination in Moscow and Kiev to stop the bloodletting before the situation reaches a point of no return in which for Moscow a long drawn out anti-guerilla war and for Kiev the threat of full dissolution of the Ukrainian state become the most likely outcomes. Exhaustion and fears of worse case scenarios are also prompting cooperation between the Kremlin and Bankovaya on opening up corridors for humanitarian aide and evacuation. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It demonstrates that Putin has not ‘lost his mind’, understands the scale and potential negative consequences for himself and Russia of the destruction his decision has wrought, and – despite Western propaganda suggesting Putin ordered the intentional targeting civilians and ‘genocide’ – maintains some capacity for the humanization of Ukraine’s suffering civilians. The term ‘collateral damage’ had to be translated into Russian from a foreign language decades ago.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He previously has authored four well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.