February 24, 2022
It started with satellite photos of the Russian military buildup near Ukraine in early November 2021. Ever since, Russia and the West have been fighting a war of nerves with frenetic diplomacy accompanied by mutual accusations of spreading misinformation, allegations of false-flag operations, Western intelligence reports and statements at the highest levels predicting an imminent invasion, and Russian denials.
On one side stood Russia and President Putin. On the other side were Ukraine, the US, NATO’s 30, and EU’s 27 member states, 21 one which happens to be members of both. Thus, the formulation of a common position was a major challenge for the West but not for Russia. Nonetheless, after some weeks the West appeared united. “Nothing about Europe without Europe”, “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”, and “nothing about NATO, without NATO” became Washington’s slogans underlining Western unity. Then came the Western agreement on massive sanctions if Russia were to invade Ukraine. Despite calls from President Zelensky, these were never specified.
From the outset of the crisis, I have been inclined to believe that President Putin would resist ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine because a bloody war will zero out his theory about the Russians and Ukrainians being one people. The harsh words he used for Ukraine’s leadership in his address before signing the executive orders recognizing of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as independent states could not resonate with the people of Ukraine. But that was his choice. After all, as Foreign Minister Lavrov had said rather interestingly, a month ago during an interview, once Washington’s and NATO’s written responses to Russia’s treaty proposals were received, he and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu would report to President Putin because they were acting on his direct instructions – this was his initiative.
The Ukraine crisis came exactly a year after President Biden addressed the global community for the first time. At the Virtual Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021, he defined the partnership between Europe and the US as the cornerstone of all that the West hopes to accomplish in the 21st century, just as it did in the 20th century. He said, “I know — I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined — determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”
He told European leaders that the West must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China. He accused the Kremlin of attacks on Western democracies and said President Putin seeks to weaken the European project and the NATO Alliance because it is so much easier for the Kremlin to bully and threaten individual states than it is to negotiate with a strong and closely united transatlantic community. He also said, “We cannot and must not return to the reflective [reflexive] opposition and rigid blocs of the Cold War. Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all.”
But then came AUKUS, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, both setbacks for transatlantic relations. Today, President Biden is faced with problems on the domestic front. America remains polarized. Europe, after Brexit, is faced with internal divisions and leadership questions. Europe’s and America’s economic interests are not always overlapping. European countries are reluctant to get engulfed in US-China and US-Russia strategic competition, regardless of what is said in Western policy statements at the highest levels. And, unfortunately, all of this is happening at a time when “democracy’s decline” has become a current topic in the West. It goes without saying that the discussion is not only about China or Russia but the West itself. Because the world leader’s own record of democracy and respect for human rights is being questioned.
Thus, President Putin’s timing was perfect for raising the curtain for an act of defiance. Once the Russian military buildup was in place, he watched Western efforts to display unity, threatening sanctions but also advocating diplomatic engagement. The Russian Foreign Ministry analyzed all the signals, what the West said in public and behind closed doors, notably the references to Ukraine not being NATO territory. No doubt, the following from President Biden’s news conference on January 19, did not escape Moscow’s attention:
“And so, I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.
But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine, and that our allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy.”
Finally, President Putin decided to act. Looking at the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, Moscow’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, before any military action, was only to be expected.
On February 17, Secretary Blinken told the UN Security Council that Russia would firstly manufacture a pretext for its attack. Secondly, he said, in response to this manufactured provocation, the highest levels of the Russian Government may theatrically convene emergency meetings to address the so-called crisis and will issue proclamations declaring that Russia must respond to defend Russian citizens or ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
And he proved right. But then he said:
“Next, the attack is planned to begin. Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed. Cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions.
“After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. We believe these targets include Russia’s capital –Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people.”
Fortunately, that has not happened, at least so far.
Perhaps, this is a good moment to wind the clock back once again and imagine if history could be written differently.
During the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union Western countries lectured Moscow on the merits of democracy and market economy. Russia implemented a radical privatization program encouraged by the West. The fall in oil prices added to Russia’s economic woes. GNP fell by 43%. Inflation reached record levels leading to social problems. Some former members of the Warsaw Pact, which had remained forcibly under communist regimes since the end of the Second World War, others under Soviet occupation and yearning for independence, crossed over to the “other side” in exercising what was their indisputable right under international law.
Nonetheless, the West could and should have done more to manage Russia’s frustration. The loss of an empire, coming so suddenly, is more than a disappointment. Ottoman Empire’s decline continued for almost two centuries, but some still long for its days of glory, always disregarding the reasons underlying its long-drawn-out decay.
Russia has repeatedly referred to the freedom of states to choose military alliances as well as the obligation not to strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states as reflected in 1999 Istanbul and the 2010 Astana Declarations. Recently, “In the early 1990s, or more precisely in 1990, when Germany was reunified and the issue of European security was raised, they solemnly promised that NATO would not expand even an inch eastward beyond the Oder River,” Foreign Minister Lavrov said. President Putin used harsh language, referring to lies and being cheated.
There were no written commitments of the kind Russia is demanding now, but one may say, in all fairness, that at least an understanding was given. Probably, the victors of the Cold War saw little harm if any in showing some generosity to soothe Russian grief.
On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly announced his resignation and named Vladimir Putin acting president. Since then, Mr. Putin has ruled over Russia. The constitutional amendments which were approved by the Russians by a large majority have given Mr. Putin the possibility to run two more times for president after his current term expires in 2024. During his joint news conference with President Putin on February 15, Chancellor Scholz referring to NATO expansion said, “The situation is somewhat odd: no expansion is being planned; nor is it discussed or put on the agenda. Everyone knows about it. While each of us is in office, we will not have to deal with this. I do not know how much longer Mr. President will remain in his post. I think this might be a long time, but not an eternity…”. Indeed, not for eternity, but surely the foreseeable future.
President Putin has restored Russia’s status as a global power. He has seized every opportunity offered by the West. The restoration of their country’s power understandably makes the people of Russia happy and proud. Russia, like China, is a great nation. It has made outstanding contributions to world culture, science, and technology. However, like China, without even an interlude of democracy in its history, Russia has also failed to make any progress in that direction. President Putin’s rule is no exception. This not to say that Russians never aspired to democracy. They did, but their hopes were always frustrated.
NATO’s Bucharest Summit Declaration of 3 April 2008 said:
“NATO’s door will remain open to European democracies willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership, in accordance with Article 10 of the Washington Treaty. We reiterate that decisions on enlargement are for NATO itself to make… NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO…”
Four months later, Russia intervened in Georgia. On August 26, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The West was wrong to encourage Mikheil Saakashvili in a doomed adventure, thus setting an example for Ukraine.
Today’s fundamental reality is that none of the three global powers can undertake decisive interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia joined NATO during Russia’s decade of weakness. Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia joined later but they were not bordering Russia. Baltic countries’ chance of joining NATO today could hardly be any better than that of Ukraine, had they and NATO not acted at the time.
In an earlier post, I said “… the US and its Western allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other have different perceptions of the international order. While Russia and China put the emphasis on international law and the UN Charter, the US and its Western allies favor an expanded set of rules.” [i]
The sad reality is the rules-based international order is but a myth. US invasion of Iraq under false premises, regime change projects in Libya and Syria, supporting the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, and failure to engage in peace-making only weakened the West’s claim to global moral leadership.
Russia’s recognition of the two breakaway regions as independent states, its use of military power, and continuing threats to go far beyond what it has already done are indisputably blatant violations of the rules-based international order even under Moscow’s and Beijing’s definition thereof. This is about Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in Eurasia if not the resurrection of the Soviet Union.
Because as I pointed out in an earlier post, article 4 of the “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees” proposed by Moscow reads:
“The United States of America shall not establish military bases in the territory of the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.”
Regardless, the current security debate remains focused on European security. While this is understandable in view of the latest steps taken by Moscow, it also signals something about central Asia.
Regardless, in reacting to Russian aggression the West needs to remember that this conflict is about Ukraine and the future of the people of Ukraine. It needs to tread a fine line between supporting Kyiv and avoiding provoking the further invasion of Ukrainian territory.
President Biden and Secretary Blinken have repeatedly said that and that US allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy; that invading Ukraine will prove to be a self-inflicted wound for Russia; that the West is united and galvanized. Moreover, President Biden has said, “when it comes to Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany, if Russia further invades Ukraine, it will not happen.”
One would have to wait and see.
Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine will leave Turkey with tough choices across the spectrum. The first item to rise high up on the agenda would be the future of the Russian S-400s on Turkey’s defense inventory. Then would come the issue of sanctions. Turkey is dependent on Russian natural gas. Its tourism industry relies heavily on Russian visitors. Bilateral trade is around ten billion dollars. Turkish contracting companies are active in Russia.
On February 22, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the following press release regarding Russia’s decision to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk Republics:
“The decision of the Russian Federation to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, in addition to contradicting the Minsk Agreements, constitutes a clear violation of Ukraine’s political unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“The Russian Federation’s decision is unacceptable and we reject it.
“We reiterate once again our commitment to the preservation of Ukraine’s political unity and territorial integrity and invite all concerned parties to act with common sense and to abide by international law.”
President Erdogan cut his trip to Africa short to return to Ankara to participate in the virtual NATO summit.
If common sense were to prevail, the silver lining to the Russian military intervention of Ukraine could be a reset in Turkey’s relations with its traditional allies. For this to happen, Turkey needs to continue standing against Russian aggression in Ukraine. And the West needs to admit that there are limits to what Turkey can do on the question of sanctions. Turkey has already suffered more than any other country from the Western sanctions imposed on some of its Middle Eastern neighbors.
The Ukraine crisis will prove a tough balancing act for Turkish diplomacy. Its success would depend on transparency and ensuring mutual trust. Remembering the Turkish proverb, “if speech is silver, silence is gold” may also help.