As tension between Russia and Ukraine escalates, the world watches closely and several decisive steps have been taken by some nations to quell the situation. We analyse the origin of the crisis and provide some context regarding what it could possibly escalate to if we don't learn from history.
More than a week into Putin’s “Special Military Operations” in Ukraine, preliminary attempts at acquiring a ceasefire have failed and the 64km long Russian military convoy, warts-and-all, continues its march on Kyiv.
The invasion was the outcome of a yearlong crisis that began after Russia started massing troops in excess of 170,000 and military equipment along Ukraine’s eastern, southern and northern borders. This paper will draw from historical sources to provide an account of the actions that have occasioned these state-of-affairs.
Rus: Then and Now
In July last year, Putin, somewhat strangely, published an article. On the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine, as the article was prosaically titled, stressed the premise that the Russian and Ukrainian people are essentially one people emanating from the “same historical and spiritual space”. Recounting that the two peoples both trace their respective origins to the great 9th Century Slavic Empire of Ancient Rus, the President chronicles the subjugation of Ukraine by various foreign powers before their fated reunification with the Kingdom of Russia in the 18th Century and their subsequent incorporation into the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution between 1917-1923.
At first glance, this heavily romanticised account of historical relations between the two countries reads like an ode to Russo-Ukrainian unity hence the call for “the closest integration” between the countries. Yet, a closer look will expose the article as an attempt to undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine. References to the West as “those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity” essentially strip Ukraine of its autonomy and reduces the second largest European country into a client state to be used to further the interests of a certain principal power: and he is determined that Russia should be that power. He says as much in the article declaring, “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
Spheres of Influence
Classicists and neo-realists alike swear by a supposed need for powerful states to take all necessary measures to prevent other powerful states from consolidating enough military power as a means to ensure their own survival. The so-called balance of power theory gained prominence during the Cold War and informed the security decisions that countries on either side took in that era of bipolarity.
In that context, spheres of influence began to develop around major powers in countries in which these powers exerted some economic, political or military influence. The process of Finlandisation, a term coined from Finland’s general policy of restraint to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, was used to ensure neighbouring less powerful states were compliant to the foreign policy dictates of their more powerful neighbours.
Vladimir Putin has spoken with nostalgia about Russia’s historic greatness and has bemoaned the dissolution of the Soviet Union describing same as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century."
This essentially drew neighbours of power into its sphere of influence and ensured that other powerful nations could not compromise their interests from their neighbours. In some ways, the United States’ behaviour during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which resulted in the establishment of a direct Washington-Moscow line, can be interpreted as the US asserting its supposed sphere of influence despite Cuba being a sovereign nation and in fact being ideologically opposed to the US.
Nonetheless, one would question the relevance of such condescending perspectives of the global order, especially in a post-War context where the international order is bound by a miscellany of laws and norms implemented by various international organisations and institutions which stress the sovereignty of all states, rich or poor, small or large. Unless that person is Putin, and for them, the Cold War is not necessarily over.
Every Step You Take
Ever since assuming office in 2000, Vladimir Putin has spoken with nostalgia about Russia’s historic greatness and has bemoaned the dissolution of the Soviet Union describing same as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century… Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” Constant reiteration along these lines suggests that Mr. Putin continues to regard former Soviet states as remaining, in some way or form, connected to modern Russia and definitely still within its sphere of influence.
To this extent, the Kremlin has remained influential in the politics, economy and culture of its neighbours. In the Ukrainian case, this involved extensive lobbying to prevent Ukraine from forging closer ties with the European Union. Notwithstanding strong support in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, for the adoption of an Association Agreement which would have fostered enhanced political and economic ties between Ukraine and the EU and its subsidiary bodies, the then Ukrainian executive rejected the agreement following alleged pressure from Moscow. This turned out to be a grave miscalculation on Moscow’s part as the refusal spurred massive public opposition which spiralled into larger protests on perceived widespread corruption, human rights violations and the overreach of oligarchs in Ukraine.
The resultant 2014 Euromaidan Revolution brought an end to the tenure of Viktor Yanukovych who fled to Russia after the Rada removed him from office. Russia’s response to the revolution, annexing Crimea and activating separatist voices in the Donbas region, was not only punitive but additionally showed the resolve of Moscow to destabilise its neighbours if they were not compliant or neutral in the least.
The treatment of Belarus in recent times further shows the dynamicity of Moscow’s approach to its former compatriots. Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus is one such man who has endured the full breadth of the Kremlin’s mood swings. Once known for his deft manoeuvring between East and West, notably holding out on formally recognising Crimea’s supposed accession to Russia, attempts to hold onto power in his country have forced him to fully depend on the Kremlin to stifle dissent and purge protests which arose from the 2020 presidential election which was marred by accusations of fraud.
Crippling sanctions from the United States and its allies have forced Lukashenko’s government to inch further into Moscow’s fold. Russia, on its part, has revived the so-called Union State, a 1997 agreement for the economic and defence integration of Belarus and Russia which had been thought to be redundant. It is the enforcement of this Union State that has allowed Russian troops to attack Ukraine from its shared border with Belarus.
Yet, to consider the ongoing conflict from the solitary lens of Russian aggression is to ignore decades of context which, while not justifying them, provides a counter-narrative to the prevailing one that the Kremlin’s actions are extraordinary in the context of international relations.
NATO: Wider Still and Wider
The 1945 Potsdam Agreement divided Germany into four administrative districts under the control of each of the allied powers (France, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and the United States) with the Soviet Union controlling much of Eastern Germany. Despite being completely within the area under Soviet administration, Berlin was also divided into four regions with the Soviet Union controlling East Berlin to mirror the broader German division.
When disputes arose amongst the Western powers and the Soviet Union due to the introduction of the Deutschmark in Western Germany, the Soviets blocked the Western powers’ railway, road and canal access to the areas of Berlin under their control. The Berlin Blockade marked, in essence, the beginning of the Cold War.
Following the Blockade, several arrangements were developed by the Western powers to contain Soviet influence and check the spread of communism. The North Atlantic Treaty was the progeny of these arrangements. The Treaty was signed in April 1949 with 12 signatories namely the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg, United States, Canada, Italy, Iceland, Portugal, Norway and Denmark with the express intention “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. And so the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed as a military alliance. Article 5 of the founding treaty establishes the principle of collective defence so that an attack against any NATO country is considered as an attack against all of them.
It stands to reason therefore that with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the objective of NATO had been realised. It may therefore have been prudent for the military alliance to be dissolved as an ensign of a new era in international politics where notions of polarity had been excused in favour of collective adherence to International Law and to the Institutions and Organisations that enforced them. Instead, the United States, which had by then become the principal NATO state, leveraged on the unipolarity of the International Order to fashion itself to some as the world’s policeman and to others, the world’s bully.
NATO unilaterally conducted a 4-month aerial bombardment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War without authorisation of UNSC on grounds that this bombardment constituted a humanitarian intervention.
Post-Cold War, the then Alliance for collective defence has morphed greatly into a political alliance. Under the banner of exporting democratic values, NATO has courted at worst and encouraged at best, the accession of former Warsaw Pact countries to NATO. The enlargement critically included the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who all share land borders with Russia. This expansion was done possibly-as this is a matter of great contention-against an assurance given, during the Two Plus Four Agreement negotiations by then US Secretary of State Baker to the Soviet Union to expand “not one inch eastwards” and certainly against the advice of several US foreign policy experts including Paul Nitze and Robert McNamara.
In fairness to NATO, no binding instrument or formal arrangement precluded their Eastwards expansion upon German reunification. All countries who did join the Alliance primarily did so of their own accord as they were well within their rights to do so as sovereign countries. In fact, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which was meant to guide relations between NATO and Russia as partners for peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area, expressly recognised the sovereignty of all states and their “inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security”.
Nonetheless, it is of little doubt, as Boris Yeltsin wrote to Bill Clinton, that Eastward NATO expansion was not favourable to Russia-NATO relations and not necessary within the security context of Eastern Europe in the 90s. Additionally, George Kennan, the legendary US diplomat credited with inspiring the Truman Doctrine which has guided US foreign policy since World War II, stated unequivocally that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.”
That NATO went ahead to expand severalfold despite the concerns of the Russian Federation was in bad faith in the least.
An action which has happened to be no less consequential in the current conflict given that amongst others, an assurance not to expand NATO Eastwards, the removal of NATO troops from Eastern Europe and a commitment not to deploy additional nuclear weapons outside the United States and remove all nuclear weapons previously deployed formed part of the security guarantees that Russia sought from the United States in the lead up to the invasion.
The Moral Compass of the World Points North
One must, when considering matters of international relations, lend themselves to the immutable fact that that sphere is devoid of any government properly so-called and that the attendant repressive and implementative apparatuses which are ordinarily associated with governments are not necessarily existent. It follows that the international order, to the extent that any such order exists, is subject to the power and willingness of individual state parties to set for themselves rules that regulate their activities in this sphere and abide by same whether or not it favours them at any given point.
Following the end of the Second World War, consensus gathered in the global metropoles on the need to ensure the bloodshed witnessed in the war was never repeated. The United Nations was thus established in 1945 with the coming into force of the UN Charter. As the constitutive treaty of the UN, the Charter establishes and empowers certain organs to maintain or restore international peace and security. Principally, Chapter VI of the Charter provides for the Security Council (UNSC) to undertake military measures to restore international peace and security as a last resort.
While Article 2(4) of the Charter precludes states from the threat or use of force against the territory of any other state, the Security Council may employ military measures to stop a conflict if the required nine members vote in favour of employing such measures and none of the permanent five members exercises their right to veto. Nonetheless, NATO unilaterally conducted a 4-month aerial bombardment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War without authorisation of UNSC on grounds that this bombardment constituted a humanitarian intervention.
Recalling that the international order is framed by consensus, NATO’s bombardment of Yugoslavia and the routine military invasion of the United States in other countries, notably in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, set a precedent that states may intervene militarily in the territories of other states to;
“put an end to or protect persons, not of its (their) nationality who are subjected to serious violations of fundamental human rights, in particular the right to life, without the consent of the target State and without any form of authorization by the UN Security Council.”
It is this precedent that the Russian Federation has used as a pretext to intervene in Ukraine purportedly to stop a genocide against people in the Donbas Region.
The Grass that suffers
It is within this context that the resurgence of such Cold War-era rhetoric and operations are partly attributable to a failure to show leadership upon the USA’s attainment of unipolarity of the global order. In an era defined by the United States’ consistently undermining International Law, commentators cannot feign shock that another country, great in its own right, is pursuing its military objectives outside the scope of the UN Charter. International Law must be good enough for all of us lest, as has become evident in the case of Ukraine, less powerful states will bear the brunt of the grandstanding of major powers.
Sam Kwadwo Owusu-Ansah | Research Analyst, Transnational Policy | firstname.lastname@example.org
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