This story originally appeared in openDemocracy on Feb. 22, 2022. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0) license.
In the near future, a big war will begin—a war that we have not seen in the lifetime of my generation, and perhaps the previous generation too.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, last night formally recognised the separatist ‘People’s Republics’ in Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent territories. Now, he has ordered so-called ‘peacekeeping forces’ into the Donbas region.
Meanwhile, on the borders of Ukraine, Russia has gathered an army of 75% of all available forces. Belarus has officially confirmed that, following extensive exercises, Russian troops are not leaving Belarus. A few kilometres from Ukraine, tanks sit in Russian forests and fields—as can be seen in videos filmed in Russia’s Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk regions, as well as in Belarus’ Homyel region. This military force is fully prepared for a large-scale operation—and is already in position to attack.
The only thing that can stop this war is if the West hands Ukraine over to Putin. Judging by the powerful speech that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, gave in Munich at the weekend, he believes that this is a possibility. However, if this does not happen, there will be a war. There are no other options.
Russia’s plans are not limited to annexing the so-called ‘People’s Republics’, the two separatist entities that were set up after Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. Military analysts point out that Russian forces are concentrated in other areas. In Russia’s Rostov region, which borders Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the forces are relatively modest, but Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa are all under threat of direct attack.
Furthermore, in the Kremlin’s view, the question over the future fate of Ukraine as a whole must be decided now, and the point here is not Ukraine’s formal entry into NATO. When German chancellor Olaf Scholz says he does not understand the current crisis over an issue (Ukraine’s accession to NATO) that “is not on the agenda,” he is being disingenuous.
Either Ukraine receives military guarantees from the West that will allow the country to build its political system according to the European model, or it does not—and quickly falls under Putin’s control. Since Ukraine is already rapidly increasing military cooperation with Europe and North America, without any discussion on NATO, it will be impossible, in Putin’s view, to stop Ukraine quickly. Ukraine is leaving Russia’s orbit, and it can only be stopped now. For internal and external reasons, now is the best moment for Putin to take back control of Ukraine—at any cost.
No sanctions will stop Putin. Yes, they are undesirable and Putin certainly hopes that some states will refrain from imposing them. (Once the war starts, the incentive to apply sanctions actually drops sharply right away.) However, Putin has repeatedly said that sanctions will not matter. This means that the Kremlin’s current plan takes all the worst scenarios into account. There are no sanctions that would force Putin to abandon Ukraine. Moreover, a significant part of these sanctions will inevitably be implemented even without any attack. Even without them, the fist that Putin is holding over Europe is absolutely sufficient to drastically reduce trade with Russia for the sake of elementary security.
What happens next will be a difficult test for many people across the world, including for Russians.
NATO is certainly a potential military adversary of Russia. This is a military bloc that was created to oppose the Soviet Union and was not dissolved or reformed after the collapse of both the Union and its own security bloc, the Warsaw Pact. This is not a peaceful and innocent alliance: NATO carried out ‘humanitarian’ operations (such as Libya, Serbia) that do not fit the idea of a ‘defensive alliance’. In the 1990s, the Western leadership suggested to the Soviet and Russian leadership that it would not expand NATO towards Russia’s borders—there is enough documentary evidence for this. This proposal was not accepted by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, it was not a promise and was not written into any treaty, and did not create any obligations. But its withdrawal signifies a desire on the part of the West to abuse Russia’s peaceful mood at the turn of the 1990s in order to reduce its military capabilities. NATO expansion under these conditions is, in effect, an unfriendly action towards Russia. Any responsible Russian government should seek to prevent it.
During Putin’s leadership, NATO has doubled in size—the bloc has expanded four times and 11 new countries have become members. The problem is that Putin believes in only one tool: brute military force. He acted, and continues to act, aggressively, proceeding from the fact that the only way to get a country to refuse NATO membership is by force.
Thanks to Putin’s policy, more and more countries want to join the bloc, and Russia’s position is deteriorating. The outcome of the coming war is likely to include Sweden’s entry into NATO, and public opinion in Finland has also changed. During Putin’s rule, Russia has offered nothing to European countries to make NATO membership unattractive for them. On the contrary, thanks to the real danger of aggression from Russia, NATO again makes sense as a security option and its strengthening has begun to look like a basic development option for Europeans. Under Putin, the NATO bloc has become stronger than ever.
At the same time, Russian generals who have the courage to speak out honestly admit that NATO poses no immediate threat to Russia. NATO is a possible adversary, but an attack by NATO is not a first- or even second-order challenge. Russia, my country, faces greater threats. We will likely lose energy export revenues as a result of the global energy transition. Our attractiveness as a centre of culture, a scientific power and a zone of human development is diminishing. We are losing any semblance of cultural and ideological hegemony. We are likely to fall into heavy dependence on China. The conquest of Russia by NATO, by contrast, is the personal fear of Putin, who is afraid to share the fate of Colonel Gaddafi. He is afraid that he will not be able to crush any uprising at any cost. Russia’s interests are contrary to Putin’s interests. And so he acts in his own interests, strengthening NATO and pushing it closer to Russia’s borders – creating a noose around Russia’s neck that it is going to be very difficult to escape.
Russia is a depoliticised country, where people have very little interest in politics, especially foreign policy. They do not want to believe in the coming war, and its start will be a complete surprise.
Then, the Russian government’s official interpretation will be accepted almost without a doubt. First, because war is a time of unity in any country, and people instinctively try to unite. Second, because alternative interpretations will not be available and will be too contrary to what people are used to believing. Third, to doubt the justification of the war waged by your country is always very difficult. Fourth, it is simply dangerous. In wartime, the line between critics and traitors disappears, and there is little time for due process for the latter. Fifth, even if you do doubt something, it is not very clear what can be done – therefore it is easier not to doubt. Finally, although there are not so many supporters of Putin’s ‘there is no such thing as Ukraine’ theory in Russia, they will become very loud in the near future, and the spiral of silence will work in their favour.
There are people in Russia who ask: ‘What war are you talking about?’ These people are, in fact, preparing themselves and those around them to say: ‘There wouldn’t have been a war if Ukraine and the West had not started it.’
There are great wars in Russian history, when our country showed incomparable heroism and literally saved the world. But there are also senseless, shameful wars in Russian history, which began from fear of the future, arrogance and stupidity. Russia lost them and learned from them.
The war with Ukraine will be the most senseless of all the wars in our history. Because we can never fight with Ukrainians. Though Russians may think Ukrainians’ choices are wrong, may think they are ungrateful and cruel and their rulers irresponsible, we cannot fight them, even if they are, in our view, to blame for everything. Because they are Ukrainians—if we are not able to find a common language with them, then we are not able to be friends with anyone. We will be alone against the whole world, and our defeat will be heavy.
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