Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Ukraine Battleground, from Russia's Perspective

So some of my readers decided they wanted to hold me to a higher standard and wrenched my arm into giving the Russian perspective on the battle for Ukraine. This I shall do.

As usual, it's a story and (as usual) a tragedy of realist international politics and the security spiral. I shall tell this story today, trying to keep my biases aside.

The first and most important element of the story comes after the fall of the Soviet Union. I start here because it was a turning point: the former Soviet Union could have stuck with Russia, become neutral somehow, or leaned towards NATO in some way.

We'll talk about why the third option was essentially unavoidable, and explore how it looked from Russia's perspective.

The map below shows the eastward expansion of NATO. Note in particular everything after 1990: a whopping 12 countries were added to NATO's portfolio, doubling its Cold War number to 24. In 2004, NATO expanded enough to completely check any Russian sea action in Europe, and put troops on the borders of its closest allies (Belarus and Moldova).

Obviously from the Russian perspective, this is at-best terrifying. After defeat, one's former enemies surround Russia bit by bit--not slowing down as the memory of the Cold War started to ease, but accelerating and even bordering the country, attempting to choke it off forever.

From NATO's perspective, it was bringing into its protective (and purely defensive) umbrella eager members, whose memory of Soviet oppression was harsh and still fresh, desperate to ensure that the Russians could never come back for them, for the Russians were never kept down for long.

From the perspective of realist international relations: central and eastern Europe are a long, flat plain with essentially no protective boundaries to create natural, safe borders between countries (look at Switzerland--have they been to war any time recently?). Ultimately, these countries are vulnerable to land attack by more powerful countries at all times--end of story. It is critical for them to be under the protection of one alliance or another. Even the Warsaw Pact provided some stability for them from the possibility of more invasion, as much as it was pushed onto their shoulders.

Because these countries are not naturally protected, they were going to join an alliance of some sort. Choosing NATO was not surprising, given their history.

But for Russia, this encroachment--whether or not one understood the natural forces driving it--meant danger and a tightening of a noose.

In 2008, NATO declared that it would be working to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance, and that was the last straw. Georgia has access to the Caucasus mountains, and Ukraine sticks like a knife into the underbelly of Russia (and also includes major gas and grain fields, crucial to support Russia in case of a breakdown of trade with NATO). It was just too dangerous, and appeared so aggressive that there was a plausible story that Bush, Blair, Sarkozy, and co. were looking to strike a killing blow. It's even possible that they were.

Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia was meant to remind Georgia that Russia was still in charge of the area, and it would not tolerate more encirclement (imagine if Mexico became a Russian ally and would start hosting Russian troops and missile batteries).

Recently in Ukraine, the West was obviously very in support of the protesters and the change they would bring. The EU is very interested in bringing Ukraine into its fold (despite the many changes Ukraine must make to get there), and Russia looked quite fearfully at the very real possibility of losing its Sevastopol warm water port (more on that in this earlier post).

It felt it had to act, European objections be damned. So act it did. It was the forces of international security at work, as always: Russia faced a nearly existential threat if it lost its Sevastopol lease.

For Russia, as with most countries, imperialism is not motivated mostly by greed, but by a desire to strengthen, consolidate, or defend its security position. It may seem ridiculous to younger generations that Europe might descend into a land war, but peace in Europe has been a strange break from 1600 years of truly endless carnage, bloodshed, and border-shifting. To pretend that nobody should be worried about such things as the warm water port--or, for my own case, the precedent set of allowing European countries to invade each other and annex territory--enough to go to war for it, is ultimately myopic.

While I will not claim that the Russians have any moral ground for their invasion, it is always worth considering everyone's perspective: for Russia, it is safety and defense, preparing itself to never again allow the invasions of the first and second World Wars to occur. But I want to emphasize that just because we understand the motivations of countries running around annexing each other, doesn't make it any morally less terrible nor less dangerous.


Anonymous said...

Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia was meant to remind Georgia that Russia was still in charge of the area, and it would not tolerate more encirclement

Allow to propose an alternative or additional theory:

When the Georgian/Russian conflict lit up in 2008, Georgia was in the process of trying to force the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to reintegrate. The end result of that conflict was to ensure that the breakaway regions remain separate.

This means that Georgia has an ongoing territorial dispute. NATO is not going to allow a country with an ongoing territorial dispute to join the alliance, especially when that dispute involves Russia (even second-hand).

With the de facto seizure of Crimea and the possibility of Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, Russia's actions in Ukraine have created an ongoing territorial dispute. As long as that dispute is in existence, Ukraine joining NATO is off the table.

I expect that the primary reason for Russia's seizure of Crimea was domestic politics (rather than Sevastopol vs Novorissiysk), but I do expect that it was also about creating facts on the ground that prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

JWMJR said...

The story we often hear is that Putin and his gang think that Russia was treated "unfairly" in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Really? Really? What a bad distasteful joke piled on top of an outright and naked lie.

Truth is the Russian communists were scared shitless that the Western powers were going to hold them and communism itself accountable for their 70 some years of tyranny and criminality. But it never happened, Bush 41 treated them with kid gloves. (Gorbachev's own transcripts from them Malta summit show this.)

After WW II we tried and executed the Nazis for their crimes against humanity. But we conveniently ignore that that horrible war started with a deal between the communists and the Nazis.

Maybe someone can tell us how many communists went to the gallows for the decades of throwing their own people into the Gulag. Just where were the individuals and communism held accountable for the slaughter of the Polish Officer Corp in the forests of Western Belorussia or the 60,000 Polish civilians who were marched into the labor camps in 1940 never to return? So tell us who was held accountable for the slaughter in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. How many Eastern Europeans disappeared into unmarked graves during the nearly 50 years of Russian military occupation? Where is the justice for them?

If the Russians so consider the communist period such a "black mark" on their history why do so many former KGB and party apparatchiks hold positions of power today? Why do journalists and artists who dare question Putin and his thugs end up in jail, dead or simply disappear? Why do statues of Lenin and Stalin still dot the landscape? Why does a military honor guard still stand at the entrance to Lenin's tomb? Why is his tomb even still there?

The communist period was just a different form of Russian imperialism with Tsars and Dukes replaced with Commissars and political officers. Putin is now just trying to do the same thing with his own batch of oligarchs armed with 21st century propaganda and technology.

The Russians didn't get treated "unfairly," they got handed a "get out of jail free card".