I am in a state of shock. I did not expect the Russian “military operation” in Ukraine. I’m not surprised they have recognised LNR and DNR but a full-blown “operation” across Ukraine I did not expect. I think quite a lot of Russians were not expecting this either – though some probably had an inkling of what their government can do.
When the West said “invasion imminent” I was thinking in terms of Russia occupying Ukraine and annexing territory. I couldn’t see why they would want to do that – acquire a large poor country where half the population despise them. I wasn’t thinking of the question of NATO membership of Ukraine. In as much as I was I assumed that occupying Donbass would be regarded as sufficiently destabilising to prevent Ukraine ever joining NATO. (If Western intelligence understood that Russia would attack Ukraine in order to prevent it joining NATO they couldn’t say that – because that would be to admit that Russia’s actions were rational and not driven by pure ‘aggression’ which is the necessary narrative to disguise their own imperialism).
Anyway – this is the new situation. It does seem fairly clear that the Kremlin’s objective in Ukraine is to dismember the country so that it can never be part of NATO or even be under the influence of the West. In order to do this they are going to have to turn it into some kind of satrap – and then maintain that permanently, forever. Talk of “denazification” suggests a political regime change operation. (Or maybe they intend to annex large parts of it. At this stage I really don’t know).
Is this a sensible strategic objective? Putin stated recently that he was concerned that if a future Ukraine joined NATO then that Ukraine could start a war with Russia over Crimea. From his point of view his demand that NATO exclude the possibility of Ukraine joining was in fact a peaceful demand to ensure that WW3 never took place. In the same remarks Putin also acknowledged that not everyone accepts that Crimea is part of Russia. This reasoning seems valid. The scenario is not far-fetched. I would like to know if Crimea was discussed during the period of talks in the last few weeks between Russia and the Western powers. Did people understand that at the root of this problem (or one of the roots) is the unresolved question of Crimea? It is too late now but if Kiev could have been persuaded to acknowledge reality and cede Crimea officially to Russia and to implement Minsk for Donbass – would that have staved off the “military operation”(both of these arguably should have happened a long time ago but for intransigence in Kiev and the winner-takes-all attitude in Western capitals); or would Russia have still demanded that Ukraine never be a member of NATO?
Will Putin’s “special military operation” achieve the strategic goal of ensuring that Ukraine never joins NATO? The first point is this can’t be an in-out operation. This is going to have to be a long-term operation and they are going to have to turn Ukraine into a satrap. (A sort of controlled province). If so – then yes. Such a Ukraine will never be a candidate for NATO. So long as Putin’s “special military operation” succeeds he will have achieved his strategic objective and will have reduced a serious existential threat to Russia (war with NATO over Crimea). He will sleep peacefully knowing that he will go down in Russian history as a wise leader who protected the country.
However, nothing of this kind is risk free and there are a number of obvious risks. Firstly; (and I am not trying to stoke hysteria) this operation even has the possibility to unravel very quickly. For example, if Boris Johnson, desperate to boost his leadership credentials, sends weapons to Ukraine and an RAF plane delivering them is shot down by Russia – what then? Secondly; the plan seems to require permanently maintaining Ukraine in a subordinate and subdued state. This means that there is a permanent source of instability. It is not just the status of Crimea which will be disputed but the whole of Ukraine. Does Afghanistan provide a cautionary example here? Will the West be constantly trying to destabilize and overturn this satrap? That in itself will be draining for Russia – and could in turn provide another occasion for open conflict to break out. – If NATO starts supporting a resistance movement in Ukraine by sending arms across the border from Romania does Russia have to invade NATO member Romania? And thirdly there are obvious domestic risks. No self-respecting leader will let themselves be swayed from doing what they think is right by the threat of sanctions. Nonetheless there is no doubt that Russian economic development will be severely hit. There could also be domestic political problems. This operation is not as widely supported as the reunification with Crimea.
I think Putin’s strategic objective is rational. So long as the immediate “special military operation” succeeds he will have achieved his strategic goal. Ukraine will not be able to join NATO. That does remove a threat – not just from Russia but from everyone. At the same time the long-term economic burden on Russia of maintaining a satrap in Ukraine will be significant (directly, and indirectly as a result of isolation from the West). And if the West responds by seeking to destabilise the satrap the possibility of NATO-Russia conflict will remain. Putin anticipated this when he threatened “consequences the world has never seen” if anyone interferes. But if he is resorting to nuclear blackmail that hardly sounds like a stable situation has been reached. In other words there is a fly in the ointment in this plan. He is trying to remove instability and insecurity but he can’t do that 100%. So – this action, which he may well feel, was the “only option” left – does not fully solve the problem. Instability remains. The scenario on which is predicated a NATO-Russia war is not so clear cut, but the risk has not been altogether eliminated. It has become more diffuse.
Maybe the Kremlin did rationally feel that this “special military operation” was the only option left. But in the last analysis it will still not bring them the security they need. The ultimate source of instability in the world is the Western Empire’s economic and political expansionism and their unwillingness to limit this by negotiation. * Turning Ukraine into a satrap is not going to fix that. It might have fixed an itch – but it is not a full solution.
Of course; the real target here in not Ukraine. By raining down high-tech precision missiles on Ukraine Russia is sending a signal to the US. That will be well understood in the State Department and Pentagon and CIA in the US though they won’t talk about it publicly.
It would have been so much better to have resolved this through negotiation. Here the West is at least as much to blame as Russia – more so in my opinion. The Russian annexation of Crimea was reasonable when Ukraine was captured by the Western leaning faction. That should have been recognized. (Of course that was never a possibility. The US and EU did not run a coup in Ukraine in order to cede Crimea to Russia). The West should have made Kiev implement Minsk – but they couldn’t even give that much.
One final thought. All eyes are now on Ukraine but exactly the same questions arise in relation to Georgia and the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
* (From their point of view of course the ultimate source of instability in the world is the incomprehensible resistance to the “greatest economic and political system the world has ever known”. This is a fundamentalist position – driven by American fundamentalism)