The war in Ukraine is an avoidable tragedy. However, the unintended
consequences of these events are extraordinary. This is what happens when deterrence fails. This is what happens when Western politicians are unable to generate the necessary will to convince an opponent that there will be real consequences if deterrence fails. Yet here we are with Ukraine under attack. There will be consequences, most likely unpleasant consequences for Western nations and the liberal international order that they have constructed, unless the West becomes serious about defence, deterrence and energy security.
Aggression of the nature that we are witnessing in Ukraine today will not stop here. Others will be emboldened, potentially seeing us descend into an era of conflict. This is unless Western nations rapidly learn the lesson that you need both soft and hard power in your diplomatic arsenal. The era of disarmament by neglect must end. How many European nations could generate a properly equipped brigade or even battalion-sized formation for rapid deployment? Even if they could, would their political leadership have the will to actually sanction the deployment of troops?
Our starting point is to discuss the Russian attack on Ukraine and what motivated Russia to act as it did. Beyond that, we need to look at how the US and Europe failed to comprehend what was happening, failed to support Ukraine until it was too late, and failed to deter Russia.
Events So Far
At the time of writing, it is still too early to predict how this conflict will evolve, but it is clear that the first days have not gone according to the expectations of Moscow. Their operational concept appears superficially sound, multiple axes of advance to dominate the battle space and maintain constant pressure on Ukrainian forces, in addition to strikes on political and military targets to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership and attacks on communications infrastructure. The intention is to disrupt and/or destroy the Ukrainian Command, Control and Communications (C3) capabilities, by both active and cyber means, and make them unable to organise their forces to effectively respond to advancing Russian troops.
Control of the air was to be quickly secured by the Russian Air Force combined with airmobile operations into the strategic depth of Ukraine against critical targets in order to further weaken resistance. Attacks against military locations, barracks, storage sites and ammunition dumps would further reduce the Ukrainian potential to react to the Russian assault. As if that were not enough, Russia conducted amphibious operations in the Sea of Azov in the vicinity of the city of Mariupol, the most important remaining area of Ukrainian control in the Donetsk Oblast. Amphibious operations continue against other Ukrainian coastal targets.
The balance of forces inevitably favours Russia. They have more troops and more, and arguably better, equipment, in many respects. There were no mysteries as to the areas that they intended to operate in and plenty of reconnaissance assets, both human and otherwise, to inform them of the forces that they were facing and their disposition. If you were sitting in Moscow before the conflict started, you would believe that you held all of the advantages. Your operational plan maximises those advantages and the assumption is that the initial attack will inflict paralysis on the Ukrainian military, allowing a rapid decision to be reached either by the capture of Kyiv or a surrender by whatever remains of the Ukrainian Government and/or military authorities. The conflict would be quick and the results would be decisive – in a matter of a few days it would all be over.
It was a good plan. Russia certainly had the means to carry it out, but it is plain that they failed to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership and disrupt their C3 structure. It also failed to take into account that the Ukrainian military would fight with conviction and unanticipated effectiveness. Or that the Ukrainian population would be so supportive of its government and its military. Undoubtedly, Russia had intelligence assets on the ground in Ukraine, and they would also have access to all Ukrainian print and electronic media. In short, virtually everything they would need to gauge the mood of the Ukrainian people. Clearly, they had drawn the wrong conclusions as to the likely reactions to their invasion.
What is most surprising is that despite all of the advantages that the Russian forces possessed, they appeared not to be mission ready. Bear in mind that the Russian military proved itself perfectly capable of managing operations in the Crimean peninsula, and also the Donbas and Luhansk regions in their actions in Ukraine in 2014/2015. This time they had plenty of time to prepare, with forces starting to deploy along the Ukrainian border as early as March 2021 and by May 2021, it was estimated that there were 100,000 Russian troops bordering Ukraine. Come December 2021, the Russian force had grown to some 150,000 troops, more than enough to deliver the desired military objectives.
The War Begins
On 24 February, when Russia launched active military operations, it must have done so highly confident of a swift victory and a Ukrainian collapse. Since that time, it is clear that things have not gone according to plan. Having multiple axes of attack requires coordination and this has not been apparent; it is as if there was an assumption that there would be no real fighting and the Ukrainians would just throw down their arms and give up.
In many respects, Russian operations appear disorganised and leadership appears to be weak at all levels. Bearing in mind how long they have had to prepare, logistics should not have been an issue, and units should not be running out of fuel so rapidly after the start of operations and resupply ought to be readily available. Another noticeable factor is that many of the Russian troops seem badly prepared and unmotivated for combat.
For the Russian military there is a solution to these problems – they can simply deploy more troops, tanks, armour and artillery and make sure that they have command of the air. They will take casualties, but they will eventually overwhelm the Ukrainian defenders. It will not be subtle, indeed it will be brutal and Moscow can achieve its victory, but at what cost? Russia’s international reputation will be in ruins, its economy will be in turmoil and it is very difficult to see how Russia will be able to turn Ukraine into an obedient satellite state after fighting a war through it.
This leads us to a critically important yet simple question: What is motivating Russia to do this? There are a number of complex factors involved in answering the question, but a good place to begin is a speech given by Russian leader Vladimir Putin in 2005 when he described the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. This does not mean that Putin is nostalgic for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its ideology, nor does he yearn to be Stalin. Put simply, Putin is a Russian nationalist.
The ideological underpinning for the strain of Russian nationalism espoused by Putin is credited to Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhanov. Dugin is a professor at Moscow State University and the author of numerous books. He talks of the “Fourth Political Theory” superseding discredited theories such as liberalism, communism and fascism. He envisages a superpower-free multipolar world, in which Russia is the dominant power in what is described as the Eurasian Union, essentially the territory previously controlled by the Soviet Union. His philosophy is based on the struggle of tradition and religion, which he supports, against modernity and globalisation which he abhors.
An American analysis quotes from Dugin’s influential book “Foundation of Geopolitics” published in 1997: ”It is especially important to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements – extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilising internal political processes in the US. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics…”
Dugin became a known quantity in the US because of the now discredited effort to paint Trump as at best a Russian tool or at worse an agent of influence. Ironically, the situation described in the Dugin quote seems to apply to the current state of US political discourse. Dugin believes that it is in Russia’s interest to separate the US from Europe. As for Alexander Prokhanov, he is politically on the extreme right and is a newspaper editor and author. His idea is that Russia must move to become the ‘Fifth Empire,’ and it will achieve this through Russia taking control of all of the areas that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
The objective of this nationalist ideology was the restoration of Russia to its leading role in what was once the Soviet space, indeed some would look further and look to regain the territories that were once held by Imperial Russia. To achieve this, Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine would need to become a single entity and the move to its ‘traditional borders’ would commence, with Moldova being the next territory to join the new Russia. The end result is that the new Russia becomes a dominant power.
Therefore, what a nationalist Russian leadership intends to achieve is now clear. Their challenge was how to make all of this a reality. Recent events seemed to indicate that the correlation of forces has suddenly swung in their favour, as there was a real opportunity to make the dream of a new and greater Russia a reality. The reasoning behind this was the weakness of the Biden administration, while the US Democratic party had been willing to use issues such as collusion between Trump and Russia and using Ukraine as a means of trying to impeach Trump, in government they were seemingly uninterested in confronting Russia or providing significant support to Ukraine. From Moscow’s perspective, US foreign and strategic policy was one of appeasement or just simply incompetence, as evidenced by the collapse of Afghanistan.
By mid-2021, the Biden administration had removed sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline thus clearing the way for Germany to become overly dependent on Russian gas. The US also delayed a US$100M military assistance package to Ukraine in June 2021 around the time of the Biden-Putin summit as a gesture to persuade Russia to remove troops from the Ukrainian border; no troops were withdrawn.
Then there are some other energy security related issues to consider. The US Government places far more emphasis on environmental factors than ever before, putting obstacles in the way of both US onshore and offshore oil and gas production. While Canada is the largest oil supplier by far to the US, Mexico is in second place supplying 711,000 barrels per day, with Russia in third place supplying 672,000 barrels per day. With oil in the US$100 a barrel range at present, that is a substantial contribution to the Russian economy on a daily basis. Russian oil sales to the US have not been impacted by sanctions against Russia.
Elsewhere, the environmental concerns of the Biden administration outweighed energy security requirements. This has been demonstrated by their withdrawal of support for the EastMed pipeline that would have moved gas from Israeli offshore gas fields, connect to gas fields off Cyprus, and deliver gas from both to Greece and eventually to Italy (the second largest gas importer in Europe with the majority of supplies from Russia). The lack of US support killed the ability of the pipeline to attract external financing and the project is now stalled.
In recent months, it has become quite common to hear from the extremes of the political left and right in Europe and the US, that efforts to expand membership of the EU or NATO to the East are somehow provocative to Russia. Would this be the same Russia that signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum where the signatories agreed to not threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine? Then there was the Friendship Treaty of 1997 between Russia and Ukraine that recognised the existing borders and territorial integrity of both states. Ukraine withdrew from the Friendship Treaty in 2019, somewhat inevitably after the loss of the Crimea, Luhansk and the Donbas in 2014/2015.
There are no treaties or undertakings that gave Russia the right to block another sovereign nation, in this case Ukraine, from joining the EU or even NATO. One can understand that joining NATO might be considered provocative by Russia, and that some NATO members would be reluctant to sanction Ukrainian membership. However, it was never beyond the realm of possibility to develop a solution where Ukraine had a defence relationship with NATO that was just short of full membership.
This brings us to the EU and its relationship with Ukraine. The EU has been very quick to encourage the development of democratic forces in Ukraine and to help the evolution towards a liberal democratic state. As to EU membership for Ukraine, that is a different matter. Ukraine does not meet a number of EU membership criteria. One might have thought that a solution could be found, but no.
It is only since the Russian invasion that EU membership has gained real momentum, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signing an EU membership application on 28 February requesting immediate EU membership, with eight EU nations supporting accelerated membership. It is all too little too late. Had Ukraine been an EU member state, perhaps that might have dissuaded Moscow. Another point worth exploring is how quiet the EU was prior to the Russian invasion. It is very difficult to be influential if you cannot muster the energy to raise your voice and be heard. An important lesson for the future for Brussels.
Without doubt, if this aggression against Ukraine was going to be deterred then there was only one nation that could do so and that was the US. The fact that this objective was not achieved must be considered as a political and diplomatic failure of immense proportions by Washington. What was needed was for the US to assume a leadership role, and there would be those in Europe who say Europe should have taken the leading role, but who would do the leading in Europe and what sort of response could they lead? Being realistic, it is at times like these that the US must assume the mantle of leadership, when they fail to do so, things fall apart as they did this time.
It was as if the US administration was unable to grasp what was happening in Russia and its motivations as regards Ukraine. It also failed to understand how its policies and actions made it look so weak and clueless that it virtually encouraged aggressive intentions. With the best will in the world, it is hard to picture President Biden as a commanding international figure! Can one really see the leaders of China and Russia being convinced that Biden is a serious adversary? Even if Biden is just a figurehead, the foreign and strategic policies of the US Government are becoming increasingly inexplicable to both allies and opponents alike!
Media reports stated that the US was so desperate to come to a nuclear agreement with Iran that it has become increasingly reliant on the good offices of Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian negotiator at the Vienna talks, to bring about an agreement. Perhaps this explains why the US is making so many concessions to Iran. Then the US decided that it would turn to China to persuade Russia not to invade Ukraine, sharing intelligence information that they had of Russian intentions. It seems China was not disposed to help the US and was quite happy to pass on the information that the US had shared with them to Russia! All of this is was hardly likely to generate respect for American diplomacy from either Russia or China.
In the final analysis, American diplomacy was seemingly obsessed with not being provocative towards Russia and never gave the impression that they considered Ukraine or its territorial integrity as being that important. As a result, Russia believed that it had an historical opportunity to bring Ukraine into the new Russia as a prelude to expanding across the former Soviet space. With the US uninterested and the Europeans too dependent on Russian energy to provide any serious opposition, for Moscow this was the moment to move on Ukraine.
An Avoidable Tragedy
The invasion of Ukraine was an avoidable tragedy. However, the unintended consequences of these events are extraordinary. Tone-deaf Russian diplomacy has created a situation where Finland, usually so careful not to offend Russia, is interested in NATO membership. Even traditionally neutral Sweden is considering going beyond neutrality and flirting with NATO! Germany has suddenly woken up to the fact that appeasing Russia was a bad policy and that they had neglected their defence capabilities for far too long and would be spending more on defence up to the NATO target of 2 per cent of GDP. Across Europe, there is suddenly awareness of how vulnerable they are in terms of energy supply. Energy security is now a serious issue.
One of the most important developments since the Russian invasion is that it has demonstrated to the world that the Ukrainian Government, military and people are prepared to fight to protect their country and their way of life. For years, Ukraine has been treated as some kind of corrupt backwater on the edge of Europe; that might have been true once, but in recent years, democratic institutions have taken root and Ukraine was well on the way to becoming part of the European mainstream. It is now clear that the West should have done more to help Ukraine. Now the West must honour the country’s sacrifice and support it, pledge to rebuild it in the future, and finally bring Ukraine into Europe!