Russia Will Not Stop at Ukraine

27 January, 2022

History is unfolding before our eyes and both the US and EU have decisions to make in real-time about how they are approaching their attempts to deter Russia from invading all or part of Ukraine. As is common in free societies, the contemplated responses have differed, ranging from that the West should be ready to go to war over Ukraine to complete capitulation to Moscow’s wishes in whole or in part. There is therefore no lack of proposed solutions to the problem at hand, but what is often missing is the proper understanding and context of Russia’s actual aims for Ukraine and how it connects to their bigger vision of restoring their lost empire (whether in Tsarist or Soviet time) in Eastern Europe, and perhaps beyond

If Russia decides to invade all or part of Ukraine, there will be a mass refugee exodus pouring into EU countries; heightened tensions that will put the West at the brink of war; and a loss of life not seen in Europe since the second world war. Yes, the consequences for Russia doing this will be severe, but to what extent remains to be seen and is unlikely to deter the Kremlin with all the opportunities that will come from said weakness and the chaos that will ensue.

If conflict is however avoided and there is a deal to agree to permanent neutrality in Ukraine, this will only result in kicking the can down the road. The very thing that has gotten the West here in the first place. Some spectators have tried to compare the potential of Ukrainian neutrality to what happened with Finland during the Cold War, commonly called “Finlandization.” This really misses the mark for several reasons, but most of all from the misguided belief that the Kremlin will act in good faith

They assuredly will not. Time and time again, they have shown that they cannot be relied upon to do so. Russian leaders have constantly denied the existence of the Ukrainian state, further claiming that the West is responsible for the current state of relations between them, and that Ukraine’s destiny is with Russia, not merely as a client state but as a part of a greater Russia. This links right back to its vision of restoring its perceived greatness and aspirations to be on par with the US and China, and most of all to surpass Europe as the dominant force on the continent.

If a political deal of some sort is hashed out between the West and Russia, the Kremlin will pursue the subversion of Ukraine’s institutions and connections to the West on its own timeline. It certainly will not be immediate and will probably take years to pursue, but they will attempt to effectively pursue what I call the “Belarusization” of Ukraine. The two-pronged approach will happen simultaneously, and Russia will waste absolutely no time maximizing its gains.

First, the image of a neutral and independent Ukraine will be seen as a buffer between the West and Russia. But, reliance on Russian decisions and politics will increase through quiet coercion, and become more interconnected with the Russian political machine and sphere as it has been done in Belarus. Mind you that the process is ongoing and if Putin is successful in his aims, it will happen in a much shorter time frame because of current geopolitical realities (and the fact that Putin is aging a bit more every year). Second, when said interconnected factors come to a crescendo, Putin will make the move to absorb Ukraine into the emerging Russian-Belarusian Union State. 

Of course, this is a simplification of something far more complex, but it’s not difficult to see that the preferred route for the Kremlin is through its project on consuming Ukraine as opposed to a costly and deadly war. Readers may ask why Russia would try to consume Ukraine as opposed to making it a client state or neutral. It is for the simple reason that, throughout its history, Russia has considered both Belarus and Ukraine to be “nashe,” which in Russian means “ours.” For the Kremlin, neutrality or merely being a client state is not a long-term option for Ukraine. From Putin’s perspective, Ukraine only has one destiny and that is with Russia. He said as much in his July op-ed on the future of the two states

During the Cold War, the fear in Europe was that the Soviet military would run roughshod on Western Europe in an effort to cut off America from sending reinforcements, and thereby dictated its will to the whole of Europe. Fear of this possibility was not so long ago but that collective memory in Western European countries seems to have become collective amnesia. No, I am not implying that Russia, with its weak economy and high corruption, is going to go marching into Germany and Denmark any time soon. But if Moscow continues to make gains on its imperial project, and on the status-quo of appeasement from European powers like Germany and France, then what will the politics of Europe be like in 5, 10, or 15 years? We could find ourselves in a situation where Russia has a stronger military, more influence, more coercive tools at its disposal, and using said tools to make political gains in places like the Baltic states, Visegrad region, the Balkans, and elsewhere in Europe. But, will we see the same disunity and lack of political will as now, or a Europe that is more assertive and protective of its interests? 

Poland and the Baltic states have been warning us about the danger of Russian provocations for both NATO and the EU’s eastern flanks for a decade or more, but those warnings have mostly fallen upon deaf ears. These states have however at varying stages lived under a Russian boot and should therefore be listened to as they see similar trends arising. Let us also be clear that Russia is not just threatening to invade Ukraine, they already have by taking Crimea and creating a proxy war in Donbas which rages to this very day. The difference now is that they are threatening to escalate it. 

Sure, after the invasion of Crimea there were some sanctions and placing of NATO units in the region on a rotational basis, but this did not deter the Kremlin’s aims. Why? Because Putin knew that it was nothing more than window dressing with military numbers hovering between 4000-6000 in the Baltic region and another 5000 in Poland. This could not stop a Russian onslaught should they so choose. For all his cult of personality, Putin is practical and bases his aims on the willingness of the West to fight back. He now senses weakness and Ukraine is the first front of potentially multiple ones for his imperial dreams.

In the current predicament, the Biden administration, to its credit, has firmly shown via military and diplomatic channels that its commitment to NATO is steadfast, and that it is also fully engaged in Ukraine. The only exception is the Biden administration’s insistence to not sanction Nord Stream 2 (NS2). Just recently a bill was drafted in the US Senate on sanctions, but this ultimately failed at the insistence of President Biden. This was done in hopes of not alienating Germany; however, Berlin has added little to the debate and has shown no political backbone in the current crisis. EU member states and the US should make it crystal clear that they expect more from Germany and at the very least should not be kowtowing to the Kremlin as in years past.

US engagement is a good sign, but there is also a risk that their attention suddenly shifts in light of the tensions in the Pacific. What would happen if  China decides it is the best chance they will ever have to nab Taiwan, in the midst of everything going on in Ukraine? The consensus is that, unlike Ukraine, America is prepared to go to war with China over Taiwan’s sovereignty. If they must suddenly shift their focus to the Pacific – where its biggest geopolitical challenge remains – then how would the EU and its European NATO contingents react knowing that they would be mainly responsible for any potential showdown with Russia mostly on their own?

One could engage in lengthy debates about the plausibility of scenarios like these, but this is one of many potential outcomes that we could find ourselves in, not in years but months, weeks, or even days, and we should stand prepared for it. The punditry for quite some time has said that Russia is not a threat to Europe, it would not risk war to meet its ends, or that the West is at fault for Russia’s actions, for incoherent reasons A, B, or C. In essence, the point is not the likelihood or the lack thereof of the above or any other given scenario, but that Europe is wholly unprepared for war and worse lacks the political will to change the status quo.

A weak and timid Europe has increasingly become a huge liability to America and even more to itself. There are signs Europe is waking up to this reality, but at what price will this come?

This reality is not lost on policymakers in Moscow and Beijing. If I sound alarmist – good. The alarm bells should be ringing in every European capital over how dangerous the status quo has become. The cold truth is that Russia has gone from a revisionist nuisance to a revanchist threat and must be seen as one if they continue to act in this manner.

This means waking up to the reality that the response may very well have to be war and a Europe that is prepared to fight for the survival of the European project and its way of life. In this case, the saying that history doesn’t repeat itself but rhymes is incredibly apt. History is replete with examples of stronger but indifferent states acting too late, notably Britain and France before World War II. Nobody wants war but every so often it is thrust upon a society whether they want it or not. 

If matched with the political will, the EU has the ability, institutional knowledge, and resources to check Russia’s imperial ambitions at the door. However, with an increasingly eastward-looking US, the old way of doing things is no longer viable. Yes, America will continue to be by Europe’s side, as it remains advantageous for America’s own interests to have some of its own forces forward-deployed in Europe. That likely will not change anytime soon, but it must come with the clear understanding that the EU, currently contingent on NATO, must take primary responsibility for its security even if it entails risks, just as many of our ancestors were forced to do against tyrants in generations past.

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