By Mohamed Harees –
For months President Putin denied planning to attack Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, but the worrying news of him now having ordered troops into two rebel-held eastern regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, (in his words) to “maintain peace” and recognise them as independent has put the world in suspense. In an emotional speech announcing the move, he also laid claim to all of Ukraine as a country “created by Russia.” Russia has deployed at least 150,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders in recent months, and there are fears that its latest move marks the first step in a new invasion.
Ukraine has long played an important, yet sometimes overlooked, role in the global security order. Today, the country is on the front lines of a renewed great-power rivalry that many analysts say will dominate international relations in the decades ahead. For many analysts, the conflict marked a clear shift in the global security environment from a unipolar period of U.S. dominance to one defined by renewed competition between great power.
Pozner, a longtime Russian television journalist, sums up the explosive situation in an interview thus, ‘The smell of war is very strong. If we talk about the relationship between Russia and the West — and in particular, the United States — I feel that it is as bad as it was at any time in the Cold War, and perhaps, in a certain sense, even worse.” As clamours for war reach a fever pitch, there has been much discussion of how the West might retaliate against Russia should it invade Ukraine. As President Biden begins to rally its partners to oppose the Russian “aggression”, by imposing tough sanctions, and considering military support to the beleaguered Ukraine, no one knows just how the world will emerge from the crisis — whether it will fizzle out or Putin will make use of this standoff between Russia and Ukraine to launch the biggest military offensive in Europe since 1945. However, experts look beyond the immediacy of this conflict and sees Putin’s overarching aim to revise the outcome of the original Cold War, even if it is at the cost of deepening a new one.
Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a Western-facing government. Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting continued. Russia has been unnerved by NATO’s eastward expansion and Ukraine’s growing closeness with the West. Russia was unnerved when an uprising in 2014 replaced Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president with an unequivocally Western-facing government. Ukraine’s lurch away from Russian influence felt like the final death knell for Russian power in Eastern Europe. Besides, most former Soviet republics and allies in Europe had already joined the European Union or NATO. While Ukraine is not part of the European Union or NATO, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe. “It was always Putin’s goal to restore Russia to the status of a great power in northern Eurasia,” writes Gerard Toal, an international affairs professor at Virginia Tech, in his book Near Abroad “The end goal was not to re-create the Soviet Union but to make Russia great again.”
The West led by the US, NATO and Russia have been engaged in a whirlwind of diplomatic talks to prevent an escalation of the conflict. In December 2021, Russia put forth a set of demands, including a guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO. The West dismissed those demands and threatened economic consequences. To the US and its European allies, Ukraine matters in part because they see it as a bellwether for their own influence, and for Russian intentions in the rest of Europe. The Russian strongman’s decision to amass a monumental force to Ukraine’s north, east and south in order was perhaps to signal that the Kremlin sees the former Soviet republic’s pro-Western shift as such a dire threat that it is willing to fight a war to stop it.
What US actually fears is that any Russian invasion would both further threaten American dominance over world affairs, established after the end of the cold war, and also accelerate the process of waning of its influence over global affairs seen in the past decade. True, Putin’s actions appear to be laying the groundwork for wider intervention in Ukraine. But the economic damage of Western-imposed sanctions, and the death toll of a war, might be too great a cost for Moscow to bear.
Ukraine borders several NATO states. There will be a great deal of concern that this is not just something happening nearby that could have spillover effects — but that their security would be threatened. The human toll of the Russia-instigated war in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed over 10,000 lives since 2014, remains underreported. Experts say that a full Russian invasion could also send 1 million to 5 million refugees fleeing Ukraine. It will be a continent-wide humanitarian disaster with millions of refugees seeking protection in neighbouring European countries. But the “scale of the global reaction depends on the extent of Russia’s insertion into Ukraine”. Much would also depend on the NATO response, and countries that could find themselves in the firing line would quickly notice an increased troop presence. Possibly, the US and allies could send extra deployments to Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary in the coming days. British PM Boris Johnson pledged that UK would contribute to any new NATO deployment in the wake of an attack, while French President Emmanuel Macron said the “the cost will be very high” if Putin decides to move.
The economic fallout of an invasion is wrought with unknowns, but there are several possible knock-on effects that have worried experts since the buildup of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border first became clear. Most directly, a disruption to Ukraine’s agricultural production could have a direct impact on food supply. Some of the world’s main grain supplies are routed through the Black Sea, which borders both Russia and Ukraine, two major wheat producers. Military action could disrupt both grain production and distribution, raising food costs for consumers across the world. Also, Russia supplies about a third of Europe’s gas, much of which is currently shipped through Ukraine. Any disruption at either end of that supply chain would force European countries to look elsewhere for fuel, most likely raising world oil prices.
Thus, while there is a need for the United Nations to maintain international peace and security in the region, the West primarily frames Ukraine’s standoff with Russia in terms of maintaining the balance of power in Europe and ensuring the continuity of European energy supplies. Analysts generally expect a wide-ranging package of sanctions that could hit major Russian banks, the oil and gas sector, and technology imports. But the effects on Europe and the rest of the world would be felt, too.
Yet other experts feel that the narrative about Russia invading Ukraine is being fed by nameless, anonymous officials to the media, while it’s far from clear that this is an accurate description of Russian plans. Instead, independent think-tanks specialised in military analysis believe that more realistic threats around Russia would be of a hybrid nature, for example, cyberattacks, attacks on infrastructure. The view from Ukraine is that the media scare comes from American media. This level of hysteria already has negative consequences and actually damages Ukraine. As for the US, this is speculation, but the US might still try to undermine the Nord Stream project, the pipeline between Russia and Germany. There is a very clear economic interest – there are gas producers in the US who are direct competitors with Russia.
There are other speculations this may be related to the defeat in Afghanistan, and again, when Biden’s support is declining at home, intensifying foreign policy may be one of the solutions. In the case of the British, and specifically in case of a very recent press release by the UK Foreign Office about the Russian government’s plans in Ukraine, some experts feel that it’s quite evidently connected to the troubles of [UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson. When you’re attacked at home, it’s quite typical to start escalating foreign policy.
Whatever it may be, an invasion of Ukraine would explicitly violate one of the most cherished and central norms of international law: the prohibition of aggression. Article 3 of Resolution 3314, adopted without a vote by the UN General Assembly in 1974, defines aggression as “[t]he invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State, or any military occupation, however temporary, resulting from such invasion or attack, or any annexation by the use of force of the territory of another State or part thereof”. Thus, there is no question that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be an illegal act of aggression and would trigger the full responsibility of Russia as a state for all its consequences. Such aggression would not only violate the sovereignty of Ukraine, but it would also be an assault on the peace and security of the international community. And most importantly, it would violate the rights of the countless human beings on both sides of the conflict who would inevitably be harmed by it. The significance of international law is however not only in how it leads to punishment but also in how it prevents violations in the first place.
The events in Ukraine, however, should not be viewed in isolation, as if they came from nowhere. US and its Western allies should not forget its grim records on invasion of other countries. Disregard for international law in the post–Cold War era was thoroughly demonstrated in the American invasion of Iraq. The United States used force to accomplish “regime change”; it disregarded the Security Council; it used private contractors and unidentified agents in place of identifiable troops. While it did not formally redraw the borders of Iraq, informally the north of Iraq has operated as an autonomous Kurdish region since the invasion. The United States had no more legal right to invade Iraq than Russia had to seize Crimea or Ukraine.
Of course, American violations of international law in Iraq are no excuse for Russian actions today. America — and Iraq — paid a steep price in blood and treasure for that decision to flout international law. Nevertheless, that past has certainly weakened the ability of the US and its Western allies to claim the high ground of law or even to rally support for Ukraine. To the rest of the world, all of it looks like the misbehaviour of nations that still dream of spheres of influence. The international legal order of national security is now a pack of shambles. It will take considerably more than a settlement in Ukraine to put it back together.