Europe woke up on 24 February to the news that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had started. Although the television footage of explosions and casualties would shock most, the invasion was not a surprise. It comes after several weeks during which Russia’s military presence along the Ukrainian border was increased to a point, where the possibility of a military strike by Russia was acknowledged by most European and Western states.
Attack on the whole of the Ukraine
Although extensive diplomatic missions had been undertaken by a range of international figures, when Vladimir Putin moved to recognise the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent countries, military action against Ukraine was inevitable.
On the first day of the attack, it was soon apparent that a full-scale invasion, intended to result in Russian occupation of Ukraine’s entire territory, was underway. Within a matter of hours the Chernobyl nuclear site had been seized. By the following day the presence of Russian troops in the vicinity of the capital, Kiev, had been reported. At the time of writing, military operations are ongoing, and the Ukrainian government could be toppled by invading forces at any point.
Cold War origins
Analogies have been drawn between current events in Ukraine and the Crimea crisis of 2014. Both have their roots in the end of the Cold War. It is widely accepted that the West won that struggle, following which Russian influence within Eastern Europe waned. Former Soviet satellite states transformed into democracies, many of which joined the European Union and/or NATO, a process accompanied by the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in the early 1990s.
Ever since, Russia has sought to maintain influence over those states formerly comprising the USSR. When one of them shows signs of charting a course which distances itself further from Russia and moves nearer to cooperation with Western organisations, Russia feels itself further boxed in and becomes rattled. This underpinned Russia’s intervention in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia in 2008, followed by its intervention Crimea in 2014. In the former it sought to weaken Georgia by recognising as independent the two regions, while it went further in annexing Crimea as part of Russia itself.
Although Ukraine has hovered between periods of leaning towards Russia and the West respectively, for several years now it has been set on a pro-Western course and indicated a desire to join NATO and the EU, having submitted an application to the latter in the days following the Russian invasion. This essentially provides the rationale for Russia’s invasion: to prevent the forces of Western liberal democracy and NATO’s security structures moving yet closer to Russia’s borders.
Russia’s invasion has been widely condemned as a violation of international law, including by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres. The UN Security Council voted by a clear majority to deplore Russia’s actions and, while Russia vetoed the adoption of a condemnatory resolution. That China did not oppose the resolution might be regarded as something of a coup for the West.
Use of armed force against another state in only legally permissibly when it has been authorised by the United Nations or is an act taken in self-defence. Neither applies to the situation in Ukraine, although Russia has sought to create a ague narrative of defensive action in a vain effort to legitimise its actions.
By recognising the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia has attempted to create a pretext for military action on the basis that it is aiding their defence against an aggressive Ukraine, throwing in ludicrous charges of genocide and mass human rights abuses for good measure. There is no evidence to support such claims. Moreover, very little recognition exists for the independence of Donetsk or Luhansk, not least because their de facto separation from Ukraine was only made possible by Russia’s infiltration of those regions.
Will sanctions be enough?
Following the failure of diplomacy, international responses to Russia’s aggression boiled down to a choice between sanctions and a military counter-response in support of Ukraine. It has been made abundantly clear that the military option has not really been entertained, perhaps understandable given that Russia is a nuclear power. However, should Russia’s military campaign not stop in Ukraine and affect a NATO member, the pressure to respond militarily will become overwhelming.
Although western states have moved quickly to impose what are being described in some quarters as the toughest ever set of sanctions imposed upon a state, the historical record calls into question their effectiveness as a weapon for tackling aggressors. One issue concerns enforcement.
While the EU and western allies have implemented far-reaching sanctions, other parts of the global economy are likely to remain accessible to Russia. There were already signs of some tensions over the scale of sanctions that will be applied, particularly among EU member states over Russia’s expulsion from the SWIFT banking system, but surprisingly, any discords were quickly resolved due to a major shift of viewpoint in Germany.
Other major global powers like China are not part of any of the sanctions’ initiatives, undermining their capacity to cause Russia economic pain. Sanctions are also dependent upon those at whom they are targeted possessing a rational mindset, changing their behaviour in response to their effects.
It is questionable whether this is present in the case of Vladimir Putin. Certainly, dictators have long demonstrated a lack of concern for the effects of sanctions upon their states and populations at large.
In the short term, it is likely that Russia will assert control over Ukraine. What comes next is more speculative. There is no indication that Russia presently has plans to extend its mission beyond Ukraine, but this cannot be ruled out as a medium- or longer-term goal. From a defence and security perspective, the relevance of NATO in the modern world has never seemed more critical.
If Russia is able to reassert greater authority over its near abroad, any vision of an EU which expands further eastward may need to be paused. Putin clearly wishes to resurrect the USSR in all but name and at the very least a new Cold War appears likely to take the place of the current ‘hot’ conflict once it draws to a conclusion.