Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 did not come as a surprise to anyone except Ukrainians who did not take the warnings of the US and other NATO members seriously. What was a surprise for Russia was the resistance put up by the Ukrainian leadership and regular armed forces who made it extremely hard for what Moscow though would be a walk in the park with its overwhelming land troops equipped with medium to long range artillery. As of writing this essay on Day 16 of the invasion, Russia has not been able to break the national resistance to enter Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. But most of the South and East Ukraine has fallen to Russian occupation and it is a matter of days that Kyiv would also fall to Russian troops. To understand why Russia launched the invasion into Ukraine, and whether it was necessary, one needs to look at the post world war global world order, which was refined and reinforced in the 1990s by the US and its allies following the dissolution of Soviet Union and the rise of China as a rival economic power. This essay, however, does not discuss history but focuses on the present conflict and the factors that surround its complicated nature.
Apart from the misery of the Ukrainians who have been used as a football by the big powers, with more than one million becoming refugees and 400,000 people uprooted internally from their homes and hundreds who died in missile attacks, this conflict has exposed the deep fault lines that underpin the existing world order for the maintenance of global peace and security. It has also exposed the double standards that are followed by the powerful states to justify and maintain their dominance of this order both within and outside the UN system.
In President Vladimir Putin’s view, this military operation (he does not want to call it a war) would not have been necessary if NATO had not moved away from its assurance of the 1990s that it would not expand to the Baltic states in Eastern Europe posing a direct threat to the sovereignty and security of Russia. Vladimir Putin holds the present government in Ukraine responsible for killing 14000 people in the Russian majority regions of Donetsk and Luhansk which proclaimed independence from Kiev subsequent to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. According to the Russian narrative, Volodymyr Zelensky supported the Ukrainian armed forces with funds, equipment and entertainment shows on the frontline in the separatist region of Donbas, but he also promised to implement the 2015 Minsk Agreement and agreed to respect the civil and political rights of the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine. After his election in 2019 he reneged on his promise and instead of mending ties with Russia, he started to court the US for NATO membership. To win the US support, Volodymyr Zelensky banned Russian-language newspapers and TV channels, imprisoned his political opponents and outlawed opposition political parties in Eastern Ukraine and sent thousands of Ukrainian troops and Neo-Nazis in Donbas to eliminate pro-Russia separatists. Early this year, the debate whether Ukraine should apply for membership of NATO and abandon its policy of staying neutral in any future confrontation between Russia and the US, or maintain the status quo culminated in favour of the former view prevailing in the government. President Putin saw this as Ukraine crossing the red line and after failing to get reassurance from NATO that it would not deny Ukraine membership of the Western defence alliance if it applied for it, he ordered Russian army to move into Ukraine before Ukraine’s application for NATO membership was submitted and approved officially.
The Russian objectives in its military operation against Ukraine are a neutral and non-nuclear Ukraine, its demilitarisation from the Eastern regions inhabited by the Russian-speaking population, denazification (whatever it means), recognition of Russian Crimea and recognition of the independent states of Donetsk and Luhansk. According to Russian leaders, these terms are non-negotiable.
Russia sees the NATO reaction to its invasion as a contradiction of what the US and NATO did elsewhere in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, replacing their leaders with pro-West puppet regimes who were imposed on their peoples through the use of force. Instead of encouraging President Zelensky to negotiate peace with Russia, Vladimir Putin accuses the West of escalating the war by supplying arms and mercenaries, while launching a hysterical propaganda against Russia and enforcing a strict sanctions regime against Russia.
The US and NATO do not Trust Vladimir Putin. They believe that he wants to restore the glory days of the former Soviet Union by keeping its neighbouring states under Russia’s sphere of influence. The West regards this conflict not as Russia’s war but as Putin’s war of wanton ambition. On Ukraine’s membership question, NATO has taken the position that every country has the sovereign right to decide its future and join a defence pact that it considers necessary for safeguarding its independence and sovereignty. The West regards the invasion of Ukraine by Russia as a violation of the principle of non-interference and respect for the territorial integrity of states, which is backed by international law and upheld by the UN and OSCE. The US and NATO have made it clear that instead of imposing a no fly zone over Ukraine or deploying NATO troops inside Ukraine to stop the Russian advance, they will supply lethal arms to Ukraine to defend itself and use economic sanctions against Russia which will exact a heavy economic cost on Putin’s government and its supporters. These sanctions include suspension of the SWIFT banking system for Russia, freezing financial assets of Russia and Russian banks and its billionaire oligarchs in Western countries, boycotting Russian commercial aviation, banning investment and trading contacts with Russia, ending the Most Favoured Nation status in trade and placing a freeze on its oil exports. US corporations in technology, food and consumer goods and European car manufacturers have closed their operations in Russia resulting in thousands of job losses for the Russians. The Russian Rouble and stock market is under severe market pressure. In addition, foreign fighters have gone into Ukraine to fight Russian troops alongside Ukraine’s regular army and freshly trained civilian volunteers. The strategy of NATO is not to fight Russia directly with NATO forces but to exact insurmountable pressure on Vladimir Putin to isolate him from his people or force him enough to withdraw from Ukraine in a humiliating reversal of his invasion order.
The US and its European allies believe that Ukraine is not the last stop of Russia. They draw a parallel between Hitler’s Germany which kept on taking European countries by force to fulfil its ambition as the dominant power in Europe. The Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Finland, Hungary and Poland share this assessment and have asked NATO to remain prepared to invoke article 5 of the NATO charter if a NATO member state is attacked by Russia. An appeasement of Russia in Ukraine could embolden Vladimir Putin to move further into Europe to create rebel enclaves of Russian population sympathetic to Moscow. However, NATO is reluctant to engage in a military showdown against Russia which could easily escalate to a nuclear war which no one, including Russia, wants to fight because if it starts, there will be no one left to claim victory.
Instead, NATO is confronting Russia on other fronts. Besides imposing the toughest economic sanctions, NATO is fighting Russia on cyber space, media and public relations. The Russian viewpoint of the war is completely blocked out in the US and Europe on TV, newspapers and social media. Western public is furious against Russia watching atrocities committed by the Russian artillery on civilians in many Ukrainian cities, including those under Russian siege. This is reciprocated by Russia and Russians are only getting information that Kremlin approves for public release in Russia.
Within NATO there are different views on the application of sanctions and confronting Russia. Ukraine’s repeated calls to NATO to intervene militarily resulted on deaf ears. Joining the sanctions’ call, Germany suspended the construction of Russian gas pipeline NORD-2, but it did not suspend NORD-1 which brings Russian gas to Germany to meet its energy shortfall. Hungary did not join the US call to boycott the import of Russian oil. Poland wanted the US to deploy jets and declare Ukraine a no fly zone but the US did not want to escalate the conflict to a higher military level. Slovenia has asked NATO members to stop all imports from Russia. Although Turkey voted yes for the General Assembly resolution, it did not officially condemn Russia for the invasion but called it “unacceptable”. Turkey is a NATO member but it also has good relations with Russia and Ukraine and is committed to facilitating negotiations between the two sides. Ankara made a mediation attempt by hosting a trilateral meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia Ukraine and Turkey in Antalya on 10 March 2022, which ended after one session making no progress on ceasefire, but agreeing that the possibility of future talks should remain open ended.
The UN Security Council meeting on 26 February 2022 and the subsequent UN General Assembly meeting of 2 March 2022 seeking to condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine and calling on the the parties to end hostilities were quite revealing in their voting pattern. While the majority of the member states supported the West’s position in voting for the resolution which was adopted at the General Assembly by an overwhelming majority, 35 states abstained and 12 did not participate in the voting. States that abstained included three nuclear states namely China, India and Pakistan, as well as many Asian and Gulf States. These states have full sympathy for Ukraine whose people are going through a humanitarian catastrophe, but these states do not want to be a party to the power struggle between one side and the other. In choosing to be non-partisan, these states want to keep good relations with all major powers, be it China, Russia, the US, UK or the EU. They do not want to be told that if you are not with us, you are against us. Unfortunately, the West has not accepted the right of these countries to remain neutral in this conflict. Prior to the UN General Assembly vote in New York on 2 March 2022, Western Envoys posted in Islamabad wrote a joint letter advising the government of Imran Khan to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine. The letter was rejected by the Pakistan Foreign Office as an attempt to influence its neutrality. Pakistani social media is full of speculation that the West is quietly working with the opposition to pass a vote of no confidence against Imran Kahn in Parliament and force him out of government. The opposition in Pakistan has accused the Prime Minister of visiting Moscow on the eve of Russian invasion of Ukraine. On 10 March addressing a Press Conference the federal Minister for Interior of Pakistan confirmed the speculations that the vote of no-confidence tabled in the Parliament by the combined opposition was because of Ukraine, and for the government’s refusal to comply with the demands of the West. If the vote of no-confidence fails, the West may as well use other levers such as tighten IMF conditionality on the next tranche of payment, or retain Pakistan on the grey list of FATF for an indefinite period. The US State Department has an office which monitors the voting pattern of countries on US-sponsored resolutions at the UN and calibrates US foreign and security policy toward them accordingly.
It is reasonable to assume that the number of abstentions on the UN General Assembly vote would have been higher than 35, had the West not actively lobbied and put diplomatic pressure on politically vulnerable and foreign aid dependent countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South America to vote in favour of the UN resolution. It is interesting that after voting against the UN Security Council resolution on Ukraine on 26 February 2022, the UAE changed its position and voted in support of the UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine on 2 March 2022. South Africa was also in the same dilemma. After initially announcing that South Africa will remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict, the South African Foreign Minister issued a statement prior to the UN vote in support of the NATO position. The statement was, however, retracted later after the ANC leadership decided to stand firm on its neutral stance in keeping with its long standing policy of not getting involved in big power rivalry.
Like the EU expansion in Europe since its inception, NATO has also been expanding in Europe to counter Russia’s perceived threat. NATO was founded in 1949 by 12 states from Europe and North America comprising Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the US. In the 1950s Greece, Turkey and Germany joined NATO. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999. Five years later in 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia became NATO members. NATO continued to expand further admitting Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020. The US wanted to make Ukraine a NATO member in 2008 but did not go as far as inviting Ukraine to apply due to reservations of Germany and France. Vladimir Putin is extremely sensitive to NATO’s expansion in Europe which he regards as a Western strategy to encircle Russia from the west, as well as through the south from the Black Sea. The root cause of the present conflict in Ukraine is the refusal of NATO to announce that it will not make Ukraine a member of NATO.
The Ukraine conflict has revealed cracks in the post-world war political and financial order which needs a thorough overhaul, taking into account the shifting power balance away from the world war II victors to new economic and geo-strategic state-actors that either did not exist as independent states back in 1945 or were not directly involved in the setting up of the order following the great war. The present order is simply not relevant even for the powers that conceived and sustained it and which worked for them for 77 years after the end of the world war.
This is more so in the financial markets where few countries with Reserve currencies control the net value of world liquidity. The Bretton Woods system was abandoned by the US in 1971. The US Dollar is no longer linked to the US gold reserve except that the Green back has the sovereign guarantee of the US Government. The exchange rates of many raw material and commodities supplying countries are fixed through an unfair and unequal system based on the basket of Reserve currencies where the theory that the more a country devalues its currency the greater are its exports prospects, undermines the value of the work of farmers and manufacturers of exporting countries. This is how shops like Primark manage to sell a Made in Bangladesh jumper cheaper than a cup of Starbucks coffee. The exporting countries do not get the fair value of their products because of the unfair exchange rate which is heavily in favour of Reserve currency countries. This is a completely different subject not related to the present topic but it shows that the existing global financial system also needs a major overhaul, which the Ukraine conflict has come to highlight in the wake of stagflation threatening many countries.
The UN which was established primarily to prevent armed conflicts in the world has failed in its primary mission. The big powers that established the UN did not care for this failure because a serious war never came home on the territory of Europe or the US to disturb the peaceful lives of their citizens. The P5 are no longer the sole powers that can decide on matters of peace and security, using the UN Security Council in which they monopolise decision-making under Chapter vii of the UN Charter. The decision making mechanism for peace and security has moved away from the UN to NATO and G7 forums, which is even more dangerous because it excludes a lot many regions and countries affected by conflicts. The General Assembly has no mandate to impose its resolutions on the states that ignore UN resolutions with impunity. The democratisation and overhaul of the UN is necessary to restore its credibility and make it relevant to prevent future conflicts and wars.
The inter-dependence of states due to globalisation came under strain due to worldwide Covid-19 restrictions in 2021 and now it is challenged in 2022 by the war in Ukraine. Countries are realising that dependence on other states is not necessarily a good thing as supply chains can be chocked and create economic slowdown, even if temporarily. Germany depends on Russia for natural gas for 50% of its energy requirement, and France 25%. NATO members are now talking about cutting their dependency on Russian fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy. It will take time to reduce or completely switch this dependency, but it will be a major shift toward nationalism and self-sufficiency for European states. Russia and China may also reduce their dependency on Europe and the US for technology and diversify their exports to the emerging markets in Asia and South America or engage in bilateral trade between them forming an economic and strategic block to counter the Western dominance. For South Asian nations, this would pose both an opportunity and a challenge because countries in this region have their own territorial disputes and they are not insulated from the ramifications of wider global developments.
The toughest sanctions imposed by the West against Vladimir Putin’s regime will not impact on Russia in the short term so as to force a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine without achieving the objectives of the military operation. These sanctions will hurt Russian economy and development in the long run, but at the same time the sanctions will push Russia to explore new economic partners and use a financial system away from the SWIFT to move money internationally and collaborate with the Chinese who are already operating a digital money transfer system similar to SWIFT. Russia will also reduce its dependence on the US Dollar and other Reserve currencies of the West and could develop an alternate currency, including an online digital currency for trade with the outside world. Russia and China have the capability to put an alternate currency trading system in place. Russia’s high energy reserves can also be used to dictate the terms of trade by forcing the buyers of Russian fossil fuels to pay for their purchases in the currency Russia chooses outside the US Dollar and Western banking system.
Reducing dependence on other countries will encourage Germany and Japan to invest heavily in their defence forces. The two countries seem ready to take this route in the coming years. While Australia, the US, UK and France will benefit from this investment by supplying their defence technology and improving their economies through defence exports, in the long run it will be a very dangerous world where each country will have indigenous military capacity to threaten a neighbour with armed conflict. Countries which have a strong economic and defence capability can always be held to ransom by far right nationalist leaders winning elections on populist slogans and using their muscle power to bully smaller neighbours.
While Russian troops are still in Ukraine, in the immediate future NATO will have to rethink its strategy of dealing with Russia if it does not want to use military force to avoid a danger of escalating the war and brining it inside the territory of NATO members. This will mean NATO either conceding the point that Russia has a right to feel sensitive about its “zone of influence” just as the US feels strongly about its “zone of influence” in South and Central America, or NATO carrying on with a long drawn regime of punitive sanctions against Russia which will in turn hurt not only NATO members but will also have a negative global impact on all countries. Already, Russian retaliation has halted cooperation with the US and UK in the production of rocket components and launch of non-commercial satellites in space. Stopping exports of luxury cars and goods to Russian buyers will also hurt US manufacturers in terms of reduced sales.
The Ukraine war has also shown the double standard of countries which have been preaching human rights to others away from their homes. The racist treatment of non-white and non-nationals fleeing Ukraine by the Ukrainian authorities, as well as their poor welcome by the countries where they walked to seek refuge was most unfortunate because they were not in some uncivilised continent but in Europe. The Ukraine war also shattered the stock image of a refugee being black skinned or brown eyed. In the 70 years interregnum since the world war, Europe had almost forgotten that refugees could also be blonde, blue eyed, wear the cross, look healthy and speak the same language as the hosts.
The Ukraine war has also thrown away the myth of freedom of expression and thought. As soon as Russian troops invaded Ukraine, European countries blocked the news coming out of Russia to their public and concentrated only on showing the atrocities committed by the Russian troops on civilians, including heart breaking accounts of people fleeing their homes, maternity homes being bombarded and heart wrenching scenes of homes and buildings destroyed in Russian missile attacks. The sanctions story is also dominated by what the West has imposed on Russia without reporting on the sanctions Russia has imposed on the West in retaliation. International television stations such as Al-Jazeera and TRT News have struggled to remain neutral because any violation of the neutral reporting protocol can shut down their transmission in NATO states. Newspapers are, however, relatively independent in publishing opinion pieces which cover all aspects of the conflict.
There is no denying the fact that the moral responsibility for carrying out aggression against Ukraine rests with Russia, and not with Donetsk and Luhansk which are seeking self-determination in an attempt to break away from Ukraine. There is also no question about the sovereign right of Ukraine to decide in its own interest whether it wants to join NATO or remain neutral. But having said that why wasn’t this applied to Serbia, Indonesia and Sudan when the West supported the self determination of the people of Kosovo, East Timor and South Sudan and insisted on their secession as independent countries. But in the breakaway states of Ukraine, Kashmir, Northern Cyprus, Palestine and now Afghanistan, the West has not supported the principle of the right of self-determination of the people who want to live independently as internationally recognised states. The contrast is too obvious to be obfuscated through a media block out, economic brow beating or display of force.
The main beneficiary of the showdown between Russia and Ukraine, and by implication Russia and US, is China which has chosen not to take any sides, but it has indirectly supported Russia. The thought of Taiwan becoming Ukraine is worrying if China at any point in the future follows the example of Russia to invade Taiwan. Would NATO pre-empt this scenario by making Taiwan a member of NATO? And how far is NATO willing to go to contain Russia’s ambition to re-write the past and create a union of East European and Central Asian states which once comprised the former Soviet Union. It would have been far better if after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1988, the US had offered NATO membership to Russia emerging fresh as the successor state of the Soviet Union. In fact, a unipolar world did not require an enlarged NATO but a strengthened UN. But the past cannot be rewritten neither by Vladimir Putin nor by the leaders of NATO. Meanwhile the world is crying for Ukraine which badly needs peace.
*Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs, Commonwealth Secretariat, London (2000-2006).