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War in Ukraine: Smoke screens and real intentions

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

This famous quote from the Melian dialogue (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War) is meant to represent the realist school of international relations. Thus the world would be nothing but a zero-sum game in which the powerful do whatever they want and the others have to accommodate themselves as best they can.

It would therefore appear that Putin's Russia sees it as its duty to use its considerable strength to subjugate a weaker power (Ukraine) to guard against encirclement by a stronger power (the West, notably via NATO).

But if we take a closer look, this is absolutely not the case because the Ukrainian crisis is in fact only a matter of Russian domestic politics. One could also say that Putin has decided to externalize his internal problems by seeking conflict to strengthen his faltering position.

Because indeed, Russia is not in danger of encirclement, and even if it were, other solutions than the invasion of Ukraine are available to it.

First, a point about security in the modern world. Constantly talking about an invasion of Russia by outside forces is nonsense. To believe that the scenario of 1941 (with the German invasion via Operation Barbarossa) could repeat itself with an invasion coming from NATO is profoundly stupid because we are now living in the nuclear age. Any violation of Russian territory would be met with a nuclear strike leading to Nuclear War. So, if the objective of NATO was an invasion of Russia, this decision would lead to a suicide of the states composing NATO, no matter where their troops are deployed.

The logical conclusion is therefore that even if Ukraine joined NATO, Russia would not be under the danger of an invasion from abroad. That said, NATO still refuses the membership of Ukraine and Georgia because it understands that such an act would be a provocation against Russia's natural sphere of influence. Thus the risk of Ukraine joining NATO is at best theoretical, at worst false.

So the threat Putin invokes of a NATO seeking to encircle Russia is not only not dangerous in itself, it is simply not real because NATO refuses to expand to the East. (I will talk in another article about NATO's position on this subject, don't worry).

But let's face it, if the expansion of NATO constitutes a real danger for Russia, the most pragmatic solution cannot be an invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, invading Ukraine would bring Russia closer to NATO's borders. Putin claims to do so to keep NATO at bay. Have you ever managed to create distance with someone by getting closer to them? This reasoning is a pure non sequitur.

If Russia wants to avoid Ukraine's rapprochement with NATO, what it must do is rather defuse tensions with NATO (and therefore remove the need for NATO to grow) while making a rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia attractive. In other words, if Russia was “attractive” to Ukraine, Ukrainians would not want to join NATO. But by adopting an aggressive and imperialist policy vis-à-vis Ukraine, it is given reasons to want to join NATO in order to guarantee its independence.

So it is clear that it is Russian policy that forces NATO to take a more aggressive stance and encourages Ukrainians to want to join this organization. Ironically, Russian policy has the effect of encouraging Sweden and Finland to join NATO as well. These countries, historically neutral, cannot indeed see Russian policy as reassuring and therefore seek to protect themselves for their own security by joining NATO. Thus by wanting to “prevent an expansion of NATO to the East” via military means, Russia creates the conditions to change a neutral actor on its borders (Finland) into a member of NATO. We can therefore imagine that if Putin will go for a military intervention in Ukraine in the following month, Russia will go from four bordering NATO member countries (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) to practically double (Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland and Sweden via maritime proximity).

The use of force as a foreign policy was always the policy of the regimes that preceded that of Putin (the Empire used force to crush the Spring of Nations, the USSR used force to crush the events in Budapest in 1956). And all these interventions have had effects contrary to those intended. The violence of the Russian Empires has always pushed the Eastern States to want independence and to come closer to the West to defend themselves from Russia.

Thus, like in the past, Putin's policy is counterproductive.

To conclude this first article on the subject of the Ukrainian crisis, it is necessary to understand the reasons which push Putin to pursue this suicidal policy on the international level: to save his regime at home.

Indeed, since Navalny's revelations about corruption in Russia, since the collapse of the quality of life of Russian citizens because of an inept economic policy, and since his decline in popularity, Putin has sought to regain control of the internal situation. Discontent is brewing in Russia. The lifting of health restrictions promises to be tense in the country. Putin's regime is resorting to more and more repression to keep people in fear and to prevent them from demanding change. Moreover, events in Kazakhstan earlier this year convinced Putin that the plan to hand over power to a successor was not viable and he must therefore find a solution to sustain himself.

So to save his regime, he resorts to an old tactic specific to authoritarian regimes: the outbreak of a war in order to rally the people around his leader. That's why Putin created this fake story of encirclement from the outside and wants to present himself as Russia's hero. By conjuring up images like those of the 1941 invasion, he wants a patriotic burst that can cement his regime and justify its repressions. He could thus blame the internal difficulties on the policy coming from abroad and at the same time justify his internal repressions because we would be in a “regime of war”. Moreover, he must hope for an effect similar to that of the return of Crimea in 2014 (indeed, after the unrest in 2011 and 2012, his regime was tottering until this event which exploded his popularity and in fact saved the regime).

But the problem is that this solution only works in the short term. And moreover it can go very badly.

I started this article with a quote from the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Well if we continue this analogy, we must not forget that the Athenians lost that war when they started an invasion of Sicily which was not justified and absolutely not necessary for the general interest. This invasion had been decided for matters of internal politics and to strengthen the political career of certain actors on the inside of the city state.

Short-termism and self-interest have never succeeded in overseas operations. And it would be ironic if Putin's career ended in a war with Ukraine when it began with him as a savior in the Chechen War.

I still have a lot to say on the subject and during the next ten days you can expect other thoughts on the possible War in Ukraine and in particular: the Western point of view on the crisis, the prospects for the development of the crisis and the nature of the historic crime that such an invasion would constitute. But the most important aspect studied will be in the next article: How an invasion of Ukraine would lead to the destruction of the dream of imperial restoration so dear to Putin.

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