The situation was avoidable. Russian President Vladimir Putin had been urging negotiations with the Western powers for several weeks, if not months. The crisis had been escalating in recent months. There were frequent public interventions by the Russian leader at press conferences, meetings with foreign leaders and televised speeches, reiterating Russia’s demands, which were in fact very simple. The security of a state is only guaranteed if the security of other states, particularly those located on its borders, is equally respected. That is why Putin insistently demanded, from Washington, London, Brussels and Paris, that Moscow be guaranteed that Ukraine would not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The demand was not an eccentricity: the request was for Kiev to have a status no different from that of other European countries, such as Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Bosnia and Serbia, which are not part of NATO. It was not therefore a question of preventing the “westernization” of Ukraine but of preventing its incorporation into a military alliance formed, as is well known, in 1949, with the aim of confronting the former Soviet Union and, since 1991, Russia itself.
This implied that the United States and its European military allies should not install on the territory of Ukraine, a country bordering Russia, nuclear weapons, missiles or other aggressive weaponry that could endanger Moscow’s security. NATO – a military alliance whose existence has not been justified since the demise of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 – argued that this was necessary to ensure the security of some of its member states, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. But this obviously threatened Russia’s security. Remember that in October 1962, Washington threatened to unleash a nuclear war if the Soviets did not withdraw from Cuba their missiles -installed 100 miles off the U.S. coast- whose function, in principle, was only to guarantee the defense and security of the island. And Moscow finally had to bow down and withdraw its missiles. With these same arguments, Putin asked the European heads of state and prime ministers to set up a round table to discuss his demands. It was simply a matter of signing a document in which NATO undertook not to extend into Ukraine and, I repeat, not to install on Ukrainian territory weapons systems that could threaten Russia’s security.
The other Russian demand, which is also quite reasonable, was that, as was established in 2014 and 2015 in the Minsk agreements, the Russian-speaking populations of the two “people’s republics” of the Ukrainian region of Donbas, Donetsk and Lugansk, should receive protection and not be at the mercy of constant hate attacks as they had been for almost eight years. This demand also went unheeded. In the Minsk agreements, signed by Russia and Ukraine with the participation of two European countries, Germany and France, and which several analysts in the Western press now reproach Putin for having dynamited, it was stipulated that, within the framework of a new Ukrainian Constitution, the two self-proclaimed republics that have recently been recognized by Moscow as “sovereign states” would be granted broad autonomy. This autonomy was never granted, and the Russian-speaking populations of these regions continued to endure harassment by the Ukrainian military and extremist paramilitary groups, which caused some fourteen thousand deaths.
Many observers saw negotiation as a viable option: listening to Moscow’s arguments, sitting around a table, responding to Russian concerns and signing a protocol of agreement.
For all these reasons, there was a mood of justified exasperation within the Russian authorities, which NATO leaders failed or refused to understand. Why did NATO not take these repeated demands into account? A mystery… Many observers believed that negotiation was a viable option; listen to Moscow’s arguments, sit around a table, respond to Russian concerns and sign a protocol of agreement. There was even talk, in the 24 hours preceding the first Russian bombings on February 24, of a possible last-minute meeting between Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joseph Biden. But things were precipitated and we entered this detestable scenario of war and dangerous international tensions.
From the point of view of legal armor, Putin’s speech in the early morning of the day when the Russian Armed Forces launched the war in Ukraine tried to rely on international law to justify his “special military operation”. When he announced the intervention he claimed that, “basing [himself] on the UN Charter” and taking into account the demand for help made to him by the “governments” of the “Donetsk and Lugansk republics” and the “genocide” taking place against the Russian-speaking population of these territories, he had ordered the operation…. But that is just a legal garb, a legal scaffolding to excuse the attack on Ukraine. Of course, it is clearly a large-scale military intervention, with armored columns penetrating Ukraine from at least three points: the north, near Kiev; the east, through the Donbas; and the south, near the Crimea. One can speak of an invasion. Although Putin maintains that there will be no permanent occupation of Ukraine. Most probably, Moscow, if it wins this war, will try to install in Kiev a government that is not hostile to its interests and that will guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO, besides recognizing the sovereignty of the Donbas “republics” in the totality of their territorial extension, because when the Russian attack began, Kiev still controlled an important part of those territories.
In the absence of an international escalation, the military victor of this war will most likely be Russia. Of course, in this matter one has to be very cautious, because it is known how wars start, but never how they end. The difference in military power between Russia and Ukraine is such that the probable winner, at least in the first stage, will undoubtedly be Moscow. From the economic point of view, however, the picture is less clear. The battery of brutal sanctions that the United States, the European Union and other powers are imposing on Moscow are annihilating, unprecedented, and may hinder, for decades, the economic development of Russia, whose situation in this respect is already particularly delicate. On the other hand, a military victory in this war, if it is quick and convincing, could give Russia, its Armed Forces and its armaments great prestige. Moscow could consolidate itself, in several theaters of world conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and Sahelian Africa, as an indispensable ally for some local authoritarian governments, as the main supplier of military instructors and, above all, as the main arms seller.
History has been set in motion again, and the global geopolitical dynamics are shifting.
All of this makes it harder to understand why the United States did not do more to prevent this conflict in Ukraine. That’s a central point – what does Washington gain from this conflict? For Biden, this war may provide a media distraction from his strategic objectives. His situation is not easy: he has had a year of mediocre government in domestic politics, he has not been able to get his projects through Congress, he has not achieved a tangible improvement in living conditions after the terrible pandemic of covid-19 or a correction of inequalities. And, in foreign policy, he continues to uphold some of Donald Trump’s worst decisions and has made a series of missteps, such as the hasty and calamitous withdrawal from Kabul. This may have led him to seek not to commit to a more decisive strategy to avoid a war in Ucania that could be seen coming…. The result is that the United States and the other NATO powers could lose Ukraine, which would be removed from their sphere of influence.
Washington’s position is all the more surprising given that its great strategic rival in the 21st century is not Russia but China. This is why this conflict is, in a way, shrouded in an old-fashioned air, a hangover from the Cold War (1948-1989). Perhaps one of Washington’s objectives is to alienate Russia from China by involving Moscow in a conflict in Europe, so that China cannot rely on Russia while the United States and its allies in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and AUKUS (Australia-UK-US strategic military alliance) take the opportunity to harass Beijing in the South China Sea. Perhaps this is why, in this conflict in Ukraine, China has been cautious: it has neither recognized nor supported the sovereignty of the two “people’s republics of the Donbas”. Beijing does not want to provide a pretext for other powers to recognize Taiwan’s independence. But it could also happen that, despite the enormous differences, China might be inspired by Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in order to conquer Taiwan. Or perhaps the United States will take advantage of the war in Ukraine to argue that China is preparing to invade Taiwan and trigger a preemptive conflict with China. These are hypotheses, because the only thing that is certain is that history has been set in motion again and the world geopolitical dynamic is shifting.
The European Union’s position has been weak. Emmanuel Macron, who is currently the pro tempore president of the European Union, achieved nothing with his last-minute demarcates. On the eve of the war, the idea on which both political leaders and the Western media mobilized was to tell Putin to do nothing, not to take another step, when the reasonable thing would have been, I repeat, to analyze his demands and sit down to negotiate to guarantee Russia, in some way, that NATO was not going to place nuclear weapons on its borders. Initially, the European government that acted most intelligently was that of Germany, with its new chancellor, the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, at its head. From the outset, it was in favor of Putin’s demands being considered. But as soon as the war began, Berlin’s position changed radically. Scholz’s recent decision, adopted unanimously in the Bundestag, the federal parliament, to rearm Germany by allocating to the military budget an exceptional sum of more than 100 billion euros and, from now on, almost 3% of the country’s GDP, constitutes a military revolution. The rearmament of Germany, Europe’s leading economic power, brings back terrible historical memories. It is yet more spectacular and frightening proof that we are entering a new geopolitical age.
Finally, we continue to wonder why the United States and the Western powers did not agree to dialogue with Putin and respond to his demands, especially knowing that they could not intervene in the event of a military conflict. This is very important. It should be recalled that, in his message announcing the start of the war, Vladimir Putin sent a clear warning to the major NATO powers, in particular to the three nuclear-armed ones – the United States, the United Kingdom and France – reminding them that Russia “has certain advantages in the line of state-of-the-art weapons” and that attacking it “would have devastating consequences for a potential aggressor”.
What “advantages in the line of next-generation weapons” are we talking about? Moscow has, in recent years, like China, gained a decisive technological advantage over the United States in hypersonic missiles. This means that, in the event of a Western attack on Moscow, the Russian response could indeed be devastating. Hypersonic missiles travel at five to six times the speed of sound, i.e. Mach 5 or Mach 6, as opposed to a conventional missile, which has a speed of Mach 1. The United States has accumulated a significant backlog in this field, to such an extent that Washington recently forced several missile manufacturers (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman) to work together and allocated a colossal budget to catch up with Russia, estimated at two to three years. But so far it has not succeeded. Russian hypersonic missiles, by calculating the trajectory, can intercept conventional missiles and destroy them before they reach their target, allowing Russia to create an invulnerable shield to protect itself. In contrast, conventional NATO missile shields do not have this capability against hypersonics. This explains why Putin decided to order military intervention over Ukraine with the assurance that an escalation by NATO was highly unlikely.
Director de Le Monde diplomatique en español