After a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Jan. 21, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that Russia should commit not to invade Ukraine and withdraw the 100,000 Russian troops amassed along the Ukrainian border. Russia, for its part, insisted that the United States and its NATO allies stop their activities in Eastern Europe and Ukraine and commit not to expand to the former Soviet member countries.
The United States rejected Russia’s demands and warned Russia that it would face tougher sanctions if it invades Ukraine. At the same time, the U.S. declared that 8,500 military personnel are on operational readiness and ready to be deployed to Eastern Europe. Russia, for its part, has amassed 127,000 military personnel in the Russia-Ukraine border region. Although diplomacy is still alive, Russia and Ukraine are on the brink of war.
The posture of war exhibited by the U.S. and Russia during the Ukraine crisis is driven by their respective political motives. The Biden administration, brandishing multilateralism, needs to preserve and strengthen U.S. global leadership by demonstrating its shared resolve to help its NATO allies defend against external threats — and to repair the transatlantic relations sabotaged on Donald Trump’s watch. Russia, on the other hand, inherits the defiant diplomatic traditions of tsarist and Soviet Russia that spanned 500 years, with a mantra to the effect that the international system must conform to Russian interests or it poses threat to Russia. In that case, Russia must stand up and fight.
In the history of international relations, Russia has been one of the movers and shakers, and even one of the founding actors of the international system. However, Russia’s aspiration for the establishment of the “Third Rome,” for the division of power and the sharing of interests has led to a number of setbacks over the course of history. Russia sees Ukraine as a strategic buffer zone that concerns Russia’s national security interests, and it will never accept NATO’s U.S.-led eastward expansion into Ukraine. The American scholar Zbigniew Brzezinski once said that without Ukraine, Russia would no longer be a Eurasian empire. After the 2014 Ukraine crisis, two competing forces, one pro-Russian and one anti-Russian, emerged in Eastern Ukraine, and their armed conflict continues to this day.
Regarding the relationship between war and political intentions, Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, pointed out in his book “On War” that political intentions constitute the ends, while war is the means. And means without ends are unfathomable.
Russia, while the second-largest military power in the world, is vulnerable internally, and that vulnerability is increasing under the sanctions imposed by Western countries. According to the Global Fragile States Index 2021, Russia ranked 72nd out of 173 countries worldwide, making it the most vulnerable of all the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Moreover, vulnerability has permeated the post-Soviet era, and “de-Russification” has become a social phenomenon in many former Soviet republics. According to the Ukrainian news network RBC-Ukraine, a poll conducted in September found that 81 percent of Ukrainians held a negative view of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The intertwined internal and external vulnerabilities aggravate Russia sense of insecurity in the current international system. In response to expansion by the West into the former Soviet republics and the ongoing de-Russification, Russia has pursued an offensive diplomatic strategy with the political intent of carving out a strategic buffer zone to safeguard Russia’s national security. The Russia-Georgia war in 2008, the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and the recent involvement of Collective Security Treaty Organization troops in the unrest in Kazakhstan all took place under these specific conditions.
In a relatively peaceful international system, the vast majority of the public abhors war and pursues peace. Thus, scholars and politicians always opt for the elements that are favorable to peace — or some elements that would prevent war from happening — and offer narratives against the chance of war. Yet, most wars do not occur when the warring parties are fully prepared or there are no reasons to preserve peace. Rather, even small probabilities may lead to war. The Anglo-Argentine war in March 1982 was triggered by Argentines erecting a national flag on a disputed island.
For a vulnerable Russia, a first move in a “preventive war” might avoid a more difficult situation with Ukraine later. In addition, the disunity within the West and the social crisis caused by the ongoing pandemic may tip the war balance in favor of Russia in the event of war. Russia has been in military preparations for years and has achieved some progress. Since 2014, its military has developed and installed much new equipment, such as the SS-X-30 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Avangard hypersonic missile and the Haiyan nuclear-powered cruise missile (9M730 Burevestnik). In sum, Russia has a large land force, cyberwarfare capabilities, new and advanced conventional weapons and a nuclear arsenal capable of achieving military victory and realizing its political intentions.
There is no sign suggesting that the current diplomatic mediation will bring a dawn of peace, and so the U.S.-Russian rivalry in the eastern theater of NATO continues. The response of some NATO members to Russian military action does not necessarily create a deterrent — forcing Russia to abandon its preventive war. If the U.S. and its NATO allies choose to back down, it will embolden Russia to achieve its political intentions through war.
Peace is fragile, and war may be looming near in an unbalanced and competitive international system. Sovereign states need to be guided by the principle that when the possibility of war reaches a tipping point, never take the first step without considering the last one.