The Russia-Ukraine conflict has been going on for nine months, with the two sides locked in seesaw fighting toward an anxious future.
To have a clearer vision of where the conflict is going, one has to trace where it came from.
There are many ambiguities — perhaps it’s more accurate to say pitfalls — held over from the Soviet era in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Examples include the ins and outs of Crimea and the Donbass region, the Armenian-majority Nagorno Karabakh enclave within Azerbaijan and the division of Ossetia between Georgia and Russia. The disintegration of the Soviet Union left a diaspora of some 24 million ethnic Russians in non-Russian territories, including more than 10 million in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is by no means the first Russian wanting to take back from Ukraine the territory that had once belonged to Russia. When Boris Yeltsin was in power, the Russian parliament unilaterally adopted a resolution in May 1992 to annul the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. It decreed in July 1993 that it would recover Sevastopol, Russia’s most important naval base in Crimea.
In 1994, the leaders of Crimea declared independence from Ukraine. Given the weakness of Russia at that time and the fact that Russia and Ukraine could still get along, these measures were not carried out.
It is worth noting that Russia has been leasing the Sevastopol Naval Base from Ukraine. The 1997 lease agreement called for a term of 20 years — that is, until 2017 — but the contract was renewed in 2010 for another 25 years to 2042. In other words, Putin did not have an action plan to seize the naval base at that time.
Since Putin took office, he has recognized the value of Ukraine in his attempt to create a Eurasian economic union, which would establish Russian dominance and let all countries involved to thrive. Originally, 12 percent of Ukrainian exports went to Europe and 40 percent to Russia. Russia gave Ukraine preferential treatment, including about $5 billion in natural gas concessions annually. In 2013, Russia promised to provide Ukraine with $15 billion in loans and several billion dollars in military orders.
The 2014 coup in Ukraine unraveled Putin’s vision of a Eurasian economic union and provided him an opportunity to recapture Crimea. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then highly regarded in the West, stood up to support the “recovery” of Crimea, calling it a correction of a mistake made by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in 1954.
Putin has his ambition. Asked by Yeltsin to “take care of Russia,” he set out with determination to make Russia a first-class power by his own hand, which is possible only when all potential peripheral threats are eliminated. Ukraine, meanwhile, is a sovereign state that vowed in its 1990 declarations of state sovereignty and independence to remain permanently neutral and renounce any military camp.
Such is the duality of the matter. According to the Charter of the United Nations and the basic norms of international relations, Russia’s so-called special military operation is a clear violation of a sovereign state. On the other hand, had the Ukrainian authorities not catered to NATO’s eastward expansion by, among other things, withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States in 2018, putting the pursuit of NATO membership into the Constitution in 2019 and even proposing to go nuclear. In other words, had Ukrainian politicians proceeded from safeguarding the fundamental interests of their own people, taken a neutral position between NATO and Russia and acted as a bridge linking East and the West — as the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had advised — Russia would have had no grounds for its military operation and Ukraine would not be where it is today.
Putin’s military operation is obviously a battle against NATO’s eastward expansion. He is confident that he has the Russian people’s support and a nuclear shield. However, he obviously underestimated the extraordinary role of the United States and the West in providing Ukraine not only with many advanced weapons systems but also strong battlefield intelligence.
The conflict is now in a stalemate, but a few judgements can be made regarding the future.
First, there will be no winner in this war. Russia’s superior geopolitical status and its status as a nuclear-weapons state cannot be shaken. The modern economic, technological and military strengths possessed by the U.S. and the West are unmatched. As far as Russia and Ukraine are concerned, Russia has an absolute advantage. But because NATO stands behind Ukraine, Russia will not gain the upper hand. The sheer size of Ukraine makes it impossible to control with a few thousand troops. It is therefore not surprising that advances and retreats have been observed on both sides.
Second, the conflict will be protracted. It is unreasonable for Ukraine to attempt to coerce Russia in fealty to NATO; it is unjust for Russia to seize Ukrainian territory; and it is unrealistic for Russia to give up occupied land. Such is the entangled state of reality. Since the war is essentially between Russia and NATO, if the U.S.-led bloc has no intention to end the conflict, it can only go on.
Third, peace talks are the only way to solve the problem. But they must happen for real. In a war of attrition, which is what we have now, the side with greater resilience might endure longer. Any wishful thinking will boomerang. It seems that EU countries, which have suffered bitterly from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, might play an important role. After all, they must reflect upon who has really benefited from the conflict and why it was they who suffered an energy crisis, higher inflation and deepened public grievances.