While running the half marathon in Tel Aviv today I encountered a Ukrainian protester along the route on Rotchild Street. “Ukraine is free!” she shouted. I responded “Am Ukraine Chai” before receiving a high five, and continuing on with my race.
The Ukrainian people are a proud people, distinct, with a deep history. They are interrelated to Russians, but unlike Putin’s claims that there is no Ukrainian nation, they are unique and should be preserved under International Legal treaties. Currently, a war to end Ukrainian nationhood, at least politically, is underway in Europe. We have been seeing it first hand on television screens around the world.
This said, and unlike the calls from many comparing Putin to Hitler, this is not an “evil” war, bent on annihilation. He invaded another state yes, but there isn’t likely to be concentration camps built, gas chambers and the like. Politically the war is a disaster for Ukrainian national independence; However, it is unlikely we will see millions of Ukrainians dead. Rather, Putin, like any authoritarian of history, is protecting his interests. What is happening is that for Vladimir Putin, Russian interests are threatened, and after no-one listened to him, he decided to act.
The mistake of many in this situation is not seeing things from Russia’s shoes. To its west there is a neighbor with strong historical ties. In fact, for hundreds of years they were the same nation-state. The neighbor, far weaker than Russia, has decided to distance itself from Russian sphere of influence toward the West. To make matters more critical, the neighbor has pleaded with Western powers to join NATO, an alliance largely meant to check Russian power. If anyone would be a Russian head of state, having NATO nuclear missiles so close to Moscow is not a tolerable situation. Even more so, Ukraine is full of Russian speakers, a vocal minority of whom are largely ignored by the pro Europe majority. There is no meaningful dialogue here. Instead of being a bridge between two cultures and civilizations, Ukraine wanted to become a barrier for Russia on its Western flank.
The world should remember 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia partially over the country’s insistence on joining NATO. Now with Russian soldiers in Abkahzia and South Ossetia, the talk on joining NATO there has largely muted. The example serves as a clear need for NATO and Russia to talk, rather than to play chess with each other.
Canadians are vocally anti American. Many times it is rather comical, but sometimes the differences are real. However, Canada still is part of the same military alliances as the United States, same economic institutions. There is no Canadian isolationism, no staunch vanguard to check American power. Now imagine for a second if Canada decided to leave NATO and to join a pro Russian or pro China military alliance against Washington. Would the USA simply let things be?
The problem is that despite all the progress in human civility some truisms have and will always be the same. Hard power is still a central part of the international order. When the USA ran from the Taliban in Afghanistan without the Taliban even firing a shot, the world watched. When Iran is about to clench a pro-ayatollah nuclear deal, the world is watching. The world sees a weak United States that is unable to stand by its interests and may be heading to isolationism. Now the world is clearly watching as all the West can do is to “sanction” Russia for invading the second largest country in Europe. Does the West really think Russia will stop its invasion because a few oligarchs and Putin himself do not have access to Western credit? Sanction Russia too much, and world energy prices will skyrocket. Already, oil is above $100 a barrel. Russia has leverage on the West and it will wait to be seen who will win the economic war long term.
Back to the main point. What is playing out in screens around the world is horrible and a sight we have not seen in our lifetimes. However, in the logic of hard power, Putin is acting out Russia’s interests. A failure to engage Russia properly led to this point. We need to pray for Ukraine and for its people. The world power structure is changing overnight. While the West is largely in retreat, Russia is resurgent and back. Behind it is China who continues to rise. If one state can invade another, what would stop Iran and its allies from raining missiles onto Israel one day soon? The USA will not intervene. Hard power and its perils.
Inability to check this hard power may mean more “traditional” warfare in the near future. Taiwan and Iranian resurgence may be next.