The map of Europe is in danger of being re-written. And it imperils the peace of continental Europe. Because for the last several weeks, Russia has amassed nearly 200,000 troops and massive combat power on the borders of Ukraine, its former sister republic in the now deceased former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, (the USSR).
Russian tanks, artillery crews, combat aircraft, naval attack ships, special forces, and blood banks now ring Ukraine. And as we went to press yesterday, President Putin had ordered those troops into Ukraine and declared that the Russia government is now recognizing as independent countries two separatist regions in Ukraine where the Ukrainian central government has been fighting to maintain its authority. In sending his forces into Ukrainian territory, Putin has made clear that he intends to rip new territories away from Ukraine, just as he ripped Crimea away in 2014.
This continued Russian assault against the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine must be understood against the backdrop of Putin’s driving ambition: the restoration of the power and glory of the former USSR. Despite its name as a union of republics, no one doubted that Russia was the most powerful force in the Soviet Union. And at the height of its power these 15 republics of the USSR constituted a superpower that rivalled the United States of America (USA). Indeed, from 1950, the USA and the USSR were the principal combatants in a global confrontation that became known as the Cold War. But in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended, and a diminished Russia was shrunk to its traditional borders.
Putin has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy ever to befall Russia. He was perhaps correct in this though in ways that he would be unwilling to admit. Chief among them was the capture of the Russian state by an oligarchy who became extraordinarily wealthy by seizing the assets of the state, privatizing those assets, and in the process, they became some of the wealthiest people in the world. And the greatest beneficiary of this was no one other than Putin himself. Indeed, in his combination of private wealth and state power, Putin created for himself all the powers of the Russian presidency that would surpass those of all former leaders of Russia. Put simply, Putin is the most powerful leader to preside over the Russian people.
The tragedy that Putin laments therefore is not his own personal fortunes. What he truly resents is that the global power that the USSR once exercised is no more. The Russian economy is massively dependent on oil and is a mere fraction of the economy of the USA. The Russian population is also significantly smaller than that of the former USSR. Its territory is also massively reduced from that of its predecessor state.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, did not bring about the collapse of Russian military power. It remains the only country in the world that has the capacity to annihilate the USA in a nuclear war. It is therefore essentially immune from a US military attack, the only country in the world that truly possesses that privilege.
At the same time, however, Russia has had to watch with dismay as several of the former territories which made up the former Soviet Union have joined the USA dominated NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization- essentially comprising of the USA and all of Western Europe. Quite frankly, NATO represents the greatest military might in the history of the world. And those former republics which joined NATO are forever beyond Putin’s reach.
But not Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO although it wishes to be. Hence, the military protection that NATO offers to its members does not extend to Ukraine. NATO countries will therefore reply with massive sanctions against Russia for its attack against Ukraine’s sovereignty but their military will remain unengaged.
Or so we think. For if indeed the Ukrainians fight back against the Russians’ seizure of their territory no one knows how the fortunes of war will unfold. But this much we know. Putin is pushing Europe closer to war than it has ever been in 75 years.
And the last territorial war fought in Europe killed 100 million people.
This should be of concern to every single country in the world.