WITH THE SITUATION in Ukraine continuing to deteriorate — and the prospect of Russian military intervention increasing in likelihood — there are a couple of chilling and brutal realities that so far have failed to dare to speak their name. I hope and wish the crisis in the Black Sea can be resolved peacefully and without appeasement; should the protagonists involved come to blows, the outcome is likely to be very, very ugly indeed.
Let me reassure readers that I haven’t taken leave of my senses: I’m not paranoid, given to conspiracy theories, a career pessimist or willing on defeat. But in this case, an astute reading of events means knowing what is said — and what is fact — even if it comes to nothing by way of an adverse outcome. In this case, I post today purely to provide readers with something to think through.
Among the many sources of information, intelligence and background reading I avail myself of, however, is an American columnist who is regularly accused of being all of those things. His name is Jeffrey Nyquist, and we have looked at one or two of his pieces during the time I have been publishing this column.
Back in 2008 (not coincidentally, by the way, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia under similar circumstances to those in Ukraine) he wrote an article that I thought at the time was a little on the far-fetched side, but there was just enough in the case he made for me to commit the piece to memory for possible future reference. I would suggest every reader of my article reads this and then come back: the pertinence of the Nyquist article will immediately become obvious, and especially when it is remembered that it was written more than five years ago.
Russia — for at least the time since it was first led by Putin as President — has been modernising, rearming, and militarising; the entire vision Putin has for his country lies in its reclamation of the status and prestige it lost when the USSR formally dissolved and its designation as a superpower — socially, economically and militarily — was forefeited. Putin is not so much a communist as a modern-day Tsar; Russia through the ages has been a peasant society governed by a small, all-powerful ruling elite. It was ever thus. In the absence of the Communist Party, Russia’s Tsarist tradition has found new expression through the totalitarian nationalism of its present President.
There are many, both in Australia and internationally, who pooh-pooh the idea of a militarily resurgent and aggressive Russia. Its armaments are in decay, they say. Its armed forces are subject to a desertion rate so high it is impossible to maintain troop numbers, they say. Russian democracy may well have started out with the best of intentions. But Russia is not a democracy (although many are naive enough to believe it is) and far from sinking into military disarray, Russia has been readying — both directly and through a well-orchestrated series of international allegiances — to reclaim what it sees as its rightful place in the world for some time.
Putin is on record as saying that the break-up of the Soviet Union was “a travesty,” and has made no attempt to hide the fact his objective is to reassemble the old order in this regard.
The invasion of Georgia was opportunistic, made possible as it was by an uprising in South Ossetia that was in Russia’s interests to crush and counter to those of the West for it to interfere. Nonetheless, Russia was able to annexe additional territory from the exercise. Beyond that, it had to wait: and Russians, famously, can be very patient indeed.
The situation in Ukraine, however, is vastly different to the one six years ago in Georgia.
For one thing, Ukraine sits wedged between Russia and the EU (in some respects as North Korea does between China and South Korea), making its strategic importance critical to an expansionist regime in Russia.
For another, the internal struggle in Ukraine between integration with Europe and the West or re-integration with Russia is one Russia cannot afford to “lose” the outcome of: for Russia to lose all effective control and influence over Ukraine would be to suffer a colossal blow to resurgent Russian prestige, and a strategic disaster that would permanently tilt the balance in Europe back toward the West.
And in any case, the concentration of ethnic Russians in Ukraine makes the entire situation impossible to draw black and white conclusions around: the Crimea, gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 as a token gesture, is full of Russians, and ostensibly the pretext Putin is using to justify manoeuvres involving 150,000 troops ahead of almost certain deployment. If Russia’s interests extended no further than regaining the Crimean peninsula — ostensibly providing a safe haven for other ethnic Russians in Ukraine who did not wish to join the EU — there might be an acceptable case to be made for that.
But the latest reports are that an initial 6,000 Russian troops (at a minimum) are about to be sent into the capital, Kiev, and if that should occur, then all bets are off.
The interesting thing about the Nyquist article (which if you haven’t read, go back to the link now and do so) is that of all the Western European powers involved in the Ukraine crisis, it’s the Germans who are calling most loudly for the USA to get involved. It’s the Germans who are making the most noise about NATO. And it’s the Germans, who — the UK aside — are the most dependent on the natural gas supplies that flow through Ukraine from Russia that Russia has shown in the past its wont to literally turn off the tap as an economic and diplomatic weapon when it suits its agenda.
(As an aside, once this is all over, Western Europe must make fresh arrangements to secure its fuel requirements: the Russians simply can’t be trusted when it comes to energy security — a fact that, hopefully, has dawned on the leaders of the German government).
If friendship and partnership with Russia is a mistake — as Nyquist clearly asserts — then current events give every indication that the Germans have awoken to that fact. But it may be too late to benefit anyone.
If Putin wanders into Ukraine and a war breaks out, it will begin conventionally; after all, nobody — not even the Russians — wants to risk all-out war in which even the “fruits” of victory (to paraphrase JFK) would be the taste of ashes in their mouths.
Should such a war be confined to conventional means, it is likely the Russians would prevail; Putin could move hundreds of thousands of ground troops into Ukraine before Britain and the US could send their own deployments in numbers meaningful enough to influence proceedings. It is worth remembering that at a time of war, the Russians would also be able to shoot down aircraft or sink ships carrying NATO troops without fear of subsequent prosecution for war crimes.
In such a scenario, does the West sit back and allow Putin to staple Ukraine back onto Russia as a huge leap forward in his quest to reassemble the USSR? Or — God forbid — does David Cameron or Barack Obama order the unthinkable in retaliation, and launch a nuclear strike on Moscow?
Many will talk of wiser and cooler heads, of the uselessness and pointlessness of nuclear arms, and the guaranteed eventual extinction of humanity were they ever to be used on a widespread basis.
But the alternative, at that point, becomes an existential calculation of its own. If they do nothing, where will Russia stop? Are its territorial ambitions confined to Ukraine, and if not, how widespread are they? And if the Iron Curtain, in time, were to be re-established, what would remain to stop Putin then turning his sights on the enemies who put up a token resistance, but were just too weak to take the only measure that could stop him?
In short, should Putin be appeased over Ukraine, or is doing so just a recipe for eventual calamity on an even greater scale that should be dealt with sooner rather than later? Suddenly, parallels between 1930s Europe and the crisis today are too compelling to dismiss.
In case anyone thinks all of this is hypothetical, here’s another article: this time from Britain’s Daily Express. We may be nearer finding out answers to these terrible questions much faster than anyone ever hoped.
If Russian troops already in the Crimea advance further into Ukraine, or indeed into its capital, then any ambiguity around the question of whether Russia has “violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine’s borders” will be summarily dispelled.
And if argument over whether the so-called Budapest Memorandum — committing the UK, USA, Ukraine and Russia to protect the integrity of Ukraine’s borders — can be formally invoked on the back of a clear breach by Russia concludes that it can be, then Britain and America will find themselves at war with Russia.
From there, God alone knows what could happen.
But if Russian troops advance on Kiev today — and as things stand, the prospect of them doing so appears certain — then World War III may very well begin today too.
Wiser and cooler heads are very much needed at such a delicate time and in the context of such a delicately poised point in global politics.
It’s a fair bet, however, that as night falls on Europe, Britain’s Vanguard submarines — the operational vehicles for its Trident missile system, and the first line of the NATO nuclear strike capability — are nowhere near their base in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, and it is to be hoped their whereabouts, in the context of the current situation in Ukraine, never become apparent.
POSTSCRIPT: As I publish (just before 1am on 3 March, Melbourne time) there are unconfirmed reports that Russia has issued a declaration of war on Ukraine.