In a TV address at 5:55 a.m. Moscow time on the 24th of February, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine. Convoys of Russian troops have been pouring across the border with their southern neighbour. Missile attacks have been reported across Ukraine. For many commentators, the inevitable has happened. After weeks of build-up and speculation, Russia has further advanced into Ukraine. The sanctions introduced by  NATO just a few days ago were not enough, so the question is: What next?  

The West finds itself in a position not dissimilar to that of the late 1930s. At that time, Nazi Germany was threatening the security of Europe but world leaders decided to appease rather than confront. Some say that NATO is repeating the mistakes of the past and that only force will stop Putin. Others argue we must make sacrifices to avoid a large-scale conflict. The truth is, as Irish Nationalist politician Eddie McAteer said:

‘We’re all prisoners of history here’. 

 The past traps us, manipulates us and clouds our view. We must learn from it, but we cannot let it control us. This is not 1938. This is a new type of threat that demands a new type of response. 

There is no Ukraine? 

This operation confirms Ukraine’s worst fears; Russia views it as a non-state — merely one of its former territories. During a televised debate on recognising breakaway states in Eastern Ukraine, President Putin expressed a troubling, revisionist view of Ukraine’s history. He claimed modern Ukraine was ‘entirely created by Russia’. He has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of post-Soviet States and, as Isaac Chotiner writes:

‘(Putin) appears to be attempting to turn back the clock, not to the heyday of Soviet Communism but to the time of an imperial Russia’. 

This is deeply disturbing for many Ukrainians, who feel immense pride in their independent, democratic nation. Putin is not the only Russian politician who holds this view of Ukraine. Vladislav Surkov, one of the President’s closest policy advisors, said in an interview in February 2020  

‘there is no Ukraine … there is no nation. There is only a brochure, ‘The Self-Styled Ukraine’, but there is no Ukraine’.

When a state with the size and power of Russia claims that a nation has no right to exist independently, alarm bells must ring. Ukraine has over 8 million Russians living in it, particularly in the East, and roughly a third of its population speaks Russian. If Putin views his neighbour in the way he says he does, there is little reason for Ukrainians to think his actions will be limited. The Ukrainian leadership believes he wants to create a new European Order, and their nation is firmly in the firing line.  

Lies and Propaganda   

Russia’s official justifications for the operation remain dubious. Putin maintains that his troops were sent with the goal of demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, himself Jewish, responded to Putin’s accusations by saying: ‘How could I be a Nazi?’. Putin has also made claims that the Ukrainian army is committing genocide against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region. These accusations have been dismissed by experts from around the world. Former Ukrainian diplomat, Olexander Scherba writes

‘They represent a grotesque distortion of reality that seeks to blame the victims for a war of aggression orchestrated by Moscow’.

A different view of history  

Russian fake news must be confronted, but we also need to understand Moscow’s worldview. Many in the West have failed to appreciate the position Russia was left in after the end of the Cold War. Russia was a state in political and economic disarray, and over the years strong anti-Western sentiment has been allowed to grow. Such conditions are ideal for strongman politicians like Putin to thrive. As well as this, the handling of Russia was very different to the treatment of the Japanese following their defeat in the Second World War. The US offered them widespread economic and political support, and Japan became a strong ally to the US. The treatment of Russia, however, was more akin to that of Germany after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. We know from history that humiliating and ignoring an opponent in a conflict inevitably leads to trouble down the line. If one reads  Putin’s official declaration for the invasion of Ukraine, under the propaganda and rhetoric, there are grains of truth. The Russian President points out that:

‘The North Atlantic Alliance, in the meantime, despite all our protests and concerns, is steadily expanding. The military machine is moving and, I repeat, is coming close to our borders’.

This is of course true. NATO has rapidly expanded into Eastern Europe to include the former Soviet States that share borders with Russia. Although NATO was unlikely to admit Ukraine any time soon, Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly stated that he sees no other option for his country. Russian concerns have been dismissed, while fears have grown. The Russian Bear feels like it’s been repeatedly poked with a stick, and now it is lashing out.  

Blurred Lines 

To truly understand Ukraine one must understand that things are not clear-cut. Ukraine is stuck between the West and the East, repeatedly being pulled by two different spheres of influence. Many in the country, particularly those born after 1991, identify as European. They have fought for closer ties with the EU, and a distinct Ukrainian identity. Others feel that Russians are their brothers — that they are one people. This is particularly true in the Eastern Donbas region. As Niko Vorobyov writes:

‘Some in these regions viewed the Maidan revolution of early 2014 as an ultranationalist uprising, involving far-right paramilitaries’.

Many feel loyal to Moscow and resent Ukraine’s rapid shift towards the West. They celebrated in the streets when Russia recognised their independence, and have now welcomed Russian troops into Ukraine.  

Money talks but shouldn’t we be shouting? 

NATO has made it clear that it will not be sending troops to fight Russia. Such actions would quite possibly start World War Three. Instead, they have introduced sanctions on Russian banks, wealthy individuals, airlines and, most significantly, suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. These actions will undoubtedly do long-term damage to the Russian economy but they will not stop Russia’s army from advancing into Kiev. The hope in the West is that sanctions will turn Putin’s inner circle against him, but this seems fairly unlikely. For now, Putin continues to have an iron grip on Russia’s elite. Plenty of Western politicians are demanding that more be done. Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has said

‘I’m afraid weak sanctions … just encourage others to believe we are weak because we’re clearly not willing to do anything serious’.

There is clearly an appetite for stronger action against Russia, but no leader wants to risk escalation. Further economic sanctions are necessary, and the West must be willing to sacrifice in the name of punishing Russia. This should include refusing access to the SWIFT banking system. NATO must also send further military aid to Ukraine. The Ukrainians have fought and sacrificed heroically (see the Battle of Snake Island), but they simply will not be able to hold out against the Russian military might without help. Neighbouring nations must also be willing to accept thousands, possibly millions, of Ukrainian refugees. 

‘This is it’

In the age of information, Russia’s actions are being broadcast across the world and met with protests — domestically as well as elsewhere. The West must learn its geopolitical lesson from this. We must have a more nuanced and intelligent foreign policy and make more of an effort to understand very different worldviews. War is never inevitable and it is always civilians who suffer our diplomatic failures. 

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