You can start a war but rest assured that someone else will end it for you and certainly not on your terms. This is the predicament that President Vladimir Putin confronts as the Russian aggression of Ukraine completes three months on May 24, 2022.
President Putin obviously has not read or for that matter understood the profound wisdom of Sun Tzu — the Chinese master strategist who had proclaimed in his treatise the Art of War way back in fifth century BCE that “the greatest victory is that which requires no battle” and “the wise warrior avoids the battle”. If President Putin’s objective of invading Ukraine was to stop the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (Nato) and reorder the European Security architecture to Russia’s advantage he has achieved exactly the reverse.
Way back in 2007 at the Munich Security Summit, Mr Putin had made his reservations about the eastwards expansion of Nato explicit, “Nato expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself, or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust”.
Responding to a question, Mr Putin elaborated further, “Regarding our perception of Nato’s eastern expansion, I already mentioned the guarantees that were made and that are not being observed today. Do you happen to think that this is normal practice in international affairs? But all right, forget it. Forget these guarantees.
With respect to democracy and Nato expansion. Nato is not a universal organisation, as opposed to the UN. It is first and foremost a military and political alliance, military and political! Well, ensuring one’s own security is the right of any sovereign state. We are not arguing against this. Of course, we are not objecting to this. But why is it necessary to put military infrastructure on our borders during this expansion?”
This 2007 speech by Mr Putin represented the most stinging repudiation of the United States-led unipolar system that had become the centrepiece of the international order after the collapse of the Berlin War in 1989. His subsequent actions — the invasion of Georgia in August 2008 or six years hence the wide-ranging military operation against Ukraine, whereby Russia occupied Crimea and large swathes of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and its ramped up presence in Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) — were all designed to test the redlines of the Western Alliance.
The West chose not to react to this salami slicing land grab by Moscow. Russian successes in Syria in terms of ensuring that the Bashar al-Assad regime stays in the saddle coupled with the ignominious American withdrawal from Afghanistan in the August of 2021 further emboldened the regime in the Kremlin to set the stage for its next audacity.
However, this is where Mr Putin miscalculated for the show of force which if properly leveraged is far more potent than the use of force. Had Mr Putin kept his forces massed on the borders of Ukraine and allowed his ground level commanders to make shallow forays into Ukraine thereby demonstrating both intent and resolve, he may have succeeded in reordering the European security architecture to his own benefit much more efficiently than the current catastrophe he has unleashed.
For, let us not forget that Ukraine is nothing more than a chess piece and that too a pawn in the larger strategic rivalry to shape the post unipolar world order that has now been in the works at least since 2008, the year when the great economic meltdown took place. Ukraine today, unfortunately, is what Belgium was to the Anglo-French rivalry in the nineteenth century or what Poland was to the German-Russian competition for the better part of the two preceding centuries or, for that matter, Afghanistan was to the American intent to delegitimise communism and, by implication, the Soviet Union itself in 1979-1989.
Sacrificing the interests of Ukraine whose destiny in any case does not lie westwards irrespective of what the outcome of the current war may be would not have been more than the bat of an eyelid for the Western allies. In any case, even today the Western alliance has decided to fight the Russians to the last Ukrainian.
By launching this ill-conceived aggression of Ukraine, Mr Putin set the cat among the European pigeons. No one was sure in the February of 2022 where this juggernaut would stop for Ukraine was expected to topple like a pack of cards. This united Europe like never before much the same way as they had come together to resist Hitler’s blitzkrieg 1939 onwards.
With the possible exception of Turkey that in any case is the Muslim outlier to the Anglo-Saxon construct called the European Union or the core of Nato, Europeans of all shades and hues have come together to stop the Russians. It has also triggered of a rejig of the European security architecture much to Moscow’s detriment bringing Nato closer to the Russian frontier rather than pushing it away.
It has had the consequence of pushing even neutral and friendly nations to Russia squarely into the Nato orbit. While in theory Finland that had signed a peace treaty with the erstwhile Soviet Union on April 6, 1948, that gave Moscow the right to dictate Helsinki’s foreign and security policies was finally able to extricate itself from the clutches of the Russian bear by another treaty initialled on January 20, 1992, negating its earlier subservience, in practice Finland continued to be mindful of Russia’s security interests right up to today.
Now all this is set to change. With Sweden shedding its two-century-old neutrality and with Finland in lockstep with it, both countries are set to apply for joining Nato. What started off as Russia’s attempt to push Nato away from its borders has only ended up bringing Nato much closer than even earlier.
This is only the beginning. If reports about Russia losing one third of its land forces in three months in Ukraine are anywhere nearly true, then the Western Allies will not relent till the time they do not bleed Russia white. What will the ultimate consequences be of this ill-considered adventure for Russia time will tell.