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Swerving Toward the Edge of a Geopolitical Precipice: NATO’s and Russia’s Ukrainian Cat-and-Mouse Game

By Dr. Miklos K Radvanyi

Once again, the European continent is being shaped  by a global power struggle between NATO and a gradually declining – yet militarily stubbornly assertive – Russia with renewed imperialistic ambitions.  Those in the Kremlin say that the main catalyst has been Washington’s and Brussels’ aggressive push to freeze Russia within its post-1991 borders and, simultaneously, to prevent the latter from meaningfully engaging in the affairs of the “near abroad,” meaning in this context Central and Eastern Europe.  On the contrary, leaders of NATO claim that their intention has never been to box Russia in, but to allow the newly sovereign states of Central and Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states and Ukraine, to assert their freedom of choice and strengthen their sense of overall security.  

From their respective perspectives both parties are correct.  Yet, on a higher plane, neither the European Union nor Russia could have long-term stability and prosperity by persistently insisting on digging up the problems of the past in order to reinforce their mutually exclusive narratives.  Therefore, notwithstanding all the hysterical rhetoric surrounding the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, two critical considerations stand out.  First, the European continent was the self-inflicted victim of two major military confrontations – World War I and World War II – in the first half of the 20th century.  The sparks that then torched Europe and the rest of the world were in neither case lit by the Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union.    Second, after 1945, the yearning for national sovereignty and individual freedoms within an institutionally guaranteed international order has yielded unparalleled prosperities throughout Western Europe, North America and South-East Asia.  Counterintuitively, in the Soviet Union and in the states of Central and Eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army as well as in mainland China and the former Indo-China, ubiquitous progress was prevented by an arrogant, destructive and incompetent ideology that used the promise of perfect utopia to keep their miserable subjects in permanent slavery.  As a result, the politically, economically, financially and morally bankrupt Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist construct collapsed in 1991, leaving behind a vacuum that had to be filled.  Thus, contrary to President Putin’s assertion that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the disappearance of the Soviet Communist Party’s fraudulent despotic regime opened the door for every oppressed state, including Russia, to build a new society based on truth and freedom.  Unfortunately, after 1991, Russia first sunk into criminal chaos and then, following the Yeltsin era, to the fallaciously redeeming escape of Putin’s mild authoritarianism that, again, has evolved in today’s despotic dictatorship. 

Within NATO, in spite of the usual disagreements about tactics, the resolve to contain Russia’s eponymous strategy of military imperialism is beyond controversy.  Equally, above discussion within NATO is the belief that President Putin is more a gambler as opposed to the creator of a stable and prosperous society, in which the people’s sovereignty and the rule of law reign supreme.  The symbolic Russian bear of many centuries was restored to its mythical heights by the military occupation and subsequent annexation of the Crimea in 2014.  Then, not being content with breaching the agreements guaranteeing the inviolability of the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine, Putin ordered an all out attack of eastern Ukraine, resulting in the illegal occupation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  This Ukrainian adventure was presented inside Russia and to the world as a defensive reaction to save the old Russian civilization from the Russophobic assault of the semi-Westernized Ukrainians.  In reality, however, it was a gamble based on Putin’s belief that Ukraine would collapse and her Western defenders would do nothing to reverse the illegal occupation of Ukrainian territories.  Clearly, Putin’s gamble in Ukraine seemingly was a low risk affair considering his military campaign and illegal occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the sovereign state of Georgia since 2008. 

The most important lesson for the United States of America and its allies to draw from what has happened in the former territories of the Soviet Union thus far is that a grand bargain with Putin’s Russia is impossible.  With a historically weak economy, a hopelessly corrupt political establishment and an autocratic political regime devoid of meaningful ideas, while relying on appeals to raw nationalism as well as the subservient orthodoxy of the Russian Orthodox Church for legitimacy, Russia will always respond to the logic of strength and force alone.  Therefore, only strength and the willingness to use that strength if need be, is the only message that the gambler Putin understands.

For all these reasons, Putin’s ranting about Russia’s “red line,” his outrageous ultimatums to NATO and separately to the United States of America about the latter’s “expansionism” and his irresponsible threats of outright invasion, must be firmly and unequivocally rejected.  Corresponding to this dangerous situation that Putin himself created, is his true personality which does not match the widely popularized image of a cool-headed, disciplined former KGB officer.  In actuality, the more he rules Russia the more the real Putin emerges – a man in whom no one has confidence and a man who cannot be respected – because of his unbridled ambition and sick megalomania.  Thus, the conclusion is unmistakable – genuinely peaceful and productive cooperation can only exist between parties that both domestically and internationally are guided by the respect for the sovereignty of nations and ruled uncompromisingly by the rule of law.

Clearly, as far as foreign policy is concerned, Russia is again at a crossroads.  Putin’s dilemma is whether to let NATO expand freely or take up arms against it?  Yet, this dilemma of Putin’s is compounded by an equally complex conundrum at home.  Strangely, it appears that neither Putin nor his advisors have understood the significance of the problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Since the Soviet version of Communism/Socialism failed abysmally, the alternative solution was Westernization.  However, in the eponymous struggle between the minority Westernizers and the majority adherents of Russophilia, the latter carried the day.  For this reason, today’s Russia is still radically different in its institutions and culture from the West.  In order to stay in power, Putin had to adapt himself to the old imperial official nationality discipline of historic Russia, namely, to Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality.  The result is that Putin had to assume a schizophrenic personality – he has been the eternally revolting autocrat par excellence and the obedient servant simultaneously.  Accordingly, during his initial two terms in office, he was considered to be a genius and a hero.  Presently, in opposition to this exalted status, he appears to act like a bumbling amateur who lost his sound judgment and mental balance.  This Sisyphean struggle with himself means that Putin no longer knows who he is and what he represents.  What remains of his more sober self is a cunning autocrat and a miserable former hero. This contradictio in terminis, this critical oxymoron, has dominated Putin’s political career after 2012, to the detriment of Russia as well as the rest of the world.

Woefully, Putin’s chief counterpart within NATO is American President Joe Biden.  Indisputably suffering from a grave case of dementia, he personifies more a Doofus in Chief than a Commander in Chief.  Having been elected under extremely suspicious circumstances in November 2020, and having assembled a largely incompetent cabinet, his presidency has been falling to pieces with the alacrity of an intercontinental missile.  Since his administration is ruled by a random collection of irreconcilable and utterly failed extreme Leftist ideologies and not by sound policies, the Biden presidency is a ship without rudder or sails that has already begun to founder.  This maddening state of affairs in the United States of America is unprecedented in the Republic’s history, for it is the most troubling instance when the question of the legitimacy of presidential powers has really arisen.  The emergence of an extreme minority’s tyranny on the land of the free, is suddenly a not so distant possibility.  Under a gravely demented president, the United States of America has entered the age of undemocratic usurpation of political, economic, financial, cultural and moral powers.

Into this mutual disorder has entered again the sovereign state of Ukraine with its chaotic history and culture.  Following a short but glorious history from the 9th to the 13th centuries, the Kievan or Kyivan Rus was conquered by the Mongols Hoards in the 1240s.  After the middle of the 14th century the lands that comprise today’s Ukraine were ruled by the Mongols, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland and the Crimean Khanate.  A rebellion by the Cossacks in 1648, again partitioned the same territories.  The partition of Poland at the tail end of the 18th century gave what is Ukraine today to the Habsburgs and the Russian Tsars.  The 1917 Bolshevik power grab in Russia resulted in the Ukrainian-Soviet War between 1917-1921, which led to the integration of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic into the newly formed Soviet Union.  In the 1930s forced Russification and ruthless oppression by Moscow decimated the Ukrainian population.  During World War II and after, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army unsuccessfully attempted to regain Ukrainian independence.  

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, opened the door for Ukrainian independence.  Yet, independence has not ended the turbulence in Ukrainian history.  During the first decade-and-a-half, Ukraine’s governments evolved into crime syndicates headed by former Communist Party potentates.  The so-called Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 brought to power Viktor Yushchenko, who only lasted for four years.  His successor, Viktor Yanukovich, had to face another violent uprising against his presidency in November 2013.  The so-called Euromaidan was the second revolution against government corruption, gross violation of human rights and Yanukovich’s refusal to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement.  Also dubbed the Revolution of Dignity, it resulted in Yanukovich’s flight to Russia.  In June 2004, a businessman by the name Petro Poroshenko was elected president.  He remained in office until May 2019.  During his presidency, Russia annexed the Crimea and occupied the Donbas region.  Internally, his administration’s corruption revived the ever present political, moral and intellectual disorder of Ukrainian societies.  The great reconstruction that he promised in his campaign never materialized.  Instead, Ukraine sunk even deeper into the bottomless swamp of autocracy and corruption.  On so many occasions during its troubled history, Ukrainian society had to be saved again.  This putative savior of the state was found in the person of Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky, a former actor and comedian, on May 20, 2019.  

President Zelensky is the product of the Ukrainian people’s utter desperation and their collective disappointment with the corrupt political and business establishments.  Hence, he is the first truly amateur politician in Ukraine’s modern history.  He is also the first Jewish President in a country that has been deeply anti-Semitic.  Unfortunately, his tragedy has been that he, as an amateur politician, was asked to make great decisions.  Another misfortune of his is the painful fact that the majority of the Ukrainian people and, therefore, Ukrainian society, lack a sense for universal and individual principles.  Thus, in a nation that has never practiced democratic politics, President Zelensky has been asked to govern as a constructive leader espousing democratic principles.  His only practical solution to this almost irreconcilable dilemma has been his faint attempts to govern by executive fiat, through administrative ruling.  Thus, the feeling that the Ukrainian people are ruled once again by dishonest politicians, who are hell bent to circumvent democratic politics and who cannot be held to account, has surely contributed to his loss of popularity and the accompanying anger and disappointment.  

From the viewpoint of the average Ukrainian, the distinction between fraudulent government and corrupt oligarchs sounds again as an old story that has been the subject of so many irreverent jokes throughout the country.  Thus, what is left for the freedom-loving Ukrainians is their patriotism that might spill into extreme nationalism.  Matched by the same Russian feelings, the Ukrainian-Russian confrontation could blossom into a toxic mix of violent catastrophe.

Meanwhile, politicians of all ranks, nationalities and persuasions, egged on by a completely incompetent and irresponsible media, have taken stands for and against the parties involved in and issues discussed concerning the Ukraine Question.  Since these statements and actions have been neither minimally constructive nor promisingly creative, together they only deserve brief summaries.  To begin with the Russians, naturally all the blame goes primarily to Washington and secondarily to the European Union as well as Kiev.  These enemies of Russia and even the Ukrainian people have been determined from 1991 on to turn Ukraine into a Western puppet against the peace loving Russian state and its people.  As proof of their accusations they have cited the Orange Revolution, which, according to their narrative, was planned in Washington and executed in Kiev by the American CIA and its local agents.  More emotionally, they point to the Euromaidan, which in their narrative was a coup d’etat against the legitimately elected pro-Russian president.  The illegality of this “counterrevolution,” created a dangerous situation for the Russian ethnic minority throughout Ukraine.  Thus, Russia’s intervention on behalf of its kins was not only justified but also necessary to prevent a bloody civil war.  As Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu stated, Russia’s military actions in Crimea were undertaken by forces of the Black Sea Fleet were justified  by “threat to lives of Crimean civilians” and danger of “takeover of Russian military infrastructure by extremists.”  As far as the occupations of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are concerned, their so-called People’s Republics declared independence from Ukraine as a result of fraudulent status referenda in May 2014.  Immediately thereafter, the two fake-states merged to form the short-lived Confederation of Novorossiya.  Following some unserious attempts to entice Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to recognize the new “state,” the confederation of Novorossiya died an inglorious death on the account of absolute disinterest even by the Kremlin’s staunchest allies.  

Most recently, the entire Russian political establishment, led by President Putin, have declared that, as far as Moscow is concerned, Ukraine is not a sovereign state, because Kiev does not have the luxury of choosing between Russia and the West.  Thus, if Ukraine refuses to abandon its desire to join the European Union and NATO, Russia will prevent it from exercising its sovereignty, if needed by military force.  Using a blatantly false historical narrative that utilizes the myths of “Slav Blood Brotherhood” and the “Great Patriotic War’” of World War II, Putin has repeatedly emphasized Russia’s sacred mission to reunite Russia, Belorussia and Ukraine under the joint banner of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.  Accordingly, on July 12, 2021, Putin penned an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”  In it, he stated that Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians historically are “one people” and this fact overrides the freedom of the Ukrainian people to choose.     

On the Western part of the European continent and in North America, all member states of NATO have shown remarkable and almost unparalleled unity in their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.  Collectively they know that they have no other alternative but to ensure that Russia does not invade Ukraine.  If the member states of NATO do not want to witness a new international imbalance created jointly by China and Russia, they cannot submit their states and their organization to the unlawful blackmail of Moscow.  They also know that they cannot repeat their toothless performance following the invasion and annexation of the Crimea.  The mirror-image of their shadow-vision then would be the illusory belief in a Russia that occasionally might be an adversary but not an enemy of the rest of Europe and North America.  They finally realized that the roots of the most recent crisis can be found within Russia and Putin’s inability to differentiate between realities and wishful thinking.  The latter is mired in a shadowy world view, in which imaginary theories prevent him from according due reverence for facts.  Thus, he has concealed his individual greed and political ambition under the cloak of seductive nativism and populism.  The result is that Russia is a miserable wreck.  Weak institutions, politically incompetent and economically illiterate politicians, over dependence on natural resources and moribund industries, unabashed corruption, and dogged diregard for domestic and foreign market realities, have caused severe economic decline and countless political tragedies.  Russia’s catastrophes have been self-inflicted.  The rivalry will continue as long as Putin and his colleagues believe that NATO and the European Union are not united in their opposition to Russian military revanchism.

The overarching reality is that neither Russia nor Ukraine could gain stability without maintaining peace in their bilateral relations.  Stability is also the most important precondition for long overdue domestic political, economic, legal and social reforms in both states.  If Presidents Putin and Zelensky are forced to fight daily for keeping their respective states in a minimal state of normal existence, they would not be able to carry out meaningful reforms and would also fail in their efforts to inspire confidence in the international community toward their respective administrations.  This requirement applies in particular to Russian President Putin.  Unless President Putin can convince the leaders of NATO and the European Union that he would be a reliable partner in maintaining peace and stability in Europe and Asia as well, Washington and Brussels would not be able to look upon his ethno-revanchist militarism kindly.  The ball, therefore, is in Putin’s court.  Having maneuvered himself in a corner, he must extricate himself from it in order to avoid domestic chaos and international anarchy.  Otherwise, unpredictable disorder will be made permanent in the relationship between the West and Russia.  To accomplish such a result, President Putin must give up being a gambler and stop striving to attain goals that are beyond his and his state’s realistic abilities.  President Putin must also remember that the abuse of force has historically been more lethal to those who used it than those who became its victims.

On the other hand, NATO and the European Union must fight for a world, in which the new balance of power will not lead to a nuclear catastrophe.  In this quest, one reaction must be avoided – to become a prey to an irrational and ubiquitous panic.  This again will demand intellect, courage and perspicacity.  Finally, there will be neither permanent peace nor an enduring balance of power in Europe and beyond until each and every state can exercise its full sovereignty under the auspices of international and regional organizations and the rule of international law. 


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