Ukraine and Russia have a history of “benign hostility” going back to the very distant days of Kievan Rus’, a loose association of East Slavs with Baltic and Finnic people that lasted from the 9th to mid-13th century.
To this day, Russian historians recognize Kievan Rus’ as the root of “modern” Russia, which emerged in the 15th century and, by the 18th century, had expanded into the third-largest empire in history but it failed to persevere past the end of the 19th century and collapsed as World War I approached its conclusion. The October 1917 Bolshevik revolution led to the creation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which morphed into the post-WWII Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and eventually became an independent country after the USSR’s inglorious implosion in 1991.
Ukraine and Russian Bolshevism didn’t see eye to eye. Ukrainian nationalists never stopped demanding independence—and their agitation fueled an undeclared war with Soviet security forces. Stalin’s collectivization drive, beginning in the early 1930s, met resistance in the Ukraine whose small holders saw collectivization as an existential threat. As a result, Stalin and the Ukrainian Communist Party implemented a punishing choke on food supplies that led to the Great Famine of 1932-33 (the Holodomor) that claimed the lives of at least 3.5 million ethnic Ukrainians—a figure that was disputed by post-Soviet Ukrainian politicians and foreign academics as wide off the mark. Critics of this earlier estimate claimed Ukraine suffered anywhere from 7 to 20 (!) million Holodomor-related deaths.
Against this backdrop, Ukraine’s post-USSR politico-strategic turbulence, fueled by constant Russian “gloved” coercion, comes as no surprise. To Moscow Ukraine is the anteroom to the Russian homeland whose security overrides any Ukrainian demand for emancipation from Russian encroaching strategic and political influence. The days of the Euromaidan, and the eventual 2014 ejection of Kiev’s pro-Russian leadership, are quite alive in Moscow’s consciousness. Putin’s absorbing Crimea into Russia, shortly after the collapse of the pro-Moscow cadre in Kiev, was the classic “neo-Soviet” maneuver that ignited the pro-Russian separatist activity in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk in the Donbass region in April 2014—which led into a full-scale shooting war between Kiev and the separatists that continues to this day albeit in semi-dormant form.
Ukraine is now the litmus test of Western resolve vis-à-vis a “neo-Soviet” Russian strategy molded by the Putin regime. Ukrainian yearnings for becoming part of western Europe via the EU and, eventually, NATO membership, are obvious anathemas in Moscow’s eyes. Those in the West, who continue to entertain thoughts of Ukrainian “integration” into the “free world,” via gradual erosion of the country’s deep-seated Soviet past, face an uphill battle: Russia may have become outwardly “de-Bolshevized,” and oligarchic capitalist “modern,” but this graduation into the 20th and 21st, century may be skin-deep (see this, for example).
Mother Russia remains the last white global power that refuses to bend to the West’s American-inspired “multicultural, equity, and tolerance” societal model that is already unhinging America in not-so-insidious ways—and rapidly infiltrating Western European countries in the name of “[race] non-discrimination,” “varied sexual identity,” “multiculturalism,” “acceptance of the other,” etc., etc.
Furthermore, on a more practical strategic and, to the Russians, existential level, allowing Ukraine’s “surrender” to the West would remove Mother Russia’s territorial buffer zone that is at the center of post-WWII Russian defense and security policy.
Western “wise men” are in the wrong thinking Russia has relegated the WWII catastrophe to the dustbin of history: losing the Ukraine is tantamount to amputating Moscow’s permanent strategic demand for “buffering” Russian territory against any repetition of June 1941. Anyone, inside or outside Russia, who believes that this buffer zone is negotiable, should return to the classroom for an accelerated refresher course on the origins and evolution of Russian/Soviet/post-communist Russian permanent strategic imperatives.
Fast forward to late 2021 and the simmering Ukraine crisis.
On November 22, Bloomberg claimed US intelligence suggests Russia has plans to invade Ukraine in 2022:
That intelligence has been conveyed to some NATO members over the past week to back up U.S. concerns about Putin’s possible intentions and an increasingly frantic diplomatic effort to deter him from any incursion, with European leaders engaging directly with the Russian president. The diplomacy is informed by an American assessment that Putin could be weighing an invasion early next year as his troops again mass near the border.
The information lays out a scenario where troops would cross into Ukraine from Crimea, the Russian border and via Belarus, with about 100 battalion tactical groups -- potentially around 100,000 soldiers -- deployed for what the people described as an operation in rough terrain and freezing conditions, covering extensive territory and prepared for a potentially prolonged occupation.
Other reports claim Putin is just one step away from ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine imminently.
Speaking on SkyNews, the Ukrainian ambassador in London suggested Russia is willing to launch World War III over the Ukrainian crisis.
Earlier this month, Putin visited Crimea to repeat yet again that Russian “unity” was confirmed via the occupation of that strategic peninsula (which offers Russia her only maritime route to accessing the Mediterranean ‘warm waters’).
Meantime, satellite imaging discovered a mass Russian military concentration in Yelnya, some 300 km from the Ukrainian border, comprising an estimated 90,000 troops and 1000 tanks, self-propelled artillery, and combat military vehicles—a force, reports claim, massing to invade Ukraine imminently.
To add fuel to the fire, Ukraine’s intelligence chief suggested Russia is preparing to invade his country in late January 2022:
Russia has more than 92,000 troops amassed around Ukraine’s borders and is preparing for an attack by the end of January or beginning of February, the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency told Military Times.
Such an attack would likely involve airstrikes, artillery and armor attacks followed by airborne assaults in the east, amphibious assaults in Odessa and Mariupul and a smaller incursion through neighboring Belarus, Ukraine Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov told Military Times Saturday morning in an exclusive interview.
Russia’s large-scale Zapad 21 military exercise earlier this year proved, for instance, that they can drop upwards of 3,500 airborne and special operations troops at once, he said.
The attack Russia is preparing, said Budanov, would be far more devastating than anything before seen in the conflict that began in 2014 that has seen some 14,000 Ukrainians killed.
Moscow, meantime, suggested that the US selling “deadly weapons” to Ukraine won’t promote the case for peace and will further encourage Kiev to continue its war on the people of the Donbas:
A newly announced deal that could see Washington supply Ukraine with deadly weapons could further inflame the country's bloody civil conflict and make a lasting peace agreement harder, Russia’s ambassador to the US has cautioned.
In a statement issued on Thursday, Anatoly Antonov said that the ‘Strategic Partnership Document’ signed by American and Ukrainian diplomats was merely “a set of slogans – harmful ones.” According to him, “in almost every line there is a geopolitical tool to oppose Russia.”
Antonov went on to say that “plans to supply weapons to the regime in Kiev will only worsen the situation in southeastern Ukraine. We believe that another opportunity to encourage Kiev to stop the war has been missed.”
The pact, signed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba earlier that day, recommitted Washington to its policy of recognizing Kiev’s territorial claims over the disputed Crimean peninsula and declared an intention to “deepen our strategic partnership by expanding bilateral cooperation in political, security, defense, development, economic, energy, scientific, educational, cultural, and humanitarian spheres.”
The Ukraine crisis has re-energized speculation about how far the US-NATO-EU bloc is prepared to go in case Moscow chooses military intervention targeting any of its former “imperial” territories.
Crystal balling questions of war between Russia and the West was significantly downgraded in the early days after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War (with the US declared the winner). For a brief period after 1989-90, the West felt almost invincible vis-à-vis a weary post-Soviet Russia; the US, in particular, basked in its victory upon Soviet communism which, inevitably, diminished Washington’s interest in prioritizing geopolitical and strategic concerns, which remained critical during the decades before Mikhail Gorbachev decided to pull the Soviet plug.
Today, however, old shadows have re-emerged because of evolving international instabilities:
The US, once the undisputed leader of the “Free World,” faces pronounced domestic stresses, which undermine and weaken its international posture as well as its willingness “to step in” as the ultimate Western strategic guarantor.
A series of foreign military interventions in the post-9/11 era have sapped American power both domestically and internationally. These interventions are now criticized, often openly and bitterly, as ill-thought, poorly executed, and based on a bodyguard of self-serving political lies delivered by consecutive US administrations. To add insult to injury, the disastrous US pullout from Afghanistan has raised further deprecatory questions about US global strategic readiness, willingness, and associated action planning.
The claim that “America is back,” announced by the Biden administration, is seriously questioned given Joe Biden’s diminished physical and cognitive capacities and a divided Congress wracked by “identity politics,” racial “equity” crises, the disaster of uncontrollable illegal immigration, an immense, and constantly growing, US sovereign debt, and the pursuit of a Democrat left-liberal agenda that is dividing the country almost beyond salvation.
The EU is as always trying to project a “solid community” front, but its long simmering politico-strategic stresses have become visible, especially since the 2015 disastrous illegal immigration invasion triggered by Mrs. Merkel’s brief “humanitarian” epiphany.
Similarly, NATO has emerged wobbly from four years of Donald Trump’s barnstorming tactics and often blunt questioning of the alliance’s raison d'être. The Biden administration’s reassuring warbling leaves a lot to be desired, especially since the US appears increasingly absorbed in attempting to deal with the aggressive global reach of a rapidly ascendant Communist China under Paramount Leader Xi Jinping.
Further politico-diplomatic complications have emerged from Belarus’s paleo-Soviet dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s blunt attempt to weaponize illegal immigration against the EU— as payback for EU sanctions upon his dictatorial regime for beating out the brains of a mass popular democratic opposition.
The current Ukraine conundrum appears to be the 2020s “Riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” to use Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, delivered in October 1939, after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet (non-aggression) Pact that led to the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. And if, after all said and done, Putin’s cat-and-mouse game over Ukraine does lead to a NATO-Russia military conflict, Loren Thompson’s assessment, pronounced back in April 2014, sounds even more relevant today.
When you consider all the processes working to degrade restraint in wartime -- poor intelligence, garbled communication, battlefield setbacks, command attenuation, and a host of other influences -- it seems reasonable to consider that a military confrontation between NATO and Russia might in some manner escalate out of control, even to the point of using nuclear weapons. And because Ukraine is so close to the Russian heartland (about 250 miles from Moscow) there's no telling what might happen once the nuclear "firebreak" is crossed. All this terminology -- firebreaks, ladders of escalation, extended deterrence -- was devised during the Cold War to deal with potential warfighting scenarios in Europe. So if there is a renewed possibility of tensions leading to war over Ukraine (or some other former Soviet possession), perhaps the time has come to revive such thinking.
Not a comforting thought for the future of humanity.