Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By now, even cave dwellers and hermits must have gotten the memo — our world is at the brink of a massive, full-scale war, again! But what if we are not? What if the situation on our hands is another classic case of world powers playing three-dimensional chess, like they do best?
The big story making the rounds is that Russia is a big bad aggressor that has invaded innocent Ukraine and has met stiff resistance from the heroic Ukrainian forces. But international relations and conflicts are hardly ever that simple. There are subtle historical contexts, nuances, balance of power agreements that shape the happenings of the present. After all, the US either started or supported wars in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq without getting the scary label of an aggressor. Similarly, this is not Putin’s first invasion. We’ve seen similar occurrences in the Crimea and Donbass regions of Ukraine. Israel and Palestine have not been the friendliest of nations either. However, it just seems that the world doubts that these pockets of conflict would cause the men in the Oval Office and the Kremlin to lose sleep.
So, why has Russia’s present conflict with Ukraine sparked World War 3 fears? Well, unlike other diplomatic questions, the answer to this is particularly simple: Ukraine has made itself a pawn and world powers are simply making moves. And historically, when smaller nations become caught in the web of world power relations, the outcomes have been devastating on the globe, usually leading up to a large-scale war.
Let’s go down history lane a bit. During the Prussian Wars of the 19th Century, Prussia (modern day Germany) annexed several regions in Poland and gained sovereign control of them. Fortunately for Poland, after the end of the First World War, the Versailles treaty gave it independent status and released its territories under German control back to it. Hitler was alive and well when this reordering of German and Polish borders took place. So, it’s hardly surprising that when he took power, his first aims included taking back what Germans of that age considered to be originally their territory. On the flip side of this fiasco, the UK had given its word to Poland. More or less an agreement to protect it from German invasion. And when Germany did invade in 1939, the UK was drawn into World War, along with its allies who saw Germany as a threat.
83 years on, and we are seeing an almost exact repeat of the immediate causes that led to WW2. The same perspective Hitler had about Poland is the same way Putin now views Ukraine, as a former territory of the Soviet Union and a core part of its ethical and geographical history. This is why it has constantly set up military bases around Ukrainian borders and, in fact, around borders of other former Soviet territories, as if to recreate the USSR of the Cold War era.
But Putin has not had it easy with Ukraine. In 2014, at the Maidan Revolution, or Revolution of Dignity, if you choose, the citizens of the country took to streets, eventually ousting a pro-Russian government and setting up an entirely nationalist democracy. Volodymyr Zelensky is arguably one of the most recent beneficiaries of this establishment, after he rode on the political structure to become President of Ukraine by a landslide margin at the polls.
Ever since his win, Zelensky’s foreign policy somehow seems to be lacking diplomatic maneuvering and maturity. Undoubtedly though his aim to maintain the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine has been sacrosanct. Albeit in the actions taken to implement this noble desire, he’s landed his country right at the centre of competing global interests. The last straw that broke the camel’s back and cemented his country’s awkward position as a pawn on the international chessboard was the negotiations with NATO.
NATO, the more popular designation for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the world’s largest military alliance. At the heart of NATO’s ideology is the protection of any of its members from the invasion of enemy countries (read China, North Korea and Russia). This organisation has the US, the UK and France as its primary members. Although former allies of the USSR against Hitler, their friendship with the Soviet power fell off during the Cold War.
As Putin has famously recounted, in the years that drew the Cold War to a close, the West agreed not to engage in even “one inch of expansion into Eastern Europe.” There are no documents to back this up but the Western nations have not refuted this claim and the years of non-interference by the US and its allies in the affairs of Eastern Europe lends more credence to Putin’s claim. To Putin’s mind, Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO was a sacrilege. Such an action would, and did to an extent, bring the US, and the NATO on the doorsteps of Russia. This act has the potential to tilt the balance of powers and thus made Russia feel vulnerable to the Western powers.
Therefore, the invasion of Ukraine is largely seen as Russia’s attempt to drive back Western expansionism and secure Russia’s interests in Eastern Europe. Safe to say, the chances of Russia invading Ukraine had it not planned to join NATO are significantly low. Through the build up of actions, Ukraine placed itself in a precarious position where interested world powers would use it to assert their authority and dominance over their perceived “enemies”. This is especially true of the US and Russia. The US would gain significantly with Ukraine being a part of NATO, since it will be able to more closely monitor Russian military activities, a country which has constantly threatened the position of the US as the world’s most powerful country. For Russia, control over Ukraine is an important step in revitalizing the geographical mapping of the Cold War era, and greater political power to compete against the US. Even the continued trade interests are vital for Russia. Major industrial infrastructure like some of Antonov aircraft production and servicing facilities are located in Kyiv and also spread across other cities of Ukraine. Whichever way you look at it, Ukraine stands to gain the least, and like Poland of 1939 could unfortunately become the origin of a potentially disastrous nuclear war, unlike anything in human history.
What then should we expect in the coming weeks? As sad as it may sound, Ukraine is not yet officially a part of NATO, so there is no obligation from the members to protect Ukraine from invasion. Ukraine is also unwilling to budge and keen on keeping its sovereignty, even without major military assistance from its supposed allies in NATO. Having declared an economic war on Russia in form of sanctions, it would take a substantial attack on Western interests to expect a ‘boots on ground’ kind of direct intervention from the NATO forces.
Although the likely events from now are difficult to predict, the world has a lot to gain from peace. Peace, truce and dialogue are not signs of weakness, but rather a realization that history has enough lessons about the harsh negatives that stem from a war where the deadliest weapons known to mankind will take centre stage. And where parties aren’t keen on fostering peace, the increasing need for a powerful, independent umpire at the international level is further brought to light. The aftermath of this conflict could and should lead to a restructuring of the UN. Many believe, though unlikely in the present global setup, that a good place to start is creating a UN where the strength of one nation does not translate to a veto on the rest of the world!