• Alistair Nicholas

Shifting geopolitical plates hold lessons for Russian invasion of Ukraine

Updated: Feb 28


It’s been interesting watching some of the social media commentary on the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggesting we are witnessing the start of World War III. Most of social media’s unqualified commentators have been joking; but some have been quite serious about the potential for global conflict. But is this really the start of WWIII? Or will it be settled before we see a catastrophe of that magnitude? To answer these questions, it is important to look at the history of Ukraine and Russia and the geopolitics that are playing out.


Why has Putin invaded Ukraine?

Let’s start with why Putin has invaded Ukraine. It’s not as though no one saw this coming. Indeed, Putin has form having invaded Georgia in 2008 (he was only Premier but was still pulling the strings at the Kremlin) and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. And he has been signalling for months his intentions to invade Ukraine unless he is given a guarantee it will not be allowed into the NATO alliance.


More importantly history and geopolitics tell us that Russia inevitably would invade Ukraine. A Swedish invasion of Russia via Poland took place in the early 1700s and was halted at the Battle of Poltava in Ukraine. Next came Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 (known in Russia as the “Patriotic War”). Napoleon’s pan-European army had pushed all the way to Moscow before being turned back. Next came Hitler’s invasion in 1941 that had pushed all the way to Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Moscow. But for the same bitter Russian winter that had defeated Napoleon, German troops would have taken Moscow.


That all western European armies seeking to invade Russia have had to pass through the countries lying to Russia’s west such as the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), or Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, make all of them strategically important to Moscow. (Conversely, these countries are also strategically important to countries concerned about Russia invading them, such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia.) They are, from a geostrategic perspective, “buffer states”. Indeed, prior to the establishment of the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921, the Ukraine since the Middle Ages had been fought over and occupied by various powers including Poland and Lithuania (which had formed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), Cossacks, and Russia.

Not surprisingly Putin sees Kyiv potentially joining NATO as a risk – indeed, a threat – to Russia.


This is not to excuse Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or to suggest I in any way support it. The people of Ukraine have an inalienable right to national self-determination, as all peoples should have. This is only to explain the history and geopolitics of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


Putin may not be satisfied with, to use his words, “securing peace” in Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Unlike his annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin may push on to Kyiv and take the whole of Ukraine to secure it as a buffer state unless the West rallies and applies sanctions that truly bite.


The problem with the West’s sanctions

The main problem with the West’s sanctions is that they are not substantial enough to deter Putin. They are pretty much “sanctions lite”. While the financial sanctions hit Russia’s big banks and the international interests of its largest oligarchs, they leave enough wiggle room for the Russian state to continue to function. Quite simply, the smaller banks can fill the void and probably help the bigger banks and oligarchs to conduct “business as usual”.


The main problem with sanctions is that they tend to leak like sieves. As a former trade adviser who opposed trade sanctions on South Africa back in the day, I have never liked sanctions. Sanctions didn’t hurt South Africa and nor did they lead to the dismantling of apartheid, just as they have not hurt Iran or North Korea in recent years. They usually hurt the poorest people in a society while those intended to be impacted find ways around them and continue to do business and behave badly, including with other rogue states. Russia’s oligarchs and big businesses will no doubt find ways to do business with states that haven’t signed up to the West’s sanctions, like China, North Korea and Iran.


If the West wants to hurt Russia with sanctions, we need to hit Moscow where it really hurts – its exports of oil and gas. The reason the West hasn’t pulled the trigger on Russia’s oil and gas exports is that would hurt Western interests in Russia more than it would harm Russia itself. The price of oil might be rising following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it’s not because oil and gas companies are hurting. Energy price rises are a market function of geopolitical instability that threaten supply lines.


What will China do?

Sanctions aside, the big question is what will China do? Many have assumed there was some sort of agreement reached between Putin and Xi Jinping over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when they met in Beijing earlier this month for the opening of the Winter Olympics. But that’s not clear on the evidence. Yes, China was quick to support Russia’s calls against a further expansion of NATO, condemn America and the West for moving NATO troops closer to Ukraine, “talking up war”, and applying sanctions on Russia. But it is China’s default position to oppose America and blame Washington for the world’s wrongs, and to condemn sanctions against sovereign states, lest sanctions ever be applied to China.


Truth is often the first casualty in war and this war is no exception. Ignore Beijing’s rhetoric and dig deeper.


Consider instead Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s comments at the Munich Security Conference last week that was a shot across the bow of Putin. He said, “All countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity must be safeguarded because these are the basic principles in international relations established through the United Nations Constitution.”


He went on to say, “this is also what China has been upholding, with no exception regarding Ukraine. If some people are still questioning where China stands on this issue, it is deliberate hype and distortion.”


Perhaps China is trying to have an each-way bet on Ukraine. Or, perhaps, it is trying to establish its parameters on the issue. Could it be that China is opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?


Possibly.


Let’s look at some of the facts. China has been Ukraine’s top trade partner since 2020 and has small investment interests in Ukraine courtesy of the Belt and Roads Initiative (BRI). Apart from two-way agricultural trade, China has been involved in port development in Ukraine under the BRI, and Chinese companies have shown interest in Ukraine's nascent alternative energy sector (primarily wind and solar). China has also been financing road development in Ukraine with loans of around one billion dollars. And don’t forget that Ukraine sold China a Soviet-era aircraft carrier in 1998 that was modernised for the PLA-Navy. Ukraine has since been selling other military equipment to China, much to the chagrin of Washington and its European allies. Also, Beijing is no doubt interested in Ukraine’s uranium deposits.


While much of this bilateral cooperation might be allowed to continue under Czar Putin, there is a risk Putin could squeeze China out. On the other hand, a nominally independent Ukraine – independent from both Russia and the West – provides China ample opportunities for trade and investment and military cooperation, and, importantly, a gateway into Western Europe given Ukraine started moving closer to the EU in 2014.


China has more to gain from stability in the region than it does from the instability created by Putin even if Putin and Xi are enjoying a bromance. We shouldn’t forget that the bromance between Stalin and Mao ended in tears once Mao realised the Soviet Union saw China as the lesser partner. More importantly, Russia and China share a vast border with each other and sooner or later the panda will find itself rubbing up against the bear in the competition for resources along that border (don’t forget China and the USSR came to blows over the border in 1969 and Moscow encouraged the minority Uyghur population to rebel against Beijing’s rule). Chinese have long memories.


China has as much interest as the US in keeping Russia contained. If push comes to shove, Beijing may well drop its façade of support for Moscow.


The trick for China will be to find a domestically “face-saving” way out of what has been explicit support for Putin in Chinese mainstream and social media. But that shouldn’t be too hard for a regime that controls and censors all media within its borders.


If the West were smart, we would be courting Beijing’s support to contain Russia just as Nixon did in the 1970s. Maybe, Biden is doing that. Maybe ….


Will Putin succeed in Ukraine?

I have long been wedded to the adage of the Danish Noble Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr – “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” Putin’s chances of success in the Ukraine will depend primarily on the resolve of the West. Will Washington, London, Berlin, and Paris be prepared to push their sanctions as far as necessary for Putin to withdraw?


Putin expects they will blink first.


And if the real sanctions that could resolve this cannot be brought to bear by those four powers it seems less likely they will want to commit troops to save Ukraine.


Putin’s big bet is that the West will hesitate, then fracture. I wouldn’t bet against him given the current evidence.


Will this lead to World War III?

It is highly unlikely that this situation will lead directly to World War III if the West isn’t prepared to put up a real fight with boots on the ground in Ukraine. Putin has taken a calculated risk and won’t be prepared to push it to all out war with NATO. He must realise that the Russian state is not in a position for war with the West. Further, he would know that a broader war would see his support at home dissipate quickly. The cost of the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s has not been forgotten by Putin and others in the Kremlin.


Nonetheless, the implications for the West and Ukraine are not good. The best possible outcome is that Putin withdraws from most of Ukraine and the West accepts a de facto accommodation whereby Moscow retains control over Donetsk and Luhansk. After all, that’s what happened following the Russian 2008 invasion of Georgia and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.


Ukraine was a colony and battle ground of various European powers stretching back to the days of the Republic of Genoa in the mid-13th Century. Sadly, the people of Ukraine have always been collateral damage in the shifting of Europe’s geopolitical tectonic plates.


History does indeed repeat itself. That said, Putin would do well to remember Karl Marx’s comment on history repeating itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.” Rather than shoring up Russian power, the invasion of Ukraine might be the start of a long decline. Russia has its own deep economic and social problems. If Putin cannot reach a compromise with the West over Ukraine and instead becomes bogged down in a protracted war against Ukrainian resistance fighters, it could well exacerbate those problems and weaken his hold on power.


(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)

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