Ukraine War: A Geostrategic Assessment

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NATO expansion, 1990-2019 (CEIP/RISS)

Published: March 6, 2022
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A geostrategic assessment of the ongoing Ukraine war.

Expansion – Invasion – Insurgency

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine may be seen as the latest escalation of over two decades of geopolitical tensions between the US, NATO and Russia. More specifically, it may be seen as a first Russian military response to two decades of eastern expansion of the US/NATO military alliance.

After the independence of the former Soviet republic of Ukraine in 1991, the US initially hoped to peacefully acquire Ukraine as a client state within about 20 years, similar to other former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe. In the flow chart shown below, which is based on a model developed by political science professors David Sylvan and Stephen Majeski, such a development would have been scenario J – the most peaceful scenario of the entire chart.

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The Logic of US Foreign Policy. Ukraine may turn out to be scenario C, E or R. (Sylvan&Majeski)

In the case of Ukraine, however, this endeavor turned out to be more difficult than expected, especially due to the resurgence of Russian geopolitical ambitions during the Putin presidency. Thus, the US had to stage two regime changes or revolutions – the “Orange Revolution” in 2004 and the “EuroMaidan” in 2014 – to acquire Ukraine as a client or proxy state (scenario L above).

Russia responded, in 2014, by annexing or re-integrating Crimea (base of the Russian Black Sea fleet) and by backing the de facto secession of Russian-speaking parts of Eastern Ukraine. In addition, Russia warned against adding Ukraine as a member or partner to NATO, which was perceived as a direct military and strategic threat to Russia – similar to how the United States might perceive a Russian or Chinese military alliance with Mexico or Cuba.

During the Trump presidency (2017-2020), the Ukraine conflict essentially stalled (see discussion below). Yet with the advent of the Biden presidency, which in many ways pursues a more traditional US foreign policy, the Ukraine conflict heated up again. In particular, talks about adding Ukraine as a partner or member to NATO resumed and plans to recapture the breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine and possibly even Crimea were reactivated. More recently, the Ukrainian President discussed the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons to deter Russia.

In December 2021, Russia published a set of proposals or demands, addressed to the US and NATO, concerning mutual security guarantees. In particular, Russia asked the US and NATO to remove their forces and military infrastructure from member states that joined the alliance after 1997 (i.e. all of Eastern Europe); to not admit former Soviet republics into NATO (e.g. Ukraine and Georgia); to remove US nuclear weapons from Europe; and to reinstate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (suspended by the US in 2019). See the full Russian proposals here and here.

In January 2022, both the US and NATO turned down these proposals or demands as unrealistic. “This alliance is not going to be rolling back time and returning to a completely different era, where we had a very different alliance with smaller and a very different footprint.”, the US NATO envoy said on January 11, 2022. Six weeks later, on February 24, 2022, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine (see more detailed discussion in next section).

If the Russian military operation achieves its goals, this would lead to the loss of Ukraine as a US client or proxy state (scenario C in the flow chart above). However, several NATO members have already started to provide anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine or consider a “no-fly zone” over parts of Ukraine (i.e. scenario E: military support). In addition, there are plans to support an armed insurgency against a Russian-occupied or Russian-controlled Ukraine (scenario R).

In response to its invasion of Ukraine, NATO countries hit Russia with unprecedented economic and diplomatic sanctions, and some Western politicians have called for a regime change in Moscow or the assassination of the Russian President (scenario L).

Aggression – Preemption – Provocation

In order to assess the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a comprehensive way, one may distinguish between the geopolitical level and the military level.

At the geopolitical level, the Russian intervention may have to be seen, so far, as a defensive and almost desperate move in response to 20 years of NATO expansion in Eastern Europe (some Russian analysts might perhaps see it as bold defensive move to “roll back” NATO expansion).

Indeed, many leading US geostrategists – including George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Cohen – have long been advising against the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe and especially to Ukraine in order to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia. Other US geostrategists, however, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, supported the inclusion of Ukraine into NATO to limit Russian influence in Europe.

At the military level, the Russian intervention in Ukraine is generally seen as an offensive move (i.e. an illegal invasion), similar to the US invasions of Grenada in 1983, of Panama in 1989, and of Iraq in 2003 (scenarios A and S). The US/NATO wars against Serbia in 1999, against Afghanistan in 2001, against Libya in 2011 and against Syria from 2014 consisted primarily of airstrikes and used local (or foreign) militias as ground forces (scenarios Q and R).

The Russian government appears to argue somewhat differently, though. According to Russia, Kiev had been waging, since 2014, an eight-year military campaign against the Russian-language breakaway republics in Eastern Ukraine, described by Russia as a “genocide” that had cost up to 14,000 lives. On February 21, 2022, Russia formally recognized the separatist republics and asked Kiev to halt its military campaign. Russia argued that the formal recognition of the republics was backed by international law due to the Western precedents of Slovenia in 1991 and especially Kosovo in 2008. Finally, on February 24, Russia responded to an “appeal for help” from its own proxy republics by launching a “special military operation” (i.e. an invasion) against Ukraine.

Some analysts initially expected that Russia would only launch a limited “peacekeeping” operation in Eastern Ukraine (to protect the “republics” against a Ukrainian offensive). However, the Russian President later argued that such an operation would not have solved Russia’s strategic concerns regarding NATO’s military support for and expansion into Ukraine.

Other analysts, mostly on the Russian side, argued that Russia had learned of an imminent Ukrainian offensive against the separatist territories and, therefore, decided to launch a preemptive strike against Kiev. While it is true that the OSCE had reported an increase in military activity and ceasefire violations in the days leading up to the Russian intervention, the currently available evidence is not sufficient to support this hypothesis. Furthermore, there is credible evidence that Russian intelligence staged several supposed “Ukrainian provocations” prior to the invasion.

Finally, there is the hypothesis that the US may have purposefully used Ukraine as a trap to force Russia into a war that could then be used to impose devastating economic and diplomatic sanctions and launch a potentially protracted armed insurgency against Russia.

There are indeed several historical precedents for such a scenario, even though “official history” and “TV documentaries” often try to disregard or conceal such covert provocations:

  • In 2008, the US-backed Georgian government tried to retake control of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which triggered the Russo-Georgian War, but the US and Georgia may not have expected the Russian response.
  • In 1999, the US used the Albanian KLA militia to provoke a Serbian operation in Kosovo and launch the Kosovo War against Serbia, based on various false claims.
  • In 1990, the US tricked Iraq into assuming it could invade Kuwait to settle an oil dispute, only to then launch the Second Gulf War, based in part on the bogus “Kuwaiti incubator babies” story.
  • In 1979, the US covertly armed and deployed Arab Mujahideen (including Bin Laden) to attack the Soviet client regime in Afghanistan (Operation Cyclone) and trigger a ten-year Soviet intervention that was sold to the Western public as an unprovoked Soviet invasion.
  • In 1964, the United States provoked a first naval incident and made up a second incident in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin to justify its entry into the Vietnam war.
  • In 1950, the US may have used the South Korean client government to stage border provocations against North Korea and launch the Korea War, which ultimately failed when the Chinese entered the war. The true origins of the Korea War remain rather uncertain, however.
  • In 1939, the US and Britain appear to have used Poland to provoke a German attack and launch World War II, as diplomatic documents recovered in Warsaw later showed. In 1941, the US appears to have provoked the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor – of which they knew in advance as they had already broken Japanese codes – to actively enter the war.
  • In 1914, Russian intelligence may have used Serbian nationalists to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, to launch World War I together with Britain and France against Imperial Germany and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. In 1915, Britain and the US provoked the Lusitania naval incident to start preparing the US entry into the war.

While it is certainly true that the US was considering the possibility of a Russian invasion in Ukraine – after all, they were warning of it for several weeks – it remains uncertain if this was in fact their intention, or if they hoped to retake the Donbas region without a Russian response. At any rate, it appears that the Russian decision to invade was not just due to the situation in Eastern Ukraine, but due to larger geostrategic considerations, as described by the Russian President himself.

Video: US National Security Advisor Brzezinski 1979 in Pakistan/Afghanistan (1 min.; CNN)

Trump – Oligarchs – Nationalists

It has been mentioned above that during the Trump presidency (2017-2020), the Ukraine conflict essentially stalled. Several reasons might explain this geopolitical hiatus:

  1. In general, Trump was not in favor of an interventionist foreign policy, even though his administration attempted regime changes in Venezuela and Bolivia; assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani; and launched (rather symbolic) missile strikes against Syria in response to chemical weapons attacks staged by NATO-backed Islamist militias.
  2. More specifically, Trump was not a big supporter of the NATO alliance and the international US military and financial obligations the alliance involves.
  3. Trump and several of his companions have had close links to mostly Jewish businessmen and oligarchs in Ukraine and Russia, whose money they helped invest into US real estate projects. These oligarchs are among the biggest financial losers of the Ukraine conflict, both on the Ukrainian side (due to the invasion) and on the Russian side (due to the sanctions). On the Ukrainian side, most of them fled the country in the days prior to the Russian invasion.

On this last point, it is interesting to note that Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky is the financial sponsor not only of current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (who is also Jewish), but also of the so-called “neo-nazi” Azov battalion and several other anti-Russian nationalist battalions. These battalions may or may not hold anti-Jewish views, but at any rate they appear to serve as pawns in a much larger political and geopolitical game.

Thus, when the Russian government today claims to “de-nazify” Ukraine, this may refer not primarily to the anti-Jewish aspects of NS ideology, but to the fact that NS Germany was the last power that attempted to invade and conquer (Soviet) Russia.

In fact, during World War II, many Eastern European countries – from Finland to the Baltic states, Hungary and Ukraine – preferred fighting alongside Germany against the Soviet Union, which at the time was allied with Britain and the United States. Ukraine, in particular, had an extremely negative early Soviet experience due to the horrific “Holodomor” famines that killed millions of Ukrainians. Finland got attacked by the USSR in 1939/40 and the Baltic states got occupied by the USSR in 1940.

Ironically, while Ukrainian nationalists hoped to fight alongside Germany against the Soviet Union, Germany at the time wasn’t supportive of Ukrainian nationalists (who sought to gain Ukrainian independence), as Germany had its own plans for post-war Ukraine. Thus, Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera ended up in a German concentration camp and was released only in 1944 to help fight the massive Soviet counter-attack that ultimately defeated Germany.

Today, all former Warsaw Pact states and many former Soviet Union republics favor an alliance with Western NATO countries over an alliance with Russia or a neutral status (exceptions include Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Eastern Ukraine). Then again, the current Russian government has itself tried to cooperate with NATO countries or even become a NATO member for over 20 years, but was rebuffed for geostrategic reasons mainly by the United States and the United Kingdom, since Russia obviously does not intend to become a Western client state.

Image: Ukrainian President Zelensky and Ukrainian oligarch Kolomoisky in 2019. Kolomoisky is also believed to be the true owner of the Burisma gas holding, which between 2014 and 2016 paid millions to its ‘board member’ Hunter Biden, son of then US Vice President Joe Biden.

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Ukrainian President Zelensky (center) and Ukrainian oligarch Kolomoisky (center-right) (Reuters)

Media and Propaganda

The Russian invasion on February 24 immediately and almost completely displaced the two-year “deadly coronavirus pandemic” from global news.

CFR/NATO compliant Western media, both liberal and conservative, immediately switched into war propaganda mode. Overall, Western war propaganda tries to conceal or downplay the issues of NATO expansion and Donbas security and instead tries to depict the Russian intervention as an “unprovoked invasion” while focusing on civilian casualties, Ukrainian resistance and (supposed) Russian setbacks. To get an overview of some common propaganda stories, see e.g. here and here.

Russian and pro-Russian media, in turn, try to portray the invasion as a legitimate and almost humanitarian intervention, somewhat similar to the Western media portrayal of the illegal US/NATO wars against Libya in 2011 and against Serbia in 1999.

Many independent media outlets have discussed the complex issues of NATO expansion, Russian security interests and the Ukrainian client or proxy status, and have debunked various war propaganda stories. However, many pacifist and ‘anti-imperialist’ journalists, even if sympathetic to Russia, have found themselves in a difficult double bind concerning Russia’s military intervention. Some former “covid skeptics”, especially on the conservative side, quickly aligned themselves with US/NATO war propaganda.

Meanwhile, about 50% of US voters appear to support “the US joining a potential war in Europe over Ukraine”; the German government managed to leverage large “anti-war protests” to announce an unprecedented 100 billion Euro increase in military spending; and Switzerland abandoned its 200-year neutrality to back sanctions against Russia. Western war propaganda has also led to attacks and discrimination against Russian artists, athletes and civilians in Western countries whose citizens have already been brutalized by two years of pandemic propaganda.

Finally, the Ukraine war has also led to an unprecedented level of censorship in both Western countries and in Russia, which can be bypassed by using alternative platforms, non-standard DNS configurations and VPN connections (see here). To get a quick overview of major war propaganda and media manipulation techniques, used by both sides, see the SPR Propaganda Key.

Image: TIME Magazine on the Bosnia war (1995) and the Ukraine war (2022). Ironically, a fake TIME Magazine cover, comparing Putin to Hitler, has gone viral on the internet.

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TIME Magazine on the Bosnia war (1995) and the Ukraine war (2022).

Potential for Escalation

While the Ukraine war itself is already a major escalation of geopolitical tensions, the war could lead to further economic or military escalation.

For instance, NATO countries could decide to intervene, directly or indirectly, in the Ukraine war; Russia has already warned that it would respond in an “unprecedented” (i.e. possibly nuclear) way to such attempts, which could hit non-nuclear countries such as Germany or Poland.

The Ukraine war itself could turn into a protracted insurgency or a civil war with potential implications for neighboring countries or all of Europe.

Russia could decide to expand its “demilitarization” campaign from Ukraine to other former Soviet republics (e.g. to Georgia or the Baltic states) or to former Warsaw Pact members (e.g. to Poland or Romania, both of which host important US/NATO military infrastructure).

On the other hand, the unprecedented economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia could lead to social turmoil, regime change or more nationalism in Russia. It could also lead to a closer Russian-Chinese or Russian-Iranian alliance.

The sanctions and counter-sanctions could also lead to major global economic instability, especially in the fields of financial markets, energy supply, agriculture and various metals.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine might also serve as a template for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or for a (Chinese-backed) North Korean invasion of South Korea.

Finally, it is possible that the Ukraine war could be leveraged to create a new global “terrorist threat”, similar to the creation of “Al Qaeda” after the CIA-run Afghanistan war in the 1980s, or to enhance the war against “domestic terrorism” and domestic dissent.

In a more positive scenario, the Ukraine war could lead to a new mutual understanding and a new geopolitical balance or cooperation between Russia and NATO countries.

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