KAMPALA – There is a huge misunderstanding of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Many people see it as an unprovoked act of aggression by a megalomaniacal President Vladmir Putin against a small neighbor. Yet Moscow has been lured into this invasion by the rich and powerful Western nations led by the USA. This is a war between Russia and USA/NATO, Ukraine is only a playing field. NATO nations have one of greatest advantage in any war – absolute control of the instruments of mass propaganda. Anyone following international news channels now is fed on a biased menu of anti-Russian and anti-Putin propaganda presented as news.
To understand this conflict, we need to take a brief detour of the basics of international relations. States are the main actors in the international system and there is no higher authority above them. This is called a system of anarchy. But anarchy in international relations does not mean chaos. It means the absence of hierarchy. If a state were attacked, there is no police it can call to its rescue. This keeps states in perpetual fear. For instance, a state may live next to a neighbor with aggressive designs. If such a neighbor attacked, the victim would have to fend for itself. So, states build some military capabilities as an insurance against potential or real adversaries. This is largely because the primary aim of any state is to survive. A state that cannot survive cannot perform any of its functions.
More still, it is very hard for states to know the intentions of their neighbors, because these live in the heads of their leaders. Even if they knew, states can never be sure whether these intentions will remain the same ten, fifteen or twenty years hence. But states can discern the capabilities of their neighbors. The challenge is that as capabilities change so too can a state’s intentions. Therefore, even if a state did not have a premeditated plan for aggression today, the development of certain capabilities can in future tempt it to become particularly aggressive.
This brings us to America’s role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. America has been expanding NATO. After integrating Estonia and Latvia, which share a border with Russia, now it wants to add Ukraine and Georgia, to complete the encirclement. Russia finds this intolerable because it poses – not just a tactical or even strategic threat – but most importantly, an existential threat. In 1998, the top 50 US foreign policy and security experts wrote a memo to President Bill Clinton saying exactly that. They argued that NATO expansion would alienate Russia, cause the re-militarization of that country and the wider Europe, and therefore not improve European security but rather create a new cold war and increase the risk of war.
Indeed, every scholar and practitioner of international relations of any serious heft that I have read or listened to has said the same thing – that Ukraine joining NATO is a redline for Russia and therefore risks conflict. This includes President Joe Biden when he was senator, former US secretaries of defense Bob Gates and William Perry, current CIA director, William Burns Jr., the iconic George Kenan, the great Henry Kissinger, the last US ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock Jr., former US ambassador in Ukraine, William Taylor jr., the highly regarded Noam Chomsky, America’s most respected international relations scholars such as Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Steven Cohen, to mention a few.
Why then has America and her satellites in Western Europe continued to encourage Ukraine to join NATO well knowing such a move would irritate Moscow and even provoke a war. In fact, America’s satellites in Europe such as Germany and France have previously expressed their opposition to NATO expansion. However, European countries are heavily reliant on the American security umbrella and economic patronage to openly and consistently oppose Washington. All too often, they curve into her desires in order to retain their friendly relations with their patron.
On the face of it, America’s everlasting desire to expand NATO when everyone has said it will provoke Russia into a war seems irrational. Yet from the perspective of realpolitik, this attitude is driven by serious geopolitical considerations. To understand it, one has to go to the English geographer, Harford John Mackinder. He argued in a 1904 paper that control of Europe and Asia (Urasia) means control of the world. I quote: “He who rules Eastern Europe (Russian Europe) commands the heartland; who rules the heartland commands the world island (Urasia); and he who rules the world island commands the world. This made Mackinder the father of geopolitics although he never used this term.
Russia is a humongous country that strategically straddles the Urasian landmass. Any nation that controls that landmass has potential to control the world, if it can develop significant economic and therefore military capability. Mackinder’s theory greatly influenced British foreign policy during the 19th and early 20th century when the United Kingdom was the world’s most dominant power – and this was long before Mackinder had articulated this theory of geopolitics. It also influenced US policy during the Cold War and, I suspect, still does so today. Just like Britain always sought to build alliances to contain Russia, the USA, after emerging from the Second World War as the most dominant power, has always pursued a similar policy. As the dominant global power, America’s strategic aim to cripple Russia, to block its reemergence as a great and powerful nation. This explains US obsession with demonizing Putin because he seeks to build a powerful Russia.
From the perspective of geopolitics, Ukraine is of little of no strategic value to the USA or NATO. That is why Biden has made it clear that America will not fight to defend Ukraine. This is not because Ukraine is not a member of NATO. That is an excuse, not an explanation. America does not need to have a military alliance with any country to defend her. The decisive issue is US strategic considerations. The USA went to war to eject North Korea out of South Korea in 1950, went into another war to kick Iraq out of Kuwait in 1990 and today will go to war with China if Beijing sought to take over Taiwan forcefully. In none of these cases did/does America have a security alliance with any of those countries whose independence it sought/seeks to protect. The critical consideration is her interests.
If America is not willing to defend Ukraine as Biden has said, why has it been encouraging Kiev’s belligerent stance towards Moscow. I think it is because America knows that a Russian invasion of Ukraine will weaken Russia by turning Ukraine into a Vietnam or an Afghanistan of sorts. America has been training and arming Ukraine, making it a de facto member of NATO. It knows that if Russia invaded Ukraine, that country can put up a stiff resistance and force Russia into a protracted war of attrition. If Moscow prevails and captures the entire Ukraine, America will arm Ukrainian nationalists and thereby force Russia into a prolonged and costly occupation. This would bleed Russia white and leave it exhausted.
Clearly therefore America has been using Ukraine as bait to lure Russia into this trap. And given Ukraine’s position, Washington knew too well that Russia could not avoid that bait – because it was caught between a rock and a hard place. Ukraine’s accession to NATO poses an existential threat to Russia. Moscow has spent 24 years in protracted diplomatic negotiations with NATO not to expand eastwards without any positive result. Russia could continue to insist that Ukraine is a redline and NATO would call her bluff. Ultimately, Russia had to invade in order to demonstrate her resolve. This invasion must, therefore, have been a product of prolonged and agonizing thought in Moscow between two repugnant alternatives – but equally what Washington was praying for.
The response of America and her satellites to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine makes this abundantly clear. They have used all the power they have to impose the most crippling economic sanctions whose main aim is to wreck Russia. There is no doubt that Russia will emerge from this conflict much more weakened and it may lead to the fall of Putin. But the issue is: did Moscow have a better alternative? Could Russia afford Ukraine in NATO? America presented Moscow with a difficult choice of acquiescing to her own encirclement or getting weakened defending her legitimate security interests. It should be obvious why Moscow chose the second option.
There is a second consideration driving US policy towards Russia. In international relations, it is impossible for anyone country to become a global hegemon. So, nations compete to be regional hegemons. Once a nation achieves hegemonic status in its region, it feels secure enough to roam around the globe to block the emergence of other regional hegemons. Look at America: it has absolute mastery of the Western hemisphere. No country can challenge it there. Secure in its own backyard, America feels free to roam around the world – in the Middle East, in East Asia, western and eastern Europe – propping allies and toppling enemies and of course seeking to block the emergence of regional hegemons there – because these would become serious rivals and competitors.
Under Putin, Russia has re-emerged as a strong state, with a growing economy and a powerful military. It was beginning to feel secure in her backyard hence her roaming in Syria, Central Africa Republic, Libya etc. It even sent her nuclear armed bombers to Venezuela. It must be US policy to cause Moscow problems nearer home (Ukraine) and get it bogged in such conflicts in order to distract her from throwing her weight around the world. For American policy makers, Ukraine is just a playing field, the consequences of this conflict on her people are of little consideration except as a rallying moral cry to demonize Putin. Washington knows Russia cannot afford to lose Ukraine from her orbit. Yet with her support in form of satellite monitoring, lethal weapons, economic sanctions, etc. America can give aid to Ukraine to bleed the Russians white.
Of course, ultimately, Russia will prevail but only after destroying Ukraine. However, will be at the price of wrecking herself too. With crippling sanctions and a protracted nationalist war of attrition, Russia will emerge from this conflict weakened and therefore unable to pose any serious threat to US interests in Europe. Given that Russia is a nuclear armed country, America cannot afford to invade her because that would lead to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But it has lured her into a long, costly and foolish war. This is a bait-and-bleed strategy. I think Russia took this American bait because there was no better option.
In my previous article on this subject, I argued that in the perspective of grand strategy, America’s peer competitor is not Russia but China, given the latter’s economic and population size and her technological abilities. Therefore, it should be the aim of US policy to ally with Russia in a future conflict with China, yet Washington seems to be pushing Moscow into the arms of Beijing. Yet it is also possible that US policy may be to wreck Russia in order to deny Beijing a useful ally. This could be because Washington has concluded that a future alliance with Moscow is impossible given the competitive interests both have in Europe.
In my view, the real problem in this crisis is not Washington or Moscow but the leadership in Kiev. They have, ignorantly and stupidly, allowed America to use their country as bait to Russia. The consequences on the Ukrainian state and society are disastrous. The cynicism with which America leaders encourage Ukraine in this war yet they know its end result is to destroy that country and its people is tragic and painful. Smart leaders in Kiev would have read Russian fears and understood American intentions. This would have driven them to seek friendship with both sides rather than seek the false protection of one. In the end, Ukrainian leaders have destroyed their country by allowing it to become a battleground for big power rivalry. And when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
Yet even with these calculations, America is making a reckless and dangerous gamble. Having lured a nuclear-armed yet declining power that Russia is into a costly war, it is hard to avoid the risk of strategic miscalculation. For instance, Russian missiles into Ukraine have fallen within 12km of the Polish border, and Poland is a member of NATO. What if such a missile fell inside Poland? The risk of such a mistake escalating the current conflict into a global nuclear conflagration is much higher than people think. As America and her allies celebrate the trap into which Moscow has been lured, they should beware the law of unintended consequences.
Andrew Mwenda is a veteran journalist