26 February 2022

*28 February 2022* Correction: Snake Island defenders are alive but were captured. Article corrected.

As I watch Russia invade Ukraine, led by a lunatic, and justified by the most absurd falsehoods I realise this is our own doing, and I can’t stand anymore weakness or hypocrisy. It was avoidance, and silence that brought us here. The west can no longer afford the luxury of indecision. Our tolerance of the intolerable has brought us to the edge of reason. Our leaders must lead, they must act, they can no longer ignore the brinksmanship and subversion which emanates from Moscow (and Beijing) alike (not to mention elements in Washington) which aim to upend the international order. An order, that despite its faults and despite its abuse, particularly by American foreign policy, has nonetheless advanced a more peaceful world.

I don’t wish to invoke Godwin’s law here, that is too easy, although not entirely inappropriate. There are, however, clear historical examples that we can draw upon here to inform our understanding and response to events

The first is that we are confronted with what was occurring at the beginning of the 20th century and culminated with the First World War, the collapse of a global order. In that case, the European Imperial order had become corrupt, decrepit, unresponsive to public sentiment, and divided into opposing camps that were at best tenuous and built upon self-interest at all costs, as well as a craven disregard for any semblance of morality.

The next historical example concerns the interwar period more than the Second World War. The rise of extreme political divisions manifested in both Communist and Fascist political currents as well as the rejection of modern society, a ‘back to the land’ mentality all of which is readily felt here in the West. Both then and now this was a response to an international economic system that had turned its back on the people for the interests of the elite. This has been manifested in recent events by forces such as Trumpism, Brexit, or indeed closer to home, the Ottawa convoy. This was and is a tenuous situation that has been brought to and is again being brought to the breaking point by an international crisis (COVID anyone?) Since the 1970’s a shift has taken place in Western economies, a Thatcher-esque concern with the top of the economy at the expense of the rest and it has slowly choked us.

Then like now if this corruption of these systems is not addressed it will lead to the very same elite being put against a wall and shot, the fallout we are already seeing. The rise of radical ‘strong men.’ Putin is just the shining example who, not unlike the Nazis he is claiming to fight in Ukraine, will not stop with one country, indeed the signals are already emanating from Moscow as to where they will cast their eyes next, (more on that in a moment).

The Talking heads are asking what Putin wants. Those with any sense already know. He has already made that perfectly clear. He wants Russia to be considered the power it was instead of the diminishing power it is. He wants a 21st century Soviet Union re-envisioned a he is a “revanchist imperialist remaking of the globe to take control of the entire former Soviet space.” Putin still views the world from a warped, deeply misguided, not to mention antiquated framework of 20th century Cold War spheres of influence

This is why Oleksandr Danylyuk, former head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, has rightly said says Putin “will not stop.” Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a Ukrainian musician, told Nick Beakeat with the BBC that Ukraine’s struggle was for all those who desire to live in freedom, dignity and democracy. This is exactly correct. Western leaders should realise precisely that. Complacent democracies, particularly those insulated from events in Europe such as Canada and the United States need to wake up to this reality.

Putin will not stop. Why would he? What incentive does he have? We knew all along whom we were dealing with, yet we ignored it or thought it could be made to go away with sanctions and indirect action. As if we could only slap Putin on the wrist enough times he would change his worldview. This had the reverse effect of convincing Putin he had nothing to lose. The West has made it clear they will not act. It seems that they are quite happy to be bullied, abandon moral principles, as well as sacrifice supposed ‘friends’, so long as they are left in their business unharmed. If you have any doubt, look to how we have responded thus far: more limited sanctions. Basically, we have done sweet-fuck-all. That is not an understatement or hyperbole.

Stop Putin Now Rally Outside the Russian Consulate, NYC. 24 February 2022

The EU announced sanctions package makes lofty claims about the impact it will have on Russian banks, oil industry, and transport but the Ukrainians are, rightful, underwhelmed. It is a total joke and speaks to the moral bankruptcy of the EU. Ukraine’s two main requests have been ignored. Those being: a total embargo on oil and gas purchases from Russia, and the suspension of Russia from the SWIFT payment system. This proposal was considered but blocked by…you guessed it the ever-wise (sarcasm in the extreme) Germany, along with Italy, Hungary and Cyprus. Why you may ask? Because the EU uses SWIFT to pay Russia for commodities such as oil, gas, coal, nickel, titanium, gold. Both Bloomberg and the FT have noted, by this way, that this has been used to pay Russia for half a billion dollars worth of oil and gas in the first 24 hours of the invasion. So the Eurozone is funding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, paying Putin at least half a billion dollars a day to destabilise the international system …. Another example of the brilliant policies we have come to expect from the EU. To add insult to injury they shamelessly act as if projecting the Ukrainian flag onto the Brandenburg Gate is somehow an act of solidarity that might absolve Germany of their complicity in these events.

Putin has already begun signalling his next move. The Kremlin has sent their top security envoy Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, to Belgrade for talks with Serbia President, Aleksandar Vucic. The Russians have been working to maintain influence in the Balkans through Serbia for years. These talks are believed to be aimed at expressing Moscow’s concern over their unfounded claims that ‘mercenaries’ from Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia are being sent from those Balkan states to fight with the Ukrainians against the Russians. It is worth noting that NATO members are responsible for and guarantors of both Bosnia and Kosovo’s security.

Serbian fighters have in the past been found to have fought in eastern Ukraine on the side of the Russian-backed rebels. In this context, it is also worth considering that the increasingly autocratic Vucic, faces an election in April and has already opened his campaign with considerable anti-NATO vitriol and declaring his intention to strengthen ties with Beijing. In addition, late last year the current Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, who has a long-established record as a Serbian nationalist, intensified claims that Republika Srpska, (the country’s Serb-populated entity) intended to seek a referendum on independence. In addition, he has close ties to the Serbian dominated military and likely can carry them with him. All things to keep in mind when considering the significance of current talks in Belgrade. Although the Balkans have long been associated with great power politics of this kind the introduction of China’s collaboration with Russia in support of Serbian separatists in Bosnia indicates that Beijing is becoming increasingly bold, willing to challenge the West in their own backyard, targeting EU and NATOs’ great vulnerability, the Balkans. This is well worth considering NATO’s presence in the region and the relationship of its member states to the region’s security.

Burning Russian troop vehicle in Sumy

If there is one resoundingly clear historical lesson that might come through on these pages it is that the Balkans is the powder keg of Europe, likely because it is so willfully ignored. If the concerns and interests of these states are not taken more seriously they will remind us of how fragile a system of neglect really is.

Let’s be clear on what is at stake, the entire world. Without a hint of hyperbolae, this comes down to drawing a line in the sand. Either we confront states like Russia (and China, and let’s be clear China is tied up in this conversation as the 7-dash line and their approach to Taiwan is a clear parallel) who wish to cheat, game, bully, or ignore as a means to upending the international order for their own immediate advantage, or we watch the whole world implode. We are allowing bad actors to trade violence for short-term gain at the cost of long-term destruction for all. It is no longer a question of avoiding war but of deciding the when, where, and how of it. Does it stay limited to Ukraine or do we wait until it engulfs Europe, perhaps Taiwan, and elsewhere? It very much depends on our response.

Recently Politico interviewed a Canadian Member of Parliament, Yvan Baker on the issue of why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is about more than any one nation. Baker’s response is worth quoting here

“I think it’s important that all Canadians realize that this is not just about Ukraine’s sovereignty. It’s also about Europe’s security and Canada’s security. If we allow Putin to win, then just imagine the message that sends to him, to other leaders who might think about trying to invade countries or change boundaries by using military force. That’s a threat that affects all of us.”

It has become clear that Ukraine has no intention of going down without a fight despite President Zelensky making clear they had been “left alone.” It was originally reported that 13 Ukrainian, let’s call them what they are, heroes, died defending a rock after telling the Russian Navy to “go fuck yourself.” This raised global awareness about the plight of those on the frontlines. However, days later, it was reported that they were only captured. In the meantime, refugees are already arriving in Poland, fighting age Ukrainian civilians are being handed weapons and told to defend their homeland, which many appear quite willing to do. They look the same and often speak the same language. Make no mistake about what Russia faces. Taking Ukraine and holding it will be two very different questions. Putin has obviously ignored the lessons provided by the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq. We should ask ourselves why he has ignored them when all signs point to this having the potential of becoming very ugly and protracted, leading to an insurgency that lasts years and resembles Yugoslavia. Kiev looks more and more like Sarajevo by the minute. Something that will likely become more acute as the Russians now appears to be moving in unguided missiles. One reason may perhaps be informed by Russian experiences in the Caucasus. The Chechen wars saw the Russians adopt a COIN strategy that was nothing short of absolute brutality. This will likely be Putin’s strategy again given his performance so far. If this proves accurate, we will be sitting on the sidelines while the greatest humanitarian crisis seen in Europe since Yugoslavia plays out, all because of our unwillingness to act.

House in Kyiv, on Valeriy Lobanovskyi Avenue, after shelling.
House in Kyiv, on Valeriy Lobanovskyi Avenue, after shelling.

There is no alternative that is not worse than confronting Putin in Ukraine with the full force of NATO, now! To do otherwise is a betrayal of humanity. The question however is not just will NATO respond but can they. Nothing short of the threat of a major war against the West will stop Putin. The lack of American leadership is but one issue as we see Erdoğan placed in an awkward position of his own making as Ukraine asks him to close the Straights which it appears, to my great relief that he may be in the process of doing. This is perhaps part of Putin’s motivation, a desire to challenge a fragile NATO directly in order to fracture it. This could backfire and provide the unifying force to revitalise the alliance but so far that doesn’t seem to be what’s playing out. Instead, it looks although Putin might be playing his hand masterfully, exposing Europe to the reality that it can no longer rely on the United States and with it break NATO, replacing it with a new European (dis)order more to his liking.

If our response is delayed we betray the basic principles underpinning our society, our shared values become meaningless. We betray not only ourselves but humanity as a whole and all to only delay the inevitable which will undoubtedly serve only to prolong the suffering. The inevitable confrontation will only be that much worse in the end.

This might be acceptable were our leaders marshalling their forces and resources but they are not. The west is where it is, and confronting what it is, for one simple reason, a total lack of real leadership. Politics in the West has become a hockey game for a particularly pathetic breed of power-hungry wannabe celebrities. Make no mistake this is our fault. It’s our mess, all of it, and it’s time to take responsibility for it and clean up after ourselves. We have known for decades of the danger Putin poses and we have wrung our hands about it while we kicked the can down the road as we seem content to do with all problems here in the west, a very sick and self-destructive avoidance strategy. It’s time to fix the system by stepping up with real leadership or we condemn ourselves and our children to a century of hell. If those in power are unprepared or unequipped the only moral action they can take is to resign.

We have no leadership and that needs to change, if we have any hope of surviving. We need to start taking politics seriously and not just settle for symbols over substance. Trump can hold up a bible or Trudeau can take a knee and that is enough? We need a serious education initiative here in the west – our people are getting too stupid if they buy into that crap, and they clearly do.

These leaders couldn’t handle COVID without garden parties and ‘convoys.’ They were willing to condemn Afghanistan to the dark ages and skulk away in the middle of the night (Biden, I will do everything in my power to make sure you carry that as your legacy) after 20 years of blood and treasure invested in nation-building, despite the outcry

Do you think they have any chance at confronting Russia? Something has to change, fast, or we are well and truly fucked.

 

Feature Photo:  Rally on Pariser Platz in Berlin against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in front of the Brandenburg Gate illuminated with the Ukrainian flag, 24 February 2022. Wikimedia Commons, 2022

Inset Photo: Stop Putin Now Rally Outside the Russian Consulate, NYC. 24 February 2022. Wikimedia Commons, 2022

Inset Photo: Burning Russian troop vehicle on Kondrateva Street in Sumy on 24 February 2022. Wikipedia, 2022

Inset Video: Snake Island Radio Transmission, Evening Standard,  25 February 2022, Evening Standard.

Inset Photo: House in Kyiv, on Valeriy Lobanovskyi Avenue, 6-A after shelling during Russian invasion of Ukraine., Wikipedia, 2022

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are not necessarily reflective of any institutions or organisations which the author may be associated with. In addition, they are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.

By Chris Murray

Chris is the Assistant Editor at DefenceReport and Senior Analyst. He is also PhD student at King's College London, Department of Defence Studies. He holds both a BA in Anthropology and an HBA in History from Lakehead University, as well as an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He specializes in irregular conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, insurgency, revolution, guerrilla warfare, resistance movements, and rebel forces. His primary area of focus is the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. Chris is an Associate Member of the of The Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King's College London, a Member of the Second World War Research Group at King’s College London, as well as an Associate of King’s College London. Chris has formally served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, as well as a defence and foreign policy advisor in the Canadian House of Commons to the office of a Member of Parliament. cmurray@defencereport.com