Security and Defence


Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Preliminary Observations

11 Mar 2022 - 10:12
Source: A barricade made of sandbags in central Odessa, Ukraine ©Reuters

Russia has launched an exceedingly cynical war of aggression against Ukraine. Since the apparently anticipated blitzkrieg victory didn’t materialise, this war enters a more complex and potentially even more devastating phase. All wars develop their own dynamics and often unexpected trajectories. Still, after some two weeks into the fighting, while Russian forces lay siege to Ukrainian cities, massive refugee flows are forming and several mediation efforts are under way, it may be worthwhile to formulate (in a non-hierarchical order) a couple of early observations.

Europe’s moment…

Indeed, so far this war has had a unifying effect on organisations like NATO and the EU. NATO countries, until recently still reeling from the Trump years, have announced dramatic increases in defence spending, the alliance’s presence in Eastern European member-states is being upgraded and the prospect of Swedish and Finnish membership seems no longer out of bounds. The EU has responded resolutely by imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russia and is facilitating the intake of Ukrainian refugees. But this sense of unity, which may not last forever, is at best a by-product of this crisis and should not be framed as its dominant feature. Especially European Commission officials, eager to fulfill their promise of geopolitical relevance, are getting ahead of themselves.

Commission President’s Von der Leyen’s call to fast-track Ukrainian membership (prompting immediate requests by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to join the EU) is reckless because everybody knows it won’t happen anytime soon – if at all. It seems she and like-minded advocates have learned little from NATO’s ill-advised decision in 2008 to extend membership guarantees to Ukraine and Georgia without bothering to effectuate this commitment. Vice-President Borrell, the Union’s chief diplomat who a year ago still volunteered to receive a public dressing-down by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow, has linked the earmarking of modest European Peace Facility funds for supplying weaponry to Ukraine to the awakening of a ‘slumbering giant’.[i] One would assume that everyone’s most pressing concern now is to stop the fighting in Ukraine, and not the geopolitical aggrandisement of their own institutions.

The European Security Order…

As it happens, both the EU and NATO are in the process of writing new strategy documents. The EU’s Strategic Compass is due this month, while NATO’s new Strategic Concept will be adopted in June. Obviously, new language is being hastily inserted to cover ongoing developments. It appears the EU Compass’ current draft says the Union will ‘defend the European security order’.[ii] No doubt NATO, too, will beef up existing language on the goal of a Europe whole, free and at peace. At the same time, this European security order has failed spectacularly to keep the peace in Europe, as happened before; for instance in 2008 (Georgia), in 2014 (Crimea and eastern Ukraine) and in 2020 (Nagorno-Karabach). Unless we go back to a Cold War-like stand-off, and separate ‘our’ security from other states’ security, we ought to rethink European security as a whole: something we only reluctantly pledged to do at the eleventh hour under pressure from Russian troop concentrations along Ukraine’s borders (to no avail, as we know).

Of course, the blame for this war rests fully on Russia’s shoulders but we cannot be complacent about the institutional status quo for the sake of countries ‘in between’ like Ukraine, who now bears the full brunt of European insecurity. The strategic environment of NATO and the EU is part and parcel of these organisations’ security configurations. Although there will be scant opportunity for reflection before these strategy documents come out, it behoves us to think about the question why, despite several violent warning calls, we prioritised ‘deterrence’ over ‘cooperative security’ (another fundamental task of NATO) and remained confident we could somehow square the circle of our notions of security with the existence of a loud-mouthed, disgruntled and belligerent outlier in our immediate vicinity (whose economic calculus, we surmised, would ultimately prevail over the appetite for war).

Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine…

Ever since 2014, when Russia sent in ‘little green men’ (or ‘friendly people’ in its own vernacular) to overrun the Crimean peninsula, the term ‘hybrid warfare’ has been ubiquitous. Various definitions have been floated, but the main idea is that Russia is waging a permanent no-war-no-peace campaign against the West and its partner countries, primarily in the ‘grey zone’ below the threshold of kinetic action. The theory holds that Russia’s hybrid toolbox consists of sowing disinformation through mainstream and social media (e.g. to influence election cycles abroad), cyber-attacks to disable adversaries’ infrastructures and ‘weaponising’ energy exports to coerce other states into concessions. Even the individual elements of this doctrine are categorised as ‘hybrid’ (in the automotive industry people at least understand the car is a hybrid, its electric and combustible engines are not).

According to this school of thought Russia is trying to get its way without firing too many shots, in Crimea-like scenarios. But Crimea was a sui generis case and Russian military doctrine traditionally assigns a decisive role to military force, in particular to massive firing power. As is usual in times of rising tensions, accompanying instruments are employed to manipulate public opinion, to undermine an adversary’s resolve or to prepare the ground for real warfare (although so far the expected crippling cyberattack on Ukraine has not occurred). But these tools are no substitutes for invading and bombing when an aggressive actor decides it cannot achieve its political goals but by military means. As Ukraine experiences right now at a very high cost, Russia has a military warfare doctrine after all.            

Nuclear alert…

President Putin set off international alarm bells when, in an apparent attempt to dissuade Western states from getting involved in Ukraine, he announced Russia’s deterrence forces were put on high alert (level 2 out of 4, to be precise). This move triggered widespread speculation that Russia contemplated the use of a nuclear weapon. However, if, as many experts believe, it primarily concerned a case of ‘nuclear signalling’, Putin’s implicit threat was still highly irresponsible, even though no preparatory activities on the ground have yet been observed. Besides, Putin’s announcement sits uncomfortably with the recent joint declaration by the original five nuclear-weapon states, including Russia, who affirmed that nuclear weapons should serve defensive purposes only and that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’.[iii]

In a wider sense, this unfortunate episode is symptomatic of the ‘nuclear deterrence’ conundrum. After all, public doctrine and strategy documents notwithstanding, this concept fundamentally hinges on ambiguity of intent: the whole point is to keep the others guessing in order to ‘deter aggression’, an assessment that is always open to interpretation. Now that a nuclear state deliberately keeps the world guessing, we are all extremely worried. Essentially, this anxiety testifies to the fact that nuclear deterrence is an inherently precarious model.

Decolonisation redux…    

Our history books tell us the Soviet Union ceased to exist on 25 December 1991. The debate on what caused this behemoth to implode is still ongoing, but overall it has been established that its demise was relatively peaceful. Maybe not. While the West was celebrating the End of History, wars erupted between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno-Karabach; between Moldova and its break-away region Transnistria; between Georgians and Abkhaz and South-Ossetian separatists, between Russians and Chechens as well as between several Tajik clans and regions. To various degrees, Russian troops were involved in all of these conflicts that together cost many tens of thousands of lives. In 2014 a prolonged fight started in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and government forces, a crisis that culminated in Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.

The Soviet Union, despite its non-national character, may be considered the latest incarnation of Russian colonial empire. As Europe’s former colonisers know all too well, the unravelling of empires is complex and violent. The Soviet empire concerns an especially difficult case because of the speed of its downfall and, in contrast to European seaborne empires, its land based nature. Throughout Russian history, this has complicated the distinction between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ and in 1991 the constituent parts of empire transformed overnight into next-door neighbours bound by family, ethnic and linguistic ties. For some determined nostalgics the process of unravelling is still ongoing. In the West we prefer not to dwell on history too much, but we should be aware of the tenacity of those who do.