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Ukraine: victim of a vicious circle

At this stage of the conflict, two moments must be distinguished: before and after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The first is marked by the responsibility of the various actors in avoiding a military confrontation. And the current one starts from the outright condemnation of the violation of international law that Moscow’s aggression entails. The responsibility for pushing for military aggression against Ukraine lies with the Putin government. But there are many other countries responsible for failing to establish conditions to avoid war. 

The EU is responsible for the dissolution of the clear distinction that existed in the 1990s between the interests of the EU itself and NATO with regard to security on the continent. Meeting after meeting, this distinction has been blurring, until it became clear at the meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Munich on February 19 that the EU’s identification with NATO is almost total. 

This determines a second factor, the resurgence of ideological Atlanticism in Europe and the United States. The speeches of Western representatives reflect excessive confidence in the deterrence represented by the enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance in the previous two decades. This explains the arrogance exhibited by their leaders in rejecting any Russian objection that this enlargement affected their security and that the Ukrainian case was a point of no return.

In fact, it seems that NATO and the EU would have acted deliberately to increase Russian discomfort and thus strengthen the arguments of the Russian autocrat. Mexican analyst Carlos Taibo has written that Putin is largely a product of NATO. It should be added that the blooming of NATO is largely a product of Putin’s arrogance and that this infernal vicious circle is the one that should be broken to avoid an escalation of the conflict. 

Thus, we arrive at the Russian intervention on February 24, which opens a new phase of the conflict. Putin’s decision was accompanied by institutional support in the Duma (Russian parliament) and by the majority of public opinion in his country. This relative internal strength has led Putin to disregard a repeated maxim: in order to defend one’s own causes in a geopolitical confrontation, there are red lines that cannot be crossed. By perpetrating armed aggression, Moscow’s argument about the Western threat to its own security vanishes under the condemnation of the international community.

With military aggression, Putin has provided the desired political scenario self-announced by European and Atlantic Alliance falcons. He has succeeded in getting NATO and the United States to claim to be true oracles of Putin’s ultimate intentions, the EU countries to significantly reduce their differences (at least in public), and the UN, whose Secretary-General, António Guterres, not long ago claimed to be sure that open war would never happen, to condemn the Moscow government unreservedly. In short, with his aggression, Putin loses much of his legitimacy at home and abroad.

What were the reasons for Putin’s decision to take the geopolitical dispute to armed confrontation? There are military reasons which, by the way, have incorporated some miscalculations. In fact, the myth has been created, thanks in large part to the Western media, that everything that is happening responds exactly to the plans designed by a sinister strategist: Putin. That assumption is far from reality. 

As a former head of the KGB, Putin is aware of the importance of having a plan, but also of the need to readapt depending on the context. It is not true that Putin cleverly used President Macron’s diplomatic option to camouflage his real intention to invade Ukraine. Putin was willing to pursue any path to prevent Ukraine’s entry into NATO and force it to maintain close relations with Russia. But the Western response to these demands was a grandiloquent rejection.

On the other hand, the military option is not turning out to be as straightforward as might have been anticipated. The Kremlin’s calculation to quickly assert itself over the entire territory of the two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, has failed. The Ukrainian government has been capable of a considerable concentration of forces in that region, which has forced Russia to try to prevent it by pushing for deterrent attacks in other parts of Ukrainian territory. Something it does on the night of February 24.

It should be stressed that Russia does not have the capacity to consider a generalized territorial invasion, since it is estimated that to invade a territory the size of Ukraine would require 1.5 million troops. Therefore, with some exceptions, the attacks are concentrated in some border cities and  Kyiv itself, which is only 60 kilometers from the border with Belarus.

Seeing that there were no obstacles on the way to Kyiv, Moscow made another miscalculation: it thought that the city would fall immediately and that it could make President Zelensky’s government a direct military target. But the seizure of Kyiv and its government district, which was expected to happen on the night of Saturday, February 26, has not happened because the mobilization of armed and militia forces has achieved the self-defense of the city. It may be that Kyiv will fall in the next few days, but every day that passes is another step towards the unleashing of a guerrilla war in the rest of the country, something that Russia wants to avoid. 

A scenario mired in an irregular war that spreads over time is what Moscow seeks to avoid. Among other reasons, although Putin today has the majority support of political actors and the Russian population, that situation can change quickly. Maintaining an open war for a long time and without the slightest political support outside the borders, coupled with Western economic sanctions, it may remind the Russian population of the ghost of the failure of the war in Afghanistan. 

Putin may also be mistaken about the consequences of this military ordeal on his country’s domestic policy. That is why he has just opened the door to possible cease-fire negotiations with the Kyiv authorities. And if in principle he has incited the Ukrainian military commanders to seize power in order to negotiate with them, this seems to be blurred, among other reasons because it depends very much on the speed with which he manages to capture President Zelensky and his government. 

It may be that the armed conflict in Ukraine, far from concluding, is just beginning. This is something that Ukraine, which is ultimately the real victim of this war and the undesirable vicious circle that preceded it, will suffer in any case.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Enrique Gomáriz Moraga has been researcher at FLACSO in Chile and other countries in the region. He was a consultant for international agencies (UNDP, IDRC, IDB). He studied Political Sociology at the Univ. of Leeds (England) wit R. Miliband.


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