Ukraine: A few observations

February 28, 2022

by Martin Odoni

The depressing spectre of war between Russia and Ukraine has dominated the last couple of weeks in the news, I hardly need point out. The typical mendacity with which the conflict is being reported is of course outrageous, with the UK media essentially reducing it to a ‘goodies-vs-baddies’ narrative so infantile, one might look to an episode of The Wombles for more informative discussion.

Do not get me wrong. Vladimir Putin’s move to invade Ukraine is unjust, but most of the media coverage of the background is ideologically abridged. And while Putin’s claim to be trying to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine is exaggerated, it does need emphasising that an extreme right wing racist element currently permeates and influences the Ukrainian militia.

Putin is wrong, nonetheless, as much for strategic reasons as for moral ones. I have the odd feeling, as I will outline below, that he ordered the invasion entirely because people were looking.

Why target Ukraine?

Before I come to that, let me offer some background. Russia wants Ukraine and the former ‘Eastern Bloc’ of the old Soviet Union back, chiefly for strategic reasons; there is a vast region, about ten times the size of Britain & Ireland combined, dominating Russia’s European territory, called the East European Plain. This territory, in relation to its size, is pretty useless for defensive warfare, as it lacks features that create strong natural defences. Ukraine, by contrast has the Carpathian mountain range down its western frontier, forming a handy natural defence that Russia’s own western border lacks.

The upshot of this was demonstrated during the middle years of World War II, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht army groups North, South and Centre were able to invade from the West and faced almost no obstacles, bar extreme distance in their pursuit of Leningrad, Stalingrad and Moscow respectively. That distance did prove useful, but the USSR initially lost thousands of square miles of territory and countless hundreds of thousands of lives before turning the tide.

In the modern era, with the loss of numerous Republics after the collapse of the USSR in the early-1990s, that western frontier is relatively open again. NATO, against previous assurances made to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has repeatedly expanded its membership, and with it its number of bases, into the former Eastern Bloc.

NATO’s promise not to spread eastwards sounds a little like the British promise that they would not be staying in India very long.

This has inevitably set off Russian paranoia, as a NATO invasion into Russia would use modern technology to cross shorter distances to reach the likes of Moscow in much quicker time. With the modern Russian Army being a lot less powerful than the old ‘Red’ Army of the Soviet Union, and far less well-equipped, Putin is far from confident of winning a direct battle, and so is becoming desperate to push NATO back again. The easiest way would be to regain control of the former Eastern Bloc.

Donetsk and Luhansk form the Donbass region

The struggle for Donbass

Putin has co-operation from Belarus, which is run by a fellow hard-right Nationalist, one who seems to idolise Putin – effective dictator Alexander Lukashenko. But Putin also wants Ukraine, to Belarus’ immediate south, to create a broader bulwark against the West. His pretext has been to intervene in an internal row between the Ukraine Government and factions nominally running the Donbass region of the country.

Donetsk and Luhansk, two self-described ‘republics’ in the south-east of Ukraine, have been battling for some years for independence. In confronting this, the Ukrainian Government has often been quite brutal and sometimes indiscriminate in its shelling of the region, attempting to put down the resistance by unashamed weight of force. This has handed Russia a reasonably plausible, but probably dishonest, excuse for moving its forces into Ukraine – to protect people in Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukrainian ‘oppression’. The aforementioned Belarus, to Lukashenko’s eternal discredit, has aided in this by allowing Russian troops to use Belarussian bases from which to launch some of the attacks, not from the east or north-east, but actually from the north-west, where Ukraine has placed fewer defences.

Image c/o BBC news. Note how, with Belarussian help, Russia has invaded Ukraine partly from the north-west and not just from the east

That Ukraine’s Government, whose own legitimacy is doubtful after a Western-backed uprising undemocratically removed the previous, pro-Russian administration in 2014, has treated Donbass so harshly is the main reason I find the simplistic narrative of the Western media so nauseating.

I repeat that I oppose the invasion, which has been immoral, cynical and foolish. But there is plenty of blame to go around on all sides, and not just for the lazy practice of ‘both-sides-ing’ the conflict. NATO’s general interference in the region over four decades is one of the root causes of Russian anxiety, and while Putin’s claims of humanitarian intervention in Ukraine might only be a pretext, no such pretext would exist, had Ukraine not genuinely spent the last eight years shelling Donbass.

Exaggerating Russia’s threat

It also does not help that the Western media are trying to make Russia look and sound like an unstoppable monster. It is not. We must try and remember at all times; this is not the Soviet Union. The Russian forces are not the Red Army. They are only about half the size, and a lot of their weaponry is obsolete hangovers from the early-1990s. They are not a threat on the same scale as their predecessors were. The seizure of Pripyat, and with it the site of the old Chernobyl nuclear power station, with its many thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste contained beneath the location of the reactor that blew up in 1986, is of concern. The threat of its detonation might be used as a deterrent against Western forces if Russia loses all control of the situation. But the Russian Army itself is not the danger the Soviet Army once was.

Putin is in part playing a psychological game, and has been for many years. He wants the West to throw resources at guarding various theatres from a perceived Russian threat. Hence the appearance of southward Russian encroachment into the Middle East as well. The more resources spent guarding against Russia, the more strained Western economies become.

The invasion of many false-starts

In truth, most of the Russian build-up on Ukraine’s border we saw over the last few weeks was exactly matched by numerous previous build-ups going back at least five years. There was nothing unusual about the one this month… except for two details; one, the West suddenly started playing merry hell about it; two, it resulted in an actual invasion. My suspicion is that the one is the reason for the other.

This is to say, the invasion may only have happened now precisely because the West started paying attention now. Previous times, Putin was hoping for a Western reaction, but no one paid much attention, so he would withdraw the troops for a few months, and then do another deployment a few months later, again trying to get a response.

Finally, he has got one, and so now Putin has committed to invading, to look as scary as possible, and is hoping for a full counter-deployment by the West. Had the West not made a big deal about it, I very much suspect he would have withdrawn again.

A reluctant invasion too?

It is noticeable that Ukraine is having no trouble continuing to communicate with the rest of the world, so how heavily committed Putin is to this invasion is very doubtful; why have his forces failed to pinpoint and destroy Ukrainian media and communication centres? They would surely be among the first targets in civilian areas?

This is why I think Putin is half-bluffing. He has mobilised, he has invaded, he does want a Western mobilisation, and to cause all the practical difficulty that it can in NATO countries, which are already over-stretched trying to guard the Middle East. But Putin has not committed much in terms of armed power to the invasion, because he knows that his army is much weaker than any that answered to Josef Stalin or Nikita Kruschev. He wants Western mobilisation and constant alert. He does not want an actual fight though.

That is also why I think Putin’s strategy is foolish though. His forces only become powerful when there is no unified alliance opposed to them. Due to the death of the USSR, NATO has been looking like an out-of-date absurdity for nearly thirty years, and there is much call for it to be abolished. By re-establishing the idea of the ‘Beast-from-the-East’ Russian threat, one that seems to be committing to actual military expansion, Putin has made NATO look like it still has a credible purpose again.

Western cynicism is at play too

The right wing in the West of course are loving it. They now have yet another excuse for yet more Austerity, for yet more resources and money diverted away from ordinary people, this time ‘required’ for the upkeep of the military. Just the weekend past, Germany announced a massive surge in military spending.

Please, everyone, do not fall for this. What is happening in Ukraine is real, and it is unjust, but do not let the scale of it be misrepresented to you, and also, please do not let yourself be convinced that Russia has the power to dominate Europe, and so assume that ordinary people must make yet more sacrifices to resist Putin’s expansion. Even the USSR came nowhere near to conquest of all Europe. Why should the modern Russian Federation do so when it is so much weaker?

So long as NATO can be kept intact, the bases it has right against Russia’s Western borders will remain where they are. Putin has handed the West a pretext to persist with NATO, and that seems to have guaranteed that the struggle will carry on a lot longer, probably for many years after his own death.