The Russia-Ukraine war has bogged down into a grinding destructive conflict. NATO country leaders continue to pledge to back Ukraine for ‘as long as it takes’, claiming that Russia’s war threatens the ‘international rules-based order’. Is this true? Framing it this way certainly plays well in the Western media, helping to keep the public onside, but it’s overly simplistic. The real picture is far more complex and dangerous.
The war would have ended by now with a Russian military victory, had the US-led NATO countries not provided increasingly more powerful weapons to Ukraine. Can Ukraine defeat Russia, pushing them out completely, including from the ethnic Russian-leaning eastern Donbas and Crimea, under Russian control since 2014? Russia still has military superiority, their battlefield missteps notwithstanding. So far, President Putin has not deployed Russia’s full military capability in all-out war. If that changed, much more of Ukraine would be destroyed, with a far higher loss of life. Not a desired outcome for Russia, not for now at least.
Will discontent within Russia force Putin to withdraw? Unlikely, as neither sanctions nor embarrassing battlefield losses have changed his calculus, almost a year in. His approval rating is above 80%, having risen since the war began, just as it did after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. As for a military coup, very unlikely. Even if it happened, the leadership that follows is unlikely to let Ukraine fall into NATO hands. That would be seen as an existential threat to Russia.
To understand why you need to look at the history and geography involved. Russian-Ukrainian bonds date back well over 1000 years. The Council on Foreign Relations sums it up this way: “Russia has deep cultural, economic, and political bonds with Ukraine, and in many ways Ukraine is central to Russia’s identity and vision for itself in the world”.
Kyiv sits just 200 km from the Russian border and about 800 km from Moscow, with only rolling plains between them. As multiple European wars have shown, geography proved highly problematic for Russian security in Europe -e.g. they suffered the most fatalities by far in WWII, an estimated 24,000,000 (Canada by comparison, 44,000). Additionally, Sevastopol, Crimea has been the home port of Russia’s strategic Black Sea Fleet, for over 200 years. It is a critical part of Russian regional maritime power and its national security architecture.
In my opinion, the primary motivation behind Russia’s invasion was in response to the eastward expansion of NATO. Ukraine’s Western drift and its desire to join NATO, plus years of CIA meddling, brought things to a head. Given past perceived broken NATO promises not to expand, Russian fears are understandable. One analogy would be if Canada were to fall into China’s orbit, how would the US respond? The answer is pretty obvious. Putin wanted a shift in the European security architecture, to Russia’s benefit. Failing to get the guarantees, he believed the timing was right and pulled the trigger and miscalculated.
So, why does the US back Ukraine so strongly? The Russian invasion poses no direct threat to them, nor to European NATO countries. Putin is ruthless, but he knows a direct war with NATO is one he can’t win. The US responses are driven for geopolitical power reasons – containing, weakening and ultimately defeating Russia remains their strategic goal. They cast Putin’s Russa in a similar light to WWII Nazi Germany. The US prides itself as the ‘just’ defender of the free world. Yet, its military engagements have been dismal, especially in the Middle East post 9/11, where almost 1 million have perished and 40 million were displaced due to wars stemming from US foreign policy. They can ill afford another chaotic war, especially in Europe, against Russia, but that is precisely where things are going.
Now the rise of China raises the stakes enormously, seriously threatening US hegemony. The US needs to show strength, sending a message to both Moscow & Beijing that they, and NATO, won’t back down, even if it means continuing major disruption to the global economy, more death and destruction in Ukraine, and risks of global escalation. How sad.
US warnings to China don’t go over well in Beijing. China remains undeterred in their global expansion ambitions, especially in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan. Ukraine’s similarities to Taiwan are eerie. Both are viewed as historic parts of a larger motherland, but unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is tiny, sitting just 100 miles off the China coast, not easily able to receive US supplies in a war.
Is Russia bluffing with its nuclear escalation threats if it faulters on the battlefield? It’s not impossible, as Putin is in so deep, and looking more desperate. If Russia fails, it will likely lead to significant internal destabilization, very dangerous given they have the world’s largest nuclear weapon arsenal. If Russia starts losing the war, it would be due to NATO offensive weapons escalation, and Xi Jinping would likely be forced to move, backing Russia militarily, not just economically. It’s better than the nuclear option risk. It’s clearly in China’s strong interest for Russia to prevail, given their strategic partnership, mutual US disdain/distrust, and proximity. War is inherently unpredictable, and China’s engagement could easily escalate into a world war.
Now we see that Germany will send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine (allowing other NATO members to do as well), and the US is close to agreeing to send its Abrams M1 tanks. This will enable a Ukrainian offensive to reclaim lost territory, but It’s a significant and risky escalation.
This war needs to end now. A cease-fire followed by a compromise peace agreement is the rational way forward. Given our history as a voice of reason, Canada should be able to see this and refrain from shipping more deadly offensive weapons to Ukraine. It should be a voice of reason and a champion for peace.
Dave Wilkin is a Professional Engineer, with a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Toronto. His career spans over 40 years in Information Technology, banking, and energy. He is currently a co-owner in a small energy consulting company and lives in Huntsville, Ontario.
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