While many blame Russia’s Ukrainian invasion on an expansionist Putin, some scholars have suggested aggressive NATO expansion precipitated the conflict. Regardless, the West now finds itself in a difficult position, one where Ukrainian successes may escalate the war.
Since the beginning of President Putin’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine in February, many have worried that Russia’s “bold move” could trigger World War III. The response of the Western International Relations (IR) community has been divided — some see Russia as the villain, while others blame the West for provoking Russian actions.
One proponent of the latter camp ‒ those who see Russia as an aggrieved state ‒ is American IR scholar John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer makes the case that NATO expansion was the ultimate trigger for Vladimir Putin’s actions. He said that talk of Georgia and Ukraine being eventually admitted into NATO at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest led to Russia’s incursion into Georgia in 2008. Russia’s military showing in Georgia was appalling for a modern military power, but could well have ended in disaster for Putin had Georgia been more organised. However, at the time, Georgia did not rate very highly in the West. Russia was the more important country and keeping Russian oil and gas flowing was Europe’s most pressing priority.
In February 2014, the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution and coupled with the removal of Russian-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, raised alarm bells in Moscow. The long-disputed Crimean Peninsula, with a predominantly Russian-speaking population, and the positioning of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, was an existential problem. Maidan signalled that Ukraine was irrevocably turning westward — shortly afterwards Russia shocked the world by seizing Crimea.
“Little green men” in unmarked uniforms started popping up at strategic locations in the Crimean Peninsula. Russian operatives snatched the territory away from a militarily weak and politically unstable Ukraine. Not long after, Russian troops were spotted assisting militia in Donbas, another Russian-speaking region of eastern Ukraine. However, Russia chose to not press its advantage against Ukraine in 2014. Putin looked like the cunning European statesman – the Russian “Otto von Bismarck” of his day. Again, as with Georgia, Europe was alarmed by this development but had no desire to fight the Russians over Crimea or Donbas – both were less important than crucial Russian oil and gas flows.
The Western Position
Then there is the idea that NATO expansion can be part of a population’s voluntary desire to move away from Russian rule, in whatever form. Post-Soviet Russia, while dangerously chaotic in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, stabilised under Putin. Still, Putin promised nothing new to the states of Eastern Europe. “Putinesque Russia’” held imperial ambition. It views subjugating countries of strategic interest as critical, not tolerating neutral states to exist along its border – a border through which enemy states have crossed many times in the past to access Russian resources and land. No one suggested that non-NATO Europe be forced into an anti-Russian coalition. Mearsheimer’s position could not have guaranteed anything other than a temporary lull in Western-Russian confrontation over Eastern Europe. Russia would have maintained Ukrainian neutrality only so long as it wasn’t strong enough to subvert, undermine, or forcibly destroy it. Mearsheimer’s idea that NATO expansion caused the war is wrong.
And then there’s the idealistic Western notion that if a country volunteers to join an organisation, this sovereign decision should not be accountable to the imperialist ambitions of a regional autocrat. Russia’s failure to control Eastern Europe’s westward direction has less to do with losing military and political control and more with the country’s complete lack of soft power. Power is not just about wielding the military stick and promising repression. It is often imparting something positive about your culture, society, and economy to states you seek to influence.
An Ongoing War
But hypotheticals aside, having committed significant forces and equipment to Ukraine, Russia has no option but to continue its invasion. But problematically for Putin the invasion did not go as planned. The initial multi-directional thrust into Ukraine failed to meet its objectives. The Russian military met well-prepared Ukrainian resistance. Furthermore, the billions of roubles spent on modernising the Russian military was embarrassingly deficient on many levels, from its fighting forces to its logistics and supply tail. After a heavy beating by Ukrainian troops, the Russians changed tactics. They went back to tried and proven ones used in Chechnya in the 1990s and Syria in 2015 onwards. The tactics? The bombardment of civilian targets and a slow creeping artillery barrage on the military frontlines, taking territory one kilometre at a time. And while the Russian military is unlikely to have recovered from the initial beating it took from Ukrainian defenders, the more cautious approach they have adopted has netted them victory in Luhansk.
Now, the Russian Army will focus its efforts on seizing Donetsk. Unless Ukrainian forces stage a major counter-offensive in the next fortnight, Donetsk will fall. Whether Putin will take his success and negotiate a ceasefire becomes a central point. Some, like American IR scholar Peter Zeihan, suggest that Russia will not stop at some minimum point within Ukraine but will focus on the Baltic states, Poland, and Moldova. Other commentators, argue that the Russian military is close to culmination, meaning that it will likely soon run out of men and equipment.
A few commentators have said that Ukrainian military successes might force Russia to use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons to end the war in its favour without expending additional manpower. Others have suggested that certain circumstances, such as the routing of the Russian Army by the Ukrainians, would force Moscow to escalate the crisis to deescalate it. Considering that Ukraine is being armed, trained, and supported by many Western countries, escalation could include Russia deliberately provoking the West into an open military confrontation, including the threat or use of strategic nuclear weapons. These scenarios, were they to occur, tend to overlook one thing — the world outside of the actual war. Unlike Russian military action against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine 2022 involves NATO. European governments are involved in maintaining a powerful sanctions regime against Russia even though they are still trading to access oil and gas supplies. Russia has retaliated by increasing prices and cutting availability to disrupt European economies.
The war has also disrupted wheat and cooking oil supplies. If these supplies cannot be restored to pre-war levels, 2023 might see a very hungry and dangerous decade ahead. The recent deal, brokered by Turkey, to allow some 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain to be exported from the Black Sea was scuppered by a Russian attack on the Ukrainian port of Odesa, showing there’s little genuine goodwill from Moscow.
Following Russia’s capture of Luhansk, the Russian and Ukrainian armies are experiencing an operational pause. This will be a chance to reorganise military forces for Russia’s push into Donetsk. NATO has promised Ukraine a lot, but new weapons shipments are slowing down, and attrition is affecting Ukrainian forces. For all its losses early in the war, Russia is still the far larger power, and history shows larger powers usually win wars of attrition. NATO is playing a careful hand here. Encouraging Ukraine that the war is winnable would require faster weapons deliveries, a faster training timetable, and more military equipment and supplies than Brussels is willing or able to provide. NATO is fighting a defensive war by proxy against Russia. Under those boundaries, NATO and EU leaders can be quietly confident that a weakened Russia may sue for peace once Putin’s objectives are met. If the Ukrainian Army were to confound expectations and launch a well-organised counter-offensive that pushes the Russian Army from its captured territories, we can reasonably expect this war to evolve into something far harder to control for Brussels and Moscow.
Considering the unpredictable forces being unleashed by potential food scarcity in 2023, and the internal squabbles, polarisation, and radicalisation of various political systems, the spark igniting a regional war into a world-wide conflagration can come from multiple directions in dire and unpredictable ways.
Dr. John Bruni is Founder & CEO of South Australian geopolitical think tank, SAGE International.
SAGE International is an Adelaide-based, independent, privately operated NFP geopolitical think-tank and consultancy estd. in 2008. Areas of expertise include Indo-Pacific strategy, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, defence procurement, Australian defence & security and global maritime security and technological trends.