Over the past month, pressure from the West seems to have lessened fears of a full-scale military intervention by Russia in eastern Ukraine, although the threat has by no means evaporated completely. Pressure from the West in the form of sanctions and strongly-worded rebukes doesn’t always have the sting that a military response tends to deliver.
But then, the prospect of a military showdown between NATO and Russia over Ukrainian sovereignty has the potential of igniting a conflict on the European continent that the Soviets and NATO managed to avoid — on numerous occasions only by the skin of their teeth — decades ago during the Cold War.
That is the quietly unstated nightmare scenario that lurks beneath the West’s lacklustre response to Russia’s recent belligerence in Eastern Europe, and is responsible for much of the policy approach that key global players like the U.S. have seemed to take towards a post-Soviet Russia as it enters a period of quasi-imperialist revivalism in the 21st century.
The bottom line is most countries in the West would probably be loath to engage in a military punch-counter punch conflict in Eastern Europe over a country that doesn’t exactly have the bona fides for a no-questions-asked defence like, say, France or Great Britain.
Not to mention the fact that in a tactical sense, reactionary military responses abdicate one of the most important ingredients for success in a military campaign — the achievement of surprise. In many of the conflicts fought in the past two decades — Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance — this military maxim has been abandoned in favour of overwhelming force brought to bear against a weaker opponent.
In the case of Russia, there would be little doubt they knew what was coming. And overcoming the combined forces of the Russian military would be a far cry from subduing a third-rate Middle Eastern power.
And of course there is always the nuclear question. Hardly a news flash, since that reality has been a threat for almost seven decades. But backed far enough against a wall, the Russians could be tempted to unleash a fearsome onslaught of nuclear weapons against Western Europe or North America.
That idea alone is enough to give any potential invader pause before mobilizing the tank columns.
And that prospect doesn’t even take into account stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons from the days when Soviet scientists dreamed up horrifying hybridized diseases to infect the populations of their capitalist foes.
Although stockpiles of Soviet-era biological weapons have supposedly been disposed of, one wonders in a country that spans nine time zones if all have been eliminated, or whether the program hasn’t been carried on in even greater secrecy, as was once alleged about the United States.
Russia’s possession of a veto as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council — a much-criticized hold-over from the post-victory days of WWII — makes any thought of an intervention by that body an unreality. Although Woodrow Wilson’s post-WWI League of Nations was an invertebrate organization that saw its gelatinous spine only matched by its delegates’ own cowardice in the arena of international affairs, the present-day United Nations is still hobbled by a veto system mired in the power politics of a different era of global alignments.
The delegates of the League of Nations were part of a generation of diplomats and statesmen that chose to believe that handing over almost any concession to a belligerent power was justified in the name of the preservation of peace. We know it today by the not-so-wonderful term of “appeasement”, a short-sighted political philosophy rooted in weakness and fear. It would allow Hitler and the Nazis to secure dominion in Central Europe with hardly more than a drop of blood shed before they turned their blitzkrieg on the West.
There are dangerous comparisons here when considering Russia’s apparent renewed thirst for expansionism in Eastern Europe. The pathetic sanctions issued against Mussolini’s Italy by the League of Nations in 1935 after it brutally attacked the inoffensive African kingdom of Ethiopia, bear strong similarities to the West’s reaction to Russia’s move to annex the Crimea. Then, as now, sanctions did little to deter Mussolini from conquering what at the time was one of the last independent countries in Africa.
The lack of any willingness to engage in a military defence of a brother member of the league loudly announced a desperate weakness to leaders in capitals that read like a who’s who of enemy combatants in WWII — Tokyo, Berlin, Rome. Although the idea of a “free hand” in Europe and elsewhere that arose from this incident and others would come to a resounding end in 1939 with the declaration of war, it was not before Hitler had squeezed it for all it was worth as Austria and Czechoslovakia fell like dominoes while the West quavered in fear. And it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that pre-war policies of appeasement came within a hair’s breadth of forcing total defeat on the Allied powers in the early stages of the conflict.
If the Russians are truly on a path towards renewed thoughts of empire in Eastern Europe, allowing them to gobble up pieces of a dismembered Ukraine while only imposing a limp-fisted response could send a troubling message to Moscow about the willingness of the West to defend its interests in Eastern Europe.
Right now, eastern Ukraine seems to be deteriorating into a virtual civil war between pro-Russian militants and elements of the Ukrainian military, and there doesn’t appear to be much light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Taken on the whole, Ukraine is weak — at least viewed from the windows of the Kremlin, if not the rest of the world. The country has just emerged from a revolution only to have Russia seize a key region and threaten the rest with military occupation, while pro-Russian militants run roughshod over its eastern half.
It might seem a tempting plum to acquire for Russia. There has been much speculation about how deep a hand Russia has had in promoting and supporting a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, or whether elements of the Russian military — perhaps special forces — have been active in the region. Predictably, proclamations issuing from Moscow have flatly denied any involvement.
In one of the quirks of history, the Russians playing the role of counter-revolutionaries in the Ukraine seems curiously out of place with the events of their recent past.
The Soviet Union was a nation forged by a party of “professional revolutionaries” who seized power in 1917 at a moment when conservative elements seemed poised to reverse what had been won with the abdication of the tsar and a popular uprising of the people. They proceeded to export left-wing revolution to countries and ethnic groups around the world for the next seven decades.
And would still be doing it, had they not failed at their own game — or, should we say, have been overcome by someone who played it better. Perhaps Ukraine’s own revolution will have to face the same trials and counter-revolutionary tribulations as those faced by the Bolsheviks in those faraway days of 1917.