By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 07, 2022
Sometimes a conflict shapes our views of the world in ways that we never knew were possible. We think we have a good understanding of how the world works, and then we come up against a situation for which we do not have an accurate answer. Although some important thinkers saw the Ukrainian disaster coming, neither the US nor the European Union (EU) took the Russians seriously. Today, Ukraine is paying for it.
What do we do when a country with one of the largest and most sophisticated military forces in the world uses its might to annihilate its less-sophisticated neighbour militarily? Twenty-eight years ago, Ukraine, then the world’s third largest nuclear power, gave up its nuclear arsenal and relocated it in Russia, with Russia’s specific pledge that it would guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity—an assurance codified in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.
Think of the pain Ukrainians feel today as Russia destroys anything that gets in its way of subduing them to its will. The indiscriminate bombing of the city of Mariupol was so intense that dead bodies still lie in the streets, unattended. “No one dares venture out to bury them.” (Financial Times, March 5.)
Pyor Andriushchenko, an aide to the mayor, said sadly: “This isn’t a military operation—they are trying to wipe this city off the face of the earth.” The mayor agreed: “They are trying to eliminate us.” (Financial Times, March 4.)
A few days ago, Russia almost destroyed the largest nuclear plant in Europe. With it, came the possibility of an entire continent facing the possibility of a radiological disaster. In 1945, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing approximately 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more Japanese died later of radioactive exposure, but the Japanese are not Europeans.
Putin insists the Russians and the Ukranians are one people with ties that go back centuries. His behaviour has been driven in part by the ideology of Russkiy Mir—Russian World—the notion that “Russia should wield influence wherever Russian is spoken, including Ukraine”. This rationale underpinned his annexation of Crimea in 2014. But can such “reunification” take place when he acts so cruelly to his own people, even as he pursues what he sees as his righteous cause.
Pan-Russianism is another driver of Putin’s actions. From the end of the Second World War to about 2000 we have been living in a unipolar world in which the United States has been the major power. Today, with the rise of both China and Russia, things have changed, and neither China nor Russia is willing to give carte blanche to US dominance. In this context, Prof Andy Knight of the University of Alberta is correct when he says we are living in an “interregnum—a period of time when there is a transition from one world order to the next”. (Edmonton Journal, February 22.)
Before this conflict erupted, Putin declared that Ukraine lies within Russia’s sphere of influence. He was uncomfortable with the build-up of NATO forces in his backyard and felt ignored by the US and the EU. He vehemently protested the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, a concession he said the US supported in 1991 when James Baker was US Secretary of Defence and the Soviet Union was breaking up. His plea was ignored.
Putin never accepted the break-up of the Soviet Union into independent states. As he put it in 2014, “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities.” (FT, February 26). In 2017, it was estimated that 25 million ethnic Russians lived outside Russia in former Soviet republics. His task, he believes, is to bring them back together into one united Soviet Russian republic.
If Ukraine, with its 44 million people, moved outside the Russian orbit and joined NATO, it would go against everything Putin stands for. This was an opportune moment for him to strike now that the US was “distracted by domestic discord, Britain consumed by Brexit and the woes of prime minister Boris Johnson, France facing an election, and Germany lacking former chancellor Merkel—who, having grown up in East Germany and [speaks] fluent Russian.” (FT, February 26.)
As in all wars, truth is the first thing to go. Last Friday, the Russian government issued a new censorship law that criminalised independent reportage. The Kremlin insisted that “characterisation of its attacks on Ukraine as a ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ rather than a ‘special military operation’ amounts to disinformation”. (New York Times, March 4.) Any journalist who described the war as a “war” could be imprisoned for 15 years. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, accused the BBC of playing “a determined role in undermining Russian stability and security”.
The West felt triumphant when the Soviet Union was dismembered in 1989. Many thought it brought a new birth of freedom to the West, but we forgot the sleeping giant that remained a powerful nation with its sprawling land mass and abundant natural resources. Putin has given notice that he wants to be back in the game, and to receive the respect and dignity that the leader of a major world power deserves.
The US does not enjoy the same power that it did at the end of the last century and Russia remains “a resentful, revanchist country”, intent on reasserting its lost power even if it means doing so over shattered Ukrainian bodies. The world, as Thomas Friedman opined, “is not going to be the same again”.
The events of the past week should prevent us from looking at the world from one point of view and jumping to easy conclusions. There is so much that we don’t always know.