Dr Tom Casier *
Throughout January and February 2022 there was plenty of speculation whether Russia would invade Ukraine or not and, if it would, what the scale of the operation would be. Day one of the invasion made clear this was a full-scale war, whereby Russia attacked Ukraine from different sides and targeted the entire territory. In any possible interpretation, Russia commits through this invasion an ‘act of aggression’, violating art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, stating that ‘all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’. Despite the Kremlin’s absurdly reversed rhetoric about Ukraine’s threat, there is no single justification under International Law for this war. Moreover, this war has all the chances of being long and atrocious. The unexpected scale of Western sanctions and the unity both within the EU and across the Atlantic are unlikely to change this.
What is Russia seeking to achieve with this invasion? Formally, the Kremlin speaks about ‘demilitarisation’ and ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. The latter builds on the narrative launched after the regime change in Kyiv in 2014, which Moscow has always presented as a fascist or nazist coup d’état. It is a reference that resonates with the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, which takes a central place in Russia’s collective historical consciousness. It is meant for domestic use in Russia in the first place. The use of the term to refer to the current Ukrainian government is preposterous, not least because of the Jewish background of president Zelenskiy. The stated goal of demilitarisation relates to the discourse that Putin has developed over the last year. In his State of the nation address of April 2021 he warned about ‘red lines’ that could not be crossed. Only later that year he specified these red lines and put unconditional demands on the table, on which he knew the West would not concede: no further expansion of NATO to post-Soviet states, no deployment of offensive weapons in the proximity of Russia and the withdrawal of NATO military infrastructure from member states that joined after 1997. This seemed a radicalisation of demands that fit in an discourse on Russia’s security concerns that had its roots in the 1990s and had some legitimate grounds, considering how NATO enlargement was seen to isolate Russia and put the indivisibility of security in Europe under pressure. Now, one week after the start of the invasion, it seems that the discourse about NATO enlargement over the last year was carefully deployed primarily to create a pretext for Russia’s invasion. For the issue of NATO enlargement to Ukraine was neither new nor imminent: the prospect of NATO membership was offered already in 2008 and fourteen years later, in 2022, there was no single sign that this political promise would be put into practice anytime soon. There is no way in which a brutal invasion, flagrantly violating international law, provoking the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War, can be justified on the basis of security concerns. Security problems are not solved by creating even bigger security problems, at the expense of many human lives. There is something absurdly disproportional about the claim, in particular as Russia will be confronted with an even stronger NATO to its west. As a result, the war against Ukraine has subverted the credibility of Russia’s past security concerns.
There is no absolute certainty about Russia’s real final goal. It will for certain go well beyond regime change. Even more, it is hard to imagine that the ambition is anything less than the dissolution of the Ukrainian state.
Different elements point in this direction. First, recent statements of Russian key decision-makers have focused on denying Ukraine’s right of existence. In his speech of Monday 21 February (about the recognition of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk), Putin spoke for a long time about Ukraine and constructed an image of a country that was Russian land and only came into existence as a generous gift by the Bolsheviks. It goes without saying that the argumentation was historically selective to say the least. Foreign Minister Lavrov made a similar claim the next day. Second, the perceived ‘loss’ of Ukraine in 2014 has led to an existential crisis in Russia, sparking an extended debate on Russia’s identity and the question whether that identity could exist in isolation from Ukraine. The idea that Ukraine does not have the right to exist as a sovereign entity is thus all but new and Russian analysts have argued for some time that Putin was eager to find a final solution for the stalemate over Ukraine. The idea that military solutions were a viable option, was reinforced by Azerbaijan’s quick military success over Armenia in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in Autumn 2020. Finally, and most importantly, there is the reality on the ground: it is hard to imagine any other scenario than continued Russian occupation in some form. Despite Russia’s military dominance, the war will likely end in protracted instability. This will require a Russian military presence and de facto occupation, even if it is under the pretext of helping a puppet government. A scenario whereby Russia would take control of part of the territory only is unlikely. This would lead to a smaller Ukraine west of a ‘greater’ Russia, that would no doubt be virulently anti-Russian and be seen as a continuous security risk.
As expected, in particular when remembering the fierce resistance during the Euromaidan protests in 2014, many Ukrainians are willing to resist heavily. Russia will likely resort to the use of more heavy weapons and will probably use them more indiscriminately as the war goes on. At the time of writing, one week into the war, densely populated areas in Kharkiv are under fire. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has announced an investigation into possible war crimes. In the long term, the war may end up in a protracted conflict with guerrilla warfare. In such a scenario, desperate Russian attempts to control continued resistance will inevitably mean harsh repression and extended violations of human rights. Unfortunately, Russia has ample experience on the latter at home. Domestic repression came in several, intensifying waves. The latest one, targeting Navalny and the protests in his support, has been particularly far-reaching. The use of the labels of ‘foreign agent’ and ‘extremist’ has confined the space for freedom of expression dramatically. Protests have become very difficult and require a lot of braveness. Many activists have been arrested and jailed for minimal reasons or have fled abroad. The war against Ukraine has tightened the rules even more. There is almost complete censorship on the topic. Media outlets run the risk of being shut down if they rely on other information than official Russian information. This happened already to two of the few remaining independent media outlets: the online TV station Dozhd was blocked and the radio station Ekho Moskvy taken off the air. Media can be fined if they use words like 'war’ or ‘invasion’. Despite that, there are some signs that a considerable section of the Russian population does not support the war and that some are willing to stand up against it, despite the personal risks this implies. If Putin was hoping for a repetition of the patriotic wave of 2014, when Crimea was annexed, he may face a major disillusion.
The Russian act of aggression against Ukraine, unprecedented on this scale since the Second World War, seals the end of the post-Cold War order. The latter has been in a deep crisis for a long time, for a mixed set of complex reasons and amidst an escalating logic of competition. Core pillars of the order had already disappeared before this war: the principle of indivisible security and avoiding new dividing lines in Europe, an effective system of collective security, the principle of inviolability of borders (so crucial to European security). But also the arms control regime set up mainly in the late 1980s and early 1990s had crumbled, with of all major treaties only the new START agreement standing. One of the defunct treaties, on Conventional Forces in Europe, was exactly meant to avoid the possibility of a blitzkrieg, by prohibiting massive troop mobilisations close to the borders, as we saw around Ukraine over the months preceding the war. Whatever the outcome will be, it is hard to be optimistic about the chances of building a new, stable European security order after the war.
* Dr Tom Casier is a Reader in International Relations at the University of Kent’s ‘Brussels School of International Studies’ (BSIS) and Director of the ‘Global Europe Centre’. His research focuses mainly on EU-Russia relations and Russian foreign policy. Recent articles have appeared in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs,Cooperation and Conflict, Geopolitics, Democratization and others. He has provided policy advice for the European Parliament, House of Lords and the US State Department.
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