A forgotten war: Looking back, looking forward

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A forgotten war: Looking back, looking forward

Sunday, 21 January 2024 | Makhan Saikia

A forgotten war: Looking back, looking forward

Amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict’s complexity, it is crucial for the West to adopt a pragmatic approach. Recognising Putin’s strategies and prioritising mutual interests can potentially reshape the geopolitical landscape, preventing further bloodshed and fostering a path towards lasting stability.

The Russia-Ukraine war, which began in February 2022, is about to enter its third year. When Russia invaded Ukraine, not even those within President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle believed that the war would last for such an extended period.

Why has the West provoked Russia? Can Putin reshape his image as a strongman after the bloody war? Is Volodymyr Zelenskyy a winner? It is certain that, under the leadership of the US, the West has been attempting to encircle post-Cold War Russia. Putin, being a former KGB man, is sensitive to the limits of security and the opportune time to intervene. Russia can’t be further bullied by the West. The reason behind this is that the West, especially the US, has its own internal problems and external responsibilities.

For Putin, losing is not an option. He is desperate to win not only against Ukraine but also against the West. As temperatures drop to freezing points, forces on both sides are gearing up for hardened battles.

For Zelenskyy, the war, despite being a significant financial burden and humanitarian crisis, hardly makes any difference. The reason is that Ukraine, as a frontline state to Russia, has been reeling under the threat of war for years. Ukrainians know what they are destined for; they have to fight for their survival against the onslaught of a Russian invasion, whether today or tomorrow.

The international community still recalls what Zelenskyy aired just before the onset of the war in 2022. He warned the West not to create panic about the buildup of Russian forces on the border of Ukraine. However, US President Joe Biden then clearly stated that he believed “Russia could attack its neighbour next month.” Ultimately, Putin did attack Ukraine, signaling his intention to dislodge and denazify the country.

A war-monger from the beginning, Putin employed numerous narratives to justify his invasion of Ukraine. Initially, he claimed that Ukraine’s government is “openly neo-Nazi” and “pro-Nazi,” controlled by the “Little Nazis.”

A top Russian lawmaker then asserted that President Biden and American officials are responsible for the Nazification of Ukraine and should be tried before a court. Another lawmaker called for the establishment of a “modern analogy to the Nuremberg Tribunal” as Moscow geared up to denazify Ukraine. In summary, the language used by various Russian top leaders, officials, pro-Kremlin journalists, writers, and especially Putin himself, was absolutely shocking.

Clearly, the term Nazi was an unbelievable assertion about a country whose leader, Zelenskyy, is Jewish. Interestingly, just before the war’s onset last fall, Zelenskyy had passed a law combating antisemitism in his country.

Certainly, the war between Russia and Ukraine is a battle of wills and might. The current conflict, propelled by Putin’s belligerence and arrogance, caught the attention of the media showman Zelenskyy, who had scarcely understood how to address and when to convince the major world powers to stop the Muscular Man of Moscow. By the time Kiev took action, Moscow was already well ahead in launching the invasion, ostensibly in the name of protecting the ethnic Russian population in the Donbas region. Indeed, Putin had planned it long in advance. According to many experts, he remained quiet for nearly eight years after the annexation of Crimea from February to March 2014.

As John Simpson rightly said, “The annexation of Crimea was the smoothest invasion of modern times. It was over before the outside world realised it had even started.” The occupation of Crimea had occurred entirely by stealth. Putin is a world-class strategist, a true “Spy Guy”. On many occasions, the West had miscalculated his moves, and he, too, had failed to understand how the US and its allies in Europe might react to what he had been doing overtly or covertly.

When the current war had just begun, both Bill Powell and Naved Jamali strongly argued that “Putin has never lost a war.” They further pointed out that “during past conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Crimea, over his two decades in power, Putin succeeded by giving his armed forces clear, achievable military objectives that would allow him to declare victory credibly in the eyes of the Russian people and a wary watching world. His latest initiative in Ukraine is unlikely to be any different.” So, these are the strong credentials of Putin, who has delivered significant victories to his fellow countrymen since his accession to power in August 1999, when the first President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, entrusted him with the job of Prime Minister after the tumultuous breakdown of the erstwhile USSR.

The political atmosphere in Russia at that time led to Yeltsin’s resignation, paving the way for Putin to take over as the Acting President of the country. Subsequently, he won the presidential election in March 2000, becoming the second President of the Russian Federation. Since then, he has been the President of the country, except for a full term from 2008-2012 when his friend Dmitry Medvedev occupied the post, simply because the Russian Constitution barred a person from remaining as President for a third consecutive term.

However, this provision no longer exists (thanks to a referendum conducted in 2021), and Putin can continue to remain as President until 2036.

Today, he is the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, who ruled the USSR from 1924 to 1953. This is how Putin has risen to the current rank and power. Washington needs to handle the former KGB man very carefully. He is well-versed in all the routes and dangers that might emerge from the current war. An aging Biden and NATO members in Europe, not closely aligned (as many, like Germany, have definitive interests and dependence on Russia), may fail to check Putin’s Kremlin this year in Ukraine.

Yes, it is true that the offensive moves from both Ukraine and Russia have failed to attain a decisive victory for either party throughout the year 2023. However, this has led to a narrative suggesting that the war has reached a stalemate. Given the current global focus on the Israel-Hamas conflict since October 7 of last year, discussions and efforts for an immediate solution to the situation in the contested Gaza Strip have taken precedence, pushing the Russia-Ukraine war to a backseat in global politics.

The perception of a stalemate, debated by many strategic experts, is flawed. The material and military advantage of both parties will determine the course of action this year. The West, especially the US (facing a presidential election on November 5), will face a challenging time, and the rest of Europe, particularly NATO members, will need to decide whether to provide substantial aid to Kiev for a credible offensive in 2025 against Moscow or concede an irrecoverable advantage to Putin. Putin is expecting and planning his grand strategies accordingly. However, a new strategy can protect the sovereign frontiers of Ukraine and prevent Russia from winning the war.

Peace continues to elude Ukraine, with Russia on a warpath and Putin showing no inclination to negotiate. Since his entry into the Kremlin, Putin has been consistently opposed to the West. The futile goal of the West so far has been to defeat Russia and humiliate Putin, but this approach is no longer effective. Engagement with Russia by the West must be realistic and flexible, offering a sustainable guarantee that Russia’s leadership is acknowledged, and further NATO expansion in Europe is halted to avoid encircling the country. It is time to address mutual interests, and Washington should adopt a forward-looking approach if Putin is willing to abandon his aggressive stance.

Importantly, the West needs to understand that Putin and the Kremlin, under his leadership, do not speak for all Russian people, even though it may seem so for now. America should have learned by now how to navigate dealings with leaders like Putin. If Biden returns to power in 2025, he must remember that in Putin’s unpredictable world, expecting the unexpected is always prudent.

America should be realistic and agile in handling Putin to prevent further suffering akin to that of Zelenskyy. The world has witnessed enough bloodshed in the last three decades, and a significant portion of it can be attributed to Washington’s miscalculations or misguided policy perspectives. While Putin is not solely to blame, America bears its share of responsibility for the current chaos.

(The writer is a Senior Faculty at  Department of Political Science in School of Liberal Education, Galgotias University, Greater Noida.)

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