The Russo-Turkish war of 1768-74 was one of the most consequential conflicts for the global balance of power in the 18th century. After the war, Russia, under Empress Catherine the Great, got access to the Black Sea through the Kerch and Azov seaports and officially became the “protector” of the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire. In 1783, nine years after the war was over, Prince Grigory Potemkin, a Grand Admiral in the imperial Russian Army and a favourite of the Empress, annexed the Crimean Peninsula that juts into the Black Sea in the name of protecting its Christians, amid violent clashes between Christians and Crimean Tatars (a Turkic ethnic group). The annexation gave Russia seamless access to the Black Sea’s warm waters, helping its rise as a naval power.
There are interesting parallels between the imperial annexation of Crimea in the 18th century and the Russian annexation of the peninsula in 2014. Prince Potemkin is credited to have built Russia’s Black Sea fleet in 1783 with Crimea’s Sevastopol being its principal base. Ever since, Russia has retained its influence over Crimea in one way or the other. During the Soviet period, Crimea was the centre of Russia’s Black Sea manoeuvres. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Crimea became part of the newly independent Ukraine, but continued to host Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Moscow’s grip over the peninsula faced its first real threat in 2014 when the elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine was brought down by violent protests that were backed by the West. Six years earlier, the US had offered NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, both Black Sea basin countries and former Soviet republics.
With the regime change in Kyiv, Russia, faced with the prospect of Ukraine having a pro-Western, NATO-friendly government hostile towards Moscow, moved quickly. If protection of the Orthodox Christians was the raison d’être of Prince Potemkin’s annexation of Crimea in the 18th century, protection of the Russian-speaking population was President Vladimir Putin’s official explanation for the annexation of the region in 2014. In the end, the annexation allowed Russia to retain a strategically important peninsula where it could project force through the Mediterranean Sea and the waters beyond. But there was one key difference. If the imperial annexation cemented Russia’s “great power” status and led to the rise of its Navy, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) marked the beginning of a prolonged conflict, which has snowballed into Europe’s largest security crisis, especially after the Russian leader’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 14, 2022.
Russia’s security concerns
Russia, the world’s largest country by land mass, lacks natural borders except the Arctic Ocean in the north and the Pacific in the far east. Its vast land borders stretch from northern Europe to central and north-east Asia. Its heartland, from St. Petersburg through Moscow to the Volga region, that lies on vast plains is a defender’s nightmare. Historically, expansion was the best defence for Russian leaders—as Catherine the Great once famously said: “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.” And this nightmare was proven right twice in the last two centuries when Russia saw two devastating invasions from its western borders—the 1812 attack by Napoleonic France and the 1941 attack by Nazi Germany. Russia defeated them both, but only after suffering enormous material and human losses.
After the Second World War, Russia expanded its buffer by re-establishing its control over the rim land in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, which it hoped would protect its heartland. But the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which saw Russia losing some 3 million square kilometre of sovereign territory, was the greatest geopolitical setback for Moscow in centuries. Having lost its territories and geopolitical influence and left with a free-falling economy and political instability at home, Russia had to force itself into a strategic retreat. It was at this point that Putin emerged as a strongman promising a way out for the “motherland” from this phase of chaos and humiliation.
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In the Soviet Union’s last days, the West had promised Russia that NATO, created at the beginning of the Cold War to push back against the Soviets, would not “expand an inch to the east”. It was after getting these assurances that Mikhail Gorbachev, then the leader of the Soviet Communist Party, agreed to pull back Soviet troops from East Germany, which eventually led to German unification. But this assurance, which has been widely documented, was not a written agreement. And a weak, inward-looking Russia grappling with its own problems was not in a position to make sure that the West stayed committed to the verbal assurances it had made.
In March 1999, in the first expansion since the end of the Cold War, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (all were members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact) joined NATO. Five years later, seven more countries — including the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which share borders with Russia—were also taken into the alliance. If in the early 1990s, NATO’s border with Russia was limited to the northern fringes of Norway, now the distance from NATO’s Estonian border to St. Petersburg, the imperial capital of Russia, is less than 160 km.
But NATO didn’t stop there. In 2008, the US promised membership to Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest summit. Russia, coming out of the post-Soviet retreat, responded forcefully. For the Kremlin, both Ukraine and Georgia are critical for its national security calculations. If these countries join NATO, it will not only bring the trans-Atlantic nuclear military alliance even closer to Russia’s borders (the distance from the Ukrainian border to Moscow is less than 500 km), but also make Russia’s position in the Black Sea, its gateway to the world, more vulnerable. Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, all Black Sea basin countries, are already NATO members. So, in 2008, Putin sent troops to Georgia over the separatist conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and in 2014, he annexed Crimea and threw his weight behind the separatists in the Donbas.
The road to war
Since 2008 Putin has made several calculated geopolitical moves seeking to address Russia’s security challenges and restore its role as a major global player. By sending troops to Georgia that year, he effectively stalled the country’s NATO ambitions. In 2014, he took Crimea through a referendum without fighting an actual war with Ukraine. In 2015, he took advantage of Barack Obama’s strategic ambivalence over Syria and sent troops to the civil war-struck West Asian country where the regime of President Bashar al Assad was on the brink. The Russian intervention helped Putin not only keep Russia’s Tartus naval base in the Mediterranean—its only naval base outside the former Soviet sphere—but also establish some leverage over Syria’s neighbours Turkey and Israel (both have stayed neutral in the Ukraine war).
Putin has also strengthened the Russian presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus—he sent “peacekeepers” to Nagorno-Karabakh to end the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, and dispatched soldiers to Kazakhstan earlier this year to restore order in the protest-shaken country. While all these moves—exploiting geopolitical opportunities with limited forces for maximum gain—helped Putin reposition Russia, they appear to have been trial runs before his biggest strategic bet—the invasion of Ukraine.
Why did Putin go into Ukraine? He had practically ended Ukraine’s NATO dreams in 2014. He had Crimea, and pro-Russian separatists controlled a substantial amount of territories in Ukraine’s industrially rich Donbas region, which could also act as a buffer for Russia. But Moscow was irked by the advanced weapons the West was supplying to Ukraine as also the military training it was giving to Ukraine’s forces. Besides, the Minsk II agreement, which called for a full ceasefire in the Donbas in February 2015, was a non-starter as Ukraine went back on key clauses, including amending its Constitution and giving more autonomy to the Donbas. New neo-Nazi militias sprang up in Ukraine’s east, which targeted the Russian-speaking populations in the region, accusing them of being “collaborators”. Of them, the Azov Brigade, a paramilitary battalion drawn from neo-Nazi groups and the Social National Assembly (SNA) that believes in a “final crusade of white races against Semite-led Untermenschen [inferior humans]”, was integrated into Ukraine’s National Guard in November 2014.
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When the crisis in Ukraine’s east persisted and Ukraine’s armed forces, began to gain strength with military assistance coming in from the US and the UK, Russia decided to escalate the pre-existing conflict into a full-scale war—with de-Nazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine as its declared goals.
Whatever Putin’s objectives, be it a total subjugation of Ukraine or capturing territories north, east and south of the country to carve out an arc of buffer land along Russia’s border to the Black Sea coast and render Ukraine land-locked, he wanted to meet them quickly and with limited forces. So he mobilised some 1,50,000 troops to invade Europe’s largest country. Russian troops opened multiple battlefronts and tried to make a sharp thrust into Ukraine towards Kyiv and Kharkiv from the north, Donetsk and Luhansk from the east, and Kherson, Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhya from the south. But war, even for great powers, is an unpredictable business.
Gains and losses
With limited deployment, the Russians made substantial territorial gains in Ukraine but fell short of their actual goals. Seven months into the war, Russia has not got even the whole of the Donbas (it has the whole of Luhansk and some 65 per cent of Donetsk). It never managed to seize Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city which lies roughly 40 km from the Russian border. In the south, the Russians took parts of Zaporizhzhya, including the eponymous nuclear plant, and the Black Sea port city of Kherson, but they stopped at the borders of Mykolaiv. Odesa, Ukraine’s pearl in the Black Sea, was not in their control.
The Ukrainian resistance opened new avenues for Russia’s rivals in the conflict. The US and Europe, which had imposed crippling sanctions on Moscow, began to provide direct military assistance and intelligence to Ukrainian forces. Advanced weapons such as armed drones and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) were flown in. Mercenaries travelled to Ukraine from the West to fight against the Russians. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin even commented publicly that the US wanted to see “Russia weakened”. Suddenly, Putin’s Russia found itself in the middle of a long war with a long front line (roughly 1,000 km long, stretching from the Oskil River in the northeast to Mykolaiv in the south) against a force armed, trained and supplied by the collective West.
In late September, a lightning Ukrainian counter-offensive forced Russian troops to retreat from the Kharkiv Oblast, rendering a humiliating defeat to Putin’s superior forces in the battlefield. Caught between setbacks in the battlefield and political pressure at home, Putin ordered partial mobilisation—3,00,000 additional troops, which is twice the number of soldiers he mobilised to launch the war—on September 21, escalating the conflict.
The global disorder
For realists, the international system is essentially anarchic. And in an anarchic system, countries will constantly seek greater powers and security at the expense of the security of weaker powers because the more powerful you are the better your chances of survival. As the Athenians told the Melians during the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. While the system’s essential character remains anarchic, there could be a balance of power created by great powers in order to install a semblance of order—it could be multilateral (pre-World Wars), bipolar (post-Second World War) or unilateral (post-Cold War).
While unipolarity is quite rare in the history of international relations, the US enjoyed unprecedented powers after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But the US-led unipolarity did not last long. America’s inconclusive wars in the Muslim world, which ended with its ignominious retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, the rapid rise of China, an aggressive Russia, and the emergence of several middle powers have effectively brought an end to American unipolarity.
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But a new order has not emerged yet. The US’ economic primacy is being strongly challenged by China, which has already become the world’s second largest economy. While the US’s military pre-eminence remains, today it is wary of entering into open conflicts on account of its its experiences in the Muslim world, the need to refocus its resources to tackle China in the Indo Pacific, and the growing isolationist political tendencies at home. So the world is in a confused transition phase and its primal anarchic tendencies are dictating great power behaviour.
It is this chaos that Putin tried to exploit when he went to war with Ukraine. He knew the old order was changing, which had opened an opportunity for Russia to make a military push to rewrite the post-Soviet security architecture of Europe. It is hardly surprising that Putin timed his invasion of Ukraine a few months after the US retreated from Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting, leaving the country at the mercy of the Taliban. But where Putin erred was in miscalculating the power of Ukrainian nationalism, the resolve of Ukrainian troops to fight back, and the capability and appetite of the West to sustain a prolonged proxy war. This miscalculation has left Putin, who appeared to be rebuilding Russia’s lost glory until February 2022, in a spot.
True, Russia has gained territories in Ukraine, but the slow progress of the war and the setbacks it has suffered have created a perception of weakness, which could create fresh geopolitical challenges for Putin. The decision by Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership was the biggest geopolitical setback for Putin, who built his muscular foreign policy on the agenda of resisting NATO’s eastward expansion. For Ukraine, which resisted the Russians valiantly, even recapturing territories once held by Russian troops, the losses it suffered are irreparable. While reclaiming the whole of the lost land, including Crimea, remains Ukraine’s self-declared objective, it appears to be an unrealistic one.
For the US and Europe, the war offered an opportunity to weaken Russia. But the irony is that they cannot do it without weakening themselves. The economic costs of the war have been devastating across Western economies. Europe, struggling with a cost-of-living crisis and rocketing energy prices, has been particularly devastated. And far-right parties with neo-Nazi roots are on the rise in the continent, riding the wave of public dissatisfaction with the establishment parties.
As the war grinds on with no off-ramps in sight, the simultaneous security, economic and political crises across the trans-Atlantic world are expected to only get worse, which could dramatically remake the socio-political landscape of the West.
- As things stand today, there are no victors in the Ukraine war.
- NATO’s eastward expansion has created serious security challenges for Russia.
- Since 2008, Putin has made several calculated geopolitical moves seeking to both address Russia’s security challenges and restore its role as a major global player.
- Russia got into Ukraine because it was unhappy with the way Ukraine was getting sustained military training and advanced weapons from the West.
- The presense of neo-Nazi groups, hostile to Russians, in Ukraine was also a cause for concern.
- Putin decided to wage war, taking advantage of a moment in history when the unipolarity of the US no longer rests on solid ground.
- But Putin had not bargained for the sustained resistance of Ukraine and the power of the West to persist in a prolonged proxy war.
- The war is also however taking a heavy toll on the West.