In the early hours of February 24, the Russian army launched an offensive against Ukraine and sparked the worst military conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. The war is one of the most anticipated, and yet it is also one of the most unexpected at the same time.
The Russians began massing troops towards the border in late 2021, and President Vladimir Putin had publicly made his case against Ukraine clear on several occasions. The United States has talked about the Russian invasion for the past two months, and President Joe Biden announced February 16, then changed that to February 20 as the day of the invasion. Both sides knew the opposing side’s position well.
(L to R) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden.
The shuttle diplomacy of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz between Washington, Kiev and Moscow gave hope that a peaceful solution could still be found to avoid hostilities. Until war broke out, many analysts still expected the two sides to reach a last-minute compromise. Why and how such high-level diplomacy fails is a subject for future historians to elucidate.
While it is too early to know the outcome of the war, there are some early lessons we can learn from the outbreak of hostility.
Putin has repeatedly said he will not invade Ukraine, provided the United States and NATO provide a written security guarantee. However, his statement ordering the march to Ukraine to prevent the West from using the country as a springboard to invade and destroy Russia is seen by some as a reversal of his earlier statement. To better understand the reason for his change of heart, looking at history helps.
Russian history began in Kievan-Rus over a thousand years ago. The modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus as their cultural ancestors, with Belarus and Russia deriving their names. Ukraine had been part of Russia for more than three centuries and their histories were intertwined before. The territory of Ukraine today has 80% given by the Russians when Ukraine was part of Russia, from the time of the Imperial Tsars (1654-1917) to Lenin (1922) to Stalin (1939-1945 ) with Khrushchev (1954) finally giving Crimea to Ukraine from Russian territory when its population was more than 60% Russian. The Russian Orthodox religion spread from Ukraine, and Ukraine has never been a foreign country for many Russians.
The historical and linguistic map of Ukraine
What divides Ukrainians is religion and language. Western Ukraine is largely Catholic and Ukrainian speaking, while Eastern Ukraine is Russian Orthodox and mostly Russian speaking. While religion and language weren’t an issue in the old Soviet era, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 unfortunately opened up a Pandora’s box.
After independence, the two wings of Ukrainians never learned the art of compromise and tried to dominate the other. As a result, the extent of the Russian connection became the defining issue in politics. The western side wants to bind itself to the European Union and NATO and cut ties with Russia, while the eastern side wants to keep ties with Russia. The 2014 Orange Revolution, backed by the United States, overthrew then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, prompting Putin to accept Crimea’s secession to join the Russian Confederation. The ensuing separatist war in the two eastern Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk erupted despite the Minsk Agreement which promised to amend the Ukrainian Constitution to allow special autonomy for the two republics, which was never set in motion . In 2019, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko amended the constitution to commit the country to joining the EU and NATO.
The current conflict is not just a typical war between two countries. The delicate nature of relations between the two countries likely triggered Putin’s decision to attack when he felt that Ukraine and NATO were not meeting his publicly announced demand, including the implementation of the Minsk agreement as fighting resumed in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The background story sounds familiar to many countries around the world. Many countries formed after World War II were made up of different races, religions and languages. These are often legacies of the past, with some factions still trying to dominate the others. The spread of social media has failed to quell extremism on religion, language and race. On the contrary, it accentuates division, especially when supported by an external power – as the West is used to. If a country has a powerful neighbor sharing a common cultural, linguistic and religious heritage with certain groups, learning to live together is essential for the long-term survival of the country or risks internal conflict degenerating into war between countries.
New technologies have changed warfare
In recent months, the United States and some of its NATO allies such as the United Kingdom, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic and Poland have started delivering arms and ammunition to Kiev free of charge. Most of the cargo is light armaments designed to fight in asymmetric warfare, such as man-portable anti-aircraft missile systems and missiles for man-portable anti-tank missile systems. NATO, the EU and the United States have refused to discuss security guarantees for Russia. The latest press report from Friday afternoon shows that the Russian force is closing in on the capital, Kyiv, just a day after hostilities began. This is a worrying sign that Ukraine’s defense is ineffective in the Russian attack, despite the US and NATO arming.
The Russian military is actively reshaping to fight a new generation of warfare based on new technologies brought by the 4th Industrial Revolution in recent years. For example, it has developed hypersonic missiles in strategic space, used autonomous drones, worked on integrated land-sea-air warfare, and improved cyber warfare capability to fight in conventional warfare. Additionally, ground units are now organized into more agile battalions.
The emergence of new technologies often gives early adopters the advantage in warfare, and the Russian military is now taking advantage of this. The new paradigm of tech-driven warfare favors leading nations, and surviving and thriving in this era takes wisdom – a good historical perspective certainly helps.
Looking forward to
The expression “Geography is destiny” owes its origin to the first theories of geopolitics and attributed to Napoleon. This is an appropriate statement to characterize the situation in Ukraine today. Even though the US and EU have imposed tougher sanctions on Russia, most people don’t want to go back to decades of Cold War in this nuclear age. There are so many other issues on the road between them that they have to sit down to work together one day. The reality on the ground means that the outcome of the war will dictate the relative position of the other when the day comes. Regardless of one’s ideology or belief, what Putin has done has shaken the world and a new order is unfolding. How to adapt to the new order tests each country.
Dr. Henry Chan is an internationally renowned development economist based in Singapore. He is also a visiting senior researcher at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and an associate researcher at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IDSI). His main research interests include global economic development, Asean-China relations and the fourth industrial revolution.
New Worlds by IDSI (Integrated Development Studies Institute) aims to present frameworks based on a balance between economic theory and historical realities, the success of the field in real businesses and communities, and the attempt for the common good, the culture and spirituality ([email protected]).