The British World War II military leader Field Marshal Montgomery once famously stated “Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: Do not march on Moscow. Various people have tried it, Napoleon and Hitler, and it is no good.” The point he was making is that the Russian steppe is so cold and impenetrable a territory; and the Russian army so unlimited in its resources, that any attempt to undertake such a thing is doomed to ignominious failure. The Russian steppe to which he referred includes at the very least all the land to the east of the River Dnieper that severs the country we now call Ukraine in two. The people to the east are Russian in language and culture, and they have little to no sympathy with Western European political values. The author of this article can testify to that, having travelled to Ukraine some 60 times over the course of 28 years. This must make us all wonder all the more why we are asserting that we have a strategic interest in Ukraine in the face of an imminent Russian invasion.
Moscow of course has her reasons for what she is doing, and contrary to the western pre-war rhetoric to the effect that the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin are incomprehensible, they are in fact easy to understand. Russia was an empire for centuries, for most of which time she incorporated much of what we now call Ukrainian territory. In the nineteenth century, Ukraine was split between the Austrian Empire and the Russian Empire; that division more or less corresponds to the cultural and linguistic divisions between the two parts of Ukraine that we find drawn down the River Dnieper in early 2022. The borders of contemporary Ukraine were fixed by the Soviet Union in the early 1920’s. While the Soviet Union, itself an empire, was run by Moscow, it didn’t much matter where the borders of Ukraine lay. Only upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s did a new country come into existence with a toxic ethnic mix of those who consider themselves closer to Poles and those who consider themselves closer to Russians. The history of post-Soviet Ukraine is the history of this dysfunctional, divided nation that emerged by historical accident as the Soviet Union fell apart.
While Ukraine ostensibly became an independent nation, like most post-Soviet satellites (with the exception of the Baltic States) it remained firmly within the control of Moscow. The history of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is in large part a history of Russia being unable or unwilling to subsidise the other socialist republics, which drifted off without the same amount of Russian money being used to prop them up. Hence they became subject to radical nationalist politics of various kinds, Ukraine included. However Russian political and economic influence remained by virtue of the subsidised hydrocarbon prices it kept in place with her former satellites. So the new leaders of those satellites could not deviate far from Moscow if they were to remain fiscally secure. Their departure from Moscow would risk those subsidies being cut; and these variously impoverished new nations could not afford that at all.
Ukraine also had steel factories, that Russia needed access to for military supplies. Steel aside, Ukraine was a financial burden upon the Soviet Union. What has changed since the independence of Ukraine in 1991 is that Ukraine has become a financial burden upon other states – principally the countries of Western Europe – while remaining a beneficiary of Russian hydrocarbon subsidies. On the basis of the principle that “who pays the piper calls the tune”, the west has tussled with Moscow over political leadership of that country. But it is important to understand that Russia has always considered Ukraine to remain within its sphere of influence, while the West has tried to haul Ukraine into a central European sphere of influence principally by way of institution-building subsidies. Roughly half the population (the formerly Austro-Hungarian half) sympathises with the European perspective, while the other half feels closer to Moscow.
Ukraine’s elections are generally rigged; Ukraine is not a democracy. Ukraine uses the D’Hondt closed list system of proportional representation, which in very corrupt countries (of which Ukraine is one) empowers party bosses to do secret deals with one-another in the interests of maintaining the balance of power. Because party bosses choose who will be at the top of each party’s candidate list, they can guarantee continued political office for themselves and their proxies; and indeed in Ukraine positions higher up the D’Hondt closed lists are purchased from political party bosses in outright bribes. This creates a conspiracy of the corrupt, in which the spoils of power are then divided between the parties after the lists of successful candidates have been elected to office.
As in many D’Hondt systems, in Ukraine political party names change frequently to give the illusion of genuine competition; but behind each party it is always the same group of people: in Ukraine, a group of oligarchs who own the assets of state have formed political groupings loyal to them whose formal party loyalties may change in bewildering ways (there is no point following Ukrainian political party names) and then share power, and the benefits of power, between themselves. In this way, as is typical of divided societies amidst ethnic confrontation, the glue that holds the different groups together is the corrupt proceeds of political office. Add to this the widespread carousel voting (paying individual voters small honoraria to complete their ballot papers in certain ways), and it is impossible to describe Ukraine as a democracy. The country has none of free and fair elections, a rational voting system for a society so used to being steeped in totalitarian paranoia; a free media or flourishing civil society.
Nevertheless, in the past, the balance of power has been maintained approximately between west-leaning and east-leaning oligarchs and their proxies, even as the names of the Presidents and Prime Ministers and their various political parties change with the wind. The job of President of Ukraine has traditionally been to act as a mediator between the different political forces in Ukraine with different (easterly versus westerly) visions, in central governments that, although they may or may not use the terms, are essentially coalitions of rent-seekers with different interests in different parts of the country.
What has gone wrong now is that Volodymir Zelensky, the latest President elected in possibly the most preposterous elections in Ukraine’s recent history in March 2019 (recall that he was promoted from a TV actor who became President in the TV series, to the actual President, with no political experience whatsoever), has ceased to play that balancing role – perhaps precisely because he is inexperienced; perhaps because his political backer, the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, wants to draw away from Moscow. Zelensky takes the view that he represents those people looking west in Ukraine to the expense of those looking east. This has not just upset Ukraine’s eastern-looking oligarchs. It has upset the Kremlin. For the Kremlin, relinquishment of some influence in Ukraine in exchange for western subsidies to the perennially ailing country was a tolerable bargain in which the political reality reflected the economic one. But the western-supported continuous attempts to draw Ukraine into a more solid western orbit, through installation of persons like Zelensky to the Presidency, is beyond the pale for Russia as such measures continue to diminish her influence.
It is important to understand why Russia cares about Ukraine. It is not part of some grand plan for territorial acquisition as far as the eye can see in the glory of a new Russian Empire. Vladimir Putin is not a “grand plans” person. He is the archetypical pragmatist. Putin is concerned to ensure that a buffer zone of neutral or ambiguous control remains between Western Europe and Russia, in order to foreclose the risk of invasion or other military hostile action against Russian territory.
His way of thinking is the same as generations of prior Russian leaders through the centuries. What he observes is the eastwards expansion not just of NATO – he’s smart enough to realise that NATO itself is just a piece of paper with a bureaucracy behind it – but of NATO forces. There has therefore been a destructive cycle of baiting and brinkmanship as Russian and Western European forces come ever closer to one-another in ever more significant numbers. It started with the Orange Revolution in 2014, in which a Russian-leaning Ukrainian President was removed without consultation or agreement with the Kremlin.
Putin anticipated that this would be followed by invitations of foreign troops by Ukraine onto her territory; and this is indeed what turned out to happen. US and other special forces and military “advisors”, plus their armaments, started to pop up across Ukraine, hence ever closer to the Russian border. To pre-empt this, Putin annexed Crimea (an easy peninsula for foreign troops to occupy if the Russian ones aren’t there already) and the Kremlin initiated war in the Donbas, to create a buffer zone of destabilisation in the east of Ukraine. Now, under Zelensky, Ukraine is encouraging ever more western troops and armour to enter the country and indeed to build up on NATO’s eastern borders: that is to say against the borders of Belarus (an uncontroversial Russian satellite) and of Ukraine (territory Russia considers a partial Russian satellite by reason of the subsidy-splitting to keep the country going approximately and informally agreed with the West).
In this context, the facially bizarre diplomacy currently being undertaken between Russia and the West starts to make a little more sense. Russia is making a series of demands that NATO will never accede to – a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO and a promise that NATO troops stationed in the Baltics and Poland will draw back. But the curious feature of the Russian demands is not just that they are unrealistic but that Russia knows they will not and cannot be acceded to and even if they were then they would be useless because such commitments could simply be reversed later. Russia’s foreign policy is sufficiently cynical to know that cessation of hostilities agreements and other treaties or accords concerning the displacement of troops and armour remain enforceable only for so long as they are mutually convenient to the parties. The United States could promise Russia that Ukraine will never join NATO and then sign her up tomorrow. The truth of course is the opposite: the United States will never give such a guarantee but NATO will never admit Ukraine. The reason why is obvious from the text of the NATO Treaty, that Vladimir Putin and his advisors are presumably well aware of. Increasing membership of NATO requires unanimity of existing members given their mutual commitments to come to one-another’s aid in the event of war; few if any countries themselves want to make such a commitment to so perennially conflict-torn a state as Ukraine; and finally the NATO Treaty provides that only a country with uncontested territorial borders may join. Cognisant of how to keep NATO out of Ukraine, the Russian President ensures that the borders of Ukraine are as contested as they possibly can be.
Hence the prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership is a mere distraction, whereas the real issue is keeping western troops out of Ukraine. For Russia and for the West, Ukraine is a buffer state that keeps the prospectively hostile parties apart. The West may say that they are not hostile to Russia and therefore there is no need for a buffer state to prevent nuclear-armed armies standing off against one another just a few hundred metres from a nuclear hot war. However their actions are belied by (a) their own troop build-up on NATO’s eastern frontiers (that, like Russia, the West asserts are for defensive purposes only); and (b) penetration of US and other special forces into the Ukrainian military. The numbers are not yet huge, but they have been progressively increasing; the Russian view is that if something is not done to stop them now then their numbers will grow and Ukraine will find itself under de facto occupation of Western armies.
Russia’s military build-up on the border of Ukraine is designed to deter such build-ups. That is because, following Montgomery’s injunction, if the Red Army does decide to move then it will serve as a steamroller in its own environment. By some calculations Russia has some 22,700 tanks: substantially more than the rest of the world put together. This makes the 2,000 anti-tank missiles recently supplied by the United Kingdom to Ukraine look somewhat ineffective, particularly as modern Russian tanks carry sophisticated anti-tank missile active defensive systems. Russia has one of the best such systems in the world, called ARENA. Given this, and Russia’s air supremacy in the region, western forces armour and aeroplanes, currently hiding in hangars across Ukraine, will flee the conflict zone because western armed forces have nowhere near the conventional military capacity to prevent the Red Army from advancing. So one purpose of the military build-up is to remove western armour from Ukrainian territory, returning the country to a genuine buffer zone status.
The other is to cause the Ukrainian military to abandon their posts. Large tracts of the Ukrainian military have intimately intertwined relations with the Russian Armed Forces. That is one reason why the United Kingdom’s anti-tank missiles will not see much action. Anyone firing one at a Russian tank is likely to be killed outright by the Russian armed forces as they proceed. The more likely destination of those weapons is sale by Ukraine (whose armed forces are as impoverished as they are corrupt) to Russia where they can be added to Russia’s arsenal; studied with care; and play no harmful role.
The operation of buffer zones is often an unhappy one for its residents. It requires constant uneasy compromises, shuttle diplomacy, Track-II diplomacy and delicate mediation between the two sides in between which the buffer exists, in order to ensure that the government in that country is approximately neutral or jointly serving as regards the two adversaries; and to keep military hardware and personnel from the rival military powers out. Where this breaks down, because there has been a change of power in the capital of the buffer state that heavily prefers one side over the other, troops will start to amass on borders; infiltrations into the buffer state territory will take place; and the drumbeat of war will start to be heard. In this context, legal agreements are of little use; they are just shadow posturing for the real issues which first and foremost are whether the status quo ante can be resolved. The other damaging thing the parties can engage in is the setting of arbitrary ultimata. Ultimata move people to do things. So if you set them, things start happening. In Ukraine, it is not obvious that anyone currently wants anything to happen. Hence neither side has set ultimata (save for de facto comparative advantage to Russia from fighting a winter war; but she could easily fight and win a spring war as well given the colossal disparity in strength of the two countries’ armed forces.
The real negotiations are therefore whether the status quo ante can be reinstated and a moderate or neutral Ukrainian President can be agreed that is acceptable to both parties. Russia does not want to take on the entirety of the financial burden of subsidising Ukraine. Her hydrocarbon subsidies are quite enough; the European Union can pay the balance of the bankrupt country’s subsidy requirements. Hence there can be and always has been scope for compromise between Moscow and the West about the identity of the Ukrainian President and the composition of his government. The real negotiations that should be going on are therefore a coordinated removal of Volodymir Zelensky together with an agreement upon his more neutral successor; determining the fate of Zelensky’s treacherous backer Igor Kolomoisky; restructuring the Ukrainian Parliament in whatever electoral way looks least implausible, to reflect the interests of both of Ukraine’s two ethnic groups; and then a gradual and staged draw-back of troops including the departure of all foreign troops from Ukraine. The Ukrainian military will be restructured accordingly.
If this return to the prior status of Ukraine cannot be agreed, then Ukraine will be partitioned using the Red Army, as the first of the essays in this series described. History teaches us that in geopolitical conflicts and civil wars alike, buffer territories either have to be kept approximately neutral through the constant exercise of varied means of diplomatic engagement; or they must be partitioned. Partition brings the armed forces face to face, in this case across the Dniepr. At the current time it is far from clear that the Russian President sees this as his preferred outcome; it would be more costly in both military and financial terms than agreeing to return Ukraine to a genuinely neutral buffer state. Nevertheless it is obviously one of the options he is strongly considering if the diplomats cannot succeed. So the diplomats need to get to work, and agree upon replacing Zelensky. Otherwise the Red Army will be at the gates of Kyiv in a matter of weeks or months.
A few words should be said about sanctions. The West has no effective sanctions threat. Germany wants the Russia-Germany Nordstream-II gas pipeline up and running to reduce domestic energy costs. She is not about to sanction the project, irrespective of what European Commission President Ursula Van Der Leyen might say about the matter. Budapest has already made it clear that it will veto sanctions of substance on Russia on behalf of the European Union, which requires unanimity of the bloc’s 27 members to impose sanctions. The Americans can sanction whatever they want; Russia does little business of any kind with the United States. The only country with the potential capacity to impose damaging sanctions upon Russia is the United Kingdom, because the economic ties between the United Kingdom and Russia are significant. Most of them are inward capital flows to London and her environs from Russia. But a lot of these people are Russian dissidents, political enemies of Vladimir Putin in Russia, and it makes little sense to draw sanctions encompassing them. There are a few Putin acolytes with property and money in the United Kingdom; they might conceivably have their assets frozen; but such actions are hardly going to divert the attention of the largest army in Europe. UK banking sanctions might still more restrictively limit the short-term loan periods for inter-bank lending with Russian banks, potentially therefore damaging that part of the Russian hydrocarbon industry that is financed with documentary credits and similar such instruments. However Russia may just change its payment terms to advance payments; she probably has sufficient international market leverage to be able to do that. Or her banks can simply borrow from Chinese banks. China has vowed to veto UN sanctions and a new cooperation pact between Moscow an Beijing has been negotiated. Actions that bring Chinese banks more centrally into the international inter-banking lending system will be attractive to China in terms of prestige and financial weight.
The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently made an interesting and acute observation, that what Russia is now trying to do is to rewrite Yalta. He is right in a way; but it is being rewritten backwards from the Russian perspective, defensively rather than aggressively. The Great Powers agreed at Yalta that Ukraine would be one of the territories solidly in the sphere of influence of Russia. Since then, Ukraine slipped into a neutral buffer zone – understandable because Russia could no longer afford to subsidise the country in full – but now the threat to pull Ukraine entirely into the western orbit is too much for Russia, not least because the West is not offering to pay the Russian gas subsidies for Ukraine.
Hence Russia, continuing to make her financial stake in Ukraine, wishes to extract her political dividend. Russia is now therefore threatening to take the eastern-looking half of Ukraine and leave the western-looking half as a rump state under Europe’s charge, as was the position during the nineteenth century. To avoid messy partition, Zelensky must go. This can be done neatly and easily, through the good will and practicalities of diplomats of all kinds executing their trades; or it can happen the more difficult way, with the Red Army at the Gates of Kyiv. Now is the time for the diplomats to get working in full throttle, to prevent this eminently avoidable war and the inevitable bloodshed associated with it.