The Russian invasion of Ukraine has started in a blitzkrieg with incalculable ramifications for the two countries and the world. As Russia bombs its neighbour, it is actually targeting its strategic nemesis, the United States.
This is only the latest and most serious in a series of Russian force projections over the past two decades that are not dissimilar to some of America’s own military adventures across the world.
But the scale and scope of the Ukrainian invasion seems more like Moscow’s menacing power projections during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union intervened in Hungry in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.
And judging by President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric, Russia is only getting started.
In his recent speeches, Putin has challenged Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and independence, paving the way for greater Russian intervention in the country’s affairs.
After recognising the two breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk earlier this week, the Russian president ordered the military to deploy into eastern Ukraine as “peacekeepers”. He then launched a “special military operation” that has extended military action across Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv.
In response, Western powers have condemned the Russian transgression as a gross violation of international law, and imposed swift, crippling sanctions against Russia. That may only be the beginning, as the West moves to totally break with and isolate Russia.
But the Kremlin seems prepared and rather unfazed. If history is any guide, major powers like Russia are not dissuaded by sanctions, no matter how severe, when it comes to pursuing their core national security interests.
By way of comparison, Iran, a far less significant power than Russia, has shown that punitive measures by the West may hurt a lot, but can change very little, except when used as leverage in negotiations.
If or when sanctions start to bite and Russia begins to suffer, expect Moscow to react radically, even erratically in Ukraine and beyond.
Much will depend on China and its readiness to help Russia circumvent Western sanctions, as it did for Iran. During a visit to Beijing earlier this month, the Russian president and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, issued a joint statement against NATO expansion. After Russia launched the invasion, a Chinese government spokesperson refused to name it as such and called for “restraint” on both sides.
The ramifications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine will inform China’s own future moves to annex Taiwan. Putin’s reference to Ukraine as an artificial state echoes China’s own denunciation of Taiwan’s statehood.
Intentionally, and perhaps as a form of geopolitical trolling, Putin has been echoing Washington’s own past arguments to justify his ongoing violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.
In recognising the breakaway regions, the Kremlin claimed that it was supporting their right to self-determination, just as the West did for Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Bosnians during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
And just as the US and its European allies used the UN-mandated “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle to justify their “humanitarian” interventions in other states, such as Libya, Russia is referring to it to justify its intervention in Ukraine, which supposedly aims to stop a “genocide”.
Russia supporters used to claim that R2P was invented by the Americans to launch wars, but it is used by Russia for preventing one.
Well, not any more. Russia’s incursions in Ukraine in 2014 were only the beginning of what seems to be a wider invasion and a more devastating war.
But even Putin’s most outrageous claim about Ukraine’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons and threaten Russia is no more farcical than Washington’s claim about Saddam Hussein developing weapons of mass destruction, as a pretext to invade faraway Iraq, which Biden, then a senator, supported.
His recognition of the two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine is also reminiscent of US President Donald Trump’s illegal recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, which Biden continues to uphold.
And last but not least, Russia’s possible attempt at regime change in Ukraine follows in the footsteps of US attempts in more than a few countries, including more recently Venezuela.
Clearly, Russia has mastered Washington’s methodical fakery and trickery. But it does not seem to have learned the lessons from its follies and failures.
Indeed, neither power has learned from their miserable mistakes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Old habits die hard.
As long as these powerful veto-holding members of the UN Security Council can block any action by this “world government” against them, there is no incentive for soul searching.
Indeed, both Russia and the United States are like soulless casinos, willing to gamble and take the risk and the loss, as long as they control the game or are able to game the international system to their advantage.
Some claim that equating American democracy and Russian autocracy makes for a false equivalence. As a liberal democrat, I concur: there is more accountability in a democracy than in an autocracy.
But historically, when it comes to foreign affairs, the behaviour of major powers on the world stage is driven mainly by the nature of geopolitical, strategic ambitions and necessities, not by the nature of their system of governance.
In fact, one could argue that Western democracies have behaved especially badly as colonial and imperial powers over the past one or two centuries.
But then again, the Soviet Union and its successor, the Russian Federation, have also been violent towards their neighbours.
When asked what it means for Russia to be perceived as an “aggressor”, a government spokesperson recently said that was an invention by the West whose reputation is “covered in blood”.
Sadly, since the end of the Cold War, both Russia and the US have led mostly by the example of their power and rarely by the power of their example, undermining in the process international peace and security.
They have deployed the wrong means to the right ends, and the right means to the wrong ends, launching devastating wars to establish peace and stability, and providing poor nations with economic and security assistance only to prop up dictators.
They have wasted three decades, focusing primarily on advancing their own narrow interests just as they did during the Cold War, and in the process only paved the way for, well, another Cold War.
This will be a dark period for Europe and, indeed, the world.