The Ukraine war one year on

February 24, 2023 10:41
Photo: Reuters

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for a year.

As Russian troops look to be mobilising for one last hurrah, and as Ukrainian troops – riding on a ceaseless tidal wave of NATO equipment and armament – look set to weather the storm at vast costs and damage to their own citizens, one would be forgiven for asking: what for?

For what – were innocent lives squandered and laid to waste in trenches, tanks, or tumbling towers. For what – were two sovereign countries pushed into war, only to find that no one is left better off: certainly not the invaded party, reeling from the active military aggression and bombardment; yet equally not the invading party, whose civilians have been thrown under the bus and weight of economic sanctions, only to be fed under the sheer, cold logic of energy transactions and economics.

And, above all, for what reason – what good reason – has the world been pushed ever closer to the brink of a re-emergence of a New Cold War, one that threatens to dictate and weaponize individual lives, businesses, riches and wealth, just to satiate the grand visions and grandiose ideologies of a select few leaders?

There are a few takeaways that I thought would be of interest.

The first, is the dangers of playing with fire in international relations. The view that Russia would be deterred by an incomplete, partial, and fundamentally ill-thought-out ‘expansion’ of NATO military presence in Ukraine, either systemically over-estimates the asymmetry between NATO and Russian troops, or under-estimates the importance of symbolic legitimacy and pride to the ruling oligarchs presiding over the Kremlin’s foreign and national security decision-making – who are, in turn, subservient and beholden to the one man at the very top.

To think that ambiguity over Ukraine’s status – neither in nor out of NATO – would replicate the relative successes at deterring Russian aggression over the Baltics, ignores the distinctively irridentist claims that modern Russia has half concocted, half bolstered (relative to the pre-existing base) as a part of its legitimating narrative. The assertion that Ukraine is not a country – as ludicrous as it may be – reflects an underlying set of haphazard ideologies: Russia was not to be deterred by incomplete militarisation. Only a full-on commitment to defense of Ukraine against, or a brokering of a modus vivendi that would satiate Russian expansionist tendencies, would have done the job. So that’s a lesson learnt right there for NATO: pick and choose a strategy, and stick to it (we’ve seen what happened to Georgia and Crimea; have we not learnt our lessons?).

The second, is the dangers of committing to allies that have flagrant disregard for international norms and covenants. Pacifist great powers do exist – we are living in an age where the second largest power in the world has not invaded any other nation-state over the past 30 years. America, on the other hand, finds itself constantly embroiled in direct or indirect military occupations and interventions abroad. One must ask – why is that the case?

Yet being pacifist is one thing; adhering to pacifist principles when it comes to picking and choosing one’s allies and partners, is clearly another. At times like these, countries and leaders must choose wisely – not in accordance with some obscurantist, atavistic worldviews; nor should it be based upon some rigid, doctrinaire fixation motivated by personal pride. We could ill afford to have countries dragged into warfare – just as the pre-WW1 run-up – by ill-conceived alliance systems and (im)balances of power amplified by nepotistic and cronyistic dispositions and decision-making. The war in Ukraine has thankfully not escalated beyond its borders in a military sense. Should any major, external third party opt to further engage in the unimaginable, we could only pray that the fallout does not kill most of us here on Eurasia.

The final takeaway, and this is absolutely vital, is this: the Russian war is a cruel reminder that geopolitics have not faded; that we live in an era of unprecedented upheaval and turmoil, and that political violence remains a ubiquitous and nefarious part of our daily existences. To dismiss modern war as a figment of imagination, or a fiction that belongs to the past, would previously reek of privilege (what do you think was going on in Afghanistan or Iraq? A picnic?). To dismiss war as an impossibility now, however, reveals a much more fundamental problem – ignorance, and failure to grasp that the post-Cold War era of unbridled globalisation, is now well and truly over.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Assistant Professor, HKU