More than a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s atrocious decision to invade Ukraine, there are no signs the tragedy is drawing to a close. The despair of the ordinary Ukrainian is imaginable, heroic though their resistance is. The extreme power asymmetry being what it is, and the likelihood of any direct major intervention from other powers fading, it is predicable Ukraine’s frontal resistance will cave in sooner than later, and from there on perhaps it will be a protracted guerrilla war. Thanks to the internet, since the time this tragic war began, there has been a profusion of news, images and videos both fake and real, so much so that it has become almost impossible to distinguish propaganda from fact. Thankfully, amidst all the information chaos, there has also been no shortage of known rational voices debating the matter for all to see and make their own assessments of the different layers of the tragedy, and what might all of it lead to. If at one layer, one party appears to be the aggressor and therefore wrong, at another the verdict could be completely reversed. For those of us in the Northeast, how divisive these underlying frictions can become should not be difficult to fathom. We also know from very immediate histories in the larger Asian region, that empires by their very structures, contain many different nationalities within them and are yoked together by the sinews of centralised authority of the emperor’s administration.
It is also known that empires have never lasted forever. They wax and wane, and sometime disintegrate completely and the different nationalities bound within them emerge as independent entities. The story of the Russian Empire is no different. At one point, its expanse reached the magnitude of a separate continent, constituting of a large chunk of Asia as well as Europe. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, the last Emperor Tsar Nicholas II, abdicated his throne and by 1922, the former empire disintegrated and the many nations within it were beginning to go their different ways, but the Bolshevik Communists, reunited them with each of them forming a Soviet Socialist Republic, and together forming the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR. During WWII, USSR was an uneasy ally of the US and Britain led Allied force, but after the war, it came on confrontational path with the Capitalist West bitterly, setting off a Cold War, marked by an ever present threats of open war between them, each trying to be one up in an ever escalating arms race, so much so that in totality, the two adversaries together possessed more than 40,000 nuclear warheads.
The East and West Blocs, as they came to be known, also formed their own military alliances. The Warsaw Pact of the East Bloc led by the USSR and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, of the West Bloc led by the USA. An imaginary line referred to as the Iron Curtain, running along Trieste-Vienna-Stettin, came to separate the two Blocs, even splitting up in the process, the WWII vanquished nation, Germany, between them. It will be recalled that it was amidst this tension that India, Egypt and erstwhile Yugoslavia, under their leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abde Nasser and Josip Broz Tito, together with Sukarno of Indonesia and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana launched a third alliance of nations unaffiliated to either the East or West Bloc, which came to be the Non Alliance Movement, NAM.
The standoff between the West and East Blocs, ultimately came to an end in 1991 thankfully without a nuclear holocaust, with the West Bloc victorious. A retreating USSR, who suffered deterioration in morale and economy beginning with its miscalculated invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, where it had hoped it would be able to help its Communist allies in the country gain and retain power, misfired badly, ultimately agreed to the reunification of Germany in 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev was the USSR president, on the agreement that NATO would not expand eastwards. On December 26, 1991, the USSR was dissolved, and Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s presidentship was among those eager to have this happen. As commentators point out, Yeltsin among others also had a vested interest. He was the president of Russia which was one among 15 republics under the USSR, and therefore one below the President of USSR, who was Gorbachev. Dissolving USSR hence meant he would be alleviated to the top of the leadership hierarchy by default.
However, going against agreement at the time of fall of the Berlin wall, NATO started expanding eastwards by 1999 absorbing former republics under the USSR one after the other. When Russia raised complaints, they were told the agreement was with the USSR and since USSR does not anymore exist, the agreement was no longer binding. In 2000, after becoming President of Russia, Putin reportedly wanted to be part of the European security architecture and asked when Russia was going to be invited to join NATO. He was told that Russia had to apply to be considered for membership and was also indicated the unlikelihood of Russia being admitted as Russia was too large and was not entirely in the Western hemisphere. For a country with the grand memory of Imperial greatness and one which still considered itself as a great power, observers note, this came as a humiliation, and perhaps was meant to be so. Such rebuffs continued, and soon it became clear to Russia that NATOs continuing expansion was meant to isolate and encircle Russia and also to make it feel like a dispensable minor player in world poitics.
Putin’s Munich speech on February 10, 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, where he said enough is enough, and that Russia would not tolerate this isolation policy anymore is said to be the turning point, and the start of a new hostility between Russia and NATO. In 2008, Russia invaded its neighbour Georgia to tame it for wanting to break free of the Russian orbit and join NATO taking on an anti-Russia posture. In 2014 when anti-Russia section in Ukraine toppled their elected government led by pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych, allegedly under sponsorship of the West, to install their pro-West current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russia again reacted violently and entered Ukraine to annex the Crimean penensula, a region with a dominant Russian and Tatar population, and emotionally close to Russia, and a part of Russia till it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 when Russia and Ukraine were in the same country, USSR, by their common president Nikita Khrushchev. By contrast, as commentators have pointed out, when a regime change revolution broke out in Armenia in 2018, another immediate neighbour of Russia, to ultimately lead to the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyanin and his replacement by the revolution’s leader Nikol Pashinyan, because Amenia chose to remain unaligned and showed no inclination of joining NATO, Russia made no response. The fact is, though Russia’s extreme action of invading another sovereign country is unacceptable, it must be acknowledged that the response was to what the country sees as an aggression and threat by NATO and therefore the US, and to the insensitivity of Ukraine in ignoring this security concern.
Not all of us are (or were) very familiar with the social, political and economic dynamics that determine the aspirations and behaviour of central Europe. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, we are now much better educated on the subject. It does seem Ukraine-Russia enmity is almost like a bitter conflict between siblings, and sibling conflict can be extremely bitter, given that non-conformity to expectations by either are prone to be seen not just as a rebuff, but betrayal. The two people have almost the same history, speak almost the same language, lived under same political systems for centuries, first under the Tsarist Empire and then the USSR, so any break would have to be painful. The fact that the first names of presidents of the two countries are Vladimir and Volodymyr should testify to this. It is quite obvious that Ukraine always saw Russia as a domineering big brother, and the bile and divide this caused could be like an amplified version of the hill-valley divide in Manipur, marked as we all know, by mutual suspicion and distrust. So when Hitler invaded Russia, a section of the Ukrainian population sided with the Nazis. After Germany lost WWII, USSR’s supreme leader then, Joseph Stalin took it out on this section of Ukrainian population he felt was hostile to the USSR and committed untold atrocities, introducing artificial famines etc., which some even describe amounted to a genocidal campaign. Khrushchev’s transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, some commentators see as a reconciliatory gesture to Ukraine for Stalin’s atrocities. The truth is also Ukraine’s demography is far from monolithic. Ukrainian speakers are the majority making for 77.5 percent and are concentrated towards the west of the country. There are also Russian speakers constituting 17.2 percent, and smaller numbers of Romanians, Belarus and Tatars, concentrated towards the east of the country. As an immediate echo of the larger friction at the geo-strategic level, ethnic rift within has also grown and Ukraine’s attitude towards its minorities hardened, leading to open armed conflicts, leaving Russia the excuse for intervention. This in short is the tragedy of Ukraine.
While our hearts go out to Ukraine and its brave people, our condemnation is not confined to Putin and Russia alone. There is a deeper and sinister politics reminiscent of the Cold War that foretold this tragedy, and in this, NATO and the West have certainly not been innocent bystander. Ukraine cannot be absolved of all guilt either. It was foolish on its part to not be sensitive to the security concerns of its much larger and powerful neighbour Russia probably in the belief that NATO, therefore US, will come to its aid if Russia does anything to it. What it chose to ignored in the process is the wisdom that diplomacy and statesmanship is about being aware of possible impacts of any major decision each takes on all neighbours. No nation exist in a vacuum, and as the saying goes, you can change enemies and friends, but you cannot change neighbours.
Imagine a family in which a brother is hot tempered, a sister is emotional and prone to depression and another sibling is in ill-health and cannot tolerate loud sounds. If peace in the family is important, should not it be paramount that each member respects the other’s sensitivities and seek to evolve and adjust to an optimum balance. This would be in line with the Game Theory, applicable in practically every social situation, whereby the aggregate of sacrifices each makes towards a consensual common good, becomes the guarantee of each’s welfare and freedom. Not just in Ukraine, but also in situations more immediate to those of us in Manipur, an enlightened self-interest should be about striking such a social equilibrium, without any party seeking to have the cake and eat it too at the cost of any other. Ukraine seemed to have forgotten this unwritten principle of good neighbourliness. In the words of Prof. John Joseph Mearsheimer, what Ukraine did was to underestimate the danger a bear can pose, and throwing cautions to the winds, went ahead and poked the Russian bear in eye with a stick. His suggestion, as also those of Noam Chomsky and Henry Kissinger, is for Ukraine to pledge to remain neutral and be the bridge between the East and West rather than offer to be the bulwark of either. Hopefully things have gone too far by now, and whatever has happened can be reversed to the extent retrievable so that peace and normalcy can return in the region.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author