On the 24th of February, Russian Federation began full-scale military aggression against Ukraine. The entire world looks at the atrocities of Russian troops with horror and consternation. From the very first days of the conflict, the Ukrainian side has been conducting a meticulous chronicle of the events, recording the size of the hecatomb. Ukrainians claim that Russians so far have been responsible for destroying 120 thousand civil buildings, 11 thousand killed and wounded civilians, and more than 30 thousand reported war crimes. Like in the case of any war, in the background of the operational situation, the intensified global game is underway. Another Russian failures at the frontline in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv have impacted the change in the dynamics of war. I will cover that further in the text.
Wojciech Konończuk – the Deputy Director of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) – interviewed by me in Defence24.pl’s show “Skaner”, identified two general approaches to the conflict among the Western states – the Victory Camp including the countries whose objective is a definite defeat of Russia, and the Ceasefire Camp comprising the states pushing for resolution of the conflict through mutually reached conditions of a ceasefire. The latter threatens to end up with a so-called frozen conflict. Thereby, we can observe different attitudes towards the war. It is clear that Vladimir Putin did lose a lot on the international stage, he wrongly assumed disunity and rifts among the Western states (especially within NATO) to the extent that they would not be able to stand up together against his military advancements. Meanwhile, despite point discords on certain issues, the last NATO Summit displayed a great deal of unity, particularly around the further support of Ukraine in their struggle, as well as around enhancing the NATO defense and deterrence posture. Interestingly, Putin failed also in the dimension that no one in Kremlin had expected before the launch of the invasion, namely, the first steps have been taken to admit Sweden and Finland, nolens volens countries with a long history of non-alignment, as NATO members. That indicates an enhancement of NATO and underscores the profound feeling of Russian peril in the countries which so far have not been a part of the Alliance. That also clearly proves that the West did not bow to the aggressive requests from Putin, that before the start of the invasion straightforwardly demanded the reduction of the Alliance’s military potential in Central-Eastern Europe to the level from before the 1997 enlargement. In the aftermath, not only reduction did not take place, but also NATO did significantly strengthen itself.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, I have completed four journeys to war-torn Ukraine. I have written reportages about the situation at the Kharkiv frontline. I have also visited towns liberated by Ukrainian unites in the Kyiv Oblast such as Bucha and Borodianka – places that reverberated in the world’s media as the grimmest evidence of the Russian atrocities. I am also an author of reportages from raided Zhytomyr Oblast.
Also earlier I published texts about Ukraine – in 2018 I was based in Donbas, on the Ukrainian side of the frontline, in the vicinity of the Donetsk airfield, which at that time was occupied by the separatists. I mention that because I would like to emphasize the outlook and opinions of ordinary Ukrainians as a relevant part of the geopolitical analysis. Such opinions will feature across the following paragraphs.
The Alliance of Dictators – A Failed Reconstruction of the USSR
Restoration of geopolitical influences of the USSR is an actual idea fix for Vladimir Putin. He has underlined that many times – the most literal and straightforward manifestation of that are his words exclaimed in April 2005: “The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. In the Kremlin’s framework, the role of the alternative alliance (to NATO) belongs to Collective Security Treaty Organization – a geopolitical block of countries theoretically backing Russia and subservient to it. Apart from Russian Federation, the CSTO has been joined by the following states: Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus. All the members except Russia stick to the sidelines throughout the aggression on Ukraine. The Republic of Kazakhstan makes up a particularly interesting example. It shall be reminded that at the very beginning of the year, the world’s eyes were centered exactly on this country. On the 2nd of January, social unrest broke out in Kazakhstan – high prices of gas were the spark in a powder keg that unleashed the upheaval. The protests led to a palace coup and resulted in the strengthened position of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, that forced the resignation of Askar Mamin’s government and secured a firm grip on the power with the support of CSTO (also Russian) intervention units. When Putin started the assault on Ukraine, Tokayev was predicted to be the main ally to support Russia in their murderous advancements.
On the 2nd of March, UN General Assembly held a vote on a resolution condemning the Russian attack. The only CSTO state that voted against the resolution was Belarus. Kazakhstan abstained and refused to send their troops against Ukraine. In turn, Nur-Sultan declared a dispatch of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Furthermore, Tokayev did not express support for the idea that separatist quasi-states formed in Eastern Ukraine – the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic – should be considered independent. In terms of size, Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, it also possesses abundant natural resources, and it is in the interest of the Kremlin, that Kazakhs join them in their military efforts. Kirgizstan took a neutral stance, even though in the phone call prior to the invasion, President Sadyr Japarov reassured President Putin about support for Moscow’s actions. What is more, although Kirgizstan and Tajikistan are economically dependent on Russia, they also did not send their troops. Financial transfers coming from emigrants account for as much as about 30% of Kyrgyz GDP, more than 83% is sent from Russia. In Tajikistan, that rate oscillates around 26,7% of GDP (including 58% from Russia). In May, Tajikistan saw an intense social upheaval that wound up with street demonstrations. Besides, this country hosts one of the largest Russian military bases. Recently, entire Central Asia fearfully watched the developments and power reshuffle in Kabul. Similarly, to Central Asian countries, Armenia – another CSTO member – embraced the neutral stance with regard to Russian ventures in Ukraine. Nonetheless, some Turkish media outlets reported that Yerevan handed over a couple of jetfighters to Russians in support of the anti-Ukrainian offensive. A truncated version of the ‘alliance’ has seemed to be distancing from Putin’s war. The only leader that did provide support for Russia was Aleksandr Lukashenko.
The Role of Belarus
Since stifling the pro-democratic protests in Belarus in 2020, stirred by Lukashenko’s election frauds, the last European dictator has been successively falling into a firm grip of the Kremlin. The residual autonomy of Lukashenko has turned into an incapacitated tool in the hands of Vladimir Putin. That can be observed on the basis of Minsk-Kyiv bilateral relations. Beforehand, Belarus had not recognized the annexation of Crimea and kept away from the Russian separatist rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. Despite the Belarusian-Russian alliance, the relations between Lukashenko and Ukrainians had not been that bad. Throughout the months Minsk regime’s attitude to Ukraine has undergone a severe metamorphosis, and at some point, that deterioration itself started to signify a war in the air. In November 2021, Lukashenko called Crimea a Russian territory. Belarus began to provoke seriously concerning steps toward Ukraine. It should be mentioned that up until the 20th of February, the northern neighbor of Ukraine hosted Russian-Belarusian joint military drills “Allied Resolve – 2022”. Later, as it turned out, they made up a departure point of the ground operation aimed at Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv. It should be also emphasized that without providing transit routes through the Belarusian territory, Russian units would have had a considerably longer distance to overcome. Lukashenko offered Russians an infrastructure of pivotal significance: airfields, roads, and railway junctions for ground, air, and missile attacks. Since the beginning of the invasion, it has been predicted that ground operation of Belarusian forces towards Volyn is likely. Why was it not the case? Experts enumerate a plethora of factors that might have impacted the decision to restrain:
- Low morale of Belarusian troops,
- The instability of Lukashenko’s regime which remains in place mainly thanks to the backing of the power apparatus; joining such an operation could increase the risk of mutiny (Lukashenko would only lose the grip),
- The risk of massive protests,
- Participation of Belarusian volunteers in the Ukrainian defensive efforts, thereby possible desertions and supporting the vigilante units (e.g. Battalion, and later, Regiment of Kastus Kalinowski)
The contribution of the Belarusian dictator to the barbarian aggression against Ukraine is undeniable. Without his assistance, Russian would only have been able to maintain a ground operation in the eastern part of the country. Also from Belarusian territory, many raids against the civilians have been conducted.
General distancing from supporting the operation by almost all CSTO’s members is not the only benchmark of its weakness, also cessation of all Belarusian ground military activities should be considered as such. It means that Lukashenko is aware of the fragility of his own power, similarly to the cases of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia, the guarantees of Russian leadership within the alliance are merely formal – Moscow has no credibility. The CSTO is an alliance of satraps, as we can see, satraps not necessarily certain about their power.
NATO and German Policy
As I have mentioned earlier, Putin probably assumed that faced with the invasion of Ukraine, the West would remain passive and disunited. Although we can observe different vectors in foreign policies of European counties, with regard to Ukraine, they all stand together protecting shared NATO interests. The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is a truly memorable moment for the North-Atlantic Alliance and an international disaster for Vladimir Putin. If the invasion was aimed at forcing the West to bow to his demands, it actually yielded an opposite outcome – apart from Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, i.e. countries vulnerable to the Russian threat, also other countries urgently want to join the Alliance. They also began to recognize the peril which comes from Russians. The aforementioned unity of NATO has been slightly disturbed by the policies of two European leaders: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and the President of France Emmanuel Macron.
We need reassurance from Chancellor Scholz that Germany stands by Ukraine. He and his government must make up their mind – called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “You can’t balance between Ukraine and Russia”
Although in the rhetorical layer Chancellor Scholz underscored German commitment to supporting Ukraine, his policy was seen by Ukrainians themselves as duplicitous and negligent. German-Ukrainian relations surely were overshadowed by delayed supplies of weaponry for fighting Ukrainians. The Ambassador of Ukraine to Germany even resorted to comparing one of the phone calls between Zelensky and Scholz to “talking to the wall”. “Why the country on the other side of the ocean stands closer by us than Germany? Because there is a wall between us that some people do not see” – said the President of Ukraine.
The negligence of the German Chancellor was a result of a previous course of German foreign policy aimed at commercial “domesticating” Russia by Europeans. The most influential German media outlets gave it a very negative mark. Deutsche Welle used the term “dance of lines” to describe the attitude of Scholz, Bild went further and exclaimed that “Scholz is making Germany the most pathetic country of the NATO”. Similarly negative reception in Ukraine had the numerous phone conversations between Putin and Emmanuel Macron – generally did not find many enthusiasts in the public. Bad press caused the Elysée to reveal the transcript of one of them, where Macron roars “we do not care what separatists offer!”. Nevertheless, it does not change the general opinion that these talks are rather a mark of Macron’s gullibility as they do not seem to give prospects to influence Putin’s attitude. Despite these tactical shortfalls, NATO proved to be a solid and united alliance. Very considerable in that matter is the role of Washington which has backed and assisted Ukraine from the very beginning of the conflict. American engagement is followed by the activity of Warsaw. “ If we were to measure the aid provided for Ukraine in financial terms, Poland – behind the USA – ranks second in the world. Other countries with larger budgets than the Polish one do not help us as much as Poland” – admitted Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov.
We have decided on the fundamental shift in our deterrence and defense. We agreed upon inviting Finland and Sweden to join the Alliance and attained a common framework for long-term support for Ukraine. We approved the new Strategic Concept and chose to ratchet up the investment in NATO and the shared budget – these are the main points from the summary delivered by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg after the summit in Madrid.
It can not be said how would Germany and France act had Putin achieved his goals at the dawn of the war (e.g. if he had managed to install a pro-Russian puppet government in Kyiv). Undoubtedly, the military catastrophe of Russian units in Kyiv Oblast clarified the situation also for the European nations trying to cooperate with Russia – the only reasonable option is to comply with the NATO policies and firmly stand by Ukraine. More to that, Western democratic governments must always consider the sympathies and antipathies of public opinion – after revealing the Russian atrocities, the majority of the latter support the Ukrainian defense. In the global game around the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we can definitely see the weakness of Vladimir Putin, and despite some minor rifts, the superiority of the Western model which does not question the sense of aiding the Ukrainians.
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Translator: Marcin Pijaj