Some wars are started deliberately by one country against another but many may break out not because any of the warring parties initially planned or even desired it, but a string of mutual misjudgments have created a situation in which fighting has become the only option. These days Russia and the U.S., backed by NATO, have locked horns over Ukraine. Both sides are taking pains to persuade each other and everyone else that they do not want to go to war. They are holding meetings to settle their differences. Simultaneously, however, each side is rattling sabres and advising the other side of the undesirable consequences that would ensue if they fail to reach an agreement. A compromise necessitates that each party give up some of what it wants to achieve but there is no indication that either side is yet ready for that. That Russia might stage an invasion of Ukraine continues to be perceived as a real possibility, generating grave concerns among NATO leaders.
What does Russia want and why? Russian demands may be driven by a variety of motives. Russia wants to make sure that Ukraine would not fall into the hands of a government with powerful friends unfavorably disposed toward Russia which it views as a serious threat to its security. In fact, in similar vein, in this column, earlier we referred to the fear of encirclement that Russian governments possess which they try to fend off by expanding a circle around them in which Russian influence prevails. Some observers add that a democratic and prosperous Ukraine might set a bad example for the Russian people who are being ruled by a dictator that is set to remain in power as long as he can.
Many other reasons have also been offered as grounds that motivate Russia to neutralize Ukraine and if possible, dominate it. Some observers have suggested that Putin, deeply influenced by what he considers to be the humiliating demise of the Soviet Union and the ensuing disarray, is determined to restore the great power status of his country, one that wields unrivaled influence in the post-Soviet space. Some observers, on the other hand, feel that Putin is interested in planting seeds of discord into NATO that would hopefully lead to its breakdown. Ukraine does constitute a case where differences among NATO members are known to exist. But Russia’s threat has produced the opposite of what may have been intended. NATO, in having failed to find a post-Cold War common purpose, has now gained new vitality embracing its former mission of containing Russia. Finally, some observers point to the fact that Putin is not exactly popular at home – his economic policies have not notably improved people’s economic lot. He has tried to maintain his hold on the population and suppress the opposition by authoritarian means, a method that may be getting harder to sustain. An external conflict with the West over Ukraine may be what he thinks he needs to unite the Russian people behind him, but there are indications that the average citizen does not want his country to get absorbed in military interventions.
While it is not difficult to speculate about Russian motives as to why it has adopted a threatening stance towards Ukraine, it is more difficult to predict what Russia will actually do vis-a-vis the U.S.-NATO challenge. The country has around 100,000 troops amassed at the Ukrainian border. It has now been reported that other units have crossed into Byelorussia, a move that would increase Russian options to invade from several directions. America has announced that an invasion would not trigger a military response but produce sanctions that would impose major hardships on Russia. Similar viewpoints have been expressed by other major NATO members, even if the response is not uniform.
So far, Russia is trying to give the impression is that its demands are non-negotiable. Similarly, the United States has made it clear that it is not ready to back down from its fundamental position. The sides keep talking, which would lead one to think each side feels that the other side will eventually soften its position. If there is not progress, it is feared that Russia might choose to break the deadlock by initiating military action against Ukraine, thinking that the Western response will be moderate. Unfortunately, once arms become the instruments of achieving political goals, no one can be sure that similar means will not be used directly or indirectly by other parties. As was noted at the beginning of this column, many wars break out not because any of the parties to a conflict desired it, but because mutual misjudgments created a situation in which the use of arms became the only option. Let us hope that Russia will not resort to using arms for resolving the conflict in Ukraine.