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Ukraine and Putin’s Big Game; compulsion or option

Russia’s recent actions to amass one hundred thousand troops on the Ukrainian borders and consequently threatening the west not to expand NATO to the regions under Russian influence, especially Ukraine, have provoked one of the most serious international challenges.
January 2022
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Mohammad Nik-Khah

Russia’s recent actions to amass one hundred thousand troops on the Ukrainian borders and consequently threatening the west not to expand NATO to the regions under Russian influence, especially Ukraine, have provoked one of the most serious international challenges.The present crisis revolves around Ukraine where in the Russians’ minds is not only an inseparable part of Russia, but beyond that the birth place of the Russian kingdom and origin of the Russian history and civilization.The word Rus means boatman and originally goes back to the Vikings who came from the Scandinavian lands with their long boats to the present Russian lands and by occupying Kiev led by their Prince Oleg in 882 founded the Kievan Rus. The conquest was internalized in the historical memory of the Russians and in the collective belief of the Russians, Kiev and the surrounding areas are considered part of their motherland. However, throughout the 1200 year old history of this region and at various periods, the Russians and Ukrainians have had different identities and all former leaders in Moscow ignored the issue, and even Stalin insisted on the independence of Ukraine during World War II as well as the right of voting at the UN for Ukraine. On the other side, the Ukrainians always sought independence from the Moscow government.But another matter influencing the thoughts of Putin and many other Russians is the contempt of the Russians by the Germans in 1917 in imposing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In those years that Vladimir Lenin was determined to withdraw Russia from the Great War at any cost, the Germans seized the opportunity and exploited the Russians‘ weaknesses and imposed harsh conditions on the Russians and parceled the Baltic Sea countries of Belarus and Ukraine from Russia, a thing that for the Russians was a disaster and national humiliation and if this humiliation is added to the Russians’ historical memory, who have not yet digested the Soviet collapse along with the west and Europe’s betrayal, the whispers of Ukraine joining the NATO have rekindled this concept in the collective memory of the Russians that expansion of the sphere of influence of Europe and infiltration of NATO into Ukraine and Belarus have put and returned Moscow to its lowest position in the last 200 years, and in this relation the Russians’ sensitivities are maximally provoked that the ambitious borders of NATO in many areas including Ukraine, even on the map, become the same as the borders drawn in that humiliating treaty; especially in the year when the Germans, as the old taboo enemy of the Russians, with a new coalition cabinet at the heart of Europe, are in a dilemma about Russia whether to continue their conservative Merkel era policies or adopt an extremist policy of the new Greens along with a new show of power.For Putin who has already called the Soviet collapse the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century and over the last years has been constantly faced with the numerous challenges of the former Soviet republics, the issue of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO is prevention from an influential and historical humiliation which not only Putin, but any other wise statesman in Russia is not willing the subject to be chalked down to their name,  before it is an aggressive policy with strategic goals for taking concessions.However, the present Russia has other major geopolitical problems, too, and even in its far away borders from the west and Europe, for example where in the furthest east parts of Russia, the Vladivostok state with over 7 million square kilometers of area constitutes over 40% of the Russian soil whose capital was taken by force from China in 1860 and has since seen migration from China to these reigns, a matter which has been troublesome and has incited nationalist nightmares in the region. It is true that Russia has expanded its cooperation with China, but for a Russia which in terms of revenues, GDP and population has a significant difference with an emerging China and is grappling with punitive sanctions, the meaning of this relation cannot be much promising in future. Russia’s ties with China are considered from a weak point. Putin may be seeking friendship and alliance with China, but Russia cannot connect its future to an old foe getting stronger day by day and may one day reclaim lands or something even more, for the long term; meanwhile, China has a different view toward EU expansion.Also a little bit further east, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is another disaster for the Kremlin, which based on the previous experiences, has added to Moscow’s sensitivity of the high likelihood of the impact of this belligerent phenomenon in Central Asian and Caspian Sea countries, even inside Russia and in Chechnya, Dagestan, and among the Tatars.All this is while the western powers who are impatiently waiting for weakening of Russia have realized in Russia Putin, despite all achievements in recovering power and security and updating weaponry made possible by his mighty hand in the last two decades, is struggling with political, economic, social and other complicated issues like the succession crisis along with the traditional resources and economic weaknesses. Based on this, to the west, Putin’s recent policy of resistance against Nato expansion and drawing a redline by him, is for escaping domestic problems. Based on this presumption, they hope they will be able to disrupt Putin’s master game by the economic pressure of the sanctions imposed and threats of military confrontation and sending weapons to Ukraine along with threats of unprecedented crippling sanctions.But it seems the issue for Russia is more than a puzzle and is more compulsory than optional. Russia’s strong reaction to the Ukraine issue is psychological and a matter of honor, for which Russia is ready to take any gamble, and it does not seem, despite the high risks of their adventure, they will back down. Because if the Americans and Europeans do not stop here, Europe and the west will become more united and Russia more strictly surrounded in the not so distant future ,suffering another strategic and historic defeat which will necessarily be accompanied by awakening of other weaknesses. 

Mohammad Nikkhah, Senior Expert of African Studies             

       (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS

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