Russia-Ukraine Conflict, Balance of Power, and the Eruption of War

28/02/2022 10:40 AM
Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

By Dr Nor Aishah Hanifa

War between Russia and Ukraine is unavoidable. Ukraine was a satellite state of the Soviet Union (USSR) during the Cold War. At that time, Ukraine was known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (S.S.R.). Ukraine was once ruled by the Russian Empire in the 18th century. The western part of Russia was absorbed within the Russian border when Poland was divided in 1772. In 1783, Russia took control of the southern part of Ukraine when the Crimean Khanate was conquered. Ukraine made a declaration of independence in 1918 but was recaptured by the Soviet Union in 1921. Under the Soviet Union, Ukraine has gone through unforgettable black moments.

Millions of Ukrainians were killed in the "Collectivisation" (Holodomor) campaign by Joseph Stalin. Ukraine's plight continued under Nazi Germany’s domination during World War II. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine went through a political experience that was skewed under different Russian leaders. When the USSR fell, Ukraine announced their independence. Until now Ukraine has never been peaceful, often plagued by revolutions that invite the intervention of Russia and Russian advocacy groups in Ukraine. Pro-Russian rebel groups also suspected of involvement in the MAS MH17 tragedy, shot down with a missile in July 2014. Russia denied its involvement in the tragedy, although the weapons were identified as Russian.

One of the Ukrainian revolutions was the Maidan Revolution which took place in November 2013. In 2014, the Ukrainian government was dominated by opposition groups and the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia. In the same year, Russia conquered Crimea, a geo-strategic peninsula attached to the Black Sea. The incident sparked fierce clashes between the western powers and Russia, leading to trade sanctions by the United States and the European Union. Pro-Russian groups in Ukraine have also taken control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border. Russia has also built a controversial bridge linking Crimea with southern Russia.

Russian strategy

History still haunts Ukraine's relationship with Russia. President Vladimir Putin is a Russian leader determined to restore the glory of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. For years Russia has been launching strategy to absorb Ukraine into its borders. Russia often highlights security factors to defend its actions in Eurasia. Russia is reasoning on Russia's national security, action on Ukraine is justified. Putin continuously culminates an uncompromising tone on Russia’s national security.

However, valid causes are underlying Russia's strategy in the Eurasian region. For Russia, Ukraine has a geo-strategic position that cannot be compromised. This is the main reason Crimea was conquered by Russia in 2014. The year-round port of Sevastopol in Crimea is very strategic for Russia compared to other snowy northern Russian ports. Sevastopol served the USSR efficiently in the Cold War era.

Russia is also unhappy with Ukraine's relations with the western powers, especially the act of Ukraine's application to join NATO by President Zelensky, the pro-western president. Ukraine's application to NATO is still in the evaluation process. Russia feels NATO is trying to intervene in the region's affairs and threaten Russia’s national security. Russia has always demanded that the United States not allow Ukraine into NATO. Moscow also accuses the United States, NATO and their allies of offering weapons to Ukraine and holding joint military drills to disrupt the region's security.

As for Russia, they cannot accept the fact of Ukraine joining NATO. Russia is also increasingly suspicious of the goals of certain western countries that want to establish a military centre in Ukraine. Recently, Russia provided a list of security claims to the United States. The most important is to block NATO's military presence near Russia's borders. Furthermore, Russia wants NATO out of the Eastern European countries. Putin expects legal assurances from the United States on this matter. Russia emphasises the Eurasian region as a region under its influence. Russia’s strategy is confronted by the United States. The United States and its western allies are keen to accommodate the Eastern European nations in the European sphere. The Eastern European nations, were traumatised during the Cold War era, and willingly joined the European Union (EU). Nations like Croatia, Belarus, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine have been enjoying the prosperity of the EU. They also show great enthusiasm to join NATO to preserve their national security. A few years ago, some nations such as Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia joined NATO. Ukraine is determined to join NATO, realising the security threat from Russia.

Ukraine a NATO ally

Ukraine's position in NATO has not been decided yet because Ukraine needs to meet NATO's requirements, especially reducing the level of corruption within the country. Ukraine is considered a NATO ally, not a NATO member. The United States is certainly not interested in expanding its military in the region and damaging its relationship with Moscow. However, the United States is dragged into this conflict because of NATO. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, voiced his support for Ukraine's participation in NATO.

The threat of a war breaking out involving Russia, Ukraine, NATO and the United States is escalating in international politics. In previous weeks, Russia has put as many as 100,000 troops on the Ukraine-Russia border. The United States responded with 8,500 troops. NATO, on the other hand, sent warships and jet aircraft to the region. Germany promised medical supplies to Ukraine. Despite all warnings from NATO and the United States, Putin took the bold move of declaring independence of Luhansk and Donbas in eastern Ukraine, followed by a military attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

The use of force on Ukraine can be a wrong strategy of Russia. Russia has breached international law by this invasion. Implications are severe not only for Eurasia and Europe, but also the entire world. The formation of the western alliance is hastened. The Cold War continues with new issues, never ending between the two powers. Since 1949, the formation of NATO haunted Russia. Russia under Putin perceives NATO as a threat to Russia and urges the dissolution of NATO. In this dire condition, Ukraine is most likely to be permitted into NATO sooner than expected.

Strategic calculations

Unfortunately, war has broken out before NATO has decided on Ukraine. The United States expected war to erupt but there no security guarantee was given to Ukraine, although repeated requests were made by the Ukrainian leader. Putin appears to be testing the entire crisis scenario and making strategic calculations. Russia calculates that NATO would not intervene in the war, fearing escalation. Moreover, Russia knows clearly that the United States would not get involved in a full-scale war against Russia, based on the Cold War experience. In the Cold War era, both powers never met in the battlefield because of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence still works between them. War is a serious calculation between them considering their power possession.

We still remember how Serbian nationalism dragged Russia into World War I. A similar pattern of power intimidation can be traced in this crisis. Infamously Russia becomes the trigger of war in Eurasia. The war probably can spill over to Europe and other parts of the world. A drastic rise in oil and aluminium prices occurred as a short-term war shock. Can Russia possibly become the belligerent nation to be blamed for the coming of a wider war?


Dr Nor Aishah Hanifa is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Strategy, Faculty of Defence and Management Studies, National Defence University of Malaysia.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)