A conflict with a history

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said analyses the geopolitical side of the Ukraine conflict


Since the beginning of the 20th century, international affairs experts stressed the importance of the geopolitical factor as a determinant of the power relations between nations. If that century opened with a balance between the land and sea in the disposition and movement of forces, the introduction of new technologies, bringing automotive and armoured vehicles and aircraft into the battlefield, gave land a greater part to play as a vehicle for the technical progress and relative strategic decline of armed forces, while giving the sea new roles to play in the mass transport of forces while restricting its battlefield role to deterrence by means of stealthy, hard to detect nuclear armed submarines. In the context of relations between nations, history correlates geography with time whereby quantitative changes and accumulations become qualitative transformations over time.

In the case of Russia and Ukraine, history and geography created a geopolitical space from the Tsarist through the Bolshevik era, the effects of which continued to have an impact after the fall of the Soviet Union. We need only to look at the maps to see that Ukraine has always been in Russia’s embrace. It was drawn more closely into that embrace in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea which Stalin had transferred to Ukraine in 1954, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, together with the Russian and Belarus SSRs, represented the Soviet Union in international forums. Ukraine formed a significant part of the Soviet agricultural and industrial bases and was home to a large share of the Soviet defence industries, including nuclear defence.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and Russia’s emergence as an independent republic gave fourteen other former republics the chance to declare independence themselves. Ukraine was one of them.  Meanwhile Russia, after a centuries long history of being a major power, had been reduced to a weak, disjointed, economically dependent state under Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president for a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, a major leadership change in the Kremlin would reverse that trend. Under Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000, Russia suppressed the rebellion in Chechnya and restarted national economic development, boosting the forces of cohesion. It also regained possession of portions of its former territories, seizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008, leading to Russia’s expulsion from the G8, and taking Crimea back from Ukraine in 2014, leading to NATO sanctions against Russia. After the war broke out in 2022, Russia also annexed portions of the Donbas region made up of the people’s republics of Lugansk and Donetsk.

Upon independence, Ukraine wavered over whether to hold on to its nuclear arms capacities. In that turbulent period of rapid political change, it would have courted difficulties to do so since, firstly, it violated agreed upon arrangements between Russia and the former Soviet republics that made Moscow the heir to the former Soviet Union, including to its nuclear weapons. Secondly, retaining possession of them would create a permanent state of hostility between Kyiv and Moscow, which had no intent of living next door to another nuclear power. Thirdly, Western powers and NATO opposed the addition of new members to the nuclear club, so they set an example with Ukraine and South Africa by requiring them to give up their nuclear weapons capabilities.

For Ukraine, the alternative to nuclear weapons was to join NATO which, for its part, was of two minds on the matter. Two basic schools influenced NATO’s foreign policy thinking. One was the idealist liberal school which greeted the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “end of history” that would lead countries across the globe to embrace liberal democratic ideas and their political and economic applications. The other was the realist school which kept its sights trained on geography and history and that calculated that Russia, despite its collapse, still had the culture characteristic of major powers with important histories and civilisations and was additionally fortified by a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the planet.

The first school advocated Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO so as to pressure Russia to join the Western camp. The second school feared that pursuing NATO expansion into Ukraine would provoke Russia into starting a war. Russia’s annexation of Crimea sent a warning of what would come from Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership. The idealist liberal school read this as a challenge and began to urge Ukraine’s accession with even greater zeal. This type of thinking found a home in the Biden administration which, no sooner did it come to power, split the world into two: “democrats” versus “authoritarians.” Pressures built up, adversarial motives drove towards the brink, the imbalances of power in that Ukrainian-Russian geopolitical space were a lure, and war, as always, was the answer.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: