The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in modern history and a before- and after-threshold for the international order.
It throws into relief all the weaknesses of the post-Cold War arrangements: the failure of arms control polices, the weaknesses of the European security order, and the latent tensions between Russia and NATO.
Regardless of how the conflict ends, these questions will have a high priority on the international agenda in the aftermath of the conflict.
Both Russia and Ukraine have brought up the nuclear question. At the Munich Security Conference that convened a week before the conflict erupted, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke with regret about his country’s decision to relinquish its nuclear weapons in 1994 and suggested it might once again seek a nuclear deterrent.
On the fourth day of the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces on high alert, a step that could trigger reciprocal actions from NATO forces.
Such developments have raised concerns that the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) that entered in force in 1994, and the New START Treaty that entered into force in 2011 and that was extended after US President Joe Biden took office in 2021 are insufficient to lay to rest the spectre of a nuclear conflagration that has haunted the world since World War II.
There has been increasing talk of a “quiet superpower race for nuclear supremacy”. By the outset of this year, Russia had modernised the arsenal of nuclear weapons it had inherited from the former Soviet Union, while the US is said to have entered its “third nuclear age” in its efforts to keep pace with new technologies.
On a related level, the sudden Russian recourse to force in Ukraine reawakened memories of the Russian annexation of Crimea, the question of creating a European military force, and long-simmering controversies over financing NATO or NATO’s involvement in wars outside of its original remit, as for example in Iraq and Afghanistan after 11 September 2001 and in Libya in 2011.
Russia may have felt that following the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO would turn its attention to expanding into areas Russia regards as its backyard or sphere of influence. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO membership has doubled, with most new members having once been part of the Soviet Union. The last to join was North Macedonia in 2020.
Russian concerns over NATO enlargement have been aggravated by expansions in the NATO missile shield and the increase of its military assets in Poland and Romania. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany is determined to rebuild its military, which had largely fallen into neglect.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz on Sunday announced a “historic” shift in Germany’s foreign and defence policy and said that 100 billion euros would be invested in developing the German army in 2022 alone and that more than two per cent of GDP per year would be earmarked for defence.
He also vowed to lay the constitutional foundations for a permanent defence fund that might even exceed targeted NATO dues.
The Ukraine crisis appears to have galvanised Germany, an engine of European change, to lead the way to a new European defence outlook characterised by a resolve not to remain overly dependent on the NATO umbrella regardless of the outcome of the conflict.
Ukraine has become a soft spot in the geopolitical conflict between Russia and NATO. The two sides are in a tug-of-war over their forward defence lines, and Ukraine is paying the price.
Militarily, Russia has set in motion a three-pronged plan that began with warm-ups along Ukraine’s borders, with Belarus and Chechen forces participating in manoeuvres.
Syria served as a rearguard base. In the lead-up to the conflict, Russia staged manoeuvres off the Syrian coast, signalling that it was prepared for other scenarios further afield.
Phase two of the Russian plan was to paralyse the Ukrainian defence infrastructure and dominate the country’s airspace as Russian ground forces advanced from several directions in order to seize control of nuclear facilities, airports, military installations, and other vital targets.
The third stage was to surround Kyiv and topple Zelensky’s government, which Moscow views as a Western puppet.
Russia has accomplished much of its aims in the first two phases. The third, the siege of Kyiv, is the most essential part of the plan. Will the Russian operation stop if it succeeds in overthrowing Zelensky and installing a pro-Russian government?
This question focuses attention on the Ukrainian resistance and how prepared both sides are for guerrilla warfare. The prospect will have reminded Moscow of its debacle in Afghanistan, where Soviet forces sustained major attrition at the hands of Afghan insurgents in the 1980s.
In Ukraine, Kharkiv, the largest city in the east of the country, could be an arena of urban warfare, though this would probably be more intense in western cities such as Lviv.
If Ukrainian forces go for this form of combat, the fighting could drag on and the hopes for a quick return to calm and stability could dim. The fact that Russian tanks found no military contingents to join them when they arrived in Kyiv is a sign of what they might be up against.
As for the political aims of the invasion, it is unclear who Moscow wants to install in Kyiv and how a Russian-backed authority would govern where it is unlikely to find significant popular support.
Kyiv and the other western areas of Ukraine are far removed from the breakaway regions in the east of the country that Russia has supported since 2014.
A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.