Putin's colonial dreams

Russia’s attack on Ukraine: 3 ways it threatens your security

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Leigh Turner

‘If Putin is allowed to break the taboo, which has really been maintained since 1945 in Europe, that you cannot invade your neighbour and steal their land, in the imperialist, colonialist way that Russia is doing now… then the whole world faces a Pandora’s box of conflicts.’

Russia’s attack on Ukraine – 2 years on

As Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine entered its third year, I did some interviews. One, on Times Radio, made it onto YouTube. Here it is:

Our security? In the UK or US? Surely not!

The idea that Russia’s attack on Ukraine threatens the security of countries far away has taken a while to seize hold. When Moscow launched its neo-colonialist land-grab in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, countries such as Poland, the Baltic States and the UK raised the alarm. But many countries, even those relatively close to the fighting, dismissed its significance. I describe in my book “Lessons in Diplomacy” a conversation with Austrian Foreign Minister Kneissl in 2018, when I was ambassador in Vienna. Kneissl dismissed the significance of Russia’s aggression and argued against sanctions on Moscow. Many countries further from Europe showed even less interest in getting involved.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many formerly chilled nations were shocked into action. But others still took a laid-back attitude. The chance to trade with Russia, including buying Russia’s oil at bargain-basement prices, proved irresistible. What, such countries argued, did Russia’s attack on Ukraine have to do with them? Other conflicts had taken place without the United Nations, or the US or UK, making such a fuss. Why the big deal now?

Arguments rage in the US

Similar arguments rage within some countries that support Ukraine in its struggle against Russia’s colonialism – in particular, the United States. Apparently serious people argue it would make no difference to US security if Russia kept areas of Ukraine it had already annexed, or even if it occupied the whole country. At the time of writing, the Republican Party has blocked a vital $60 billion package of aid to Ukraine. That has given Moscow the upper hand in the conflict. Russia has made significant territorial advances in recent months.

Russia's attack on Ukraine: tanks in a playground in Kyiv

Until recently, the only tanks in Kyiv were in children’s playgrounds

3 reasons Russia’s attack on Ukraine threatens your security

So why does Russia’s attack on Ukraine threaten your security, whether you live in Texas, Truro or Tanzania? Here are three reasons:

1. Stopping the war with the front where it is would not create stability.

Some people say ‘Russia is ready for peace now, if they can keep the bit of Ukraine they’ve got. Why go on fighting?’ We’ve been here before. In 2014, Russia attacked Ukraine in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. On 18 March 2014 they annexed Crimea – a territory roughly the size of Belgium. Before Ukraine fought them to a standstill in Donetsk and Luhansk, they occupied around 7% of the country. For years, the military situation was a tense stalemate. 14,000 people were killed. People said: ‘we mustn’t give Ukraine heavy weapons, in case we provoke Russia.’ What happened?

After eight years, Russia launched a new war of annihilation. If Moscow is allowed to keep those areas of Ukraine it has so far annexed – about 22.5% or 136,000 square kilometres, comparable to England or Louisiana – it will simply wait, build up its forces, and attack again – as it did between 2014 and 2022. Putin fears a democratic, successful Ukraine and will do anything he can to extinguish that threat to his personal fortune and position. If the war is frozen, countries who support Ukraine’s independence will continue to have to pour more and more military and financial resources into Ukraine in the hope of slowing or stopping the next Russian attack. The situation will continue to be unstable and dangerous.

I discuss these arguments in more detail in my August 2022 post, Russia-Ukraine ceasefire: why not?

2. Russia occupying all of Ukraine would be even worse

Other people say: ‘so what if Russia’s attack on Ukraine succeeds? They’d be crazy to attack NATO countries. All they want is Ukraine.’

A complete Russian occupation of Ukraine would cause appalling suffering and human rights abuses. Who can forget what happened in occupied cities such as Bucha and Mariupol in 2022? Plus, this argument misreads the war, and the ever-changing justifications President Putin advances to try and justify it. Even people on his own side, such as warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin (killed in a plane crash in 2023) have pointed out they are not true.

Putin could use the same absurd arguments he used to justify Russia’s attack on Ukraine to invade numerous countries, from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Moldova or Georgia. Nonsense like “this used to be Russian lands”; “this country is run by Nazis”; “this country is threatening us”; or “this country is mistreating its Russian-speaking minority” are infinitely flexible. Russian victory in Ukraine would create a hair-trigger for further violence – and require the US and the rest of NATO to increase military spending by far, far more than the relatively modest sums needed now to support Ukraine’s independence.

I do not find the argument that “Russia would be crazy to attack NATO” reassuring. Back in 2014 and 2022, it was crazy for Putin to attack Ukraine. But it happened. In his bizarre interview with conservative US journalist Tucker Carlson in February 2024, Putin said – twice – that Poland had collaborated with Nazi Germany in 1939. None of this suggests a firm grasp of either history or commonsense.

3. Allowing Russia to annex any of Ukraine opens a Pandora’s box of global conflict

This is possibly the worst problem. In the 1990s, Russia signed several international treaties recognising Ukraine as a sovereign state within its internationally-recognised boundaries – including Crimea. Now, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has led to it formally annexing, by law, around 22.5% of Ukraine into Russian territory. That’s right: Moscow has stolen an area of its neighbour roughly the size of England or Louisiana, on a string of flimsy pretexts. If Russia is allowed to keep that land, it will set a ghastly precedent for aggressive countries around the world to launch wars against any neighbours they wish. Every country includes swathes of land that used to belong to others. That includes Russia itself, which has expanded massively since the 16thC. As recently as 1858, the Treaty of Aigun ceded to Russia 598,000 square kilometres of Chinese territory. The 1860 Treaty of Peking ceded a further 400,000 square kilometres. Together, that’s an area the size of Texas and Arizona combined.

Talking to Tucker Carlson, Putin cited events as far back as the 9th century in his rambling half-hour justification of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. If we start excavating the distant past, no country, or border, is safe. Wherever you live, your neighbour could manufacture a claim at least as strong as Putin’s to some or all of your country’s territory, if they looked back far enough through history and ignored international law and treaties they had signed. Maybe the government of your neighbour is peaceful and sensible at the moment. They won’t always be. We’ve already seen Venezuela try to resurrect a 19thC claim to most of the territory of neighbouring Guyana in December 2023.

So how do we end this war?

Unfortunately, nothing much has changed since 2022. In November of that year, I wrote as follows:

  • At the moment, the prospects for any kind of negotiated outcome look bleak. Early in the war, Ukraine suggested a ceasefire and talks based on the pre-February 2022 boundaries. The immense suffering caused by Russia’s invasion since then makes any such outcome now look unlikely. Ukraine insists Russia must withdraw completely from Ukraine, including Crimea, before peace talks. They argue that a ceasefire on any other basis would reward Russian aggression and allow Russian military forces to regroup.
  • What about the Russian side? Putin cannot agree to anything that leaves his troops occupying less of Ukraine than they did in February 2022. How could he justify to the Russian people the chaos and destruction he has wrought – including tens of thousands of Russian soldiers dead and wounded [comment – by 2024, hundreds of thousands] – for no gain? That would surely be the end of his rule – the very outcome he launched his war against Ukraine to prevent. For Putin personally, the war is existential.
  • What I wrote in June [2022], therefore, remains true. “The top priority in responding to Russia’s war on Ukraine must be to maintain unity amongst countries opposing the war. Only that will make it possible to keep providing Ukraine with the weapons and material it needs to defend itself against the biggest war launched on European soil since 1945, and slowly to weaken Russia. It is a grim prospect. But the alternatives are grimmer still.”

Maintaining that unity will be harder with every month that passes. If the US election produces a victor who thinks wrongly that freezing the conflict would offer a quick and easy solution, it will be harder still.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine: other resources

Other resources on this site:

Russia-Ukraine war explainer: why the war is happening.

Reverse conspiracy theories: why we should recognise that Russia’s war on Ukraine is overwhelmingly the responsibility of Vladimir Putin.

Three things to bear in mind about Russian official statementsKim Philby, maskirovka and MH17.

Russia-Ukraine cease-fire: why not?

Ukraine Fatigue

My book “Lessons in Diplomacy”, due in September 2024 from Bristol University Press, explores these issues in more detail.


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