IN the early hours of February 24, the Russian military launched an offensive against Ukraine and started the worst military conflict in Europe since the end of World War 2. The war is one of the most anticipated, and yet it is also one of the most unexpected at the same time.
The Russians started massing troops toward the border by the end of 2021, and President Vladimir Putin had publicly put his case against Ukraine clearly on multiple occasions. The US has been talking about the Russian invasion in the last two months, and President Joe Biden announced February 16 and then changed this to February 20 as the invasion day. Both sides knew the opposite side's position well.
The shuttling diplomacy of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz between Washington, Kyiv and Moscow gave hope that a peaceful solution could still be reached to avert the hostilities. Until the war broke out, many analysts still expected both sides could arrive at a last-minute compromise. Why and how such high-level diplomacy fails is a topic for future historians to unravel.
While it is too early to know the outcome of the war, there are some initial lessons that we can learn from the outbreak of hostility.
Putin has said many times that he is not going to invade Ukraine — on the condition that the US and NATO provide a written security guarantee. However, his statement in ordering the march into Ukraine to prevent the West from using the country as a springboard to invade and destroy Russia is seen by some as a reversal of his earlier statement. To better understand the rationale of his change of mind, looking at history helps.
Russian history began in Kievan- Rus' more than a thousand years ago. The modern nations of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus' as their cultural ancestors, with Belarus and Russia deriving their names from it. Ukraine had been part of Russia for more than three centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. The territory of Ukraine today has 80 percent of it given by the Russians when Ukraine was part of Russia, from the time of imperial Tsars (1654-1917) to Lenin (1922) to Stalin (1939-1945) with Khrushchev (1954) lastly giving Crimea to Ukraine from Russia territory even though its population was more than 60 percent Russians. The Russian Orthodox religion spread from Ukraine, and Ukraine was never a foreign country to many Russians.
What divides the Ukrainians are religion and language. West Ukraine is largely Catholic and speaks Ukrainian, while East Ukraine is Russian Orthodox and speaks mostly Russian. While religion and language were not an issue in the former Soviet era, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, unfortunately, opened a Pandora's box.
After independence, the two wings of Ukrainians never learned the art of compromise and tried to dominate the other. As a result, the extent of the Russian connection became the defining issue in politics. The western side wants to link with the European Union and NATO and cut Russian ties, while the eastern side wants to keep Russian connections. The 2014 Orange Revolution supported by the US overthrew then Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, prompting Putin to accept the secession of Crimea to join the Russian Confederation. The subsequent separatist war in the two Eastern Ukrainian Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk broke out despite the Minsk Agreement that promised to amend the Ukrainian Constitution to allow a special autonomy for the two republics, which was never put in motion. In 2019, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko amended the constitution to commit the country to join the EU and NATO.
The current conflict is not just an issue of typical war between two countries. The delicate nature of the relationship between the two countries likely triggered Putin's decision to attack when he felt Ukraine and NATO were not responding to his publicly announced demand including implementation of the Minsk Agreement as fighting resumed in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The background story looks familiar to many countries around the world. Many countries formed after World War 2 were composed of different races, religions and languages. They are often legacies of the past, with some factions always trying to dominate over the others. The spread of social media has not successfully quelled extremism on religion, language and race. On the contrary, it heightens the division, especially when supported by external power — as the West is wont to. If a country has a powerful neighbor sharing common cultural, language and religious heritage with some groups, learning how to live with each other is indispensable for the country's long-term survival or risk the internal conflict escalating to war between countries.
New technologies have changed warfare
In recent months, the US and some of its NATO allies such as the UK, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic and Poland started free weapons and ammunition delivery to Kyiv. Most of the shipments are light armament designed to fight in an asymmetric war, such as portable anti-aircraft missile systems and missiles for portable anti-tank missile systems. NATO, the EU and the US refused to discuss security guarantees for Russia. The latest report from the press as of Friday afternoon shows that the Russian force is closing in on the capital city, Kyiv, just one day after hostility started. This is an ominous sign showing the Ukrainian defense is ineffective in the Russian attack, despite US and NATO arming it.
The Russian military is actively remodeling itself to fight a new generation of warfare based on new technologies brought by the 4th Industrial Revolution in recent years. For example, it developed hypersonic missiles in strategic space, employed autonomous drones, worked on land-sea-air integrated warfare, and improved cyberwarfare capacity to fight in a conventional war. In addition, ground units are now organized in a more nimble battalion size.
The emergence of new technologies often gives the early adopter advantage in warfare, and the Russian military benefits from it now. The new paradigm of warfare driven by new technologies favors the leading countries, and how to survive and prosper in this era calls for wisdom — a good historical perspective certainly helps.
The phrase "Geography is destiny" owes its origin to early theories of geopolitics and attributed to Napoleon. It is a fitting statement to characterize the Ukraine situation today. Even as the US and the EU have imposed step-up sanctions on Russia, most people do not want to return to decades of the cold war in this nuclear age. There are so many other issues down the road between them that they must sit down one day to work together. The reality on the ground means the outcome of the war will dictate the relative position of each other when the day comes. Regardless of one's ideology or belief, what Putin did has shaken the world, and a new order is unfolding. How to adjust to the new order is testing every country.
Dr. Henry Chan is an internationally recognized development economist based in Singapore. He is also a senior visiting research fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace and adjunct research fellow at the Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI). His primary research interest includes global economic development, Asean-China relations and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.