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In recent months we have witnessed – once again, we have already talked about it – a large-scale mobilisation of troops and equipment by the Russian Federation to the border regions with Ukraine. For almost eight years now, a conflict has been raging on the outskirts of Europe. The Ukrainian war has had immense consequences on the international political system. The desire for separatism of the Russians living in Crimea and the Donbass region has triggered a series of events impossible to stop. The separatists have used the street protests for Ukrainian membership in the European Union as a pretext for action triggering Russian military intervention, followed by the referendum – not recognised by the international community –, the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula to the Russian Federation and the transformation of Russia into an international pariah. The situation has stabilised into a pseudo-normality in which words and promises are among the most powerful weapons employed. Provocations are continuous, and NATO and Russian military vessels have been provoking each other in the Black Sea for months.
The Ukrainian government of Vladimir Zelensky fears that Russia is preparing for an invasion. Any conflict between Russia and Ukraine without any foreign intervention would have an obvious winner. Ukraine finds itself in a state of limbo: it is a valuable strategic partner for Washington in the context of its relationship with Moscow. At the same time, however, Ukraine’s greatest allies are not even allies on paper. NATO has failed to swallow up the former Soviet republic, and the European dream stops just 50 kilometres west of Lviv.
Ukraine is a pawn; nobody cares about it. And this is not wrong. It is just one of the many ways one can believe international relations work. In the view of the White House, the Ukrainian state is a weapon to threaten and annoy Putin’s Russia, which is increasingly ambitious despite its economic backwardness. Russia has never been content with the current status quo, interested as it is in playing a serious role as a regional power. Because of what appears to be a control mania, Washington cannot allow this. Moscow, on the other hand, has every intention of continuing to use Ukraine. Ukraine for Russia is a tool to annoy its overseas rival and, if possible, to push it into letting a few concessions slip through its fingers. Kyiv is a double-edged sword because it can cause both great gains and great headaches for both powers at play.
Continued Russian provocations in the form of displays of military force near the border frightened President Zelensky, who inevitably turned to President Biden. President Biden, therefore, found himself forced to promise solidarity with Ukraine and readiness to intervene in the event of an – unlikely – invasion. This happens because Biden has to keep alive the idea that the world’s policeman is always ready to right the wrongs done, so that the allies, the real ones, continue to trust the US and behave well under its wing. Invading Ukraine would be the equivalent of committing international suicide for Russia. Any objective of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine would be easy and quick to achieve. Military might between the two actors is not balanced. However, whatever the pretext of the invasion, the consequences for Russia would risk being unsustainable in an international system still dominated by the United States of America. We are talking about mainly economic problems due to the almost certain introduction of new international sanctions. Sanctions could increase social unrest in the country by strengthening the protest movements that have been growing in recent years and undermine the stability of the political system from within.
Provoking, threatening and frightening Ukraine is part of Russia’s strategy, which seems to have clearly defined objectives. On the other hand, Washington is watching. But the US does nothing but strengthen the Russians’ self-confidence by promising closeness, empathy, thoughts and prayers to Ukraine.
These days, Russia has published the draft of a document to conclude a new security agreement with the North Atlantic Alliance. The proposal was immediately rejected. In exchange for a promise not to extend NATO to the east, to the countries that were former members of the Soviet Union, Russia committed itself to end any action threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Of course, the means are unorthodox, but we must not forget that NATO, born with an anti-Soviet aim, has increasingly turned into an anti-Russian military organisation. Russia, too, has every right to fear the means of the most powerful state in the world. The United States of America had no hesitation in invading Iraq based on forged evidence and against the decisions of the United Nations Organisation, the greatest guarantor of the system they founded more than 70 years ago. This kind of event increases the fear in Russia and the US’s adversaries that an attack is not impossible and may induce them to seek their security even by untraditional means.
One must look at international politics in a detached way and recognise that there are no good guys. They are and always will be all just bad guys, selfishly interested in their gain, growth and survival. Military alliances and international organisations of any kind are means for each state to achieve these existential goals. We must not make the mistake of applying human categories of behaviour to states. There is no morality. It is important to observe events critically and be aware that our beliefs and certainties, over which we have almost no control, are misleading. They are shaped by the way history has been taught to us in school, by the way news is written in newspapers or read on television, or by the tweets of the most authoritative profiles we follow.