Expert Comment: This is no proxy war - Russia really invaded Ukraine
I have to confess I did not predict Russia’s invasion of my homeland a year ago. It is a source of huge embarrassment for a researcher and student of the politics and history of the region. It is no excuse, but I am very far from being alone in this.
By Dr Vlad Mykhnenko, Associate Professor of Sustainable Urban Development, Department for Continuing Education; Fellow of St Peter's College, expertise in Post-communist transitions in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, Varieties of capitalism, Ukraine, Russia: politics, economics, regions, The Russo-Ukrainian conflict: the Crimea and the Donbas.
In the year since, I have reviewed evidence for the Russian action, such as exists. With hindsight, what seemed like the ramblings of madmen, which appeared before the invasion, seem remarkably prescient. And they can now be perceived as predictors of the invasion – although absolutely not excuses for it.
Any ‘excuse’ for the Russian attack on Ukraine – because it felt threatened – should be viewed with the lens of history. That was the same reason given by Hitler, for the invasion of half of Europe
Any ‘excuse’ for the Russian attack on Ukraine – because it felt threatened – should be viewed with the lens of history. That was the same reason given by Hitler, for the invasion of half of Europe. He was only protecting the Germans in the Sudetenland. Austrians speak German, anyway. He was only defending against the Polish attack on the radio transmitter in Gleiwitz…
And the suggestion Ukraine should accept ‘terms’ – and Putin be allowed to walk away with a fifth of the country, having laid waste to cities with clear evidence of war crimes – can be viewed in the same way. Imagine, if the Allies had sued for peace in 1943, and agreed Hitler should be allowed to keep what he had conquered to 'stop the killing'.
Plus, Ukrainians will never accept to surrender and it is they who have the agency in this war; they decide. This is no proxy war, with NATO and the Soviets pitched against each other behind the scenes in the remote tropics as happened during the Cold War or as is currently happening in Yemen, where different Middle East factions fund the fighting done by others. This is a real war. Russia really invaded Ukraine and it really has bombed real civilians, real hospitals and real infrastructure. Between a third to half a million people have already been killed or maimed, in just 12 months. There is nothing proxy about it for either side.
This is no proxy war, with NATO and the Soviets pitched against each other behind the scenes...This is a real war. Russia really invaded Ukraine and it really has bombed real civilians, real hospitals and real infrastructure
To return to the evidence, three months before the invasion, one of Putin’s longest-standing and closest advisers, Vladislav Surkov, former deputy prime minister, dark celebrity, sometime playwright and novelist, wrote a bizarre article which he published in an online current affairs magazine. It was strange commentary on the second law of thermodynamics, as it applies to nation states. Essentially, Surkov, who has no current official role, used Physics to claim countries have to deal with internal ‘tensions’ through external ‘expansion’, like a gas escaping a closed chamber – ie through war. In doing so, they would transfer internal entropy – disorder and chaos - beyond the nation’s borders.
It seemed at the time to be mad ramblings. He repeated this, though, just nine days before the invasion in a further article, talking about how it was necessary to expand outwards, 'For Russia, constant expansion is not just one of the ideas, but the true existential of our historical existence. Russia will expand not because it is good, and not because it is bad, but because it is physics.'
Now, the ‘fog of war’ has actually made clear these comments were writing on the wall. Another clear indication of intent came from Putin himself, all the way back in 2016. When presenting a national prize for Geography [he is Chairman of the Russian Geographical Society], he asked one of the youngest award winners to say where Russia’s borders end. The young boy began to answer, when Putin interrupted him with a smile and said, ‘Russia’s borders never end.’
The audience was uncertain whether to laugh or applaud. It was safest to do the latter.
A third piece of evidence I have seen is a Russian post-invasion plan – Action plan: to create a system of control over economic and political processes in Ukraine – setting out a rough five page-long sketch of how it was going to happen. The strangest thing about the plan is how insubstantial and very basic it was. Both the Kremlin’s political and military plans have been proved horribly wrong, of course, since the invasion did not go according to plan and now something over 90% of the Russian army is in Ukraine. What is strange, though, is that it is all about controlling the territory and very little about assets. The invasion was not about seizing valuable resources or material gains. There are none left when the Russians reach them. It is more about ephemeral prestige, power, control, even more than a land grab. You do not bomb the largest steel mills to smithereens in order to obtain them.
The invasion was not about seizing valuable resources or material gains. There are none left when the Russians reach them. It is more about ephemeral prestige, power, control...You do not bomb the largest steel mills to smithereens in order to obtain them
Some claim Russia was goaded into acting by the threat of NATO expansion. But Putin himself said in 2004 that 'Russia has no concerns about the expansion of NATO from the standpoint of ensuring security'. Russia, after all, has a massive nuclear arsenal and has no reason to fear any adversary. What is the purpose of nuclear weapons then? In addition, several countries bordering Russia, including Finland and the Baltic States are already entering the alliance, with not a murmur from Moscow.
Plus, with modern hi-tech weapons, no country needs actually to border another, for there to be a threat – as Britain has discovered from the threats of Russian TV pundits, who delight in telling us how London could be wiped out in ten minutes.
So where does the war go from here? History tells us, you cannot appease a dictator. History also tells us Russia will not abide by an agreement. In 1994, Ukraine handed over its – third largest – nuclear weapons arsenal to Russia (as a long-term nuclear power) in exchange for security assurances from the US, the UK and…er Russia.
So where does the war go from here? History tells us, you cannot appease a dictator. History also tells us Russia will not abide by an agreement...Fake pacifists who call for Ukraine to...‘come to terms’ with Russia are, in effect, aiding and abetting the criminal invasion of a sovereign nation and suggesting war criminals go unpunished
Fake pacifists who call for Ukraine to sue for peace, or ‘come to terms’ with Russia, are in effect aiding and abetting the criminal invasion of a sovereign nation and suggesting war criminals go unpunished. But, even were that to happen, there would be no reason for Russia to obey any conditions laid down in a deal and the evidence suggests quite the opposite. After all, who will be there to force the Kremlin to live up to the letter of the law?
The war can end in two ways. Western weapons can allow Ukraine to threaten Russia’s continuing war effort to such an extent that Putin is replaced as the leader – effectively a coup. The alternative would be for Putin to declare ‘victory’ now, as it is, and step down quietly, leaving a new administration to negotiate peace.