War Analysis

Ukraine: Three decades after the Cold War, back to open conflict

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn international condemnation for his invasion of Ukraine (Image by Dan Jensen)

With Russia launching a full-scale attack on Ukraine, Dr Lee Duffield analyses events leading up to the invasion.

THERE WAS A SPURIOUS RELIEF in the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February: no more need for pretending, or false diplomacy, even no need for talk about rights and wrongs.

It is back to the raw power days, Russian tanks in Budapest in 1956, then again in Prague in 1968. Attempts at political reform and opening to the West came to that.

It was not the same with the “people’s revolutions” of Eastern Europe in 1989, when the Soviet Union was in no position to use the tanks; and that looks to have become the number one irritant to the man at the centre of the violence now, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

He has reminisced about his shock in 1989 as a Soviet KGB officer posted to Leipzig in East Germany, the scene of the biggest protests. Our paths may have crossed in the street. Working there as a correspondent, it was a struggle to believe what you saw and to report it — as it would have been for security agent Putin. To him, democracy must have looked like an ugly waste of cherished Soviet values.

As he said when declaring his invasion of Ukraine, he’d become embittered by false assurances from the West, when negotiating with the reformist Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, that they would not take the former satellite countries into NATO and so move the “front line” to the Russian border. The Western governments might have meant it but the ex-satellites themselves demanded to be let in. They had a jaded view, perhaps suspecting that the Russian system would someday throw up a dictator who would try to get them back by force.

The feeling of fear of the neighbours was mutual, because of the history of invasions of Russia from the West, recently in 1812, 1918 and 1941. The former Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has been referring to this in efforts to get both perspectives on the fight.

Elected in his own right as President of Russia in 2004, Vladimir Putin determined to act on what he still calls the Western betrayal. His policy from the beginning has been to get NATO out of the former Soviet republics and client states; to get back to the old lines of the military stand-off that ended the 1940s — a long way from the Russian frontier.

Once again, it seemed our paths might cross, in 2006, when NATO convened a summit of its heads of government, in Riga, capital of Latvia, which not long before had been a part of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. To the West, it was a reassurance to the Latvians they would be protected; to Putin it was a provocation — he complained.

A riveting rumour reached the summit media centre that Putin was planning to gate-crash the event, intruding on NATO’s “intrusion”. In the event, he did not fly in; the rumour scarcely rated a mention in the news, but he did not forget.

Looking for reasons for this war, the state of mind of Vladimir Putin might itself tell as much as does the issue of the lost territories and Russian anxieties about invasion from the West. Whatever relations exist with his generals and supporters, the man’s photo opportunities, especially in the time of COVID-19, show him well-separated from others — he is on his own.

As for Ukraine, the map and terrain add more to the story. It would be a prize for the West, a vast land, bigger in area than France or Germany, an agricultural breadbasket full of potential as a contributor to the European Union. After the “orange revolutions” removed a remnant pro-Soviet regime, elected governments started talking with the EU and NATO. As the map shows, the NATO frontier would then penetrate deep into Russia, raising the old fears. Except that it was at the level of talk; there was no NATO plan to invade Russia; in bleak reality, the action has gone the other way.

Other issues have brought up a lot of bickering, but do they matter now? Russian incursions into Eastern Ukraine over the last eight years were to “protect” Russian speaking minorities; many of those are also professed Ukrainian patriots. Government policies privileging the use of Ukrainian language aggravated divisions. A counter-argument to the “protection” theme is the bad reputation of the Russian forces for heavy civilian casualties, during their wars already in Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia and Syria.

There is the transparent violation of truth in the Russian propaganda war; lately, members of the Ukrainian Government have been called “Nazis”. Yet all the words are now going up in smoke. Vladimir Putin and his forces are presenting as a gang — young men, armed, ill-governed, acting with impunity, doing what they want because they can. So for now, no more debating society, it just comes down to just war talk.

Frantic commentaries of the week have identified several options dancing at the forefront of the consciousness of Vladimir Putin while his forces get on a roll:

  1. Take territory as already announced in Eastern Ukraine, that might merge with Russian-held Crimea in the South.
  2. Go further, over-run cities like Karkhov or the capital Kyiv and overthrow the government there — recolonise Ukraine, back to the Soviet days. That massive military manoeuvre could extend to occupying Western Ukraine, pushing up to the border of Poland.
  3. Keep going and take on NATO, whether a strike at Poland, or re-taking the Baltic republics: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The last option brings up nuclear war — World War III we worried about throughout the Cold War. NATO doctrine is for all the allies to defend any one of its members under attack. They might wait, but must do it. The allies this time have been suddenly demonstrating great unity. The European Union has come into it as well, their foreign relations head, Josep Borrell, on Wednesday announcing imminent strong economic sanctions against Russia. The “darkest hour” since World War II: “It's a matter of life and death,” he said.

Military scenarios concentrate on the readiness of forces; military almanacs are getting brought out to discover the relevant strengths; the Russians seen as geared up, motivated and moving, the allies rested and part-disarmed after the stand-down in 1989. Not entirely. Most of the NATO allies have been through the protracted campaign in Afghanistan.

At the Riga summit in 2006, they mulled over a new security order that would involve extended theatres of activity and expanding partnerships. In the aftermath of that, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were signed up as associates, with Afghanistan the first commitment.

In 2022, the Russian generals and their driven chief could start to think they might keep going, a kind of blitzkrieg. On paper, they have deployed 70 per cent of their active ground forces to Ukraine, equivalent to nearly half the combined ground forces of Britain, France, Germany and the United States currently in Europe — 200,000 to 420,000. Against 800 combat aircraft from those four countries, they may have over 1,200 — quality uncertain but several at the top of the high-performance range. (Ukraine has a large army of 215,000; many of its military aircraft are classed as unserviceable, but Ukraine has received substantial outside aid with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons; its tank force is one-third of the Russian total of 2,840.)

As a reality check on the idea of a spreading war, the conflict in Ukraine is not on the scale of the war games scenarios played at the end of the Cold War. One of those foreshadowed a winter attack by the Soviet Union, occupying Italy as a southern flank, then Norway and Britain to eliminate the land aircraft carrier and staging area for the American air bridge.

A third thrust would take a “conventional” route through the Fulda Gap into Western Germany. In that fantastical event, the allies were seen holding the line for six weeks, long enough for enemy supply lines to fail; unexpected factors were included like effects of endemic alcoholism in the Soviet officer corps.

After one day of fighting, it could not be known how it would develop on the ground in 2022. Nor what would develop in cyber warfare. Western sanctions would take time but are strategically focused on extinguishing Russia’s outside banking and trade in key products, including stopping its gas and oil revenues.

Helmut Schmidt, a Social Democrat West German Chancellor, possibly exasperated, reportedly said Russia was the “Third World with missiles”. It highlighted the vulnerability to economic pressure, ill-matched with high-end technology, including war technology and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. It might take nervous awareness of that danger and hard times to bring civilians on both sides – whether Russians with no money, Europeans unable to get fuel for the last weeks of winter –  to bring on the pressure, if only they can, to end the conflict.

Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.

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