More than 125,000 Russian soldiers are now stationed on Ukraine’s doorstep. Another 15,000 Russian separatists are waiting to join their ranks, just over the border in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Tanks and other heavy armor, which are relatively slow to deploy, are in place. Missiles have been brought by train from Siberia, 4,000 miles away.
The probability of a massive armed conflict engulfing Ukraine, and possibly large parts of Europe, has never been this high since the fall of the Soviet Union.
And while the USSR may be long gone, Putin’s imperialist ambitions to rebuild what Ronald Reagan referred to as the “Evil Empire” are starting to show very real and dire consequences for Europe.
At the same time, the U.S. finds itself in the grips of a second Cold War.
And in this one, the Russians have hypersonic nuclear missiles capable of avoiding missile defenses and hitting their intended targets from thousands of miles away while flying at many times the speed of sound.
Putin, who is Russia’s absolute ruler by every measure, strongly believes that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Yes, he actually said that.
And it’s a catastrophe that he’s been trying to fix ever since he was elected President over two decades ago.
In this article, I’m going to explore the roots of the Russo-Ukrainian crisis we are witnessing, the likelihood of war, how and when it could start, and, most importantly, how this conflict would alter the delicate balance of power on a global scale, threatening not only Europe but also the U.S.
A New Cold War
Over the third weekend of January 2022, Russia and its close ally Belarus hastily announced joint military exercises for early February, and by the 17th of January, Russian troops began pouring into the former Soviet republic. The decision to hold military drills in Belarus seems to be just more saber-rattling at first glance.
However, all you have to do is look at modern Russian military history to know that this is very likely to be the single most decisive step in the preparation for an all-out war with Ukraine.
Today’s crisis has been over a decade in the making, and current circumstances feel eerily reminiscent of what happened back in 2008, in Georgia.
It was called the August War, and although it only lasted for 12 days, historians may come to regard it as the starting point of a new Cold War with Russia. In the early hours of August 8, 2008, as President Vladimir Putin was attending the opening ceremony of yet another Beijing Olympics, the well-oiled Russian war machine swung into action.
A Russian tank column advanced through the Roki tunnel into Georgia while Russian warplanes dropped their deadly payloads on fortified positions of the unsuspecting Georgian military.
Just six days prior, the colossal Kavkaz-2008 military exercise had drawn to a close.
The drill simulated a Russian military operation in a fictitious former Soviet republic, in which they would defend Russian peacekeepers and citizens.
Does that sound familiar?
If it does, that’s probably because it is this exact “casus belli” (reason to declare war) that Russia invoked when it attacked Georgia.
After the Kavkaz exercise ended, the participating soldiers did not return to their barracks.
Instead, they remained stationed on the Georgian frontier and, a few days later, orchestrated the real invasion.
Georgia, a former Soviet vassal, lost two of its territories. The Kremlin signed agreements with the de facto civilian administrations of both territories to integrate them militarily and economically into Russia.
This invasion, which went largely unnoticed by the international community, marked the start of Europe’s first twenty-first century war.
But most importantly, it was Putin’s green light for restoring Russia to its former glory.
He saw that he could start a war and annex new territories without something really bad happening as a result. In the end, the U.S. and European responses were limited to minor and largely symbolic actions.
Annexation of Crimea and the Start of the War with Ukraine
Russia’s prolonged war with Ukraine started all the way back in 2014, in the aftermath of the revolutionary movement that ousted then-president Viktor Yanukovych, who had been accused of catering more to Russia’s interests than to those of his own country. As Yanukovych fled to neighboring Russia on February 21, Kiev’s new rulers issued an arrest warrant for his role in the “mass murder of 88 innocent civilians.”
On February 23-24, 2014, Putin convened an all-night meeting with security service chiefs to discuss the extraction of the deposed Ukrainian president. At the end of the meeting, Putin remarked that “we must start working on returning Crimea back to Russia.”
Just a few days later, on the 27th, masked Russian troops with no distinguishing marks took over the parliament and captured other strategic sites across Crimea.
Again, Putin claimed that he ordered his troops to attack in order to protect Russian nationals living in Crimea, who were under threat from Ukrainian nationalists.
Russia formally incorporated Crimea as two Russian federal subjects—the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol on March 18, 2014. They also moved in nuclear missiles to solidify the new status quo.
According to Putin, “Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of the people,” and retaking control of it corrected an injustice that was done to the Russian Federation in 1954, when the Supreme Soviet of the time gave it to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic.
That same month a guerilla war broke out in the Donbas region of Ukraine. When the Ukrainian military managed to regain control, Russia began a conventional invasion of Donbas.
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Again, the same narrative emerged out of the Kremlin: Russia had been forced to deploy troops to defend the Russian-speaking population in Donbas. As a result of the invasion, separatists regained control over much of their lost territory, and things would have escalated even further if it hadn’t been for the ceasefire, which came to be known as the Minsk I Protocol.
It was the first of 29 ceasefires that followed in the coming years. Each of them was supposed to last indefinitely, but none did.
The Drums of War Are Beating Loud for Ukraine
Today a clear parallel emerges with what happened in Georgia and then Crimea. The joint Russian-Belarusian military drills that are taking place right now, just 140 miles of highway away from Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, are set to end by late February.
Will history repeat itself, and will these Russian soldiers cross the border and invade?
Only time will tell.
What we know is that at this moment, Ukraine stands alone. It is not part of the NATO alliance, and despite all the help in military equipment and money offered to bolster its defenses, no European nation will send actual soldiers to help defend it against Russia.
And neither will the U.S.
If Putin decides to invade, it will probably happen in the next couple of weeks, while the frozen winter soil can allow for an armored crossing. It will probably be a multi-pronged attack, coming from Belarus and Russia itself.
With much of Ukraine’s military might concentrated in the far east—where the war with Russian-backed separatists has raged for the last eight years—military experts and Ukraine’s own generals say it will be very difficult for the country to gather the forces necessary to also defend its northern border.
It’s estimated that Russia currently has enough men and firepower at the border to conquer and hold Kiev and large regions of Ukraine but not the whole country.
Putin’s goals are still unclear, and his demands for security guarantees from the West, such as “Ukraine must never be allowed to join the alliance” and “NATO must revert back to its pre-1997 borders,” are almost impossible to agree to.
And Russia’s President probably knows it.
But this might just be the final piece of the puzzle. Putin is looking for a reason to justify going to war with the Ukraine and to continue the work he began years ago of restoring the former URSS.
By looking at how the U.S. and NATO are portrayed as aggressors in the Russian media, and how the country must fight to defend itself from their encroachment near its borders, we could speculate this is the case.
That being said, the alliance has kept expanding east ever since the early 1990s, with no signs of stopping.
For a long time, Russia was too weak to contest this, but not anymore. And one can’t help but think that Russia is really being placed in a difficult position regarding its security and that some of their concerns are justified.
After all, who is NATO supposed to protect against, if not Russia?
Recently Putin declared that the security guarantees he asked for in writing were largely ignored by the U.S. and its allies. And while there are still diplomatic efforts to avert an armed resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, time is quickly running out for a peaceful outcome.
An Impossible Choice for America
There is not much debate at the moment as to whether Ukraine will be able to withstand the Russian invasion.
Most military analysts agree it can’t.
The real question is what will happen once Putin chooses to disregard the West’s threat of economic sanctions and diplomatic exile and goes ahead with the invasion, either overtly or covertly, as he did in Crimea.
NATO will probably have to react in some manner, and the threat of a much bigger, much deadlier conflict will loom over us all.
And should Russia choose to attack any of the post-1997 NATO countries it demands removed from the alliance, the U.S. will be faced with an impossible choice: Intervene and risk a nuclear war, or stay out and lose the faith of all its European allies as well as show the entire world that it is no longer the superpower in once was.
I will end this by sharing another one of Mr. Putin’s remarks about the West.
“They cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back, presenting us with completed facts. That’s the way it was with the expansion of NATO in the East, with the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They always told us the same thing: Well, this doesn’t involve you.”
So, as you can see there two sides to every story.
But the real question is: What do you think America should do in this situation?
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