The grounds for a Russian invasion of Ukraine are astonishingly meritless and unwarranted. The eagerness for an excuse to invade is preceded multiple times in history, as seen in Imperial Japan’s vague or false premises upon which the conquest of China was reasoned and from which the basis of Austria Hungary attacking Serbia was rooted. The Russians have gone insofar as to take steps in fabricating an attack on their soil in order to force an internationally sanctioned push for war against Ukraine. Today, as Russian forces advance into Eastern Ukraine, a bloodless beginning to a potentially drawn-out war, many questions remain, and there is much to analyze.
The two major pillars supporting the tainted former Soviet Union could not have evolved more differently. Legally, both countries are ostensibly democratic republics, but in practice, such is not the case. In Russia, although President Putin had indeed been democratically elected, actions were taken to lengthen his reign and expand his personal powers to a largely unhealthy point. An affinity with the oligarchy, kleptocracy, and malicious foreign actors renders the honesty of the Russian government dubious at best. Even Russia’s modern founder, Boris Yeltsin, is viewed more of a Warren G. Harding-like figure to the Russian populace; an unimportant and inconsequential administration rife with fraud and wrongdoings; ultimately weakening national power. This is a more negative characterization in comparison to references in a more liberating and revered tone such as that of George Washington or other equivalent national founders. Such criticism can be positively portrayed as evidence of Russia’s freedom of expression, that even its founder can be discussed publicly. However, it is evident that freedom of speech is unwelcome in the Federation, with the arrest and detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and subsequent protesters. Widespread condemnation of modern civilization across the board, and the reverence for leaders of the distant past, is not only found in Russia. This apparent Ancient Bias Theory, commonly referred to as “rosy retrospection,” is evident not only in history books, but also in everyday life. The issue with Boris Yeltsin in the modern media is not his policies, nor his lack of military heroism, it is the fact that he is not old enough to be categorized into the “good old days.” The Ancient Bias Theory can be attributed to two factors. The first is perceptive discretion. As time progresses and the details of history are only acutely memorized by historians, solely the most important accomplishments and details of an individual are deemed worthy of knowing. As such, figures of the Ancient Roman Republic, like Cato the Younger, are recorded as dazzling stoic orators or equivalently magnificent titles, without legitimate regard to the fact that they are still regular human beings like the rest of us. The second factor is an innate longing for the glorified past. When modern humans encounter strenuous difficulty, it is natural for one to compare their situation to similar ordeals. Thus, drawing from their greatest source of inspiration, the past, it naturally follows that the past is perceived as far better than the present. Thus, as all recollections of past memories and histories are used in a nostalgic manner, it is unsurprising that no matter what Boris Yeltsin did for Russia, he will unlikely be a George Washington to his people in the near future.
A shared problem of corruption is where the similarities with Russia end. Two key points in Russian-Ukrainian modern history come into play when comparing the two. The first is the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. After its founding four months and a day before that of Russia, Soviet nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil, inherited by Ukraine, gave them the third largest nuclear stockpile in the world. The world was rightfully concerned by the sudden emergence of a new and unstable nuclear power. As a result, the Budapest Memorandum was signed with the United States, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom giving a range of security guarantees and requiring Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons. The second landmark moment of Ukraine and Russia’s history is the 2014 Minsk Agreements. The agreements come after the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, which instituted a new government for Ukraine that same year. In much need for stability, the new government signed the agreement that called for a ceasefire in the Donbas region, and, along with its successor, the Minsk II, ensured mild autonomy for the region without recognizing it as an independent state.
The culmination of the crisis on the Russo-Ukrainian border today should not be unexpected, as numerous figures warned that such an action could pragmatically occur. Recent relations between Russia and western powers have been intensifying through natural gas pipelines, Middle Eastern proxies, and economic sanctions lasting from the 2014 Annexation of Crimea. It is also important to note that the general shift in the focus of American policy to the Asian-Pacific region leaves the Russians relatively less restricted were they to threaten Europe, understanding that if America is dragged in, its Pacific adversaries could easily pressure the United States. Recent reconciliations between President Xi of China and President Putin firmly restores Russia into a position ready to strike at American interests. Russia’s failure to recognize the legitimacy of the eight-year old Ukrainian government can be used as justification for violating the aforementioned agreements. Direct conflict between Russian and American forces in Ukraine is extremely unlikely, as the United States does not have a direct defense pact with Ukraine and establishing one will likely escalate into a larger global conflict. However, it is important to understand the broader repercussions of conflicts at the Ukrainian border and inside the disputed Donbas region.
In the modern sphere of foreign policy, the odds are arguably more stacked against the American side than ever in the Cold War or before in terms of preserving American influence. The Sino-Soviet split between the U.S.S.R. and China, along with the latter’s relative incompetence, greatly weakened the East at the time. Emerging into the third decade past the second millennium, China has proven to be a formidable contender in world dominance. Producing an enormous amount of exports, China’s robust economic structure, combined with its expanding financial empire, allows it to rival, or even surpass the United States in economic might. Furthermore, even the United States is not safe from China’s growing sphere of power. Out of all United States government debt held by foreign nations, China ranks second, amassing an astonishing one trillion, or nearly one-sixth of all debt held by foreign nations. This is problematic on many levels as this debt gives China a tremendous amount of leverage over the United States, the calling of which would lead to a destabilization of the American economy. With a strong export-driven economy, a broad-reaching foreign policy, an evolving military, a growing nuclear stockpile, and most importantly, a strong sense of civic nationalism, China’s only visible issue at the present day is its lack of a substantial amount of natural resources. This is evident from recent quarrels with Australia and suspicious deals with Russia. Petroleum, natural gas, minerals, and other materials necessary for a potential conflict are insufficient in the highly populated nation. Even water may be a scarcity in some regions in China, seen by the shortage of snow during the Beijing Winter Olympics. In a major blow to western influence, China’s partnership with Russia counteracts all of these deficiencies. Russia has a robust surplus of natural gas and petroleum, which it is actively trying to ship to Europe. Assuming the conflict in Ukraine does boil over, a European embargo on Russian resources could easily be offset by Chinese demand. With a population double that of Europe’s, China will undoubtedly overcome Russia’s oil sanctions. The sheer number of Allies retained by the United States during the Cold War counterbalanced any single military show of force the Soviet Union could ever muster. However, when it comes to allies, the United States and the West seem to be falling behind, with developing countries overwhelmingly favoring China’s Belt and Road Initiative and related projects. Vaccine diplomacy further proves that previously-considered loyal US allies, such as Brazil, are very willing to switch allegiances to China as soon as the American Bloc falters. When tensions throughout Europe approach a tipping point, one cannot ignore the similarities the present day draws to the uncertainty and difficulties of the Cold War. With Russia’s frequent touting of its hypersonic missile, the United States’ historic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction is no longer a relevant factor for success. Overall, the recent standoff in Ukraine is a warning to the United States that it can no longer rely on its past success to further extend its influence.
The lasting global impacts of a Russian invasion of Ukraine extend further than the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk. First, Ukraine’s surrender of nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for foreign defense securities was annulled by Russia repeatedly throughout the past decade. This makes any potential North Korean denuclearization effectively impossible as it understands that its nuclear weapons are its lifeline to territorial sovereignty. Other countries near Russia, such as the countries comprising the Baltic States or other countries in relatively unstable positions yet to acquire nuclear weapons, may seriously consider the prospect. Second, new fronts between the United States and a China-Russia coalition will arise in new geographical locations, eventually expanding into a global conflict. Finally, a trade embargo of Russia/China aligned countries against the United States, or counter sanctions, will threaten the powerful consumer base of the United States, and potentially destabilize the United Nations. Ultimately, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will unavoidably boil into a larger conflict, and the impact of which is impossible to predict.