Is Ukraine going to be the Cuban missile crisis of the 21st century and one of the key moments in the so-called hot peace?
by Hans van den Berg
As tensions rise at the border between Russia and Ukraine, relations on the international level are becoming turbulent as well. The question on everyone's lips is if there is going to be a war. If so, who will be willing to go to what end? And if not, what will be the consequences of this situation?
In the past centuries, Russia has been invaded several times. First, there were the Mongols, then the Ottomans, but from the 18th century onward it was mainly the European powers that threatened Russia.
Putin called the end of the Soviet Union the biggest tragedy in history. This statement builds on the threat the Kremlin saw in the constant expansion of both NATO and the European Union. Throughout history, each country likes to have a buffer zone. That way other countries (the buffer) separate it from those that it perceives as a threat. It's a basic strategy, these zones allow for extra time to mobilise. But the NATO and EU extensions brought potential threats to Russia’s doorstep.
It is understandable that the Russians observe closely what the Europeans and Americans are up to close to its borders. In the past centuries, Russia has been invaded several times. First, there were the Mongols, then the Ottomans, but from the 18th century onward it was mainly the European powers that threatened Russia. First the Swedes, then Napoleon, the Allied intervention during the revolution, and finally Hitler. So it’s understandable the Russians developed a strategy to deal with the Western powers on their doorstep.
When it comes to negotiation the Russians have something in common with the best negotiators in the world, children.
That strategy has involved mostly destabilising prospective NATO or EU members. Both institutions have long lists of conditions that need to be met before they can join. And neither has ever allowed a state to join that had an ongoing (internal) conflict, probably for good reasons. This strategy, by Russia, of destabilisation has worked for a long time. But, President Biden has an agenda with a top priority on strengthening and promoting democracy and stability around the world.
While neither Ukraine, Georgia, or any other current prospective member of either NATO or the EU has formally declared war, they have been in the waiting room for ages. This has triggered regional projects among these states. These developments, along with association agreements and talks between states it views within its sphere of influence and America, worries Russia. To the Kremlin, these developments threaten its influence in its near abroad and thus its buffer zone. So are the current developments at the border of Ukraine a serious threat or a bluff?
Some say the Kremlin is bluffing, wanting to see how far America and the Europeans are willing to go to protect a state that is neither in NATO nor the EU. Others, especially those close to the Russian border, say there is a serious threat. It would be foolish to think Putin would eventually back down under the threat of the military and economic power of the West. To understand this we have to break down the situation a bit further.
When it comes to negotiation the Russians have something in common with the best negotiators in the world, children. Children know that their parents will love them, come what may. The Russians understand that whatever happens and however much you may dislike them, in the end, you will always have to deal with them. Where Western countries, especially Europeans, focus on the relationship, the Russians understand that despite the relationship they will always have a seat, a voice, and even a veto in international affairs.
History also teaches us that the Russian state and its people can suffer immensely, more so than we can imagine. And they will rally around their flag and their leader, especially when times get rough. While the economic sanctions and threatening to close Nord Stream 2 seem though, they don’t impress. The majority of European countries are heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas, and there is no quick alternative. On the other hand, the total revenue from oil and gas makes up approximately 36% of the Russian federal budget.
Over the past decades, the strategies of the Soviet Union and Russia have not been that different and have not really changed.
If there is such mutual dependability then why is Russia poking around in the backyard of Europe? Over the past decades, the strategies of the Soviet Union and Russia have not been that different and have not really changed. Constantly testing the waters to see what the international response would be, taking things further step by step. While it sees the world as relatively peaceful, Russia believes international institutions and organisations are the main sources of conflict.
So, should the West call the Russian bluff? Or take it as a serious threat and take appropriate measures? To answer this it is important to understand a little bit better how Russia operates. In general, the Kremlin only gets involved in international affairs or provokes, when it believes outcomes can be predictable due to its own influence on, and where chance has little ability to change, the course of action. It carefully picks its goals and actions to achieve maximum payoff, while at the same time giving careful consideration to the strengths of opponents and the likelihood they will get involved. In the end provocation and risks are taken only in situations that can be controlled.
Recent history has shown us how Russia tries to divide and pit NATO and EU members against each other.
This means that the current actions on the border of Ukraine are anything but a bluff. Recent history has shown us how Russia tries to divide and pit NATO and EU members against each other. By turning off the gas supply it tried to force EU member states to make individual deals with Russia on energy supply. This action achieved the opposite but made Russia more eager to find other routes to achieve its goals; pushing back EU and NATO expansion, and weakening the institutions themselves.
So what should be done? It is idle to hope for a comparable outcome as with the Cuban missile crisis. Russia is like a bully. When punished, bullies often become worse. This does not mean we should condone or accept the behaviour and actions. Or leave them unpunished. But besides the measures taken, there should be dialogue and understanding of the roots of the behaviour.
In the end, it was not just the firm and cool attitude of Kennedy that saved the day. Rather it was the understanding of both sides of the context and roots of the actions of both sides that caused the situation. That, and a good bit of diplomacy. Overall, the West needs to change its approach towards Russia. After all, it is the slow breakdown in communication and of the relationship that got us here in the first place.
Hans van den Berg is Founder and President of The Young Diplomat, Lecturer at Leiden University, and Chair of the University Council and Tutor at Erasmus University.