by Edwin Quinabo
On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launches a massive 150,000 troops invasion into Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic which voted for independence upon the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in 1991.
The historic attack triggers global fears initially for two reasons: Europe hasn’t seen a military mobilization and invasion of this magnitude since World War II; and the attack was launched by an old Cold War superpower led by a dictator in President Vladimir Putin.
By three weeks into the war, the world is shocked by the extent to which Russia’s war campaign has been escalating. A few cities are almost completely razed by shelling. Missile attacks are directed on innocent civilians that include targets where children are known to be, at a maternity hospital, at a bomb shelter marked on its rooftop “children.” The world is witness to a refugee exodus of millions. Again, of historic magnitude and not seen since World War II.
The inhumanity, the entire war itself actually could have been avoided if Ukraine, as the second most powerful Republic in the old Soviet, had not relinquished its nuclear capabilities, which amounted to one-third of the Soviet’s inventory of nuclear weapons. At the time, Ukraine ranked third internationally in having the largest stock of nukes. But three years after Ukraine gained its independence, its leader, along with leaders of Russia, Britain and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.
The agreement was that the U.S. and Russia (the twin superpowers then) would recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty and guarantee that they would not attack Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.
Besides the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, three other similar agreements were signed safeguarding Ukraine’s future security. But Putin’s attack on Ukraine violated all three of those agreements.
Putin’s first attack on Ukraine, invasion of Crimea
Putin’s now month-old war on Ukraine is not the first time Russia invaded Ukraine in modern times. In 2014, already Russia’s most powerful leader as a two-term president, two-term prime minster and reelected in 2012 as president for a third term – Putin orchestrates the invasion and annexation of Crimea, back then a Ukraine territory, it was a strategic military move for Russia to have complete access to the Black Sea, historians say.
Two triggers that push Putin to invade Ukraine in 2022
By 2021 after winning his fourth term as president, Putin is the uncontested, unchallenged supreme leader of Russia. He even manages to change the Constitution to enable him to potentially stay in power until 2036.
At his command is his handpicked top military brass who stood with him for years, all of them loyal to him without question. Putin is driven once again by military ambition (primarily in his own words, a defensive one) to secure control over Ukraine before NATO-influence arrives in Russia’s backyard.
Putin sees the pro-westerner, anti-corruption crusader Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky as the threat who could bring NATO to Russia’s doorstep.
While not officially made a NATO member, Ukraine has already been receiving U.S. and NATO high-tech military equipment; the Ukraine military also getting training from western troops. Official NATO-member or not, Ukraine has already been dressed the part, playing the role as member.
Adding to Putin’s fear of Russia’s neighbor Ukraine turning too “Western” is another fear developing in yet another neighbor country, Belarus. Putin’s longtime ally Belarus strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko (Europe’s longest-serving leader; Putin is second) suffered a near overthrow in 2021.
Georgia president Salome Zourabichvili, whose own country was invaded by Russia in 2008 that resulted in two breakaway states, said on CNN that Lukashenko’s near ouster probably gave Putin a sense of urgency to launch an attack on Ukraine now rather than a too-late-later when potentially Putin himself could be in a similar situation.
Lukashenko blamed foreigners for inciting rebellion in Belarus. Over two decades in power Putin has consistently expressed xenophobia, like Lukashenko. While having all the power in Russia, his rhetoric against the West, of the West’s dominance at the world stage since the breakup of the Soviet, revealed characteristics of an insecure man.
Lukashenko’s near ouster happened at a time during the world pandemic which gave Putin lots of alone time to stew fantastical scenarios after fantastical scenarios and to feast on his fears.
While U.S. Intelligence believe Ukraine’s invasion had been planned potentially years in advance. These three triggers could have set such plans into action.
Where US enters Russo-Ukraine conflict, the Donbas war
For all the western media’s criticisms of the Russian press, U.S. and western media have underreported the most critical prelude to the February attack – the Donbas war.
When Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, a then ill-equipped Ukraine military could not engage in direct military combat with Russia. That takeover went largely uncontested with six reported deaths.
Also happening that same year – this is the part hardly mentioned by the American press – was the start of a pro-Russian separatist war (instigated by Russia) in the Donbas region against Ukraine’s central government.
Crimea had already fallen and potentially more parts of Ukraine was in jeopardy.
Military analysts believe the thought of more Ukraine territory being lost to Russia was not in the West’s best interests. It’s at this time that the U.S. and NATO sprang into action, helping to build up Ukraine militarily and in essence, began their participation of fighting a proxy war on the side of backing Ukraine’s central government against its Donbas, pro-Russian, population.
The U.S. and NATO allies poured billions into beefing up Ukraine’s military technology and training soldiers in advanced combat.
The Donbas war started in 2014 and has been ongoing to the present. It was the first sign of a return of the Cold War to Europe. The 2022 Ukraine invasion expands on the Donbas war in a far grander scale.
The International Crisis Group, a transnational non-profit, NGO, think tank analyzing global crisis, said to better understand today’s wide-scale war, it’s important to know that Russia and Ukraine have been in an ongoing de facto war (actual ongoing direct conflict but not officially declared) since 2014.
The Crisis Group said over 14,000 people were killed in the Donbas war. It has been a classic trench warfare involving thousands of troops. The war tanked the region’s economy and there were widescale intense suffering as what happens in direct armed combat.
Besides the West’s portrayal of a megalomaniacal Putin intent on recapturing old Soviet Republics (a premise some veteran diplomats like former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch disputes in the New Yorker) there are other considerations that led to today’s war.
Importance of Ukraine as a buffer country
Both the Crimean invasion and the Donbas war, their importance collectively, has to do with Ukraine being a buffer that separates Russian borders from NATO-member countries.
In Putin’s address to Russia immediately after its invasion of Ukraine, he spoke extensively on the security threat of NATO’s expansion. He accused the U.S. of bringing the security threat to Russia’s vicinity and justified his action as a responsible action for Russia’s own protection.
Serafin “Jun” Colmenares Jr., Ph.D. M.P.H, Hawaii State administrator, told the Filipino Chronicle “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat to Europe and Europe is important to the US. It could be that Ukraine is not Russia’s end game. Ukraine is not the only buffer state and it is, therefore, possible for Russia to be interested in these other buffer states as well (the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), especially if there are Russian-speaking populations living in those areas.”
Colmenares Jr. believes Putin wants to go back to the status quo prior to the USSR break-up and is eyeing both former Soviet Republics and other eastern European states. “Fortunately, the Baltic States and these other countries are already part of the NATO alliance. Just too bad that Ukraine’s admission into NATO was delayed,” he said.
U.S. Commitment to Ukraine
Since 2014, the U.S. has committed more than $5.4 billion in total assistance to Ukraine (military and non-military). The U.S. (Ukraine’s largest humanitarian donor to Ukraine) also provided three sovereign loan guarantees totaling $3 billion, according to the U.S. Department of State website.
On Feb. 26, President Joe Biden instructed the U.S. State Department to release up to an additional $350 million worth of weapons from U.S. stocks to Ukraine.
Most recently a $13.6 billion emergency package of military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine and allies passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support.
President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill that includes this emergency package.
Dr. Belinda A. Aquino, Professor Emeritus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies, told the Filipino Chronicle Biden is correct on his pledge and follows through with billions extended to Ukraine.
“The beleaguered Ukraine nation is like David against Goliath [Russia] in the familiar biblical story. Here is a poor, innocent and defenseless country constantly bombarded by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is incurably suffering from unbridled MEGALOMANIA. I put that word in capital letters to emphasize the main cause of Putin’s cancer which is gradually eating up its prey next door which is unable to defend itself. Putin is obsessed with power and violence, and he will go on and on until he is stopped by another superpower with the help of other nations.”
What the U.S. will not commit to
President Biden has repeatedly said that the U.S. will not send ground troops to Ukraine and will not agree to a No-Fly Zone which could bring the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia.
Outside of the theater of war
Beyond Ukraine’s border where nearby NATO-member countries are situated, Biden and allies are obligated to engage if a member is attacked. The NATO Response Force (up to 40,000) has been activated and is on standby.
Economic sanctions against Russia
The U.S. State Department said the U.S. and NATO-EU allies and partners have imposed severe sanctions designed to exact economic costs on Russia. Some measures include sweeping financial sanctions that will have an immediate impact on its export controls that will cut off Russia’s access to vital technological inputs and atrophy its industrial base.
Brien Hallett, Professor Matsunaga Institute for Peace, University of Hawai’i-Manoa, told the Filipino Chronicle, “Whatever critics may say about President Biden’s actions before the fighting began, since February 24, his response has been effective. He and our European allies have responded forcefully without triggering a larger war. They have imposed economic sanctions, provided supplies, and such, but not gotten directly involved in the fighting on the ground.”
Hallett adds, “The U.S./NATO should continue the policies they have started while supporting every diplomatic opportunity possible. Behind the scenes, diplomacy with China might be the most productive, given how dependent Putin now is on China.”
Colmenares Jr. said, “The US should continue what it is doing, providing military material as well as humanitarian assistance. There is no denying the fact that what is going on in Ukraine right now is a humanitarian disaster. The US and the whole world should find ways to address the ongoing human suffering. Perhaps the US can rehash what it did during the Berlin blockade in the 1950s by providing much-needed humanitarian and economic help which saved West Berlin from the Russian siege at that time.”
One of the U.S.’s harshest sanctions is aimed against Russia’s central bank. It prohibits Americans from doing any business with the bank as well as freezes its assets within the United States. Analysts say it will cause extra hardship on Russian oligarchs.
Some sanctions have never been imposed in the past like going after a head of state’s personal assets in the U.S. like what Biden is doing now with Putin.
Colmenares Jr. said he agree with Biden’s handling of the U.S.’s commitment to this war. “It was a bit late but it was quite understandable given the need to have the support of the European countries first in order to have a united front against Russia.”
Economists say the sanctions imposed on Russia essentially amount to economic warfare. War cannot just be looked upon as physical military conflict in today’s global market and high technology. There is tremendous power in economic warfare.
Putin says sanctions against Russia are like a declaration of war. Economic warfare is particularly effective in block-style, coalition-coordinated sanctions. And vital to this is having strong allies, which the U.S. historically understood. Former President Donald Trump failed to understand the benefits of this during his term when he basically was dismissive of the EU and NATO.
The controversial ban on Russian oil
The most controversial sanction imposed is the US oil-gas ban on Russia which is the world’s largest exporter of oil. Some believe because the U.S. receives less than 3% of oil-gas imports from Russia, this ban is more symbolic messaging and will not be effective.
The likelihood that it could bring Russia to its knees could only have happened if European allies joined in this U.S. ban.
European allies are largely dependent on Russia as a major source of their oil and couldn’t commit to a ban.
Besides not being effective, the ban is controversial because it’s contributing to the rise in gasoline prices, which are already at historic highs. Economists say gasoline hikes will lead to other price hikes like utilities, grocery and most products that require long distances for delivery. It’s a ripple effect.
In a time of already record-high inflation, many Americans believe the ineffective ban is not worth the cost-benefit when severe austerity is required.
And that hardship calls into question fairness as Americans are historically asked to take on the highest burdens even as Europe, in this case, stands to benefit most in Putin’s containment and withdrawal of troops in Ukraine. The inequitable burden ratio is particularly bothersome to Americans who see their standard of living has had slipped below parts of Europe in recent years.
Aquino said, “The U.S. over its history has been involved in various wars and conflicts in many parts of the world – Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Iraq, etc. which has used up much of American military economic and political resources. As some pundits have put it, ‘America cannot and should not continue being the policeman of the world.’ In the end, if such militarily oriented activities continue, it is the American people themselves who suffer.”
She said of the Russian oil import ban, “It is a difficult problem because it will affect the American economy in terms of the American people who will be confronted by rising prices of oil and other products imported from Russia if the ban is prolonged.
“The US is in close touch with NATO and other allies in the world which is a good idea. As a united front, they can render Russia vulnerable if they persist in their killing and persecuting of Ukrainians.”Much of the West’s economic warfare against Russia is directed at Russian oligarchs. Throughout Europe from the U.K. to Italy, Russian oligarch property is being confiscated.
Aquino suggests, “The U.S. should explore its own products that it is exporting to Russia like vodka, caviar and other necessities that the Russian oligarchs relish.”
She says Russian oligarchs themselves and members of the Russian elite are responsible for propping up and keeping Putin in power.
“This is like a case of psychological warfare. Once that basis of Russia’s elite power is undermined by denial of the goods that they need and relish most, Putin might reconsider his hardline approach to dealing with the U.S. and allies who have the ability to contribute to the gradual erosion of Putin’s power.”
Colmenares Jr.’s take on the oil ban, “I think the oil ban, as well as the other economic sanctions, are the best way to pressure and punish Russia, short of war. It will initially have an adverse economic impact on the US and other countries but, in the long run, this will ease up as other sources of oil are found and other alternative energy sources are expanded.
“For example, the decision of the UAE to increase oil production can help alleviate the situation. The US is also trying to get Saudi Arabia to do the same, as well as talking to Argentina which is a major oil producer. I think most, if not all, European countries would follow suit eventually as alternative sources become available,” Colmenares Jr. said.
Attempts at peace talks, what’s already on the table to see
There have been four attempts at peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. But only the most recent meeting involved high-level cabinet members. Near a month into the invasion, it’s becoming clearer what the limits of engagement are. Experts believe the longer the war extends this clarity will lead to more productive peace talks.
Ukraine already knows its capabilities of defending itself and the growing refugee crisis. It’s currently about two million and is expected to grow to 5 million. Ukraine does not have the resources to sustain its refugees abroad.
In turn, Russia must have a better understanding that shelling targets alone will not break the will of the Ukrainian people who will resort to guerrilla warfare if needed.
Putin knows sanctions will begin to hurt Russians who will eventually grow tired of the war and could threaten his leadership.
Already at the outbreak of war, Russians took to the streets to protest Russia’s aggression. The number of anti-war protestors arrested has surpassed 14,000 and keeps growing.
With an inhumane 15-years prison penalty for a protestor in Russia, the thousands willing to risk so much takes passionate conviction. That kind of conviction doesn’t go away and could only intensify.
Time is against everyone connected to war. The U.S and NATO’s support for Ukraine will also have a practical diminishing date which is why some Americans believe given the U.S. mammoth financial commitments, at some point it and possibly another NATO founding member should be invited to the peace talks table.
Anger directed at Putin mounting higher
As of press time, close to 650 Ukraine civilians have died and the refugee crisis is rising by the hour, by the day. The more human suffering, the more intense vitriol is directed at Putin who most believe is the one-man dictator pushing this war.
“Putin is the personification of evil and should be removed. I admire Ukraine’s president and its people for standing up against the Russian bear to defend its freedom. I just saw a movie (Kruty 1918) which showed the heroic stand of about 300 Ukrainian volunteers (mostly students, the youngest of which was only a 6th-grader) against the attack of 4,000 Russians on Kyiv in 1918 and how they were able to stall them – indeed a testament to the Ukrainian fighting spirit that is on display right now,” Colmenares Jr. said.
Personal accounts of the war have been heart-wrenching. Aquino warned, “Millions of innocent Ukrainians have already been slaughtered as they tried to flee from their homeland. And many more people will be killed in the process by Russia’s military as each day passes during this war.”
At the same time, Aquino recognizes the Ukrainian fighting spirit.
“The Ukrainians cannot and will not be pushed around. They are very proud people who will not give up their homeland. They are correct in protecting their own country. They continue to pledge their own language and own culture. Such determinations are hard to beat even with Russia’s power of guns and bombs. Such staunch determination will triumph over the fragile basis of Putin’s power, which is based solely on his own megalomania and supreme arrogance.”
by Edwin Quinabo