Some years ago, I was talking to Pakistan’s famous intellectual, political analyst and renowned environmentalist Dr. Adil Najam. I asked him what kind of world he would see in the coming years. He replied, “We are living in a 1913-1914 time”. I asked him as to why he believes that. He said that the international political situation was very similar to what the world saw during the second decade of the 20th century. The power balance was shifting, new alliances were forming and no one knew which country would be allied with which power. The uncertainty was at its peak. So, did he once again expect a war? “Could be,” Adil replied. “All it needs is some paranoia that gets out of control.”
Adil’s fear was materialised on 24 February 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war against Ukraine. The Russian military with 200,000 troops surrounded the country. By comparison, this is almost the same size as the entire Ukrainian military and about the same number of troops the US sent to Iraq in 2003.
Numerous political commentators in the international media are insisting that if President Joe Biden would have provided guarantees to President Putin that the West would not include Ukraine in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), then the conflict could be averted.
Is this true? After getting a word from the West, would the Russian president pull his military back? History tells us that things are not as simple as some believe.
If Russia takes complete control of Ukraine, it will create a new security threat for the West. The world will witness the birth of a new world order, with the creation of a new Iron Curtain, starting from the eastern borders of Finland to the southeastern borders of Romania. All the concerns about democracies and human rights will take a back seat and the new realities will take over, in which the priorities will be to increase military power
In any case, since the war broke out already, it has a full potential to get out of control and turn into a long protracted conflict amongst different adversaries. The biggest question is, “What does President Putin want?” The answer to this question is very complicated and its roots can be found when the Soviet Union was broken up in the 1990s. President Putin lamented the Soviet breakup as the “demise of historical Russia.”
For centuries, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and some other countries were part of the Russian empire and then, after the Bolshevik revolution in the early 20th century, became part of the Soviet Union. All was changed when suddenly the world’s most formidable superpower collapsed and became 15 newly independent republics in the early 1990s.
During the Cold War, there were two powers: NATO in the West and the Warsaw Pact in the east. Although the Warsaw Pact countries were not directly ruled by the Soviet Union, they were client states. The region between the Netherlands in the west and the Ural mountains in the east is a funnel-like region, called the North European Plain (NEP) which is almost entirely flat. It has a very narrow opening in northern Germany, and then it opens up increasingly wider as it approaches the Ural mountains. Since a wide portion of the NEP is very difficult to defend, all the rulers of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union wanted to move to the west as much as they could, where this region gets narrow and easier to defend in the event of a conflict with the West. During the Cold War, the Soviets were controlling the NEP from the Urals to East Germany. All the countries between the Soviet Union and northern Germany were members of the Warsaw Pact, i.e. client states for Moscow.
So, if the West were to invade the Soviets, they had a choice to attack from one of these three routes:
(a) across the Sudeten Mountains, which is a geomorphological region in Central Europe and shared by Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia,
(b) from Turkey, crossing the Black Sea,
(c) from a very narrow corridor in central Germany across the NEP.
All these possibilities were extremely difficult, and the Soviets were well protected. Everything changed in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Within 30 years of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact states like Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria became part of NATO. Also, the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—which used to be the part of the Soviet Union, joined the NATO alliance. This pushed the NATO territory significantly to the east and separated the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad from mainland Russia. This situation becomes very grim for someone sitting in the Kremlin, who sees NATO as a hostile military alliance and a threat to Russian security. In 2002, six states: Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus agreed to create the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) as a military alliance. Ukraine did not join the CSTO and remained neutral. That significantly increased the importance of Ukraine for Moscow, because it became a buffer zone between the NATO and CSTO alliances.
In Ukraine, some neo-Nazi factions are fighting against the Russian military. If the war continues for years—which is the most likely scenario—these groups will get war-hardened and more organised. After the current war ends, they may end up being very strong inside Ukraine
Assuming that Ukraine comes under Moscow’s orbit, that will push Russia’s defense line to the Carpathian mountains in the southwest and the eastern boundaries of Poland.
But if Russia were to stop there, it would still leave a door open for future conflicts. The West has the apprehension that to further secure its borders, Russia would swiftly move to isolate the Baltic states of the NATO alliance to avoid any possible large-scale NATO military build-up, by advancing through the “Suwalki Gap” between Kaliningrad and Belarus. So, before Russia would make its move, NATO would step in to ensure the security of its allied states by either trying to take control of Kaliningrad or increasing its military presence in Baltic states by ”slowing down” Russia’s advance using all means available. These scenarios will bring the CSTO and NATO into direct conflict, which, so far, NATO is avoiding – by refusing to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Conversely, however, if Ukraine joins NATO, then the CSTO/Moscow defense line would move deep towards the east and they have to defend almost 1,400 miles of open, poorly defensible flatland. In this scenario, NATO would sit only 180 miles away from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and it can take control of the Volga river, which is used to supply Russia’s oil and gas coming from the Caspian Sea. The German Nazis and their alliance in the Second World War tried the same, but could not achieve their goal.
That is the reason why Russia needs to assure the neutrality or control of Ukraine. Anyone who believes that everything will “go back to normal” after the current conflict lives in a fool’s paradise.
If Russia takes complete control of Ukraine, it will create a new security threat for the West, and even neutral countries like Sweeden and Finland, which are close to Russia geographically, might thereafter decide to join the NATO alliance. The world will witness the birth of a new world order, with the creation of a new Iron Curtain, starting from the eastern borders of Finland to the southeastern borders of Romania. All the concerns about democracies and human rights will take a back seat and the new realities will take over, in which the priorities will be to increase military power.
History tells us that wars always bring both short-term and long-term destruction. The short-term destruction can be dealt with easily, but the effects have to be dealt with for decades.
During the 1970s, right-wing extremists in Afghanistan were very scattered and posed no significant threats to their governments. Although Zulfikar Ali Bhutto used some factions inside Afghanistan to pressure the government of Sardar Daud, they never became so powerful as to bring about any significant changes in the country. However, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, these factions got both training and weapons. Over the years, they learned how to organise and fight. The war economies built at this time were providing fuel to terrorism even decades after the Soviet pullout. These war economies gave birth to Al-Qaida and the Taliban: networks which achieved global reach and culminated in the horrific 9/11 incident. The US invasion of Iraq and military operations in Syria gave birth to organisations like ISIS, which are threatening world peace to this day.
In Ukraine, some neo-Nazi factions are fighting against the Russian military. If the war in Ukraine continues for years—which is the most likely scenario—these groups will get war-hardened and more organised. After the current war ends, they may end up being very strong inside Ukraine. In such a situation, they would further influence decision-making in the government and society, thereby contributing to a worsening security situation for the region.
And the effects of this will not be limited to Ukraine alone. For decades to come, Europe may have to deal with a new, more organised and even weaponised neo-Nazis.
Years ago, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Dr. Adil Najam was right to worry about a situation similar to 1913-14.
Very thoughtfully written article