Since the start of the Russian military operations in Crimea, on a larger scale against Ukraine, already evident since Friday, February 28, promptly labelled as aggression not just by the target state, but also by the majority of the international community, the international press is full of articles and studies that try to look into the immediate future. Will a state of war begin between the two Slavic states, following the obvious Russian aggression? What will be the attitude of USA, EU and NATO in probably the most serious crisis that sparked in Europe after the end of the Cold War, if not since the end of the last world war? What will be Russia’s next moves in the already started action? What are the implications of the Russian action on the relations between Moscow and the West? Why did Putin risk losing, with this action, the prestige gained with the Winter Olympics of Sochi? Will this lead to a new Cold War, similar to the previous one, between West and East? How can be explained the support of the Russian speaking population from eastern Ukraine for such and armed aggression against the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine? Will the Ukrainian state turn into a federation, confederation or some other form of dismemberment? Has Crimea already become a ‘frozen conflict’? etc.
Each of these questions finds today not one, but many answers in the international press, obviously because the ongoing events have a clear global implication. Especially at regional scale, their impact is evident, so the western neighbours of Ukraine feel – in turn – threatened by the Russian aggressive action. Will Russian forces venture further west? Will Russian leaders use the lack of a strong reaction from the West to the invasion in Ukraine – especially during the first days – as a signal for such an advance into the former Soviet space, even in the exterior empire? In a column run by the ‘Washington Post’ on March 4, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote: “ If Ukraine is crushed while the West is simply watching, the new freedom and security in bordering Romania, Poland and the three Baltic republics would also be threatened.” The possibility of such a scenario being more than just speculation is demonstrated not only by the statements made by some leaders of these states – such as Poland – but also by recent history. As a matter of fact, even the Eastern Partnership founded in 2009 appeared as effect of another Russian strong-hand action in 2008, against Georgia. And this scenario becomes even more plausible, because if we accept as possible result of the present crisis a dismemberment of Ukraine, the political map of the region takes a new configuration whose novelty will imply a long period of transition to normality, with direct impact on the region, also in military terms. Eastern Europe could become overnight the Balkans of the early 20th Century, famous for being the “powder keg” of the continent.
What international press approached only of a collateral manner, and without producing a torrent of analyses, is why Russia risked such a military action given the experience of the military failure in Afghanistan, from the ‘80s of the last century.
As it is known in detail, due to the documentation that was made public, the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR, in December 1979 pushed Moscow into an unprecedented isolation abroad, which took a heavy moral and material toll. And the massive losses registered by the Soviet forces in the combat against Afghan insurgents sparked an internal crisis that was also accelerated by the leadership transition at Kremlin, determining the ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ that eventually failed into the collapse of USSR, in 1991. Certainly, not only the Russian invasion of Afghanistan set the whole process in motion, as the reasons for the collapse of the USSR were multiple, but it is undisputable that the war waged in that country precipitated the entire phenomenon of social and state dissolution.
It is known now that the decision to invade, made in 1979, did not meet the consensus of the Soviet decision-making structure – the Politburo of the Communist Party – which soon had to admit the fact that the action was a mistake that must be repaired. Matters pertaining to the prestige of a big power, above all – what will the allies/satellites say?; and the adversaries in the bipolar competition? – delayed the decision of announcing a withdrawal from Afghanistan until it was obviously too late, while the internal crisis which this action has accelerated could not be stopped anymore.
But Kremlin planners apparently forgot the lesson learned in Afghanistan, when they invaded Ukraine. The Russian national however has not forgotten the history. A poll conducted Monday, March 3, on 1,600 subjects from all over Russia gave the following results to the question: “Should Russia react to the overthrow of the legally elected authorities in Ukraine?”: 73 pc “No”; 15 pc “Yes”. The negative score was even higher among students (77 pc).
The military intervention in Ukraine was already met by the clear opposition of the legitimate leadership of the Ukrainian state, which qualified it as aggression. The attempt by Moscow to avoid this reality by invoking the legitimacy of ousted president Yanukovich, who allegedly made a request of support and defence against the extremist forces in the country – is not justified by the logic of events – and the prospect of a new Afghanistan is evident. Even if Russia has the upper hand in terms of military forces’ ratio between the two states, in this case too, same as in Afghanistan, this is not how the whole evolution of a possible military confrontation should be treated. The Ukrainian army, if it will fight back, will be rapidly defeated, but combat will continue – as it was frequently proved after the Cold War, to think only about the recent past – under various forms of insurgency, which already proved to be formidable in the confrontation with classic armies. Iraq post-2003 and Afghanistan post-2001 are examples that must be carefully analysed by political planners in Kremlin, when they will make decisions these days. There is no chance for a military success in such a combat.
But will the Ukrainian nation get involved in such a military effort as an insurgence? History demonstrated that the answer can only be positive. We do not refer to the examples of 1918-1922 or 1944-1953, conducted in conditions of international isolation and limited foreign support of those times. But we consider the recently showed will of the whole Ukrainian nation of being independent and sovereign, the fact that it has a legitimate leadership and it appears very likely that – although traumatised by the bloodshed on EuroMaidan – it will not hesitate to commit itself to immediate armed resistance. The support granted these days by the international community to Ukraine, to its independence and territorial integrity is another indicator of strengthening the decision to firmly resist if Russia does not make the correct decisions.
In such a reading of the recent events of Kiev and Crimea, Russia has no other option than conforming itself to international legality and taking the adequate measures in order to avoid another Afghanistan in Ukraine.