Between nations there are three levels of influence; the first level is vital for security, such as defending the homeland; the second level provides an area that acts as a buffer of protection from a competitor and the competitor mutually considers that same area as a buffer; the third level includes areas that will extend influence or power if the cost or risk is small. If, for any reason, power leaves an area, such as a power decline or a lost war, another country (or countries) will attempt to fill the vacuum. Until the vacuum is filled, this is a volatile and dangerous time. The greatest threat occurs when the second level area is eliminated, a vacuum is created, and that area becomes vital for security and thereby escalating to first level influence. When security is threatened, it’s possible the nation will try to regain balance by going to war if they think they have a reasonable chance of winning. Because the more powerful nation has dominion over the less powerful, the latter does not have complete control of events. Actually neither side does at this point setting miscalculations and miscommunications in motion that rapidly change the situation. Developments, like falling dominoes, develop quickly, one after the other, until both sides are directly threatened by one another.
Often the actors’ actions are limited or determined by factors outside their control. An example of cascading, catastrophic events is well illustrated in the case of Russia. The country was invaded from the West in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a great deal of destruction and loss of life. An assassin’s bullets killed an archduke (Ferdinand) and his wife in 1914 during a parade in a buffer zone in the Balkans. The Balkan Peninsula is located at the crossroads of three major empires at that time, the Ottoman Turks to the south, Russian to the east and Austrian-Hungry to the northwest. These empires were in secret alliance with four more powerful nations; Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States. The Balkan was the spark of WWI. Five years later, 17 million people had been killed, empires fell, and the first attempt at a world government, the League of Nations, was created. One of the unanticipated results of that war was a pandemic of influenza that infected 1/3 of the world’s population, delivering over 50 million people to their death. Twenty years later the war continued as WWII. The unintended consequences turned out to be approximately another 75 million deaths (soldiers and civilians), millions of refugees, destruction of infrastructure throughout, and two cities in Japan completely obliterated by nuclear bombs. Other unintended consequences were the vacuum created with the defeat of the Axis powers, the rise of Red China in the East, Soviet Union (Russia) extending toward Western Europe, and the beginning of the end of European colonies. It was also the start of half- century Cold War between the USSR and its allies along with the US and theirs. All of this started in a buffer zone, in an area that was not even a state.
In my opinion, the Great War showed that it is not possible to prevent a war with the same mindset that created it. If you have competing nation states that only focus on their own national short term interests, that same system is incapable of governing global systems that affect all countries. As a result of WWI, Woodrow Wilson created the first attempt at a world government, The League of Nations. Although all empires at the time were responsible for that war, Germany was blamed for it by the victors in the Treaty of Versailles and was required to pay for the war. Because of the resentment of Germany, and the poverty and chaos throughout Europe, that war resumed as WWII 20 years later. With the collapse of Germany in 1945, Russia filled the vacuum in Eastern Europe and Communist China filled the vacuum caused by the downfall of Japan in Asia. The competition between the liberal West, the illiberal Soviet Union and Communist China resulted in nearly a half century of the Cold War.
Ukraine: Today’s Balkans
Since the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Russia has lost most of their second level of influence that added to Russia’s strength, prestige and protection of the states of Eastern Europe. The one exception is Belarus. The rest have revolted from Russian control. Putin declares that his goal is to restore the glory and power of the Soviet Union, yet he appears to be losing support within his own country. The success of Ukraine as a Western-leaning democracy threatens Putin’s hold on power. President Biden and other Western leaders know that and it is probably the main reason why both Ukraine and Georgia (both buffer zones) have not been granted NATO membership. Both of those countries are not members of NATO (a military alliance) or the EU (an economic one) most likely because their membership could well trigger a Russian military response. As Ukraine gains wealth under a democracy, Putin fears a revolt within Russia again him and the Russian oligarchs. The big sticking point is, NATO cannot give in to Putin’s demands of officially denying membership to both Ukraine and Georgia because democracies are free to choose their own allies. In addition, the US would lose credibility and would be a green light for Putin and Xi, of China, to expand their power. As dictators, Putin and Xi believe they have the right to choose for other nations.
What are the Options?
Ukraine has gone from second level of influence to first level for Russia. Russia is threatening Ukraine on three fronts -- with cyber warfare, assassinations, and by (literally) turning off Ukraine’s access to natural gas. Except for Belarus, all of the former buffer states in Eastern Europe have revolted from Russian control. The same is true for the other countries on or near Russia’s eastern borders. Putin is also increasingly unpopular within his own country. He knows that if people have a choice, they will choose to have a democratic, corruption-free, society. Putin knows that the longer Ukraine is free and successful, it is a threat to his power. His first option is to threaten Ukraine into submission. His second is to create a failed state there. His third option is to overthrow Ukraine so quickly that they will be overwhelmed and the losses will be minimal. Putin thinks that China will provide him with the means to withstand an economic embargo by the West.
Here are the possible options (diplomatic and military) for the US and the rest of NATO to stop Putin’s aggression: Blockade navel ports in the Crimea (which are owned by Ukraine) and the Russian naval port of Kalingrad and destroy the bridge between Crimea and Russia; create military-free zones for both Russia and NATO, to eliminate the presence of tactical weapons (especially nuclear) within a prescribed distance of the mutual borders; and a system to defuse possible conflicts that may arise. Find a compromise solution that can provide Ukraine’s independence while dealing with Russia’s security needs. Economic sanctions will not have the same clout if Russia can gain valuable technology through third parties, particularly if Russia can rely on China to provide some of this technology (as well as a market for Russian oil and gas) as well as being a conduit. Increase sanctions gradually as long as Russia is threatening Ukraine while informing Putin that sanction will increase as long as Ukraine is under threat. Inform Putin that NATO will recognize Ukraine if Russia does invade.
If Putin chooses to invade Ukraine, he is betting on a swift conclusion that enables Russia to go back to once again controlling what was the previous Soviet Empire. It’s vitally important to understand that100,000 troops (with tanks) are already on the border in Belarus just a few hours from Ukraine’s capital of Kiev. If those troops go forward unopposed, topography and other elements would allow them to quickly overwhelm Ukrainian defenses. This would require NATO to get directly involved almost immediately. In my estimation, if Russia starts to lose, a European war could quickly turn into an all-out war and Putin will attempt to use tactical nuclear weapons. All of this could happen in a day. Do you see how important this is?
After a half century under the control and exploitation by Russia, most East Europeans do not want a repeat. Ukrainian national identity has been fortified by Russian incursions and threats. Ukranians support a free and independent Ukraine. Putin also now knows that Biden’s leadership is not the same as Trump’s, or even Obama’s or Bush’s, and that the majority of Americans support Ukraine. My guess is that Putin will see that NATO and Biden will have enough resolve to support heavy sanctions against Russia, including the oligarchs and Putin himself.
One last note: If you notice, Putin was the one who traveled to Beijing during this year’s Winter Olympics, presumably as a show of power to the public. Power politics suggest that the truth is he did so to garner Xi’s favor and reduce the impact of sanctions from the US and NATO. I don’t expect Russia will make a move against Ukraine during the Winter Olympics because of Chinese pressure. I believe that the world has a two week window to resolve this before a war occurs.