By Bolanle Bolawole
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As we said here last week, both the 1st and 2nd world wars had remote and immediate causes, and the epicentre of the wars was Europe before other parts of the world gradually got sucked into the vortex. The causes of the wars were European in nature – so also the dramatis personae. The issues in dispute were historically, culturally, politically, economically, and militarily European. Other nations sucked into the wars, Africans inclusive, only carried the can for Europe! In the unfolding Ukraine/Russia war, the theatre of war remains Europe; the major actors remain European; the major issues in contention have their roots in European history but a major point of departure this time around is the Cold War element which has made Ukraine a proxy of one of the world’s superpower-nations, namely, the United States of America, locked in contest against Russia, the successor-nation to the now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). As in the 1st and 2nd world wars, alliances are being formed behind the two superpower-nations but some nations have stayed neutral, unfazed by what the assassinated US President JF Kennedy, quoting Dante Alighieri (full name, Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri), was reported as saying, to wit: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality”. Should full-blown world war break out, however, some of today’s neutral powers may take position one way or another.
The United States-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is firmly behind Ukraine. In fact, analysts have fingered the US and NATO as the scantily-concealed hands that have instigated, goaded, and pushed Ukraine on its current collision course with Russia. Ukraine, thus, has become a pawn on the chessboard of superpower politics; the proverbial foolish man who allowed his head to be used to crack the coconut but who ends up not partaking in the eating! Carl von Clausewitz, in his treatise “On War”, posits that “War is (the) act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” and also that “War is merely the continuation of politics with other means” That being so, the ongoing Ukraine/Russia war is hire wire politics – Cold War politics or “realpolitik” military supremacy tussle between two contending superpowers which abated with the collapse of one (the USSR, on December 25, 1991), leading to the (pyrrhic?) victory of the other (USA/NATO) but which has now resurfaced with frightening prognoses for world peace and security. I deliberately used the term “contending superpowers” because there is one superpower that has not yet (fully) entered the superpower fray or Cold War politics – China. It would appear as if China sits contented for the time being with continuing its massive economic development and conquest of world trade and commerce while also silently revving up its technological advancement and military power, waiting – my thinking! – for the right moment to enter the ring; possibly after the other contenders had worn one another out! As my secondary school teacher, Mr. Jacobs (later Mr. Omole) posited, you don’t get in-between two equally matched fighters to separate them when they are still rearing to go; you wait until they tire each other out before you step in to impose your terms – a diktat – on them both! Thus, China may not resolutely climb into Russia’s corner even if its present war with Ukraine escalates – except, of course, China perceives its core interests threatened or has a prize to snatch for itself!
I also deliberately used the term “pyrrhic” to describe the US/NATO victory over the USSR/WARSAW Pact alliance because it would appear, with unfolding events, that the US/NATO celebrated too early, that the victory of December 25, 1991 was not total, that the defeat the USSR suffered was not crushing enough, and that Russia was allowed too much breathing space to recuperate and regain its strength. Another way to look at it is that it is a measure of the immense military power at the command of Russia that the US/NATO was unable to force-feed it with the kind of humiliating treatment meted out to Germany at the end of the two world wars. As a nuclear power with immense capabilities, a deflated Russia still had what it takes to inflict collateral damage that no one was prepared, then and now, to contemplate. With the collapse of the USSR, US/NATO might have won the argument (even if momentarily) between Capitalism and Communism but they must have erroneously assumed and or concluded that they had also won the Cold War, especially with the speed with which the European Union and NATO literally invaded the former USSR satellite-states, bringing them under the EU/NATO ambit, installing their troops and ammunition right on the doorsteps of Russia, virtually encircling the erstwhile Communist state.
Russia’s protests fell on deaf ears, especially after promises and guarantees made to it by the West began to be observed in their flagrant breach. USSR’s President Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of perestroika and glasnost (meaning, reforms and openness) that led to his empire’s collapse, protested in vain. The egregious Boris Yeltsin (a man cast in the same mould as ex-US President Donald Trump, don’t you think?) also protested in vain the US sophistry employed to justify NATO expansion eastwards. When the current Russian President Vladimir Putin assumed office, he reportedly proposed to join NATO – “if and when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner” – and not that Russia would apply, “standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter”! Either he was not taken seriously or he was flatly rejected! It would be dangerous to admit one’s enemy under one’s roof! How would the person again sleep with two eyes closed? And how will the US achieve its set goal and objective of being the only superpower nation – and policeman – of the world?
But defeated, humiliated, conquered, and embittered nations do recover over time and they do resurge! The French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, said in his book “The Social Contract” that “as long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for, regaining its liberty by the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it away” A truism of “realpolitik” is this: Strong nations have their way; weak nations suffer what they must! Just as truth is the first casualty in war – as we have witnessed in the ongoing Ukraine/Russia war – morality is the first casualty in the theatre of international politics or diplomacy. As it has been said, nations have no permanent friends or enemies but permanent interests. States are no moral beings! In relations between nations, interests decide and power does the talking! Small nations ignore this at their own peril!
Yes, nations do rebuild and resurge: We saw the example of Germany which, after the 1st World War, stoically rebuilt its military and economic power. When the Germans reckoned they were strong enough, they described the 1918 Treaty of Versailles as “a piece of paper” and the German Fuhrer (or Leader), Adolf Hitler, reportedly held it up and shredded it publicly to the consternation of the Allied Powers! Not done, Hitler told his generals: Our enemies are not men of action, not masters. They are little worms. I saw them in Munich”! So, the immediate cause of the Ukraine/Russia war is that Russia is resurgent. Between 1991 (when the USSR collapsed) and now, Russia has recovered a lot of lost ground militarily and economically. If Putin did not think he can stand up to the US/NATO now, he still would have put his head down like Gorbachev and Yeltsin did and suffer what he has to. Yes, the US/NATO has reneged on agreements – but it started reneging under the very nose of Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin cried himself hoarse over it! Yes, the US/NATO/EU has expanded to the very doorsteps of Russia, virtually encircling it; again, this is a process that started immediately after the USSR collapsed in 1991! The historical, political and cultural issues causing disaffection amongst the European nations are as old as Europe itself. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, the 1914 League of Nations that ended the 1st World War, and its successor, the United Nations Charter of 24 October, 1945 that ended the 2nd World War did not – and could not – resolve all of Europe’s “National Question”, as Josef Stalin had famously defined it. There is hardly a European nation or state that has not fought wars against another European nation or state or that has not laid claims – or still lays claims – against one another over one lingering issue or another. All of these add up only as remote causes or excuses for the ongoing Ukraine/Russia war.
A resurgent Russia now thinks itself strong enough to stand up to the EU/US/NATO and checkmate their eastward advancement that has tilted the erstwhile Cold War balance in favour of the Western powers and threatened Russia’s security and place as world power. The Balance of Power or, better still, the Balance of Terror hypothesis is endangered in a uni-polar as against a bi-polar world! But for China, sitting calmly in a corner like the proverbial bat observing the madness going around, and the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that the massive Russian nuclear arsenal threatens, the US may as well assume the position of the virtual and sole superpower-nation of the world. But fresh from its victory over the USSR in 1991, the US could have observed the wisdom in Rousseau’s postulation that “The strongest is never always strong enough to be always master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty”! Rather, the opinion of many is that the US rode roughshod over the entire universe, bestriding it like a colossus that is accountable to no one – not even to the UN Charter it swore to uphold! I suspect that Russia thinks itself strong enough now to stop, and possibly reverse, this trend. Or that further delay is dangerous. It may seek to avenge the shame of 1991 and, possibly, roll back or put in disarray the EU/US/NATO advancement to the East; a tall order, no doubt! But it is when a child gets his hand firmly on the handle of the sword that he demands to know the death that killed his father!
Yes, Ukraine is an independent country – but so was Cuba in 1962! Is Ukraine a democracy? If Putin is a dictator, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is no less! Zelenskky has shut down opposition media, harassed political opponents, and levied war against a section of his own country wanting to break away. He is seen by many as pro-US/NATO, as against his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russia but was run out-of-town by a seemingly orchestrated popular uprising. EU/US/NATO may just be using Ukraine as bait to draw out Russia for the kill: Get Ukraine to move in the direction of EU/NATO membership, which everyone knew Russia would oppose; once Russia invades Ukraine, rain debilitating sanctions on it that will cripple its economy and, again, set it back many decades. In the interim, Russia comes off as the aggressor against whom the international community lines up; so it becomes a pariah. On the economic front, the US is, possibly, better positioned to achieve two critical objectives that former President Trump has spoken passionately about – stop Europe’s, especially Germany’s, dependence on Russian gas and oil and get a Europe frightened by Russia’s resurgence to pick up more of the NATO defence bill saddled on the United States.
The reported Russian attempt to do to the US (as the US has done to it!) by setting up military alliances-cum-bases at the US doorsteps (in Venezuela, Cuba, etc), could also be a reason why the US quickly wanted to tighten the noose around Russia’s neck. In view of the United States’ Monroe Doctrine (which forbids other Powers messing around in what is regarded as the US “sphere of influence” in the Americas), and the example of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, it will be interesting to see how the two Powers respond this time around to a Russian challenge to the Monroe Doctrine. Two weeks into the Ukraine/Russia war not only the two belligerent nations but other nations far and near are already counting the cost. It remains to be seen, however, whether Europe, particularly Germany, will cut off from Russian gas and oil – and go back to (dangerous and expensive) nuclear power and coal as alternatives. How will ordinary Germans/Europeans react to higher cost of power? How will this war impact a US economy fast losing ground to China on many fronts? But analysts say for America’s military/industrial complex, this war may bring good fortunes! But what if it spirals out of control? NOW CONCLUDED!
Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers and Chairman of its Editorial Board, BOLAWOLE writes the TREASURES column in the New Telegraph newspaper and the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.