The Russian-Ukrainian Crisis: A Geopolitical Earthquake Hitting Europe

ByDr. Ahmed Daifullah Algarni

Europe and the whole world have been at a critical juncture since the Russian President Vladimir Putin  decided to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022; internationally recognized as a sovereign, democratic, and independent state. Furthermore, prior to the invasion, his official recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in Eastern Ukraine as independent states escalated tensions between Russia and the West. Has the Russian president entered a trap of defeat that will probably lead him to failure?  Or has he succeeded in restoring Ukraine or at least its eastern part to Russia’s geopolitical sphere?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine  is fundamentally based on two assumptions. The first assumption, President Putin made a fatal  miscalculation and fell  into  the strategic trap probably set by the United States to remove Russia as a competitive threat on the world stage — to cement its own position as the sole power in the new world order. Moreover, through this invasion, the Americans intend to keep Europe under the US defense umbrella, thwart Russia’s economic rapprochement with the Europeans, which threatens  Washington’s geostrategic interests and global leadership position.  The second assumption,  Putin probably  thoroughly examined the international shifts, America’s disengagement,  and Europe’s fragility. He intervened  at the right time to impose a new geopolitical reality in Europe, restoring  Russian  prestige and deterring  NATO expansionism toward Russia’s vital spheres.

We can  explore how the concept of “geopolitics” has returned as a feature of conflicts in Europe after the United Nations had ended it following  WWII. By geopolitics here we refer to the expansion of official state borders and the extension of influence across any possible territory  driven by religious, sectarian, ethnic, or nationalistic motives. The world, especially Europe, still vividly recalls the conquest of the Nazi President Adolf Hitler when he extended Germany’s borders to include the territories of the Aryan race, and he also annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia  as well as other countries. As a result,  WWII erupted; halting the Nazi geopolitical expansion and defeating Germany —which was divided and deprived of its power. The same story is repeated when analyzing  Russian geopolitics as well as  Shiite geopolitics, with Iran attempting to impose a Shiite crescent in the Arab region.   

Putin identified his motives for invading Ukraine:  disarming the country, its denazification, protecting the Ukrainians from bullying, and racism and  removing the Ukrainian government. He emphasized that  “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own [Russia’s] history, culture, and spiritual space.” His took this step to invade Ukraine after his efforts to readmit the country into  the Russian sphere faced a strong backlash. Opinion polls showed that the majority of Ukrainians prefer to join the US-led NATO and the European Union (EU) — which will pose an existential threat  to Russia’s national security. This is probably, according to my estimations, the main reason behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Needless to say, Russia is quite keen to bolster its economic and geopolitical power and protect its national security.   Russia, however, by taking this step violated  international law as it prohibits  offensive geopolitics and  condemns the use of force or threats to apply it  in international relations.  In addition, international law stipulates respect for state sovereignty, non-interference in the  internal affairs of any country, and for  armed disputes to be settled by  peaceful means.   

A host of geopolitical shifts triggered Russia’s desire to impose its power in Europe:  the US Democrats returned to power (their conventional policy is to  scale back military interventions and focus on  domestic affairs);  the US withdrawal from Iraq and Washington’s avoidance of  using military power against Iran — despite its repetitive provocations;  threatening maritime security in the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and launching attacks through its proxy militias against US and Iraqi bases. This is in addition to Russia’s enhanced confidence after it consolidated its presence in Syria without facing opposition from the United States or Europe.  Furthermore, NATO  intra-disputes and the lack of confidence in its security umbrella  prompted France to launch  a European collective defense initiative — after the United States  started  to form new alliances to confront China away from the NATO umbrella like  the security pact AUKUS, which includes the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The proponents of the strategic trap assumption argue that Russia  did not fully study  the military and economic dimensions of its strategic calculation. The war will lead Russia to face massive losses, a decline in its regional role, and it will be absent from  the competition taking place among global powers on the international stage.  

At the military level, Russia is the second largest arms exporter and its army is the second most powerful behind the United States. It strongly competes with US arm sales in international markets.  Washington perhaps believes that if Russia enters a long war of attrition in Ukraine, it will lead to the defeat of its army and a lack of trust in  Russian arms, placing  the United States as the unrivalled leader in arms sales around the world.

Until now, military operations have not been carried out as planned by the Russian army. According to field reports, in the early days of the invasion, Russia faced serious logistical problems and obstacles in providing  its army with the basic requirements of modern warfare, including fuel. Putin probably expected that Russia would execute a swift operation as it did in  the Georgian invasion in 2008 or when it seized  Crimea in 2014. He overlooked  the ramifications of Russia’s interventions in Chechnya in 1994, or in Afghanistan — which  turned into a long war of attrition; which was the main reason behind the dramatic collapse of the Communist camp and the dissolution  of the Soviet Union.

At the economic level, Washington has been concerned about Russia-Europe relations which started to tilt  toward a new direction ever since  the EU-Russia  St Petersburg Summit in 2003. The EU back then decided to boost its relations with Russia.  Moscow has become the largest trading partner and energy exporter to the EU. This bolsters Russia’s economic power and makes it a bedrock in the new world order, destabilizing the position of the United States as the strongest economy in the world.

Washington is also concerned about the growing  economic partnership between Russia and Germany through the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project, which planned to provide Berlin  with 50 percent of its annual energy demand, and generate $15 billion  for the Russian national  gas company Gazprom. This will  enhance Russia’s influence in Europe, and probably will be a reason for Germany giving  up on  US military protection.

Therefore, I believe that Washington is the main beneficiary of Russia’s invasion  of Ukraine because the economic sanctions will curb  Moscow’s future role as a world power, and fundamentally undermine its economic partnership with Europe, especially in the energy sector. Moreover, Washington via the crisis no doubt will want to send a message to the Europeans that it serves as their irreplaceable security and defense partner  to protect their geopolitical sphere from  Russian threats.  This is what actually happened; Germany has stopped the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

The proponents of the second assumption argue that Putin has made calculations for preemptive strategies and carefully crafted operational plans for risk management at the economic and military levels. They believe he will succeed in containing Ukraine and impose a loyal-to-Moscow government or at least will divide Ukraine into two states: eastern Ukraine; loyal to Russia given their common culture and ethnicity   and the Crimean Peninsula.

At the military level, Russia has aimed  to achieve a host of objectives: cripple  Ukraine’s air defense forces,  its air force,  and naval fleet in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. The last objective was successfully achieved in 40 minutes as Ukrainian naval vessels were deployed in exposed bases. The Russian army however faced difficulties in crippling  all of  Ukraine’s air defense forces and its air force.  

At the level of the ground invasion,  Russian ground forces are operating across  four major axes: the first axis is the northern axis which aims to take over  Kyiv, change the regime, and impose a loyal-to-Moscow government. It is hoped  that the collapse of the capital will lead to the domino collapse of the Ukrainian army and resistance  across Ukrainian cities. Russian forces took control of the city of Chernobyl  and crept  closer to the outskirts of the capital Kyiv but stopped 30 kilometers away from the center of the capital  as they faced furious resistance from the Ukrainian army. The second axis is the northeastern front which targets Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. Russian forces faced strong resistance that pushed them to engage in street-fighting, prompting them to withdraw and only encircle the city.  The third axis is the southern front, which was not well defended because it is geographically close to the Crimean Peninsula. From this front, the attack on Kherson was launched. The city fell quickly as it includes a considerable Russian minority. While heading to Mykolaiv, Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant after clashes with Ukrainian forces.  The military campaign crept toward Odesa, the most significant Ukrainian city in the Black Sea, to control the coastline. 

The fourth axis is  the eastern front; the Donbas region which the Ukrainian army controlled two thirds of before the Russian attack while the separatists controlled one third; Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatists said that they advanced several  kilometers toward Donbas; however, Russian forces faced furious resistance here  from the Ukrainian army and could not achieve their objective to fully control the region.   

It is true, the Russian army was shocked, and its progress slowed down because of  Ukrainian resistance. The United States and Western countries aided the Ukrainian army with thousands of anti-armor missiles, contributing to the resilience of several Ukrainian cities in the face of  advancing Russian military convoys. The losses prompted the Russian army to change its fighting tactics through besieging instead of directly invading cities. This was to push Ukrainian soldiers and armed civilians to surrender.  However, soon the Russian army changed its strategy again in order to adapt to rapidly changing  field developments. It  achieved many victories by moving  its forces with large armor and artillery regiments, multiple launch rocket systems, and the most sophisticated ground-attack aircraft.

It seems that the new stage of Russian operations will be massively destructive and bloody. Initial assessments  indicate that Russia has mobilized reinforcements from the Pacific Ocean in preparation for a long war. It is highly unlikely that the Ukrainian army, no matter how heroic  it might be at fighting, will be able to prevent the occupation of some major cities. The Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said that  a huge number of Ukrainian military targets have been destroyed or their service ended  since the start of the Russian military operation.  At  the economic level, some analysts believe that Russia will manage to overcome the economic sanctions imposed by the world despite it facing a  depletion  of its sovereign wealth and a decline in the gross domestic production  (GDP) rate. This analysis is  based on the short-term  impact of the sanctions but there is no clarity over their effectiveness in the long run and their potential ramifications on Russia’s capabilities or preparedness to resist the sanctions or their effectiveness in changing Russia’s behavior.

History tells us that Russia has the ability to be resilient and survive crises. Therefore, Russia’s  collapse due to economic sanctions is quite unlikely, especially with the help of the world’s second major power; China. Moscow has enhanced its ties with Beijing in the fields of finance, trade, and  energy exports. Russia is the second largest oil exporter to China behind Saudi Arabia with long-term contracts extending to 30 years. 

Many historical examples illustrate  Russia’s resilience throughout the ages, as adaptation and survival are an integral part of  its history and national identity. Further, the jewel of Russia’s inherited economy from the Soviet Union is  its robust economic structure. Its inability to completely integrate into  the global economy is considered a point of strength when  addressing economic shocks and enhances  the likelihood of its survival  in the most aggravating and unprecedented circumstances.

Therefore, to weaken Russia, international oil prices must drastically drop or there must be a reduction in  the  quantity of  the country’s oil and gas production, or both. This is difficult to achieve, given the desire of energy producers to recover from the recession they faced amid  the coronavirus pandemic as well as given Russia’s continuous gas exports to China and other Asian countries. Further,  OPEC does not have any energy alternatives that can compensate for Russia’s share; 7 million barrels per day to absorb this shock.

Putin had used oil revenues to pay Russia’s debts, leaving the country with hardly any debt owed to foreign governments or international financial institutions. Moscow can persuade foreign investors with its natural resources; it can actually allay their fears and convince them return to the country amid the current conflict. Countering sanctions may lead Putin to largely control the country’s economy, enhance his political power, mobilize more supporters, and make him a national  hero. So we can say that despite  the fact that Russia’s economy may shrink and deteriorate,  Moscow will maintain its financial independence and freedom to  operate and maintain its economy in the long run.

Last but not least,  the question about  which scenario will materialize  prompts  us to ponder the future despite the fact that the situation remains ambiguous and military operations are still underway.  Yet, we can forecast that the  scenario of Russia’s defeat and returning to the situation before the invasion is very unlikely given the weakness of Ukraine’s army and the massive destruction it has faced as well as the advances of the Russian army, and the delay in delivering  US and European military aid to the Ukrainian government. However, at the same time, the scenario of completely controlling Ukraine is still farfetched for the Russians, given the Ukrainian resistance forces in the western region and the desire of its citizens to merge with Europe.  So, the likely scenario is that Putin will succeed in making Ukraine officially recognize DPR and LPR as two independent states affiliated with the Russian sphere, needless to say  that Putin will pressure Kyiv to give up on its ambition to join  NATO. This scenario is supported by the outcome of the talks held in Turkey between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on March 10, 2022. The meeting mitigated tensions between the two countries; Russia reduced its demands and intention to topple the Ukrainian government in return for the recognition of  the Crimean Peninsula as Russian territory and the official recognition of DPR and LPR, and for  the Ukrainian Constitution to be amended to reflect the country’s  neutrality by removing a clause  concerning its  NATO membership. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed that he is open to revise his country’s ambitions regarding  joining NATO as stipulated in the Ukrainian Constitution and reach  some common ground regarding the Ukrainian territories controlled by Russia now. Despite the aforementioned, the military advances in the upcoming days and months will reveal the nature of the political positions and the way out of this geopolitical earthquake in Europe.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Dr. Ahmed Daifullah Algarni
Dr. Ahmed Daifullah Algarni
Vice President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah)