Notes on a War in Progress



Considerations on the origins and causes of the European conflict

On the eighth day of the ongoing war in Ukraine, I venture to contribute to the debate that is being waged about it, in Brazil and in the world, above all by historians, strategists, political economists, scholars of geopolitics and international politics, but also journalists, activists of parties and social movements, as well as simple citizens, which is my case.

In this comment, necessarily of a general nature, I look for the origins of the question and explore at the outset what, in my view, is its broader and riskier context. In the end, I make some considerations about what is being created in Ukraine, a new stage in the history of international politics conceived under the name of the New Cold War.

In other words, since Vladimir Putin announced on February 24 his decision to resort to a special military operation against Kiev, seen as essential to Russia's security in the face of a negotiation that, under the protection of the second Minsk protocol, did not show progress, and even more essential in the face of a catastrophic strategic-nuclear scenario for Moscow – the parking of American nuclear missiles in Ukraine –, we entered another stage of the relationship between, on the one hand, the USA, the EU and NATO and, on the other, the Russia. Eight days ago, the transition from a low-intensity civil war in the border region between Russia and Ukraine to a military conflict between two heavily armed countries opened up the possibility that a major European war could break out in the short term.

The outbreak of the military conflict that opposes Moscow to Kiev goes beyond the bilateral, by giving rise to the creation of another and much more serious scenario, something that until recently was considered a disposable topic, the possibility of transforming the ongoing war into a European war, which theoretically it would imply the use of the full range of conventional weapons available to NATO and Russia. This scenario, catastrophic in itself, unfortunately does not exhaust the destructive capacity inscribed as a germ in the Russian-Ukrainian war. If this big war, as Paraguayans say when referring to what we call the Paraguayan War, comes to pass, its own dynamics could lead the belligerents to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. This eventual somersault could in turn set up what Herman Khan theorized in his book On Thermonuclear War, launched in 1960, two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Such an apocalyptic rise from the current conflict to the ultimate limit, the nuclear one, let us rest assured, is highly improbable. But this extreme scenario, let's worry, is by no means ruled out. So much so that it has returned to the attention of specialists. In this record, last February 8, in an article published by The Nation under the title “Ukraine and the Threat of Nuclear War”, Ira Helfand, until last year president of the “International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War”, an organization awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, drew attention to the following points: (i) according to US government calculations, the war in Ukraine could result in the death of 25 to 50 civilians; from 5 thousand to 25 thousand Ukrainian servicemen; and from 3 thousand to 10 thousand Russian servicemen; (ii) the conflict would produce a wave of refugees that could vary between 1 million and 5 million people. Yesterday we passed the 1 million threshold; (iii) if NATO becomes directly involved in the clash between Moscow and Kiev, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, 4 nuclear powers (United States, United Kingdom and France, for one side, Russia on the other) and all the other 27 members of NATO; (iv) the 4 nuclear powers, said dr. Helfand, without going into detail as to whether he is actually considering the totality of the four nuclear arsenals, have the following armaments: United Kingdom – 120 nuclear weapons; France – 280; United States: 1650 strategic nuclear weapons, and 100 tactical nuclear weapons already installed in 5 European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Holland and Turkey); Russia: 1900 tactical and 1600 strategic nuclear weapons.

The most powerful Russian nuclear weapons vary in potency between 500 and 800 kilotons. Those in the United States, if we consider only those installed in submarines, have 455 kilotons of power. For comparison purposes, the power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was 16 kilotons…

To get a more concrete idea of ​​the risks involved in an eventual escalation of this type, consider that a 100-kiloton bomb, just over six times the power of those launched against Japan, if dropped on Moscow would kill 250 people and leave a balance of wounded in the order of 1 million people. A bomb of that same power, reaching Washington, would kill 170 people and injure 400.

Much worse still: if 300 of these strategic weapons were launched against the United States, 78 million would die in the first 30 minutes. The vast majority of the rest of the population would die of starvation, the effects of radiation, and epidemic disease. In a generalized nuclear war, Russia, Canada and all of Europe would suffer the same fate.

In planetary terms, we would all be particularly affected by nuclear winter. Temperatures would be similar to those of the Ice Age. That is, a war of this type would mean the end of the problematic civilization we know, and most likely would reduce the 'sapiens' species to almost nothing. This is what is at stake whenever nuclear powers threaten to clash militarily.

Finally, do not forget: the passage from the conventional war stage to the nuclear one can occur by the will of the belligerents, but also by pure accident.

Let's leave this extreme circle, a veritable nightmare, and move on to what led Russia to proceed as it has and is proceeding.

If we stick to the geopolitical and geostrategic record and all its limitations, what ultimately led to the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war is not mysterious. It is enough to look carefully, superimposing them, maps that indicate the expansion of NATO to the East and the location of military bases in the territory controlled, in terms of defense and attack, by the Organization.

To better understand this expansion, it is worth remembering that NATO, created in 1947, was originally made up of 12 members: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Iceland and Luxembourg. In 1952, entry of Greece and Türkiye, first expansion. The second expansion takes place in 1955 West Germany. The third, in 1982, Spain. That was NATO's expansive cycle throughout the Cold War.

But after the end of the Cold War, and as a result of the understandings reached by the United States, United Kingdom, France and West Germany, on the one hand, and the USSR, in a first moment, plus Russia as its successor, dissolved the Soviet Union, Westerners, and most especially West Germany, achieved their goals: German reunification and the permanence of the reconstituted Germany in NATO. This, however, was exchanged for the promise of the 4 Westerners that there would be no further expansion to the East.

James Baker and Hans-Dietrich Gensher assured Moscow, along with their British and French counterparts, that it would. What happened was the opposite. The United States, under Clinton, and NATO, with short-term realism, exploited the fragility of both the Soviet Union and the successor Russian Federation to initiate a second expansionist cycle, a move that has yet to be concluded.

In 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic join, despite protests from a weakened Russia; in 2004: Bullgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, again under protests from the Russians, equally ignored. The process led to new member states: in 2009: Albania and Croatia; 2017: Montenegro; 2020, North Macedonia. In March of last year, the military alliance received membership applications submitted by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine.

As in previous cases, the intended entry of Georgia and Ukraine was considered unacceptable by Russia. But this was no longer the Russia of the 90s, but the Russia of today, an extraordinarily powerful country in the conventional and nuclear military record. Moscow marked its position: it is inadmissible to give in to expansionist 'hubris' again, because doing so would seriously threaten its security and would condemn it in the long term to abandon its project of a great power once again on the rise, as projected by Putin. Giving in would be equivalent to accepting as destiny becoming an after all negligible power, fated to occupy a subordinate position “vis-à-vis” the western field.

Having outlined this picture, which is sometimes put in the shadows or treated in a hushed tone, let's move on to the decisive period of relations between Russia and Ukraine. Let's move on to what actually pushed forward what Putin, exercising the art of euphemism to the fullest, called a 'special military operation'.

For this we must keep in mind what the real Ukraine is, not the imaginary Ukraines, those that, in a record that has a lot of fabulous, are presented as diametrically opposed to one another, one being cultivated by the United States, the European Union and NATO; the other for Moscow. Battle between the two for hearts and minds.

Instead, we see Ukraine as a problematic country, structurally unstable, deeply divided internally and incapable of developing relatively consensual or relatively acceptable international policy strategies for a society marked by antagonisms. Such is Ukraine, I maintain, resulting from the independence achieved in 1991.

Since then, the country has experienced successive crises, a dynamic that was greatly intensified with the 2014 coup d'état, which almost immediately led to the so-called low-intensity civil war, which in the Donbass region alone had killed more than 14 people until the month past. This first stage of independent Ukraine ended last February, when Putin recognized the independence of the two republics of Donbass and began military operations.

In fact, in its most recent phase, the process has its immediate origin at the end of 2013. In a country divided internally in linguistic terms, marked by opposing nationalisms and ideologies, and with a society characterized, in cultural, ethnic and religious terms, by difficult coexistence , the then President Yakunovich took a decision that, perhaps well founded in logical, historical and geopolitical terms, turned out to be disastrous.

Having received a proposal from Putin that he considered the best under the circumstances, he decided to abandon the negotiations he was holding with the European Union and committed himself to establishing strong ties with Moscow and the Commonwealth of Independent States led by Russia.

The Ukrainian nation splits. One side rejects the presidential decision; the other praises it. But the nationalist right, particularly its neo-Nazi segment with Stepan Bandera as its main icon, has risen up. With the support of NATO, the United States and the European Union, he acted with extreme violence, overthrowing the president in March 2014, forcing Yukanovich to flee to Russia.

The neo-Nazi nationalist extreme right and the other fringes of the Ukrainian right took power and then adopted discriminatory measures against minorities, bans and restrictions both of a linguistic and cultural nature. Barbaric violence by paramilitary organizations was unleashed across the country, but was particularly intense in the Donbass region.

What's more, we all know: Moscow, in reaction to what was happening, annexed Crimea, whose population, around 2 million people, was composed, in 2001, by 58% of Russians, followed by two minorities, the Ukrainian and the tatar. The annexation of Crimea, where the Sevastopol base is located, guaranteed the ability of the Russian navy to operate in the Black Sea. Having been an evident violation of the rules of public international law, the feat was justified internally to Russia as an imperative necessity. The annexation was the subject of a plebiscite in which 96.8% of the population was in favor of it.

Moscow also immediately supported the resistance of Russian-Ukrainians in Donbass to Kiev's military actions. While always denying having sent troops to the region, Moscow even spoke of volunteers. Objectively, the population was saved from the Nazi-fascist violence of the militias incorporated, with operational autonomy, into the armed forces of Ukraine. Russian support for Donetsk – a city with 1 million inhabitants – and for Luhansk – with 400 – was decisive. Russia, however, did not recognize the two entities as independent states, which only happened three days before the entry of Russian troops into Ukraine.

At the political-diplomatic level, all efforts to overcome the crisis triggered by the 2014 coup and to stop the civil war in Donbass failed. The theoretically most promising one, enshrined in the 12 points that constitute the essentials of the second Minsk protocol (2015), did not advance in the face of Kiev's refusal to operationalize it.

This, in general terms, is the process whose exhaustion led to the concentration of a large number of Russian troops on the Russian border with Eastern Ukraine, a movement that began in the second half of last year. Today, NATO estimates that troops have reached 200 troops. Since February 24, part of these contingents began to operate in Ukraine, from Russia itself and also from the border between Belarus and Ukraine.

On the eighth day of the war, the outcome has not yet been defined, nor can it be reliably estimated how long it will take. However, given the disparity of the forces present, it is unlikely to result in a military victory for Kiev. Therefore, it is very likely that Russia will achieve, in whole or in part, its main declared objectives: the replacement of the Ukrainian government by one that is favorable to it; the demilitarization of the country and its 'denazification'.

The price to be paid by Russia will be extremely high, both in economic, financial and commercial terms and in terms of the country's international image. To make Moscow pay these costs, the US, NATO and the European Union are fully mobilized. With them, the great global media, almost entirely guided by the United States and the European Union.

In the long run, the most draining will be the effect of the set of sanctions imposed on the Moscow government. Russia, however, appears to be relatively prepared for the sanctions that are piling up. It remains to be seen how long Moscow will be able to hold its breath in the face of sanctions as strong as those imposed on Iran and Venezuela.

But analytically it is worth distinguishing: while the sanctions adopted and perhaps still to be adopted will achieve their immediate objective – to weaken the Russian economy and, with that, undermine the internal support that Putin enjoys – only in the medium or long term, counted in many months or in a few years, the immediate Russian objective – winning the war and neutralizing Ukraine as a NATO beachhead – will probably be achieved in a few weeks or, at most, a month or two more.

On an exclusively bilateral-military level, the greater risks for Russia will actually begin to manifest themselves with force only after victory has been achieved. Moscow can win the war, but it could lose the peace. With the Kiev government changed, Putin may find himself immersed in a Ukrainian quagmire that will remind everyone of what happened in Afghanistan with the Soviet Union and, later, with the United States and its allies.

Completing the picture, it is necessary to underline the essentiality of the Sino-Russian alliance, even more so after February 24, established during Putin's recent visit to Beijing. Then the unusual convergence of both governments became evident, exhaustively recorded in the long joint declaration issued 20 days before the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

The document points to a profound reformulation of the prevailing global order with minor adjustments since the end of the Second World War. In fact, the declaration in its own way signals the apparently irreversible exhaustion of the structured system since Bretton Woods, the creation of the United Nations, the beginning of the Cold War and the creation of NATO. In this order, despite the existence of the bureaucratic socialist camp in Europe, and the weight of then-communist China in Asia, multilateralism played a somewhat accessory role, while bipolarism ostensibly predominated. Even so, the articulation between the multilateralism professed in the United Nations and the so-called East-West bipolarism allowed for the creation, in the context of the Cold War, of interesting options for the Third World.

But despite these windows of opportunity, well exploited by the group of Non-Aligned countries and by the countries that left the colonial yoke, the main role, quasi-hegemonic, fell to the United States. This situation was remarkably reinforced after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which allowed the United States to exercise, for a brief period, a unilateralism that did not find strong antagonists. However, at the start of the 80st century, both the international order in force for almost XNUMX years and its 'hegemon' began to show more and more explicit signs of exhaustion.

On the bilateral level, the Sino-Russian declaration of last February gives a clear operational perspective to the gigantic partnership-alliance project between Moscow and Beijing. The agenda is broad-spectrum and will continue to expand because this is of vital interest to both countries, especially from now on.

If we articulate the two levels of the declaration, the bilateral and the global, it is not unrealistic to conceive that this turnaround in the relations between two great powers, one Asian and the other, Eurasian with enormous and contiguous territories, will drive a new type of multilateralism, along with some multipolarity, both to be further defined and conceptualized. In this movement that is just beginning, a special background: the greatly increased importance of Asia in the world of the second half of the 21st century will become even more explicit.

If, on the one hand, the long-term directions of the Sino-Russian relationship seem firmly established, it is another matter when one considers the short period of time. Part of the success of the new partnership-alliance will largely depend on the final vector that will define the scope, beyond the immediate scope, of the operation launched by Russia against Ukraine.

Seen in this frame, the success of the strategic convergence between Moscow and Beijing became linked to the Russian success at the end of the audacious operation that put in check the strategy of the United States, NATO and the European Union in the European theater. Russia's success or its frustration at the end of this large-scale movement that put the entire strategy of the 'western camp' in check will also depend on the ingenuity and art with which the Moscow government, victorious, will try to reorganize Ukraine.

This reorganization, if successful, would ideally allow, within a reasonable time, as opposed to a long time, the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian troops. This hypothetical scenario, which I see as too idealized and excessively favorable to Russia, may even include new Ukrainian territorial losses, one of them the entire Donbass region, plus others that, eventually, Putin deems indispensable to reinforce the security of the Russian Federation.

Is it feasible to rain so much manna on Russia, when the entire European space has been experiencing, since at least 2008, a dynamic in which polarization predominates, a process that has reached its temporary peak in recent days?

Provisional conclusion: if we think in terms of the long term, everything indicates that relations between Moscow and Beijing are very well underway and tend to become increasingly stronger. On the other hand, the shock suffered by the United States, NATO and the European Union was such that the reaction is being the one we see every day: imposing on Russia a state of total war, economic, financial and commercial. Only the military dimension has so far been avoided…

In the space of a few weeks, another process emerged in Europe, also a long-term one, and with a structurally opposed character to the Sino-Russian partnership-alliance. A New Cold War definitely took shape. “Definitely”, while it lasts. This new time of struggle is no longer a ghost that has haunted Europe since the beginning of the 44st century, since the beginning of NATO's expansion to the east. The New Cold War, now clearly installed in Europe, will last for a generation or longer. The first lasted for XNUMX years.

With the crystallization of this exposed invoice, I believe that both NATO and the European Union, both Germany and France, not just Russia, will be weakened, even if in unequal, different, mismatched ways. France and Germany, because they are trying fruitlessly each time to be relatively autonomous powers 'vis-à-vis' the United States, tend to have their respective profiles very low. With that, and as paradoxical as it may seem, the declining United States will once again become, as they were during the previous Cold War, the true and uncontested masters of NATO, the absolutely dominant imperial power in Europe and the European Union. But that does not mean that his decline will necessarily be reversed. More likely, the opposite. The dynamics of the New Cold War may accelerate American decline as, at the other end, the Sino-Russian pole, to its fullest extent Eurasian, asserts itself more and more.

Not without reason George Kennan, the renowned American strategist, creator of the concept and doctrine of the containment, and staunch defender of the geopolitical and geostrategic interests of the imperial republic already warned in 1997: “(…) expanding NATO will be the most catastrophic mistake of American policy throughout the entire era that began with the post-war period”.

The mistake was made by Clinton, the mistake was catastrophic as indicated by Kennan, the colossal invoice was presented last month by Russia. We will all live the consequences.

* Tadeu Valadares is a retired ambassador.


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