War in Ukraine: Imperialist posture of a long gone superpower
Many analysts claimed there will be no invasion of Ukraine, some examples highlighting that this would not happen due to a lack of reasons, but rather because the result and subsequent fallout will cripple Russia politically. However, the start of this conflict in February 2022 and the unfolding of the war in this manner showcase the ideological structure currently in place in Kremlin, fuelled by interests that were not grounded in the reality and gravity of the situation. Instead of a successful campaign that would topple the Kyiv regime, the so-called Special Military Operation backfired and weakened Putin’s position more than any other decision ever could.
In order to understand why the war in Ukraine developed in this particular way, we must first
understand the premise of it, the build-up for internal support and, finally, the objectives. Seeking power is a fundamental part within the realist approach of International Relations and,
consequently, anything that could justify acting in such regard. According to Mackinder’s Heartland theory, Russia’s potential as a superpower is highlighted by geography, an omnipresent element in ideological material produced there. With the history of the Russian Empire in mind, it is clear that the expansionist nature is part of the current’s state DNA, if it looks to maintain a position of power. This premise provided a solid foundation for Vladimir Putin’s goal of creating a new world order, more favourable to Russia. Looking further into understanding the background of this year’s war, we can observe that the role of the Russian elite, the Siloviki, was crucial in both shaping the aspirations from this endeavour, but also in providing support for the cause. To ensure internal support by relying on propaganda, Putin aimed to paint the picture of a fascist Ukraine, despite not bringing any factual backing to such claims. Having the population brainwashed into believing an ideological battle similar to the one that traumatized the Soviet Union in the last century is about to take place, Putin secured the overall contempt, at the very least, of the people.
On the international stage, the situation looked drastically different. Denial of Ukraine’s very
existence as a sovereign nation created a dangerous precedent, that many states in Europe and
America would not be willing to allow to slide. This is due to Putin’s ideological portrayal of Ukraine as part of the former Soviet Union and his depiction of the USSR’s collapse as an absolute geopolitical catastrophe. However, like the majority of conflicts, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is defined by a range of objectives, more or less clearly defined, but all rational. In this case, the existing ones are of financial, military and social natures.
Economic wise, those interests are a combination of direct, active Russian gain of natural resources and of passive, retroactive benefit of eliminating a potential trading partner of the EU, in the form of Ukraine. As such, it is no surprise why the opening aggressive move of forcefully seizing Crimea in 2014 was also in line with those objectives. The goal in mind to financially cripple Ukraine was one of the most important aspects of this war, in order to prevent the threats to the energetic monopoly that Russia previously enjoyed regarding Europe.
On the societal spectrum of the situation, the Revolution of Dignity was the successful process of the Ukrainian society of realigning itself with Europe culturally, in the detriment of Russia. The prospect of a free, democratic Slavic nation, at the very gates of Moscow, create a dangerous scenario: the showcasing of a prosperous state in the values of the West, a political nightmare for Putin. Thus, ensuring that Ukraine does not have the chance to develop alongside the European bloc was an intrinsic part of this war’s design.
Finally, the strategic aspect of this region also played a role in defining the plans for the war. The covert involvement that began in the summer of 2014, in support of the Kremlin-backed separatists, was escalated dramatically with the invasion in February of this year. One of the arguments for it was the state security in face of NATO expansionism. However, this has proven to be nothing more than a fabricated justification, following Putin’s contradictory action in face of achieving its goal of barring Ukraine from joining the defensive alliance. Furthermore, despite Ukraine’s valuable geographic position within Kremlin’s calculations in regards to conflict with NATO, the proof that this war of expansion is not related to the democratic growth of NATO is Putin’s reaction to the ascension of the Scandinavian states of Sweden and Finland, who objectively benefit the organisation more in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Circle.
Besides not achieving the objectives in mind when starting this conflict, Putin also worsened Russia’s overall stance. Despite a show of force in Kazakhstan prior to the invasion, the Russian influence over its neighbours and in the region has plummeted. This was most recently demonstrated at the CSTO summit, in which the shortcomings of NATO’s supposed rival are all the more prevalent. This was also another public humiliation for Russia’s leader. The most blatant example of impotent Russian foreign influence is Belarus, which has yet to be persuaded in assisting more than just passive compliance with the war.
Following the absolute failure of this invasion, the position that Russia occupies on the global stage has been irrevocably damaged, becoming a pariah state, fact on which the British PM Rishi Sunak doubled down on at the G20. The previously shaky balance of power in place has now further shifted, with states either opposed to Russia or their main counterpart focusing on preparing for different scenarios regarding this conflict's outcome. Not only that, but Putin’s main goal of preventing further integration of Ukraine in the European community was also short falling. Lastly, the status quo in place has also experienced a metamorphosis detrimental to Russia.
Whilst Putin’s definition of the USSR’s collapse in 1991 as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the XXth century is something debatable at best, the decision to invade Ukraine on the other hand is objectively the most consequential event of the XXIst century, so far. The image of a powerful state, that was carefully crafted in well over two decades, in an attempt to paint Russia as a near-peer opponent to the US, is in tatters. The position of Russia in the international community has been ruined, despite its reputation as one of United Nations Security Council’s members, now being perceived as a belligerent who cannot achieve basic superiority in a next door conflict and is unable to stand for its allies. With an economy on life-support by government intervention, the façade of a super-power has been definitively erased from the collective mentalities in regards to the Russian Federation, following it’s leadership failure to suffice their imperialist ambitions.