Original: March 13, 2022
Revised: April 24, 2022

On the Conflict in Ukraine

(my East European roots springing up)

I grew up in Eastern Europe (in Romania, which borders on Ukraine) and I want to say a few things about the conflict in Ukraine. Eastern Europe has many historical fault lines going through it and they still shift violently and periodically since the end of WWII. But what we see now in Ukraine is much larger than anything we saw since the end of WWII. It will most likely lead to a realignment in Europe, and possibly even worldwide. There is much coverage of the conflict in the media, and an unprecedented minute-by-minute view of the situation via Twitter, but it's still hard for me to keep quiet. Part of it is because I see it being a bit different than it is being portrayed. And part of it is because turmoil in Eastern Europe has and probably always will affect me emotionally; the faces I see on both sides of the conflict look too familiar. With an eye on that future realignment, why is this all happening now? Of course, everything that follows is in layman's terms because I'm no political scientist.

The two videos above show that we have to carefully distinguish between the people of Russia and the Russian leadership. When the media covers the conflict, the words "Russia" and "Russians" most of the times are meant to be "Putin and the oligarchs around him". Not Russia, or its people. In fact one can recall that among the nations of the world that has suffered the most during their history, Russia certainly ranks in the top tier. That suffering originated some times from the outside as in WWII (the Soviet Union lost some 27 million of its people), but many times it originated from within. Think of the czars, the bolsheviks, Stalin, and now Putin. That is the first basic idea, let's keep it in mind as we move on.

Think of that first idea as the opening parenthesis. Let me now skip all the way to the closing parenthesis, before I return to fill in the other missing ideas. Very rarely did Russia allow benevolent visionary leaders to climb to the top. In fact only Mikhail Gorbachev (incidentally, the son of a Russian father and Ukrainian mother) comes to mind in more recent times (read this too). Things will change only when the next such leader emerges and makes the bold move of having Russia itself join the EU and NATO. It may sound crazy at the moment, but it is not as pollyannish as you may think; it has been talked about in the past. For one very obvious reason: the threat to Russia does not come from Europe or the US.

When that realignment happens, those historical European fault lines will finally settle and the focus will shift to the more ominous fault line, the one emerging between NATO (yes, I already include Russia into NATO 🙏!) and China. In that worldwide context, far more capital could be spent on nourishing our relationships with the other three QUAD members (India, Japan, and Australia), three of the largest democracies in the world. It's very likely that NATO and QUAD will eventually merge.

Now we return to the ideas between the two parentheses. One is the shock of seeing European cities being bombed 77 years since the end of WWII and the other is witnessing the Ukrainian bravery in the face of that onslaught. I am seeing these two ideas in almost real time, on Twitter, both from ordinary people and from the Ukrainian leadership. This is the emotional component of my note and I do not want to push it too hard because the emotions coming out of the social media posts could easily overcome the entire discussion (I do bring the emotional part at the very end.)

Here is one example of the many faces of this conflict, an encounter in which despite the danger of the situation, the two sides still find the time to humor each other. Reminds me of the other quote circulating widely, that of a Russian soldier saying "We don't know who to shoot, they all look like us!" This is the closest one comes to a war between cousins. (But being cousins does not mean anything more than that: Putin's idea that Ukraine is part of Russia is a fantasy, Kyiv has been around for longer than Moscow. And the other idea was nicely dismissed by a single tweet I saw the other day: "If you think that Russia is fighting Nazis in a country with a Jewish president, congratulations!". And I might add, one who lost many relatives to Nazi madness in WWII. On the other hand, swiping the checkered past of the Ukrainian extremist nationalists under the rug would be suspicious. So, you should be aware of the controversies around Stepan Bandera and the Azov Battalion. My personal feeling is that these controversies, although historically interesting, would not be proportionally relevant to the current conflict.)

Another idea is that of complementary mismatches. While the Ukrainian army is in final analysis not a match for the Russian army, it is complementary true that the Russian leadership is no match for the Ukrainian leadership. The difference is stark, I believe that the Putin-Zelenskyy leadership mismatch will be one of the most taught lessons in American leadership programs. Two photos say it all:

Putin is terribly isolated, which seems to be the case with all autocrats throughout history. Sooner or later they lose touch and they miscalculate. There are reports that Putin really believed that Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops. That miscalculation shows up in the eye-popping unpreparedness of the Russian army to quickly achieve its objectives. That miscalculation will most likely lead to a painful escalation in order to save face. It also appears that Putin managed to unite the rest of Europe much better than anyone else could, with Finland and Sweden now openly talking about joining NATO and Germany finally allocating over 2% of its budget for defense. But for now let's put all those failures aside, ignore the Ukraine-part-of-Russia and the de-Nazification flawed arguments, and instead grant Putin one thing, the only reasonable thing, that he genuinely believed that NATO was bent on fencing off Russian influence in Europe. So the key word here is NATO. And one look at the map of Europe is enough to see why Putin, given his view of NATO as an adversary, does not want to allow Ukraine to join NATO any time soon. The border with Ukraine is too close to Moscow. Ukraine is the large country shown in red on the map below (Georgia is the other one).

Although NATO is the key word in this crisis, democracy comes in second. So before I go on, I should say a few words about democracy within a larger context, and from an American viewpoint. Now, I believe in liberal democracy and I want to live in a liberal democracy. But trying to export liberal democracy to other countries, Ukraine or Russia or China in particular, will lead to conflict and IMHO is not what we need to spend time on. Instead, we may choose to spend time and effort on enhancing democracy here at home, because a not-so-tiny percentage of Americans have for the first time in history come to entertain the possibility of an autocracy. If our model for democracy continues to be successful, others may want to implement it, but on their own terms. I hope I made it abundantly clear that my specific hope with regards to the Ukraine conflict is that the Russian people will find a way to democracy themselves and in doing so, quell the historical fault lines in Europe. And then Ukraine will be left to carve its own path.

It's worth following this line of thought a bit further and listening to Prof. John Mearsheimer in the video clip below giving a wider perspective on the Ukraine crisis. Mearsheimer unequivocally assigns the trigger point of the Ukraine crisis to a presumed US desire to push its influence further east, and I might add, despite some supposed verbal assurances made to Gorbachev that this would not happen. Mearsheimer's argument in my view is reasonable, although we should also say that reasonable as that argument may be, the initial willingness of many to entertain it will quickly fade, given the increasing evidence that war crimes are being committed.

Two final points after watching the video. I want to see Ukraine prosper and just like Mearsheimer, I believe that for now (and until that hopeful Russian realignment to democracy happens) the way to that prosperity is through two positions. First, Ukraine wants to be and most likely will be accepted in the EU. Secondly, that prosperity seems to depend on a position of military neutrality. But this will be a tough idea to sell to a Ukraine aching for complete independence, especially after the chaos they are enduring now. It would not be surprising if the opposite will happen and Ukraine will be actually pushed into demanding membership in NATO as a way of avoiding a repeat of this invasion. The truth is that no one knows how this will all end up. I cut off the video after the 35-minute presentation but you may choose to listen to the follow-up questions from the audience. (Meantime the US should up its humanitarian efforts and allow a significant percentage of Ukrainian refugees to come to the US, while also easing the exodus of Russians with skills needed in the US, especially science and engineering, and who desire to come here.)

The second final point is that Ukraine's incredible response to the invasion brings a much needed ray of hope to what have been an unusually bleak two years in history, especially US history. We have seen an unprecedented attack on democracy in the US and a stunningly inadequate response to a pandemic that will have killed more than a million Americans, more people than in any other country. Hope that humans haven't completely lost their rudder still exists, as ordinary people in Ukraine are showing us daily when they confront Russian soldiers with bare hands and with nothing else but outrage in their voices.

What follows is an update as of April 24, 2022. Things are beginning to look more strategic. The invasion in the northern part of Ukraine, especially around Kyiv, did not make much sense. It was probably done in the hope that Ukraine will have capitulated early and then the terms of the future borders could have been easily dictated from a stronger position. As of today, both Ukrainian and Russian personalities are drawing our attention to the real goal of the invasion: capturing the southeastern Ukraine and ensuring a land corridor to Crimea. President Zelenskyy has been going farther than this and is alerting the rest of Europe that this may not be the end of it. And in my opinion he is right. So, let's review the progression in time of all the arguments above:

  1. Mearsheimer's points: it's all about NATO and the US desire to push its influence east (cool, logical, academic)
  2. Putin's points: Ukraine is part of Russia and it has to be denazified (hot, emotional, false)
  3. Russia wants the east and the south of Ukraine (currently acknowledged goals)
  4. What's next? The 3 maps below might help us speculate what the ultimate goals are and where the danger lies. (this is in line with Zelenskyy's warning)

Moldova could be next in line. Transnistria (map 2 above), just like the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine (map 1 above), has a predominantly Russian population and the Russian narratives that these two regions are being discriminated against, correct or not, are very similar. It could be that the ultimate goal of the invasion is to redraw borders everywhere and include all the Russian-speaking lands into Russia. So far NATO and the US have tiptoed around this possibility, the main thinking being essentially appeasement, i.e. adopt sanctions in stages, and hope that the situation does not spiral out of control.

The maps above zoom in progressively on an area which IMHO stands out, I drew a red circle around it (see maps 2 and 3). Apart from Transnistria, there is another region with declared autonomy, Gagauzia, with a predominantly Turkic-speaking population, which also has a tenuous relationship with the central Moldovan government and has strong relations with Turkey. Odesa is already in Russian crosshairs and to get to the remaining south corner of Ukraine from Odesa (see map 2), one has to go through a sliver of Moldovan territory where the predominant ethnic group are the Romanians (in the middle of the red circle).

If war reaches this circle I believe that keeping the flames confined to this part of Europe will become difficult. I obviously hope it doesn't happen, but it seems prudent that NATO (given that Romania and Turkey are NATO members with possibly different interests in this area) should seriously prepare for it, instead of hoping for the best. Just constantly telegraphing Russia that a direct confrontation with NATO is unthinkable, invites more aggression and completely ignores historical precedents. In the video below, just replace the reference to the "Czechoslovakian problem" of 1938, which referred to the Sudeten region and its ethnic German population, with the "Ukrainian problem" of 2022 and the corresponding Donbas region and its ethnic Russian population.

Is there a theme in all of the above? Yes, there is, and it's called borders. If we are to survive as a species on this tiny speck of dust, borders must first lose their relevance. We will never get the borders right; there will always be some group that ends up on the "wrong" side of the border. The fear of "others" is constructed, not axiomatic, and borders aren't going to calm that fear. More evenly distributed economics and standards of living ... maybe. On a less dreamy and more focused note, let's work together towards the goal of having the entire Europe be part of the EU. Yes, that includes both Ukraine and Russia. (And yes, to many of us Brexit looks like a mistake; and yes, the EU rules need to be continuously negotiated and improved.) Why is this not obvious? I am still planning to ride the night train from Kyiv to Moscow someday.

... lessons never learned ...
tears instead of hopes ... on both sides
war ... again