Security, not domination, is Russia’s holy grail – and the West needs to understand it.
Earlier this year, Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
To say that this event has drawn disapproval from world leaders would be an understatement – sanctions, threats of possible military intervention, and other forms of condemnation have already been made.
Yet, the war itself is nothing new, and not just from the 21st century. This conflict is one that has always been brewing since the Napoleonic era.
Tale as old as time?
Let us take a trip back in time to the late 16th century and early 17th century. This period saw the end of Catherine the Great’s reign in Russia and the beginning of Tsar Alexander the First’s in Russia. It marked several important developments in the region that will become relevant later.
The first is the series of partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between Prussia, Russia, and Austria.
The second is the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and his repeated offensives throughout Europe, including the infamous invasions of the Iberian Peninsula in 1809 and Russia in 1812.
Poland has traditionally been a thorn in Russia’s side. An independent Poland frequently acts as a check on Russian power. Wars between the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the Russian Empire were frequent, and the Poles regarded the partitions as colonialist actions by their rapacious neighbours.
The rise of Napoleon was to provide some relief from this situation. Napoleon’s repeated victories enabled him to take territory from Prussia and form the new Duchy of Warsaw, a new state allied with Napoleonic France that supplied him with a new ally in Eastern Europe and troops for further conquests.
In 1812, following tensions between Russia and France, Napoleon invaded Russia. He even managed to capture Moscow, though holding it proved impossible.
These events have informed Russian views that security of their Western border is of paramount importance. Western Russia holds the bulk of the country’s human resources, industry, and sites of immense historical, cultural, and religious significance.
To that extent, Tsar Alexander tried to hold on to captured portions of Poland, despite objections from other European powers.
From this episode, we can see the foundations of Russia’s search for security, and what security means for it.
Russia views security as buffer land, at least, for its western border. The Russian state’s view of Eastern Europe and the purpose of Eastern Europe is that this land will ideally be part of Russia, so that Russia may make use of it to defend its otherwise open west.
After all, the area is flat land, perfect for any invading army, especially a technologically superior one.
Kicking the can down the road
Now that we have established what Russia sees as its core interest in the region, let us consider if these interests have been fulfilled.
Clearly, these interests were not met following the Napoleonic wars. Russia suffered another invasion in 1912, after an initial invasion of the German Empire was pushed back. In June 1941, another invasion by Nazi Germany began.
Russia had, effectively, been invaded three times in 150 years from its western border. This is not something any sovereign state might want to leave unaddressed.
Following the reestablishment of peace and the surrender of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union exercised its influence over Eastern Europe, setting up satellite states, and establishing the Eastern Bloc.
These events antagonised the West, and ushered in the Cold War – born of the West’s failure to appreciate the security concerns of the Soviet Union. Instead, they saw a Russia that was intent on exporting their revolution overseas, and eliminating the capitalist way of life around the world.
Certainly, there is some justification for this view. The Soviet Union had continually expanded since its founding in 1924, adding the Baltic states, and parts of Poland to its sovereign territory.
But crucially, several events do suggest that Soviet ambition was not limitless. The lack of support for communist parties in Western Europe, as well as the willingness to allow non-frontier states in Eastern Europe to break away from Soviet control.
Stalin discouraged the radical aims of communist parties in Western Europe, and was not keen on confronting the West. To what extent this was due to an inability to act or a lack of desire to do so is up for debate, but what is cut and dried is that the Soviets were most insistent on their sphere of influence being established in Eastern Europe.
To that end, Stalin actively sought out deals to try and establish this: he sought assurances from Roosevelt that the Soviets would have a sphere of influence in the region, and reached the ‘Percentages Deal’ with Churchill to divide Eastern Europe.
In addition, Stalin permitted communist states to leave the Eastern Bloc if they were not of critical importance to Soviet security – Yugoslavia is a prime example. The country was controlled by Josip Broz Tito, a communist party leader who managed to fight off the invading Nazi forces.
While Stalin did attempt to bring Yugoslavia into the Eastern Bloc, Tito was adamant about maintaining his independence from Moscow, and Stalin eventually allowed him to do so. Yugoslavia would end up being a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, with little reaction from the USSR.
As we can see, Russian ‘expansionism’ was confined, strategic, and targeted. It was not a reckless assault on the European continent, but a series of small, incremental steps by which the Soviets hoped to gain influence over territory and achieve military security for their western border.
Will we really cross the bridge when we get there?
The fall of the Soviet Union was seen by many in the West as the liberation of Eastern Europe from the clutches of the ‘Evil Empire’.
But lost in the jubilation was that Russia had just lost all security guarantees on its western border.
The fears of being encircled by the West have only been exacerbated by the expansion of NATO and the European Union into what Russia has traditionally considered its own front yard.
This search for security by Russia, therefore has effectively been undone by a series of political developments in Eastern Europe beginning with Gorbachev’s Sinatra Doctrine, and culminating in Ukraine’s attempts to distance itself from Russia and foster closer relations with the West.
The Sinatra Doctrine basically allowed the Eastern Bloc to choose their own future, even if this meant leaving the Eastern Bloc. While Gorbachev was still determined to keep the USSR intact, this loosening of Soviet control inspired protests for autonomy and sovereignty within the USSR’s republics as well — and by December 1991, the USSR was dissolved, with its constituent republics becoming sovereign states, with their own government and foreign relations.
Naturally, some former allies sought to join the West, and as such, the influence of NATO and the EU began creeping East, slowly approaching Russia.
Given that NATO was formed almost explicitly to act as a check on Russian influence and power, can we really be surprised that Russia is objecting to the possible entrance of Ukraine, and doing everything from rigging elections to invading sovereign states in order to ensure that this future does not come to pass?
Russia has never been able to shake the sense of insecurity that it has felt for its western border and this is not likely to change in the near future. The war in Ukraine, no matter how bloody and costly, is not likely to abate unless Russia’s security concerns are properly dealt with.
And if the West’s foreign policy is anything to go by, there is little hope of a peaceful resolution emerging anytime soon. More than anything, the West’s security concerns are ones relating to the international order: the shoehorning of “democracy” abroad, no matter how undemocratic the means, and the disregard of any paradigm of how the world should be except their own, no matter how valid.
The Cold War that took place following the end of the Second World War was one born of distrust and misunderstanding; the West failed to appreciate the necessity to guarantee Russian territorial security, and the Soviets failed to appreciate how the West saw their actions in Eastern and Southeastern Europe.
The same situation has been left to fester following the end of that Cold War, and the West failed to recognise the malignant cancer that the situation would grow into. Russia has spent much in the past few decades in developing a solution for it. This solution is now known as the Russo-Ukrainian War.
The solution is horrific in its own right but it is by no means a surprise. Russia had continually sought peaceful resolutions to its insecurity, through diplomatic summits, through treaties to limit Western arms deployments, and through the development of its own weapons.
These signals have been ignored, and war is once again upon the world.
But that is not to say that there is no hope for a peaceful resolution. The war itself is a means to an end. But Russia is signalling that there is an issue that it wants to address: the security of its western border. Whether this is achieved by security guarantees from NATO, a pledge from the EU, acceptance into the Western alliance, or the annexation of Ukraine, is still to be decided. And on this question lies the future of Europe’s peace.
This war can therefore be thought of as a means to getting a seat at the bargaining table —Russia extending its hand to the West and attempting to reach a compromise. The hand is bloody, no doubt, but it is a hand extended in hope nonetheless. Whether the West is willing to meet Russia halfway, and help Russia resolve the security problem that has plagued Eastern European peace for more than 200 years is the deciding factor of whether peace is temporary, permanent, or non-existent.
Without these negotiations the world should be prepared for another Cold War. A pointless one at that.