They are calling the fighting in Eastern Ukraine “the invisible war.” Some even talk of that clash as part of the “third world war.”
Not long ago, there was a “cold war” but at least in that war there was no fighting and there was a sharp confrontation between two worlds: the West, led by the United States, and the Communist bloc. Now the world is faced by regional crises that are multiplying and becoming more and more violent. They are taking place along that global fault that separates the great political and cultural regions of the world, which is not incorrect to define as the “watershed of civilization.”
The crises are in the Mediterranean, where the Muslim-Arab world is defying the European order, and into Africa, where the established Christian states are threatened by the Islamist movements that are spreading from the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. In Central Asia, the Christian Orthodox mother country of Russia feels the pressure of the Islamic populations while Afghanistan remains the epicenter of a crisis that no amount of American weapons and Western assistance will be able to subdue. And then there is Asia, where the quest for domination by China is inflaming old and new hotbeds of regional crisis. Finally, Pakistan remains a powder keg ready to explode with a dangerous regional fallout.
There are, of course, common threads to this dramatic involution: the global tensions for an altered balance of power in the world, the competition for energy resources and alimentary supplies that are becoming more scarce and, perhaps more critical, the emergence of new radical leaderships in the world that intend the subvert the old order with violence in a horrid escalation of mass killings.
For one, the war in Ukraine is becoming more and more visible as evidenced by the growing number of Russian mothers who denounce the disappearance of their sons on the Ukrainian front, just like times past in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
American mothers do not have to worry about their sons and daughters fighting the “invisible war” in Ukraine. There are enough hot spots in the world where the United States deploys its armed forces in harm’s way. And this is the rub for President Barack Obama’s caution in not pushing the confrontation with Russia in Ukraine to a level that may endanger the security and stability of what was once called Eastern Europe but has now become Central Europe.
Ukraine is another classic case where even a powerful nation such as the U.S. is confronted with bad options. In such cases, flexing military muscle can provoke reactions that inevitably render the situation even more dangerous and irreparable.
Too much has been said about the need to help the Ukrainians decide their future, obviously in a way that would align them with the European Union and NATO, and too little attention has been paid to the reasons for the Russian power play in the region. The roots of the Ukrainian crisis go back to the time when NATO, that is to say the United States under the Clinton Administration, launched the NATO enlargement campaign that started in 1999 to admit the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The second wave brought in more former Eastern countries, including the Baltic Republics, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Slovenia.
Russia bitterly opposed the spreading of the NATO umbrella to territories that were once part of its “empire.” It reacted by invading Georgia in 2008 to prevent its joining NATO with the two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet the West kept pushing eastward with NATO expansion that embraced Albania and Croatia in 2009. Ukraine was destined to become the next region of confrontation following the Western campaign of democracy promotion that led to the popular revolt in Kiev against the pro-Russian Yanukovych government in November 2013.
Russian President Putin decided that he had to act and last February he took Crimea from Ukraine and incorporated it into Russia. Following that, he encouraged and supported the separatists in Eastern Ukraine and then opened a second front in the southern strip of land.
What is at stake for Moscow is undeniable and understandable: Russia does not want Ukraine to integrate into the West, but most importantly into NATO. Moscow considers Ukraine a buffer state that should not become a province of the West.
From the beginning, the Ukraine policy of the United States has paved the way toward a clash with Russia that cannot be allowed to bring an armed confrontation in the heart of Europe. The sanctions that were decreed against Russia are a double-edged sword and in fact are causing economic damage to the European Union as well, given the dependence of countries like Germany on trade with Russia and the flow of Russian gas.
The realists in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the United States, are advocating a negotiated solution that would make Ukraine into a sovereign state not aligned with NATO or Russia, but rather a neutral buffer between East and West. The position taken up to now by the Obama administration, albeit with strong condemnations for the Russian “incursions” in Ukrainian territory, does not compromise the unfolding of negotiations over a status in Ukraine that would defuse great power politics and confrontation. Looking at a world devastated by savage conflicts such as the one in Syria and now Iraq, it should appear obvious that sending arms to fighting forces or intervening more actively on their behalf is not the solution. Even less, God forbid, that of putting American “boots on the ground.” Finally, one should not lose sight of the fact that there are limits to American policies in the world when the unchallenged American military power is unable to resolve the political realities on the ground, Ukraine included.