One Military Crisis, Four Underlying (Constructed) Conflicts
José Casanova 14 February 2022

I am beginning to write this introduction surrounded by headline news announcing that the war of Russia on Ukraine is imminent.  What was unthinkable only recently, a major ground war on European soil, with operating armies not seen since World War II, has now become a real possibility. I do not know whether the announcement is part of psychological warfare in the hope of somehow preventing the war. What I know and needs to be said is that this is a crisis self-manufactured solely by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. No recent events, developments, statements or declaration of intentions on the part of Ukraine could have served to trigger the crisis. The Putin regime is the sole maker of this artificial crisis. As such, as Frank Sysyn indicates, we should appropriately call it, “the Russia crisis.” As the following presentations make clear, in examining any potential room for compromise in the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation we need to differentiate four different levels of the conflict.

There is, first, the imminent military conflict and potential invasion of Ukraine by the massive Russian armed forces amassed on the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine. All recent official statements from Russia make it abundantly clear that Russia views the war not primarily as a confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, but rather as a confrontation between Russia and the US, between Russia and NATO, and between Russia and the European Union “over Ukraine.” If the invasion comes, its purpose will not be the occupation and annexation of Ukraine, something unlikely to succeed, but to teach a lesson, in the first instance to “the West,” for its refusal to accept the Russian demands.  Ukraine will be “the sacrificial lamb,” bearing the brunt of the lesson, being the victim of the war of aggression and suffering the greatest casualties and destruction. Russia has made repeatedly clear that its preferred interlocutors are the US and NATO.  The official letter sent by Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov to each of the 27 members of the European Union, requesting from each of them separate individual responses to the Russian demands, makes evident that Russia would prefer not to have to deal with the European Union. The ultimate objective of Russia in its protracted conflict with “the West” is to weaken NATO by provoking internal dissension and the withdrawal of the US from European security, and to weaken the European Union by provoking internal dissension and its eventual dissolution, so that Europe could return to the old system of balance of powers in which Russia could function as a major Eurasian superpower. It is up to the European Union and all European countries to decide how to respond to Russian demands, either in unison making clear that war, or war maneuvers, should not return to the European continent as a usual form of geopolitics, or as illustrated by Hungary‘s President Viktor Orbán’s mercantilist response, each European country trying to get the best possible bilateral deal with Russia in competition with its neighbors.

The second level of confrontation is the real war in the Donbas between the Russian Federation and Ukraine which has lasted already eight years. The war was started by Putin and his “separatist proxies” as a response to the civil mobilizations of Euromaidan and the collapse of the pro-Russian Yanukovych Government. Only Putin has the power to stop the war at any moment. Of course, Putin prefers not to acknowledge the direct involvement of Russian forces in the conflict, in the same way he denied at first the involvement of Russian armed forces in the invasion of Crimea.  As Alex Motyl points out, there is no room for compromise within the Minsk agreements, as interpreted by Russia. Only by acknowledging its engagement and by truly disengaging from the war could Russia bring an end to the military conflict and open the way for a real political negotiation between the Ukrainian government and the rebel republics. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have repeatedly expressed their willingness to enter into direct discussion and diplomatic negotiations with President Putin and the Russian Federation. But the Kremlin appears uninterested in starting direct negotiations with Ukraine, and with a government it prefers not to recognize as a valid interlocutor.  Tellingly, Zelensky’s promise to negotiate an end to the Donbas war was the single most important factor in his landslide victory against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the 2019 presidential elections: 73% to 24%. Unprecedented was not only the overwhelming majority, but the fact that Zelensky was elected by a majority of voters in every oblast of Ukraine (L’viv oblast being the single exception), thus putting an end to the cleavage between Eastern and Western Ukraine that had characterized the five previous presidential elections. Nobody wants peace in Ukraine more than the Ukrainian people, but not at the price of giving up their right to leave in an open, free, pluralist and democratic society according to what they believe to be European values. Ultimately, the room for compromise on this front depends on Putin’s willingness or ability to give up his Ukrainian obsession.

Indeed, the third level of confrontation is that between the Putin regime and an independent Ukraine, a conflict which is likely to last, on and off, for as long as Putin remains the leader of the Russian Federation. I fully agree with Andrea Graziosi that Putin happens to be one of those dangerous world leaders who can cause mayhem because of their revanchist obsessions, expressed in statements such as “the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster of the 20th century.” I doubt that such a sentiment is shared by most people in most ex-Soviet Republics, including the Russian Federation.  Newspapers all over the world are full of opinion pieces asking “What does Putin want?” Nobody knows.  But since assuming again the presidency of the Russian Federation in 2012, Putin has made clear in words and deeds his desire to become the czar for life of a reconstructed Russian empire that should comprise at its core the Russkiy Mir (Russian World), made up of the three Slavic republics (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine), which supposedly trace their common origins to 10th century Kyivan Rus, and which were known in the language of the 19th century Russian empire as Rossiya (Great Russia), Belarus (White Russia) and Malorossiya (Little Russia).

The official ideology of the Russkiy Mir, as developed by the Moscow Patriarchate in alliance with the Putin regime and Russian orthodox oligarchs, is the promotion of Russian Orthodoxy in global defense of traditional Christian family values against the secularism, liberalism and feminism of the European Union and the decadent West. From this perspective, the independence of Ukraine from Russia marks the failure of the project.  The Euro-Maidan mobilization was the most dangerous of the so-called “colored revolutions” which Putin views as his nemesis. Following the collapse of the Yanukovych government, Putin decided to instigate separatist uprisings throughout “Nova Rossiya”, the territories of 19th century Russian colonial settlements in Ukraine from Kharkiv in the northeast to Odessa in the southwest. The attempted uprisings succeeded partially in Luhansk and Donetsk, but against Putin expectations they failed in the rest of Ukraine. For as long as Putin remains ruler of Russia, Ukraine will be exposed to Russian military interventions as punishment for its refusal to become somehow associated with Russia.

Finally, long after Putin is gone, the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is likely to continue for as long as Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church and the majority of the Russian people refuse to recognize the right of Ukraine and of the Ukrainian people to be independent of Russia.  The Moscow Patriarchate claims all of Ukraine as its own canonical territory and refuses to recognize the right of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians and the right of Ukrainian Greek Catholics to have churches of their own, in communion with Constantinople or with Rome. Both are denigrated as “schismatics” and “uniatists.” On a personal note, I have yet to meet a Russian intellectual or a Russian liberal politician who is willing to recognize privately, much less publicly, that the independence of Ukraine is a normal post-imperial historical process and not a tragic historical error. Ukrainians are still fighting for their right to be Ukrainians and to construct their own identities without being harassed by their big neighbor.


José Casanova is a professor in the Departments of Sociology and Theology at Georgetown University, senior fellow at the Berkley Center, and president of ResetDOC’s Advisory Board.


Cover Image: Artur Widak / NurPhoto / AFP.

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