Russification and new Cold War geopolitical lessons: Whose war is Ukraine fighting anyway?

NATO’s eastward expansion is a policy that squarely exposed Washington’s limitations and led to a great loss of face

Russification and new Cold War geopolitical lessons: Whose war is Ukraine fighting anyway?

Photo for representational purposes. AP

As the war intensifies in Ukraine, geopolitical realities are changing and much speculation occurring every passing day. Ukraine is certainly no match for Russian firepower and NATO forces are not going to join the war.

Being next door neighbour to Russia, geography is Ukraine’s biggest challenge. While the Kremlin views Kyiv as a necessary and ‘privilege geopolitical sphere’ of influence, NATO perceives Ukraine as a gateway to isolate Russia further east.

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Though financial and emotional support from NATO and the world may offer some comfort, the people of Ukraine alone are suffering irreparable consequences of war, destruction and human tragedy.

Several countries are struggling with what can be called “geopolitical variables” and the neighbourhood dilemma. Squeezed between gigantic Russian territory and ever expanding Chinese domination, Mongolia is in critical search for a ‘Third Neighbour’.

Central Asia is also caught between Russia and China both in terms of economy and geopolitics. American southern neighbour Mexico confronts this geography too. A popular Mexican national saying — “Poor Mexico, so far from God and yet so close to the United States”— is yet another example of the cold, hard realities of geography.

Remember, the US took away half of Mexican territory. The Mexicans certainly remember.

Taiwan is a classic case of Beijing’s overriding greater ‘China Dream’. Speculation over Taiwan’s future is rife after Putin’s Ukraine adventure. Taiwan could well be the next big news of being a new Cold War casualty. India too is struggling with geography and the neighbourhood dilemma.

While Washington and prominent NATO members have been at the centre the mother of all conflicts, Switzerland has by and large chosen neutrality. Paraguay and Uruguay are tiny republics between Argentina and gigantic Brazil. Yet, they trade together as partners of MERCOSUR (South American Common Market).

The war in Ukraine shall soon end, but several questions for Ukraine, NATO members, and the rising powers in Asia and Indo-Pacific will remain. Every country has lessons to learn from the crisis. Geopolitical provocations and strategic ambivalence will remain. However, each nation should strategize their country’s engagement based on geopolitical realities, best possible choices and mostly based on cost benefit analysis and cooperation-conflict assessment.

Hero Zelenskyy

The first lesson is Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy as a national hero. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan is still very fresh in public memory. In August, Washington withdrew and left the beleaguered nation at the mercy of Taliban and Pakistan.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an acclaimed economist, anthropologist and intellectual of international repute, was the Afghanistan president. He had a PhD from Columbia University, teaching tenure at John Hopkins and Kabul University, had served in World Bank and lectured on how to manage distressed States.

But in the earliest stages of the crisis, Ghani fled Qatar (apparently with bags full of money in tow).

Zelenskyy cannot match Ghani in academic and intellectual credentials. He was a stage actor and a popular comedian in Ukraine. Not exactly the type to command international attention for intellect or diplomacy. Yet, as Russian missiles began pounding several provinces in Ukraine, Zelenskyy spurned Biden’s offer to flee to safety.

Instead, Zelenskyy chose to remain in Kyiv, to take up weapons and guide soldiers and ordinary citizens to rise up and resist Russian aggression and advances.

Irrespective of the outcome, Zelenskyy has emerged as a global hero. He converted Moscow’s aggression into a theme of war against humanity. Zelenskyy is already a sure thing for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and, irrespective of our nationality, a figure to admire.

Whose war is Ukraine fighting?

Whose war is it anyway? Having incorporated Baltic nations in NATO membership, it is the Washington-NATO geopolitical conspiracy and NATO’s eastward expansion to further isolate Russia squarely that brought Kyiv in direct confrontation with Moscow.

Ukraine’s NATO membership would bring NATO-Russia conflict directly to the Russian doorstep which Moscow can never accept. Is NATO membership so paramount for Kyiv even to the tune of Ukraine's existence? NATO troops not putting their boots on ground against Moscow is enough evidence that Ukraine simply became a geopolitical scapegoat with huge human and material cost. It serves no political wisdom to sacrifice Ukraine for the membership of any particular organisation.

Political choices are the exclusive privilege of any sovereign nation. Ukraine, for all practical purposes, aspires to align more with NATO and the European Union (EU). However, international geopolitical order is in great transition today. Washington’s credibility as a superpower is in visible decline. While Washington has vacated substantial international and geopolitical leadership space, the rise of China and ‘Thucydides Trap’ hypothesis is a major geopolitical reality of our times. Like Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ vision, it is evident that Vladimir Putin’s Moscow is staging a geopolitical comeback. Putin plans to restore Soviet glory is hardly a surprise.

Under the circumstances, Ukraine neither has the need, nor the military prowess to emerge as a NATO prompted anti-Russian axis right on Moscow’s door step. Distinguished American diplomats such as Henry Kissinger and Washington’s ‘Containment Policy’ champion George Kennan have advocated against NATO’s eastward expansion and possible direct conflict with Russia.

NATO’s eastward expansion is a last decade’s policy choice which now squarely exposed Washington’s limitations and great loss of face. President Biden would probably go down in history as the ‘point man’ who sacrificed America’s ‘super power tag’ to rehabilitate Russia to its earlier glory. It’s a very costly lesson for Washington and prominent NATO members and a big lesson for Kyiv for not being in congruence with the geopolitical realities of the times.

One must not lose sight of the socio-religious connect of the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus and its possible political aspirations and sense of oneness among people. The electoral democracy fanning separatist aspirations in Ukrainian society, only in the last couple of years, Ukraine politically moved away from Russia. Sizable people in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine still feel them to be ‘Rus’ or ‘Kevian Rus' (the ancestors of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus) who are socio-culturally and by religious identity and values are directly linked and embedded in the Russian Orthodox Church order since 8th Century.

While the West willingly ignored this towards a geopolitical objective of isolating Russia, Ukraine naively joined the bandwagon to suffer the consequences of invasion or Putin’s Russification overdose.

Russia already has a sphere of influence in the instrumentalities of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) signed back in 1992 between Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan — all erstwhile Soviet republics.

However, since Armenian prime minister Nikol Vovayi Pashinyan actively cooperated with NATO, Russia chose not to support Armenia in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Ukraine being the immediate border country to Russia, Kyiv’s NATO orientation is certainly a matter of geopolitical anxiety for Moscow. Additionally, China and Iran being seen as an alternative axis with Moscow, the geopolitical formulations are complex and future international order is uncertain.

China now accusing NATO of eastward expansion and openly supporting Russia further renders NATO sanctions redundant. Sanctions have been overused double-edged swords and largely counterproductive too while hurting several other countries.

Also, history teaches us that neither Washington nor NATO prominent members have genuinely helped any nation without any of their specific interests. Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan serve us examples of how external power interests galvanize and complicate issues rather than solving it. Since NATO members talk of freedom of choice for Ukraine, the case of the Falkland War comes to mind.

Back in 1982, Argentina waged war against Britain over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). Argentina, a member of the Organisation of American States (OAS), apparently had Washington’s assurance of support. However, as the limited war started, Washington backed out and Argentina was crushed by Britain.

At least 8,000 kilometres away from NATO member Great Britain, Falkland Islands in the southern tip of South America even today remains British territory. While no amount of narrative can justify Russian bombing of Ukrainian cities, several NATO members have been instrumental of geopolitical overriding and arrogance.

Peace options and lessons?

Bombing of Ukrainian cities must stop. Very limited peace options are available to immediately halt the war. The first and foremost option is that Washington-NATO has to give clear assurance that Ukraine shall not be a NATO member.

Second, in spite of President Zelenskyy’s bravery and wide popular support, he has to be more pragmatic. Ukrainian lives and property after all are at stake. Zelenskyy himself must declare to distance Ukraine from NATO provocations and assurances and be available to restart Kyiv-Moscow relations afresh.

On the other side of the above two assured peace options, few other extraneous diplomacy options also seem available. Prime Minister Modi is now a global leader of very high standing and stands to be acceptable to East and West alike.

Since the war has unleashed disturbing levels of human tragedy and destructions in Ukraine and evoking international emotions, if Prime Minister Modi shuttles between Moscow-Kyiv and Brussels (NATO headquarter) to talk immediate halt of Russian bombing and a possible limited truce, it may have far more impact than the ongoing Moscow-Kyiv peace talks.

Moscow-Kyiv peace talks smack of mutual suspicion and psychological notions of the conqueror-captor attitude. Similarly, it may also be beneficial if prominent global leaders (other than NATO countries) appeal and physically reach out to Moscow to halt bombing and a possible truce without any NATO involvement, it may open the situation to truce.

While these propositions may halt further war destructions, these may also open the door for Russia to rebuild Ukraine in the post-war rehabilitation process. Ukraine, of course, shall receive enormous relief from around the world to rebuild the loss at the quickest possible time. What may further be wise for Ukraine is to position the country as a meeting point between the West and East to take best advantage of both the worlds.


Moscow has arrived and a triangular new Cold War order is a new reality. It’s a new world order and many geopolitical calculations shall change correspondingly. Ukraine is just the beginning and there could be more such events in coming times. Xi Jinping is moving to his third-term with huge international and domestic baggage. Speculation is already rife that learning from Putin’s adventure, Xi might pull a Ukraine on Taiwan sooner rather than later, which could have serious geopolitical ramification in India and entire Asia.

Where do we go from here?

The Ukraine crisis is a big geopolitical lesson. While the United Nations has failed to make peace in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Ukraine, most Bretton Wood institutions seem to have outlived their time.

New institutions and fresh definitions are needed for peace, stability and international order. World leaders must quickly come forward to seriously discuss issues of world peace including how to prevent future such wars.

While Washington, Moscow, and NATO leaders are seen to be complicit in the Ukraine crisis and Beijing is seen as a focal point of international geopolitical challenges in the entire Indo-Pacific, India seems to be the only credible power without any baggage of hegemony or military adventurism.

India possibly is a great meeting point to initiate international dialogue towards post-Ukraine international peace architecture. It can take up cues from Ukraine to look at future issues of similar concern.

Prime Minister Modi is well positioned to take the lead. India is a nuclear power but talks and pursues peace. As the largest democracy of the world and second largest world market, India’s rise in Asian continent and Prime Minister Modi’s personal charisma as a world leader make New Delhi the most suited and beneficial meeting point between West and East. It is the right time and India as a ‘Goodwill State’ must take the first lead.

Rudra Prasad Pradhan is a PhD in International Relations and currently an Associate Professor at the Dept. of Humanities & Social Sciences at BITS Pilani KK Birla Goa Campus, Goa, India. Prof Pradhan also serves as Political Economy Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), India. Jajati K Pattnaik is an Associate Professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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