What is the Ultimate Rationale for Russia's Operation in Ukraine?
Before I start, let me preface by stating that international law is a meaningless concept when it only applies to Washington’s enemies. Under the surface, Washington and its allies are guilty of just about everything that they accuse Russia of, and then some! They don't care about justice. It's all about falsely antagonizing their enemies. There's something so appalling about the same governments and the same media outlets who justified [or covered up] unspeakable war crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, among others, to suddenly spring into action for "international justice". These are shameless hypocrites who parade themselves as the paragons of virtue. Did you know that the city of Fallujah in Iraq has higher birth defects than Nagasaki and Hiroshima because the US used so much chemical weapons and depleted uranium? That's not even counting Washington’s petty soldiers’ massacre in Haditha - another impoverished Iraqi city where US committed war crimes. Fallujah is just one city amid the entire laundry list of Washington's wars in just the past 20 years of US invasion and occupation of West Asian countries alone!
Before I elaborate on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it’s necessary to discuss the gradual decimation of international law and its replacement with a “rules-based order” during the same 20 years, i.e. after 9/11 - a “rules-based order” that is basically put together and determined by a handful of western and west-allied countries which by the way completely leaves out the rest of the world, counties in both global north and south, not to mention a superpower like Russia. Not only is this new emerging global legal system against international law, or shall we say what’s left of it, but it’s also morally untenable. It’s condescending and ethnocentric. Many of the countries that are now drafting the “rules” also happen to be responsible for the evils of imperialism, slavery, and colonialism during the past 500 years plus WWI and WWII. These countries also happen to be the biggest manufacturers of all variety of armaments in addition to the weapons of mass destruction. Such hypocrisy is unconscionable and a moral outrage! Imagine the fox determining the rules of the chick coop or else all the chickens will be reprimanded, slaughtered, and eventually eaten. Obviously, this “rules-based order” only exists because the rest of the world is economically dependent or vulnerable to the West and its allies.
What has been less focused on is that when the West frames global issues as a battle for the future of its “rules-based order”, that's when they lose much of the global south because the “rules-based order” as we have had for the past few decades has not been one in which Russia and the global south got a fair share. They see it as an order in which Washington has been able to put itself above international law, engage in all kinds of animus activities around the world that have been tremendously damaging to them and they're not going to make these costly sacrifices, particularly mindful of their economic vulnerabilities in order to help the West sustain that order.
It's a paradoxical situation in which the rallying of support for Ukraine against Russia comes down to the issue of territory and war, but also regarding the issue of unipolarity versus multipolarity.
The truth is that a big chunk of the world including all of the global south do not side with Biden. They observe how the US is putting itself above international law, whether it was the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the aerial invasion and complete destabilization of Libya, an illegal military presence in Syria and supporting the vilest terrorists, i.e. ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra, in order to make a failed state out of Syria, and so many other eroding deeds literally all over the world but in particular the resource-rich MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). Such destructive behavior even goes as far as sanctioning ICC judges, reneging on several international treaties such as the Paris Climate Accord, Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Iran’s JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). We saw what the Trump Administration did with the World Health Organization as well. It is imperative to note that such mis-adventurisms were not limited to Trump’s mafia diplomacy. This has been going on for quite some time. Of course, there are many countries that have deeply benefited, particularly in Europe, from the Anglo-American world order. So it's not a black and white picture, but it's a reality that a lot of other countries find themselves in a situation in which they view the United States as extremely powerful but using that power extremely irresponsibly.
Consequently, Russia and the global south welcome a scenario in which they have options to counterbalance the United States when needed. That's not to say that they're against the US. I think most of these countries want to have close relations with the United States. But when they see how quickly the US can entirely cut off a superpower like Russia from the international financial system, it instills a degree of fear in those nations that want to have options to be able to counterbalance the US without ending up on the wrong side of the US. This of course should not be particularly surprising. But what I do believe is surprising is the fact that the US is not recognizing this new paradigm and we're not adjusting our message to others so they would able to join our American “coalition”, but also to give them promises that we would actually fulfill and not renege. If this works out the way we want, there must be a new revised order that would be far more just, far more balanced, and far less unilateral than what we have seen in the last 25 years. The choice should not be between an order that is dominated by the United States versus an order that is dominated by Russia, or even China. The alternative that is currently being perceived as being a suitable reality is a multipolar new world order in which the United States will remain powerful, yet will no longer have the maneuverability to act unilaterally [without consequences] in the manner that it has. This is the alternative that the world finds slightly more attractive. This must become the new Modus Operandi.
None of us, or at least those of us who believe in national sovereignty, believe in a one world government system. That neoliberal globalist has gotten us nowhere but unipolarity. But the Catch-22 is this: In absence of not just de-jure but de-facto international law, we get the law of the jungle which the pugnacious imperialists in Washington, London, Paris, and elsewhere have shamelessly displayed to the world.
Having said all that, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has been a massive failure of Russian messaging, information operations, and public diplomacy. Naturally, we do not wish to undermine the tremendous suffering and hardship that the Ukrainian people are currently going through as a result of this conflict. But there is a massive misplacement of outrage towards Russia [and the Russian people as a whole] vis-à-vis western propaganda media outlets like CNN, BBC, France 24, DW (Deutche Welle), among others, plus social media. The political characterization and media lionization of Zelensky and his cold-blooded thugs and mobsters into heroes are particularly stomach-turning. These people have zero honor and everyone knows the descendants of the 7th century Khazarites are basically running Ukraine these days with support from certain elements in Israel even though Israel has its own “unique relationship” with Russia. The Russian as well as the Ukrainian wheat and corn exports to Israel also play a key factor in this bizarre triad.
Albeit very small in numbers, it can be argued that the most diehard muscle power for Zelensky's regime comes from the infamous Azov Nazi Brigade, many of whom are now fully integrated into the regular Ukrainian Army, at times even acting at a Special Forces capacity. Furthermore, it’s now clear that Ukrainian mercenaries were [and some still are] on Washington and Riyadh’s payroll in fighting alongside the savage ISIS terrorists who almost took over Syria and Iraq, had it not been for Iran and its regional proxy forces, Syria itself, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and of course Russia with its air campaign. Everybody was waging their proxy wars in Syria from 2011 until now, and from here on in Ukraine. Some experts argue that the Saudis might have a horse in this race. The Saudis aim to destabilize Southern Russia vis-à-vis Wahhabi terrorist Jihadis in the Caucuses. These analysts contend that Saudis’ interests in destabilizing Southern Russia is Washington’s price for the butcher "Crown Prince" Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) to keep his head and ascend the Saudi throne even though the Biden Administration has been furious with MBS for a number of reasons which are beyond the scope of this paper. According to the Hudson Institute, more than 14 million people - about 10% of Russia’s 144 million population - identify as Muslim, more than 90% of whom are Sunni Muslims. WorldPopulationReview.com has a much higher estimate of 20 million Russian Muslims which would put them at 13.5% of the overall Russian population. Islam is the 2nd largest religious group in the country, after Orthodox Christianity.
Back to MBS, he has actually been publicly flirting with the Chinese in partially diversifying the Saudis’ oil sales to China in yuan. Being one of the two pillars of the petro-dollar system, this is a clear-and-present danger not just to the regional interests of the United States, but to the global stability of the US dollar which by the way is slowly fading, placing the entire world economy in a danger zone of its own. So don’t be surprise if MBS is toppled in a coup if he further cozies up to the Chinese. There have been many high-profile arrests and detentions of Saudi princes who would pose a threat to MBS’s legitimacy, notably Former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as well as Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Paradoxically, it’s the Chinese who are building the Saudis' ballistic missile program to combat Iran while all along the Chinese are playing second fiddle to the Iranians and posing as their allies. Welcome to the murky world of strange geopolitical bedfellows.
With all this intricate background and context, let us focus our attention on the Russia-Ukraine War and its regionally-related decades-long massive geopolitical complexities. The first question that we should ask ourselves is why is it happening? How can Russia justify invading a sovereign independent state like Ukraine? The only way to answer this is by looking at things from a Russian perspective, because in spite of the raging fight on the ground, this war is not really about Ukraine. It is about Russia and its pursuit of geopolitics. It is about the Kremlin and its relationship with the current White house.
In 1939, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously defined Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." This spoke to the western prejudicial sense of Russia as the "other" - an inscrutable and menacing land that plays by its own rules, usually to the detriment of those who choose more "open interactions". Whatever that means. Suffice it to say, it’s been clear since time immortal that whenever a belligerent country [or countries] project hostilities towards Russia, strategic patient resistance is what they’re going to get in return from Russia. One of Russia's initial demands for de-escalation just before the war erupted was for NATO to roll back from Eastern Europe and that's what it ultimately comes down to. In many ways, the Ukrainian conflict echoes the Soviet collapse. There is certainly an element of nation-building culture and history that draws Russia and Ukraine to each other.
But from a geopolitical lens, the war is much bigger than Ukraine. It is about Russia attempting to restore the multi-polar global order that was lost. Russia believes that it must either be a world power or there will be no Russia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union marked a turning point in global geopolitics. No less than 14 Soviet Republics broke away and proclaimed sovereignty and independence. However, the newly established Russian Federation had lost centuries of geopolitical strife. Russia had been thrown back to its 18th century territorial boundaries. All the sacrifices, the Russian Imperial Army and the Soviet Red Army made were nullified on December 25, 1991 when the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin and was replaced with the flag of Russia.
That was a hard pill to swallow and an event that still haunts Russian foreign policy to this day. With the fall of the Soviet Union came broken promises, plummeting healthcare, and industrial decay while kinship was replaced with hostility and all those glorious technological marvels and infrastructure projects were left to rot. Tens of millions of lives were lost with nothing to show for it. The death of the Soviet Union was the end of communism as a global force, but it also marked the end of Russia as a superpower for having retreated from its Soviet borders from its outer shell. Russia itself was severely exposed to dangers emanating from the west.
Part of the Russian rationale for invading Ukraine is the Heartland Theory drafted in 1904 by Halford MacKinder. The Heartland Theory divides the world in three bodies. The first body is the World Island, which consists of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The second body refers to the Offshore Islands like the British Isles and the Japanese Archipelago, while the third body points to the Americas and Australia as Outlying Islands.
Within these parameters, there is special emphasis on the World Island because it is the most populous and resource-rich land mass. Imagine if a super-state controlled policy making from France to China to Saudi Arabia to South Africa. That power would have the technological prowess of Europe, the resources of Africa and the workforce of Asia. Nothing would stand in its way. So whoever controls the World Island would have the means to dominate the globe. However, within the World Island, there is the Heartland Region which extends from the Volga River to the Yangtze River and from the Arctic to the Caspian Sea. This Heartland Region is the domain from which a single power could dominate the rest of the World Island, provided that the power enjoys stability at home. Russia is the power that sits at the center of this theory, which is why it resonates with Russian foreign policy.
But it gets even more zealous.
Further dissecting the World Island is Eastern Europe. Mackinder’s Theory argues that the home territory of the Heartland Power sits in Eastern Europe. So any power seeking global supremacy would emerge from the eastern half of the European continent. It's just about a nod to Russia.
Now, Mackinder’s Theory initially served as a warning to the European powers, but instead became the manifest destiny of the Soviet Union! The Heartland Theory was so powerful that it shaped the course of the Cold War and it continues to dominate Russian geopolitical thinking to this day. For instance, Alexander Dugin, who is one of the most influential Russian political theorists, has consistently argued for a Russian-based Eurasian power. And the Russian policy making elite known as the Siloviki still adhere to the Heartland Theory.
According to Andrei Illiarionov’s 2009 article in the Journal of Democracy titled, “Reading Russia: The Siloviki in Charge, in the Russian political lexicon, a silovik (plural siloviki) is a politician who came into politics from the security, military, or similar services, often the officers of the former KGB, GRU, FSB, SVR, FSO, the Federal Drug Control Service, or other armed services. A similar term is "Securocrat" which could be law enforcement and intelligence officer.
Admittedly, it seems strange to use a century old geopolitical theory as a template in foreign policy. But one thing that keeps the Heartland Theory relevant is the constituency of geography. The earth has domain over humankind, not vice versa. So having control over Eastern Europe would allow Russia to reclaim its global footing. Ukraine is just the first pit stop.
But beyond pursuing a multi-polar global order, there are also local nuances at play. Extending from St. Petersburg to Kazan to Volgograd is the Russian Core. 80% of the Russian population lives in this area and much of the decision making by the Kremlin is based on the needs and interests of its Core.
However, the terrain itself is flat and part of the European Plain. This open green plain widens as it stretches eastward. By the time the European Plain reaches the borders of the Russian Federation, its width eclipses 2,000 kilometers. No amount of weaponry can fully defend such a vast flat landscape.
Seen in this way, the loss of the Soviet boundaries cost the Russians dearly. Both politically and economically. Russia is forced to maintain a massive border with some of the most sophisticated militaries in the world. It has been a costly status-quo.
Accordingly, to reduce military spending, Russia needs to reduce its exposure along the European Plain. To do that, however, Russian policymakers argue that the Russian State needs to anchor by the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains. Sitting along the northern rim of the European Plain, the Baltic Region is an interesting case. Individually, the Baltic nations lack the strength to threaten Russia. But the region as a whole acts as a conduit for great powers to exert pressure on the Russian Core.
From the Swedish incursion in the 18th century to the German invasions in the 20th century, plenty of European powers have tried subduing Russia by going through the Baltics. Today, however, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are part of NATO which places them beyond the reach of Russian subjugation.
Be that as it may, geopolitics dictates that Russia take over the Baltics, should the opportunity ever present itself. Doing so would allow the Russians to connect the Kaliningrad Region to the Russian Mainland without tip-toeing through or around NATO territory. Control over the Baltics would also strengthen Russia's presence and hold over the Baltic Sea at large.
Meanwhile, the Carpathian Mountains present an auspicious foothold for the Russians - a buffer against marching armies. The arch that is the Carpathian range is not impenetrable, but it does offer strategic depth to the occupying force in an otherwise flat space. If the European Plain represents a highway for invading armies, the Carpathian Mountains is a speed bump in the middle of that highway.
That strategic depth is priceless and that consideration is the ultimate rationale for Russia's invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, it also means that the Russian objective in Ukraine is to take the entire country. So as much as the rhetoric focuses on Donbass, Kharkov, Kiev, and Odessa, it misses the larger point. From the Russian angle, they need to push up to the Carpathian Mountains. So Russia needs all of Ukraine, but also all of Moldova.
When Belarus’s President Aleksandr Lukashenko spoke with the members of the Belarusian Security Council, the map he used had an arrow going into the Moldovan separatist region of Transnistria. So had Russia's military invasion of Ukraine gone more successfully, Moldova would have seen fighting as well.
By and large, with the invasion of Ukraine, Russia sought to anchor by the Carpathian Mountains. By taking over all of Ukraine and eventually Moldova, Russia would have restored a portion of the Soviet boundaries enough to reduce its exposed flying by the European Plain to 600 km which is a substantial drop from the current 2,000 km. Ideally, the Russians would want to push west as much as they can, preferably taking over all of Poland and the Baltics. But one step at a time. Ukraine is in a fight for its existence and if Russia wins, the Baltics and Poland are next. Count on it.
Likewise, if Russia loses the war in Ukraine or it can't have all of it today, it will try again tomorrow. No treaty or ceasefire will last. Think of the European Plain as a game of chess, where each player seeks to maximize the position of its pawns by strategically placing them. The further NATO pushes east into the European Plain towards the Russian Federation, the more flexible its strategic planning becomes and the more room for mistakes it gains.
A NATO-allied Ukraine would likely see cruise missile launchers on its soil where flight time to the Russian Core would be around three minutes. A build up like that would force the Russians to spend even more on the military by establishing new bases deep in Russian territory. For instance, east of the border of Ukraine, the flat terrain of the European plain continues uninterrupted for 750 km to the shore line of the Caspian Sea. This line known as the Volgograd Gap is fundamental to the existence of the Russian state. Should a hostile force close this gap, it would disconnect Russia from the Caucuses, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. A NATO Allied Ukraine would certainly look to exploit that vulnerability. It wouldn't happen overnight. The build-up would be a steady process taking decades, but it would happen nevertheless.
Having said that, the reverse is true as well. The more Russia pushes westward, the more secure the Russian Core gets, the more room for error it gains, and the fewer options NATO has. So a Russian-controlled Ukraine would see the militarization of Poland, Romania, and the Baltic nations even more so than at present. From the Russian point of view, that would balance the scale of things. All things considered, Ukraine is only one piece in Russia's geopolitical design. It's still a large piece but one piece nonetheless. By taking over Ukraine and then Moldova, Russia believes it could lift itself as a premier global power while also securing its core demographic space.
Taking into consideration NATO’s belligerent eastern colonization through the past 30 years, for Russia it's either expand or die. Russian policymakers, particularly the Siloviki, believe that political legitimacy comes from military conquest. They believe forward motion is everything, that peace is a lie, just another means of decay like death by a thousand cuts.
Money has its own logic and at its essence, it’s a measure of a man’s choices. Russia is keen to recognize the reality that the ultimate geo-economic goal of the United States through its sanctions against Russia, regardless of a war between Russia and Ukraine, was to use the pretext of this war as an excuse for a hostile takeover of Russia’s share of supplying the world with its main exports of natural gas, crude oil, technology, wheat, corn, and crucial rare-earth minerals and metals. Any disruption to the Russian and Ukrainian exporting of wheat and corn would jeopardize the global food supply chain security system, considering that Russia and Ukraine (combined) provide 20% of the global corn supply. For Russia, 70% of its wheat exports go to West Asia and the African continent. According to OEC (Observatory of Economic Complexity), in 2020, Ukraine was the 4th largest producer of corn after the US, Argentina, and Brazil with France occupying the 5th place. In 2020, the top importers of corn were Mexico, China, Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea.
Bottom line: US wants to be the main supplier of such products to as many markets as possible, for sure all of Europe. After all, our country was born at the barrel of a gun and where American exports don’t go, American soldiers will – in Ukraine’s case only substantial military supplies. This of course is a completely reckless way to increase your market share from so many different angles. Not only are such geo-economic strategies outdated, or at least we want them to be, but they are barbaric, hegemonic, and most importantly immoral and cruel. They’re completely unsustainable in the long term.
Our policymakers in Washington would do the world a big service by sparing us from a hyperinflationary economic hell followed by WWIII, if they learn the lessons that Yevgeny Primakov tried to teach albeit too late for the Soviet Union’s survival, but hopefully not for America’s survival. That lesson is this: Multipolarity, multipolarity, and multipolarity! Otherwise, the strategic triangle between Russia, China, and India to counterbalance the United States would only be reinvigorated and hastened to further include Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, and North Korea among others. The world still remembers how close we got to the edge of nuclear hell when the Soviet Union tried to expand its sphere of influence to the Western Hemisphere vis-à-vis Cuba. 2022 could degenerate into 1963 all over again! Let it not be too late to say that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. But let it also be said that in these bitter times, optimism is a revolutionary act! Regardless, in geopolitics, it is better to admit that we are in the dark than to pretend to see the light.