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Geopolitical realities clash with Western idealism as Russia invades Ukraine


The Russo-Ukrainian war has demonstrated that the realities of national-security eclipse democratic idealism and economic interests

A desperate Russia invades a despairing Ukraine as NATO falters to react in any meaningful way. On the 24th of February, Russia invaded Ukraine on multiple fronts after warning Kyiv and the West that NATO expansion will not be tolerated. Western powers did not listen, Ukraine gambled on NATO, and today Kyiv is alone and surrounded by Russian forces.

Although an upsetting and worrying development, this war comes as no surprise for any and all students of realism and geopolitics. Nation-states: no matter the ideology, no matter the leader, no matter the consequences, will always protect themselves and deny security risks to the best of their ability. This simple fact is today being relearned in the West.

A simple case of geography

Ukraine is located in the East European Plain and acts as a funnel into Russia if any invasion comes from Europe. Russia has for many centuries worried about European incursions coming in from the regions that today are Ukraine and Belarus. Indeed, these regions are so flat and indefensible that the likes of Napoleonic France and Hitlerite Germany had very few issues in occupying these areas on their way to invade Moscow and the Russian heartland.

Crimea, a former territory of Ukraine annexed by Russia in 2014, is also highly strategic. The port of Sevastopol allows the Russian Black Sea fleet to maintain a presence in the region, without which Russian naval operations would be at a disadvantage. Russia shares the Black Sea with three NATO members, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, and two openly anti-Russian nations, Ukraine and Georgia, both of which wish to join NATO. While losing Ukraine would open Russia to attack via land, losing Crimea would open Russia to attack via sea.

Although these risks may seem far-fetched in today's world, one must understand and consider that all-out war is always a possibility. Therefore, Belarus and Ukraine have acted as a barrier and buffer zone for Russia since the collapse of the USSR. While Minsk has continued its loyalty to Moscow, primarily due to its dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Kyiv in 2014 decided to turn westwards, towards the EU, and even worse, NATO.

Russia in the same year began to grow desperate over its security and lashed out against Ukraine. This involved the annexation of Crimea and the support for separatist forces in Luhansk and Donetsk. The so-called Maidan Revolution that ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was a turning point, not only for Ukraine but for Russian security. The previously neutral Kyiv prior to 2014 was on relatively decent terms with both Moscow and Brussels.

Ukraine is now a direct threat to Russian national security, something the Kremlin is painfully aware of, and NATO was undoubtedly willing to exploit. If NATO deployed in Ukraine, they would be a mere 490km from Moscow.

Russian demands

Risky geography is one reason this unfortunate European war has happened, but what exactly does Russia want from this conflict? Russian President Vladimir Putin has made three significant demands: Ukraine is to be banned from joining NATO, no further expansion eastwards by NATO and no drills held in Ukraine, the Caucasus, or Central Asia without prior agreement with Russia, and finally that there is to be a limit on the deployment of NATO weapons and troops in eastern European countries.

Out of these three demands, only one matters, banning Ukraine from entering NATO. This is also the most likely demand to be accepted as it only relies on Ukraine itself to abide by it. NATO will never accept such proposals, and Moscow knows it. Once the Kremlin achieves this goal, the war will end, but relations with the West will not be the same for the foreseeable future.

Security over economy

This war is not without cost. Not only will thousands of Russians and Ukrainians lose their lives, both military and civilian, but the economic toll will also weaken Russia considerably due to Western sanctions and the overall cost of war.

In the eyes of the Kremlin, financial hardships are tolerable when compared to being surrounded by a hostile NATO force. Ukraine is a gateway to Moscow: a geographic risk that may threaten to one day topple the current regime. The economy on the other hand will adapt to changing circumstances. In fact, we are already observing this as Russia turns eastwards, towards China. In addition to this, around 25% of Russia's GDP is tied to its energy production, predominantly oil and gas. Europe is dependent on said energy, thus guaranteeing Russia's most vital economic sector goes unscathed.

As the USA persists in its attempt at containing Russia and China, Sino-Russian relations will improve as both nations increasingly rely on each other. Russian exports to China of coal and foodstuffs have increased, and an expansion of natural gas with the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline has been proposed. Such economic developments will continue for the foreseeable future as both nations struggle against the US on the world stage.

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