Ukraine-Russia war: Putin's folly, Zelensky's miscalculation - comment

Although he speaks the same language, Volodymyr Zelensky grossly miscalculated Vladimir Putin’s intentions. The Russian strongman kept his cards close to his chest and once again invaded Ukraine.

 Ukrainian Israelis demonstrate in solidarity with Ukraine on February 26 at Jerusalem's Zion Square. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ukrainian Israelis demonstrate in solidarity with Ukraine on February 26 at Jerusalem's Zion Square.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

I was sure that in my long and eventful life, I have seen, heard and experienced every possible political scenario, including of course the Holocaust. I have taken part in a hot war, lived through a cold war, observed aggressive genocides in different parts of the world, and like the Queen of Britain, I have watched leaders come and go.

One of the highlights of my life was the birth in 1948 of the Jewish state, after nearly two millennia of Jews living as tolerated guests in the Diaspora. Today Israel serves as a shield against the re-emergence of virulent antisemitism, and as a peace-loving country realistic enough not to aspire to territorial expansion.

Unfortunately, despite the devastation of two world wars in Europe within 25 years that cost the lives of more than 70 million military and civilian dead, there has emerged another fanatic leader, whose ambitions have taken hold of his senses. Vladimir Putin, who trained in the academies of communist philosophy and is today’s absolute ruler of Russia, seems intent to plunge Europe into a third world war to fulfill his plans to re-establish hegemony over the area of the former Russian empire and the subsequent Soviet Union.

Fearful that Ukraine, today a democracy, may succeed in moving further into the Western sphere of influence and join NATO, Putin in true dictatorial fashion manufactured an atmosphere of unrest and opposition in the eastern Russian-populated Donbas region of Ukraine. That gave him an excuse to “liberate” the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Because he expected serious opposition from the Ukrainian military, he decided to first render their bases and airports inoperative by rocket and air attacks. We now see a full-scale war against Ukraine, and recognize the methods employed by Hitler in the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia.

 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky talks during an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022.  (credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky talks during an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022. (credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)

Only days before, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky requested the world to stop talking about war, because he did not believe that Russia would attack his country. As we know now, although he speaks the same language, Zelensky grossly miscalculated Putin’s intentions. The Russian strongman kept his cards close to his chest and once again invaded Ukraine.

It was in December 2014, six months after Russia entered Ukraine to occupy and annex Crimea, that Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists agreed on a 12-point ceasefire deal in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. By that time, 2,600 people had already been killed, a toll that rose to more than 14,000, according to the Ukrainian government. The agreement quickly broke down with violations by both sides.

Then again in Minsk in February 2015, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the leaders of two pro-Russian separatist regions signed another 13-point agreement. The heads of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met there at the same time and issued a declaration of support for the agreement.

The deal set out a series of military and political steps that were never implemented. Point 10, for example, calls for the withdrawal of all foreign armed formations and military equipment from the two disputed regions Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine claims that this refers to forces from Russia, but Moscow denied that it has any military troops or equipment there and broke the Minsk agreement. A major stumbling block has been Russia’s insistence that it is not a party to the conflict and is therefore not bound by the terms. The Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 are important to illuminate the background of the current Russia Ukrainian conflict.

Despite Russia being a signatory, Putin saw the weakness of US President Joe Biden and decided that now is the time to act. So he once again sent his troops into Ukraine, which borders Poland. They now directly face the forces of NATO.

To fully understand the intentions of Putin, who until age 39 lived under the rule of the former Soviet Union and rose to a senior rank in the KGB, it is helpful to know the history of Imperial Russia and the political changes to modern times.

For almost 200 years it was the Russian Empire, arguably the largest in the world, known as Imperial Russia and ruled as an absolute monarchy. The effect of World War I caused considerable upheaval in that country that led to a revolution of the working classes in 1917, and the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II and a century of Romanoff rule.

A bloody civil war finally ended when in 1922 the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (the USSR) was established, covering the same area of more than 22.4 million, but made up of 15 socialist republics, stretching from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Pacific Ocean. It was the world’s largest country, covering a sixth of the global landmass. Although a union of 15 republics, its government and economy were highly centralized in Moscow.

In the meantime, Nazi Germany built up its war machine with the intention of expanding its power over Europe and Eurasia. In a maneuver of deception, Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and they remained allies until June 1941, when the German army invaded the USSR. The rest is history.

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, politics between the Western counties and the Soviets polarized into a rivalry, mainly with the United States that became known by George Orwell’s description as the Cold War. Between 1988 and 1991, there developed a political and legislative conflict between some of the republics and the central government in Moscow. President Mikhail Gorbachev started to lose control, and in 1991 the USSR disintegrated.

As a result, the leaders of three of the largest republics – Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian – declared that the Soviet Union no longer existed, and 11 more republics joined them. Russia officially became the Russian Federation. Greatly reduced, it now has a landmass of over 17 million

Under its new quasi-democratic republican system, Russia’s head of state – the president – is empowered to appoint the prime minister, key judges and cabinet members. He is also the commander in chief of the armed forces. Today it is Vladimir Putin, who has served alternately as prime minister and president since 1999. He recently extended the two-year constitutional term to serve as president so that he can stay in office until 2036.

This places in doubt Russia’s claim to be a democratic state with a republican form of government, and the actions of that government point to the belief that Putin is intent on increasing his country to the size that it was in bygone times. These expansionist intentions place the West’s relationship with Russia under considerable strain.

When Russia invaded, occupied and subsequently annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, the reactions of the US, NATO and the European Union were strong a condemnation but nothing else. That emboldened Putin to take the action he did on February 24.

Israel has a good relationship with Russia, despite being pressured by the Biden administration to cool it. Because Israel receives considerable aid from the US, its main ally, it has to walk a diplomatic tightrope. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has taken the diplomatic risk of trying to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, flying to the Russian capital on Shabbat to meet with Putin. In a carefully formulated statement, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine, while making it plain that the Jewish state has good relations with both countries.

Although Israel is not directly involved, the effect of the world’s markets does not leave the Jewish state unscathed. The stock markets have plunged, and the price for crude oil has reached $105 a barrel, which will steeply increase Israel’s fuel prices at the pumps that are already the third-highest in the world; and because Ukraine is a major producer of grain, our bread prices may also rise. Israel is already listed as the sixth-most expensive country for the grocery basket.

The question now is: will Putin continue his expansion into Poland or into the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, which were all part of the former Soviet Union beginning in 1940. Today they are members of NATO, and Article 5 provides that if a NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, every member will consider this as an attack on all members and come to their defense.

Since the Cold War, the world has progressed to discount the use of nuclear weapons, but Putin today has put nuclear war back on the agenda when he warned the West that any attempt to interfere in Ukraine would lead to “consequences the world has never seen.”

The future of Europe is in Putin’s hands. Let’s hope that the Russian leader will see reason. To withdraw from Ukraine could herald the end of Putin’s political career. Putin is known, however, to have no reverse gear. If he is wounded and inextricably cornered, would he really press the button and take Europe down with him? An unthinkable scenario!  ■

The writer, 98, holds two Guinness Records: the world’s oldest active journalist, and the oldest working radio talk show host. He presents Walter’s World on Israel National Radio (Arutz 7) and The Walter Bingham File on Israel News Talk Radio. Both are in English.