On March 24, 1999, then-Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov was en route to the US for a visit. While flying over the Atlantic, he was informed that NATO forces had begun bombing Yugoslavia without even a UN Security Council resolution and against Russia’s position. Primakov immediately ordered the plane to turn around and return to Moscow for urgent consultations with president Boris Yeltsin.
His decision signaled the start of a new era in Russian relations with the West. Several months after Primakov expressed his displeasure with NATO’s conduct in Yugoslavia, an energetic young president came to power in Moscow. His name was Vladimir Putin. He decried the breakup of the Soviet Union and dreamed of restoring influence and power to Russia.
Addressing the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy, Putin expressed his intentions in bold, outspoken language that stunned the high-ranking participants. “I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable, but also impossible in today’s world,” he said, adding a sentence that presaged every development in the post-Soviet world over the past two decades.
“It turns out that NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders, and we continue to strictly fulfill the treaty obligations and do not react to these actions at all,” the Russian president said, wondering, “What happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?”
In 2022, no one is in any doubt: The era of unipolar American global predominance is over. Putin’s Russia is one of the many actors challenging it.
Russia is not the Soviet Union and its economy is medium-sized and riddled with systemic flaws. Nonetheless, it is still a nuclear power covering immense areas with a strong military that is skilled and experienced in combat in Syria and Ukraine over the past eight years. It wants to take what it perceives as its due, whether through diplomacy, threats or force.
Since Russia recovered from the economic crisis induced by the Soviet Union’s breakup, its positions have remained steadfast: First, it views itself as a global force that must be reckoned with, and second, that there will be no expansion of NATO at the expense of the post-Soviet states, which Putin treats as his natural playground.
The current Russian campaign against Ukraine may have started out as an attempt to achieve its desired results through manipulation – deploying forces (as it has done in the past), issuing threats and trying to squeeze far-reaching concessions from the West, while demarcating borders of influence and signaling other post-Soviet states to beware.
Putin knows that President Biden is focused on China, that his domestic standing is shaky, and that he is still recovering from the fiasco of the chaotic Afghanistan pullout.
Putin has no real desire to rule Kyiv by force, first of all because such a scenario would incur unbearable costs, externally – stifling international sanctions; domestically – high casualties. He would rather advance his goals through sophisticated tactics that combine the threat of force, psychological warfare and a war of information.
BUT CONTRARY to the Russian forecast, the West has not folded and instead began preparing energetically for a possible war in Ukraine, despite feeble sounds of opposition emanating from Kyiv.
Authorities in the Ukrainian capital realize fully that Putin is not necessarily interested in taking a bite out of their territory (after all, occupied territory needs to be administered, a heavy burden as the Middle East well knows). They also realize that they will be the ones paying the price for the clash between Russia and the West.
Prospects of Ukraine’s acceptance by NATO have always been slim to none. A test case in this regard is Georgia, for years considered a “candidate” for NATO accession but whose candidacy is advancing slowly; another example is Turkey’s protracted attempts to join the EU.
The West will not send its armies to save Ukraine, will not deploy ground forces on its territory, and will not accept it into NATO nor into the EU. Since Western states ordered the evacuation of their Kyiv embassies and a halt of flights, the Ukrainian economy has taken a deadly hit.
In this sense, Putin has already won, because any post-Soviet state that dares to eye the West will know that when chased by the Russian bear, no club-wielding ally will rush to its side.
President Putin is capable of drawing out these tensions for weeks, as long as they serve him so well. On the other hand, he might decide to expand Russia’s activities in eastern Ukraine, where war already has been underway for eight years.
He will choose the scenario that is most beneficial at any given moment. He may be hit with tough personal sanctions in the short term, but the Europeans are unlikely to cooperate with the US in the long term by cutting off their northern neighbor completely.
However, this discourse on sanctions of one kind or another is irrelevant in a broader context, which is far more significant than the current speculation about the day war will break out with Ukraine. The unipolar world that Putin spoke about in 2007 is no more and the regional fight for spheres of influence is heating up.
The dramatic events in Ukraine are bound to affect the Middle East, too. Russia, China and even Iran are about to challenge the US, which has lost interest in the region and is on its way out. The implications for Israel’s security could be harsh and dangerous.
The writer, a former MK, is director of the Program on Israel-Mideast Relations at the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.