The Current Crisis in Europe
March 3, 2022
The biggest threat to Russia isn’t the armies and nuclear weapons of the NATO alliance but its ideas: Putin is an autocrat with total power, and thus his enemy is the democratic way of life. If the power were in the hands of his people and Russia’s elections weren’t rigged, he and his corrupt friends would have been voted out of office long ago. This is why democracy is so toxic to Putin: he doesn’t want any of those ideas spreading to his country. That’s why he tightly controls Russian media and Russian access to the outside world, but he can’t keep his people from traveling to the many countries that border Russia. So Putin’s strategy is to get all these former Soviet countries back into his sphere of influence or to damage their democracy so badly that it won’t look good by comparison.
Putin left Ukraine alone for the most part from 2010 to 2014 when Viktor Yanukovych was in power, as Yanukovych was pro-Russia and not big on democracy–but as soon as Yanukovych lost power, Russia took Crimea before it could lose influence in the region. Russia has similarly felt threatened after the election of President Zelenskyy in 2019, as he vowed to purge Ukraine of corrupt politicians and drive Russian influence out of the country. This, of course, made him a target of Putin.
Putin also wants Ukraine under his control so he can exploit its resources. Like Stalin before him, Putin has enriched himself over the year by stealing from his people: while it’s impossible to say how much he has stolen, most experts believe that Putin is secretly the richest man in the world. To hide this money, Putin has a close circle of oligarchs, which are rich business leaders with immense influence all over the world. These oligarchs funnel Putin’s money into real estate and bank accounts in the West.
So how would Ukraine enrich Putin? Donetsk is a mining town and a manufacturing powerhouse, creating a good deal of Europe’s steel. Luhansk has massive coal reserves. More broadly, if Putin had control of Ukraine, he would have control of vast reserves of iron ore, cobalt, nickel, sulfur, and titanium, all metals that are used to make the batteries and chips in our electronic devices. He would also control Ukrainian farmlands that produce much of Europe’s wheat and potatoes, and most of the world’s sunflower oil (it is the national flower). Despite Russia’s size, only 13% of its land can be used to grow crops, and while that still gives them 123 million hectares of land, the acquisition of Ukraine would increase that land by a third–and deprive NATO countries of one of their food sources.
However, another factor in Putin launching the attack now is us. While America has always been a key part of NATO, Americans started questioning the relevancy of NATO when part of the “Make America Great Again” platform was to withdraw from NATO if other member countries did not meet their financial responsibilities. This refers to the NATO agreement that every NATO country would invest 5% of their GDP into its defense budget, yet only two member countries have done that in the past decade: Lithuania and the United States. Whether or not this critique came from the Donald Trump’s good working relationship with Putin or not, the Russian president saw cracks in the NATO armor.
Two months after Zelenskyy was elected, the US voted to suspend aid to Ukraine (and when evidence emerged that this was done in order to pressure Zelenskyy to release evidence against the Biden family, it resulted in the first impeachment of Donald Trump). However, President Biden has restored that aid package and has been a close ally of Zelenskyy. Putin may have chosen to attack now to take advantage of the fractured political state of America before they further allied with Ukraine. Other NATO allies are also going through political strife: the UK has been rocked by the Partygate scandal, Germany’s new chancellor is still learning the ropes of his new job, Canada is struggling with a wave of anti-government protests as a result of COVID restrictions, and France has been struggling with civil unrest ever since the Yellow Vest revolt of 2018.
The other factor that makes now an advantageous time for Russia to attack Ukraine is that they can keep the United Nations from getting too involved. Like the US, Russia is a founding and permanent member of the UN. The United Nations Security Council is the UN’s decision-making body on when to deploy UN peacekeeping troops and step into territorial disputes between countries. The leadership of this body rotates among the founding member countries, and unfortunately, Russia currently controls the committee. Since Russia refuses to get the UN involved in the conflict and since the country has a permanent seat and can’t be kicked out of the UN, the UN cannot force Russia to withdraw nor can they support Ukraine outside of aiding with the refugee crisis.