On the 26th of December 1991, the unthinkable happened. The empire that was the Soviet Union was no more, out came 15 newly independent states and four separatist regions. Whereas Moscow had influence from Berlin to Hanoi, the new Russian Federation could barely control Moscow to St Petersburg. Russia’s land mass was the smallest it had ever been in the past 200 years, the economic policy of “shock therapy” left the Russian economy in taters with GDP falling by 200 billion USD in a year as the sudden liberalisation of markets, privatisations and removing of all capital controls brought Russia to its knees. However, we were now living in “The End of History and the Last Man” as portrayed by Francis Fukuyama. This was because Russia was now a “liberal democracy” and as liberal democracies do not go into conflict with each other, the world would enter the final stage of history and ever lasting peace.
Fastforward 30 years and tensions are almost running as high as they were in the Cold War. The dream that liberal hegemony would bring world peace was broken when two Boeing aircrafts hit the sides of the Twin Towers, and now Russia is prepared to go to war in Ukraine as she attempts to assert dominance on the world stage. Why is this? Ukraine (literally “borderland” in Russian) stands in the crossroads between the West and Russia. While NATO promised the Soviets at the time that they would not expand NATO and not place American troops east of the inner-German border. NATO now sits at the border of Russia and a mere 150km away from St Petersburg. Russia, who’s always desired having buffer states since the surprise attack of Operation Barbarossa in WW2. This has led to Russia in recent years taking actions against its neighbours it deems too close to the West. The country of Georgia in 2008 sought NATO membership, however this would almost certainly lead to the destruction of the two Russian backed separatist groups in Georgia (South Ossetia & Abkhazia) and lead to another NATO member at Russia’s doorstep. As such, Russia took decisive military action and almost completely overrun Georgia in 12 days. This set a precedent for Russian behaviour in the future in order to assert their sphere of influence and push back against NATO expansion. When Ukraine in 2014 was looking that it was moving away from Russia’s sphere of influence, Russia quickly annexed Crimea and supported separatist forces in the Donbass region. Now we enter the current conflict in Ukraine. The players in the game are Russia and the West (EU & NATO) while Ukraine is merely a chip on a gaming table. Each player has their own cards, Russia has the Donbass separatists, ethnic Russians in Ukraine and a large armed forces on the border to levy pressure on Kiev. While the West has economic sanctions, and a larger military might. Both players want to use their cards to get Ukraine to join or at least prevent from falling into the hands of any side, similar to Russia & Britain in the Great Game over central Asia. So how are both sides going to act?
For the West, they have already placed sanctions on Russia for recognising Donbass independence & sovereignty which undermines Ukraine’s own integrity. However, sanctions are unlikely to work. Russia is not Rhodesia; it has an abundance of natural resources, and its economy is already heavily self-reliant after the sanctions levied on Russia over the 2014 annexation of Crimea. And any trade it needs to do with the outside world can be done through China, as the US has done almost the opposite of a Kissinger and has pushed China to be closer to Russia in face of a hostile United States. Armed intervention is never going to happen as Ukraine is not a key important ally to the West, which is also why Ukraine will not be a NATO member as long as Article 5 states that an attack on one (NATO member) is an attack on all. However, promising Russia that Ukraine will never join NATO will only be shift the balance of power towards Russia.
For Russia, Ukraine is of much greater importance than to the West. However, their moves are limited. Any acts of armed aggression will lead to economic & political isolation of Russia. Even though as previously stated that sanctions won’t completely detour Russia, if they are thorough and Europe is willing to break all economic ties with Russia (which they aren’t because of their dependency on Russian natural gas) then they will be severely crippled but not destroyed.
As such, the most likely outcome is either the status-quo or a repeat of 2008. As it will either fizzle out to a level of Kosovo & Serbia, or Russia will be agitated enough to send troops into Ukraine. Something which the West will respond with rounds of sanctions but nothing more.