The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, now in its sixth month, is deeply rooted in the history of conflicts in the West. In the 19th Century, Prussia, then under Chancellor Otto von Bismark, began to seriously advance the idea of unification of Southern German states under one strong State (which later became Germany).
France, under Napoleon the Third, saw a stronger unified Germany as a threat to its own standing within Europe and war between France and Prussia was inevitable. France eventually declared war with Prussia but lost. While the French lost the war, it was a war fought to enforce Spain’s neutrality amidst Prussia’s territorial expansion.
How did Britain get drawn into World War One? For most of the 18th century, armies had marched across the Habsburg territory in the quest for domination of Europe.
For Britain, which was a naval superpower then, the Scheldt river estuary, at the mouth which lay the port of Antwerp across the English Channel (in current Belgium), needed to be in the hands of a neutral country and under no control of a major European power.
Having another powerful country across the English Channel threatened the security of the British empire. As a result, the congress of Vienna, a London conference of European powers, recognized Belgian independence while declaring the new nation neutral (which explains why to date Belgium hosts most of the European Union institutions, key among them being NATO).
In turn, Belgium agreed not to join any military alliance or permit the stationing of foreign troops inside its territory in exchange for territorial protection by the European powers.
The violation of this guarantee, which had lasted for nearly a century, was the trigger that drew Britain into World War I, when German troops forced their way to France through Belgian territory. Essentially, Britain went to war in order to preserve Belgium’s neutrality.
What about the famous Cuban missile crisis? Suppose that America’s Southern neighbours such as Cuba, Mexico, or even Puerto Rico, went into an alliance with Russia and agreed to host Russian missile launchers right across the South. Of course America would go ballistic. Which is exactly what happened with the Cuban missile crisis.
After the failed 1961 coup in Cuba (orchestrated by the United States) Cuba went in search of a new big brother in the stature of USSR. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was more than happy to bring the Cold War face-off right at the doorstep of America.
By the time the US discovered the plan, it was too late. At an emergency meeting in October 1962, President JF Kennedy’s advisors urged him to invade Cuba. President Kennedy refused and instead declared a naval blockade around the island. This declaration nearly triggered another nuclear war.
The same story plays out between Russia and Ukraine, two countries that have a long and winding history of being intertwined. They were part of USSR and Ukraine only got independence in 1992 after the Soviet collapse.
For the longest time, Vladimir Putin, Russia Federation’s de facto President, has demanded Ukraine’s neutrality amidst NATO’s eastward expansion. And Ukraine has played hard-headedness.
At a summit in Bucharest in April 2008, NATO issued a declaration which welcomed Ukraine and Georgia’s Euro Atlantic aspirations of membership in the alliance. For Russia, Ukraine’s ascension into NATO means having America’s lethal military assets right at its doorsteps, something Putin cannot stand.
The current dispute traces back to 2004 when the West sponsored a revolution to remove Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych who had won a tightly contested Presidential election run-off.
The West triumphed but they would again interfere in 2014 when Viktor Yanukovych, the then President, was forced to flee to Moscow. Meanwhile, Ukraine continued to lean more towards the West. As the war machines continue rolling in Kyiv, a victory for Putin would mean Ukraine drops its NATO membership aspirations and adopts a neutral stance (although it remains unclear how the victory will look like).
If Putin loses the war, Ukraine’s Euro Atlantic aspirations of membership in NATO will be more than emboldened. Nonetheless, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine can be best looked at as the Cuban missile crisis in reverse in which he felt a broad urge to enforce Ukraine’s neutrality, something which is not new in the West’s history.