In British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famed wartime broadcast with The BBC Radio, he articulated that he could not “forecast” Russia’s actions and said: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” He said these words within the context of the de-escalation pact signed between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia on August 23, 1939. Just a week after Germany put pen to paper, on Sept. 1, 1939, it invaded Poland, lighting the fuse of World War II.
Today, the whole world is trying to deduce what Putin is trying to do. Even after all these meetings, negotiations, and analyses, we are no closer to solving this mystery of mysteries. The key, as Churchill so poignantly pointed out, might be “Russian national interests.” This is why it is significant to understand how Russia’s national interests formed following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Many matters discussed within the Ukrainian context, but which increasingly trivialize Ukraine on the global stage, are reflections of the complicated legacy of the Soviet Russian Empire. Now, it is possible to see how insufficient it was to design the landscape of European security without taking Russia into account following the Cold War.
The fact that the U.S. refused to acknowledge Russia as a “geopolitical player” is perhaps one of the main factors of the crisis. The role America played in designed European security has, for a while now, been debated within the EU. Remember the arguments surrounding “Europe’s Strategic Autonomy.” The U.S., which wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific against China, is in favor of Europeans contributing more to the bloc’s security. However, the U.S. does not want this contribution to be made outside the "NATO" umbrella.
Geographically, Russia is very much a part of Europe. Even though the effects of Russian influence have somewhat diminished, it has a powerful Western vein, too. The U.S. policy to confine Russia within the East is one of the shortcomings of the architecture of European security. Myriad strategists argue that Europeans need to make up their minds as to whether they see Russia as an “adversary,” or as a security “partner.” This choice will determine the trajectory of the “Ukraine Crisis,” which has been sticking out like a sore thumb. Perhaps European decisions will determine the course Putin will take. These decisions are more significant than the riddle about the intentions of Putin, who is deploying troops around Ukraine. The question is: Can Europe bypass the United States and make decisions about its own security? The question, of course, encompasses whether Europe is able to act as a unified whole.
The U.S. sees NATO as a useful tool to control Europe. Furthermore, it wants to include NATO in the global power struggle against China. The Europeans, on the other hand, are wary of the US.’s new cold war against China. Even among American foreign policy elites, the tension policies that will push Russia into China’s arms are being discussed.
I mentioned that Ukraine is sticking out like a sore thumb. The fact is that the Ukraine crisis serves as a lever to re-negotiate Russian-Western relations. So much so that Russia’s demands during negotiations carried out in the context of the Ukraine crisis put Kyiv on the backburner. These demands center around NATO’s expansion to the east (toward Russia), and deploying forces to former Soviet nations. Ukraine is not a NATO member. Nor is there a consensus among NATO’s European wing on granting the country membership. In the short term, at least, Ukraine becoming a member is out of the question. EU giants, on the other hand, have adopted different positions vis-à-vis Russia in accordance with their national interests.
Now, Western media is scrambling in trying to answer the million-dollar question: “What does Putin want?” Perhaps their main concern should be, “What does Putin expect from Europe?” Even though the Europeans have saturated Ukraine with “political endorsements,” they have been carefully avoiding making any military pledges in the event that war with Russia happens to break out. The U.S., for its part, announced that it would not butt heads with Russia, even though it has provided military aid to Ukraine. The Biden administration had lifted the sanctions against the "Nord Stream-2" project, which bypassed Ukraine in the sense that it was no longer a European transmission line for Russian gas, without even consulting the Ukrainian administration. Is it possible that, now, the U.S. has also sacrificed eastern Ukraine?