The information war continues to rage around Ukraine as well as an archaic and classic war – with the multiplication of ceasefire violations in the Donbas in recent hours – to which must be added the use of the most modern hostile means, as for example in the field of cyber.
What is in any case clear on the Western and European side is the refusal to die for Kiev or Donetsk and the determination instead to apply, in case of intervention in Ukraine of regular Russian troops, the most severe sanctions against Russia, and especially against the figures in its power.
The only great uncertainty lies in Vladimir Putin’s intentions. If the deployment of its forces is impressive (NB: with a figure now approaching 190,000 men, it is said, at the external borders of Ukraine, of which 30,000 in Belarus), if its claims, whatever the justifications, have been officially exposed, the ambiguity of his speech remains. The last example is the “assurance” that would have been given, during his last telephone interview with the French President, to withdraw his soldiers at the end of their maneuvers in Belarus. The extension of the maneuvers, which has just been decided, was a sleight of hand and officials in Minsk declared the same day that the Russian soldiers would remain “indefinitely” on Belarusian soil.
One might have thought after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 – unacceptable with regard to the principles of international law – that the Donbas question was less serious in the sense that it was reversible while Moscow would not back down in the peninsula. This has not been the case and the situation has only worsened with a lot of military and civilian victims (17.000 ?), not to mention major incidents such as the destruction in flight – still imperfectly elucidated – of a Malaysian airliner.
The crisis has only deepened, creating a harmful and morbid climate in this part of a European continent that feels that it has gone back to its darkest years.
Even if the worst is finally avoided, the Russian President will bear the responsibility for threatening gesticulation and methods that were thought to be gone, which will only lead to further ostracism of his regime while dialogue is necessary in the long term with Russia.
That Russia has not always been treated well since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has sometimes felt humiliated is one thing – and the policy of excluding it from certain forums has been a mistake -, but the Russian narrative on the exclusive responsibility of the West in the security concerns of Moscow and also its economic difficulties is not fair and admissible. If the west has made mistakes about it, it is Russia itself that has done the most to harm itself. It is not a few foreign advisers in Russian administrations, at the beginning of the transition period of the 90s, who are plundered but those who have appropriated national wealth and who are have been since called oligarchs.
Vladimir Putin could appear today as a master of chess, because it is true that he has accustomed us to take advantage with skill and determination of the opportunities open to him, as for example in Syria in 2015, in order to reassert a Russian power. Indeed, from the moment when the United States is perceived as being in a phase of retreat if not decline, particularly visible when leaving Afghanistan, and precisely when no one wants to go to arms against him in a European theatre – unlike the traditional obsidional complex displayed by the Kremlin, he becomes the master of clocks. This position, exposes his regime to all the political – including at home -, diplomatic and economic consequences of the decisions he would have taken.
If the aggressive nature of the Russian posture cannot be disputed, then the question arises of the modalities of action. The constant alarmist rhetoric on the American side even evoked an attack on Kiev and the use of sophisticated weapons, such as missiles. This led Washington to relocate its diplomatic staff to western Ukraine. The chess game – a practice in which the Soviets once showed their supremacy -, would then consist in systematically eliminating pawns, starting with Donbas, up to checkmate to conquer the king. But who is the king for Vladimir Putin? The Ukrainian President or rather the United States that should be humiliated in return?
But if we are still in rationality, on the Russian side – and the supposed «madness» of the master of the Kremlin aggravated by confinement is a questionable thesis -, it is clear from Moscow that a military operation in Ukraine with regular forces would have considerable consequences, starting with casualties on both sides. The break with the West would be total and lasting and the only loophole for Russia would be to play even more a « Chinese card ». This would not be so attractive and easy as that, both in a long-term geo-strategic vision (NB: the two powers are already watching each other for example in Central Asia where they are in latent competition) and on the economic front, where the imbalance is too marked against Russia.
There would still be some benefit to an intervention, but the cost would be very high. The revenge for a humiliation that is not only simulated, whatever we sometimes think of the West, would consist in making clear that the United States no longer provides concrete protection for its allies or protected countries. The sense of decay in Washington, highlighted by the events of the Capitol a little over a year ago, would be reinforced.
Putin’s strategy could therefore actually be different. Instead of chess, it would be appropriate to talk about the Go game. A policy inspired by this has already developed before our eyes over the years, from East to West from Transnistria to Donbas, and from South to North from Crimea to Belarus, which has just completed this encircling approach. It would no longer be a question, schematically, of controlling men but of circumscribing them by dominating spaces. The Go, oldest « abstract combinatorial strategy game» dating back to the Han dynasty in the 3rd century BC, has already been theorized in military strategy. He was part of the training of Samurai from 15th-century Samurai to 1868 Meiji and, closer to us, Mao Tse-tung is believed to have been inspired by it in his conquest of power (cf. Go game and Mao, published a few decades ago).
Chess or Go game? Such is another formulation of the alternative invasion or continuation of war by other means. For the Ukrainian crisis in all cases will not be quickly overcome and will continue to pose for the coming years the vast problem of the European security architecture.
The Ukrainian President has once again publicly questioned in recent days whether the doors of NATO were still open for his country. This question is also our own and we should have the courage to answer it in the negative: neither today nor tomorrow, subject to a profound transformation of the nature of the Alliance and of relations with Russia; In the short term, this would imply the implementation of Article 5 on mutual assistance of the Treaty, that is, a risk of direct confrontation with Moscow.
In the longer term, our interest is not that the two blocks – unfortunately still existing or reactivated – will get in direct contact. The Ukrainian crisis concerns us all and we must do everything to defuse the tension. The present policy of Russia, albeit reluctantly, has at least been a revelation of a vast problem and, hopefully, a stimulus to European awareness of the need for renewed collective security.