“SO FOUL a sky clears not without a storm” – William Shakespeare.
The conflict in Ukraine marks a major inflection point in human affairs, developing as it has into a proxy conflict between a resurgent Russia and a Washington-led Western ideological bloc whose global hegemony is being challenged as never before.
When it comes to the situation on the ground, Russia’s military campaign is currently focused on taking control of the entire Donbass, made up of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.
Here it should be borne in mind that Putin invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He also cited the precedent of Kosovo unilaterally declaring its independence from Serbia in 2008 with the support of the US and its European allies to argue the legality of the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, whose independence the Kremlin recognised prior to mounting the so-called “special military operation” on February 24.
Now, after four months of the current conflict, the Russians have taken the Ukrainian cities of Kherson, Melitopol and Mariupol in the south of the country to create a contiguous land bridge from Crimea all the way into Russia proper.
As with Crimea in 2014, we can expect referendums to be held in all three and in the aforementioned people’s republics to legitimise their absorption into the Russian Federation.
What should not be dismissed is the support for Russia in these cities and across the Donbass, Ukraine’s industrial heartland made of a vast swathe of territory the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined.
In these parts of Ukraine — where the country’s sizeable ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minority is based — Russia’s military campaign is viewed by many as a war of liberation not occupation.
This reflects the complexities of a conflict the seeds of which were planted in 2014 with the Maidan coup in Kiev but whose roots run all the way back to tsarist times and Ukraine’s long struggle for national and cultural independence from Moscow.
The issue of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis during WWII is likewise a history whose bitter fruits inform much of the enmity between both sides today, with what is taking place as these words are being written nothing less than a redrawing of the map of eastern Europe to an extent not seen since.
From the vantage point of the Kremlin, Nato’s eastward expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall, despite the pledges and promises made to the contrary at the time, reached the point of critical mass with the aspiration of Nato membership being included in Ukraine’s constitution in 2018.
Add to the mix Volodymyr Zelensky resiling from his 2019 election pledges to implement a ceasefire in the Donbass between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, and the Minsk II protocols sanctioning a measure of autonomy for the territory controlled by the latter, and the stage was set for the disaster now unfolding.
Balance of power
Taking a broader view, not since the cold war has the world been divided into two antagonistic ideological blocs.
Back then those blocs were clearly defined as a Western capitalist imperialist bloc, led by the Washington, and a Soviet communist expansionist bloc, led by Moscow; with China’s own global influence as a communist power less significant.
Today’s blocs can be defined as a Western hegemonic bloc, again led by the US, and a quickly emerging anti-hegemonic bloc, in the vanguard of which are Russia and China.
To make the case that this is better for global security and stability than the unipolar moment we have been living through previously is not to claim that either Putin or Xi Jinping are moral giants.
Clearly they are not and Russia and China face serious challenges on issues of corruption, the rule of law, human rights, political liberties, and so on.
However despite these challenges, in their role as counterweights to Washington, Russia and China have begun to play a pivotal role in global terms with the concept of a balance of power in mind.
This particular concept — balance of power — has ancient roots. In his classic work, The War with Catiline, in which he mines the history of the Catiline Conspiracy of 63 BC, one of ancient Rome’s most famous figures, the historian Gaius Sallustius Crispis (better known as Sallust), bemoaned Rome’s lapse into moral turpitude, decadence and the obsession of its rich and ruling class with with luxury and ostentation.
This he blamed on the city’s conquest of the Mediterranean and destruction of its rivals, such as Carthage.
In the post-Roman era the balance of power was a concept embraced by major powers as the means by which to uphold peace and stability after the devastation of war and conflict.
The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia ended the 30 years war in Europe and created the framework for modern international relations, based on a respect for national sovereignty.
The Treaty of Vienna in 1815 brought the curtain down on 23 years of French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and maintained peace and stability in Europe until the first world war.
The UN Charter of 1945 was a product of the unparalleled death and destruction wrought by World War II and established the principle of international law.
Not all treaties and post-conflict settlements are equal, of course. In this regard the seeds of WWII were contained within the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.
Indeed Versailles was the very acme of a Roman peace, leaving Germany economically and territorially bereft, not to mention humiliated.
It was joined by the Treaty of Saint Germain (1919), sanctioning the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian empire, while the following year the Treaty of Sevres (1920) facilitated the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire.
The aforementioned treaties would play a crucial part in shaping the world throughout the 20th century, and Versailles especially — what with the national resentment it catalysed in Germany proving manna from heaven for a far-right Austrian crank harbouring the perverse fantasy of racial and national destiny.
The key point is that all through history it has only been when the major powers have come to understand that none — whether alone or as part of a bloc or alliance — has the power and ability to attain domination over the other that there have been sustained periods of peace and stability. Today is no different.
The conflict in Ukraine will eventually end in some kind of diplomatic settlement. We can only hope that the settlement arrived at takes full measure of the blood spilled, the human suffering and despair endured, and ensures that future generations inherit a world in which peace rather than war and conflict reigns.