Tom Arms World Review: Let’s start with Belarus

Let’s start with Belarus, key launch pad for the Russian invasion and now virtually no longer an independent state. Of course, it has been going that way for a few years and when the West imposed sanctions after the rigged 2020 elections dictator Alexander Lukashenko sold out to Putin’s rouble in order to stay financially afloat. However, the Belarussian leader retained a fig leaf of independence by continuing to refuse to allow Russian troops to be based on his country’s soil. Well, that has now ended with Belarus becoming a major launch pad for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On top of that, a constitutional referendum last weekend went a step further and approved a measure that allows Russian nuclear weapons to be based in Belarus. The country’s economic, defence and foreign policy is now dictated from Moscow and 80,150 square miles has been added to the Russian empire.

The European political chairs continue to rearrange themselves across the geopolitical map. Sweden has been neutral for 200 years. In the wake of the Russian invasion, opinion polls are for the first time shifting in favour of ending this long-held position and joining NATO. The powerful Social Democrats, however, remain opposed. Finland has been neutral since 1945. It has a 780-mile long border with Russia and a long history of conflicts with Moscow. Its government is on the cusp of announcing a referendum on NATO membership. The latest opinion polls show 53 percent for and 28 percent against. Both the Swedes and the Finns have been members of the EU since 1995 and have been in the forefront in supplying aid to Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has warned the two countries that joining the Western military alliance would result in “detrimental and military consequences.”

There is movement too in Eastern Europe where Putin’s three targets – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – have all issued statements saying they want to join the economic arm of the Western Alliance – the European Union. This would mean crossing another one of Putin’s oft-stated red lines. But membership involves more than just a “please may I join your club” request. The process usually takes years while the “candidate” countries adapt laws and regulations to Brussels requirements and jump through hoops related to democratic structures, human rights, an independent judiciary and anti-corruption measures. Ukraine’s request came during President Volodomyr Zelensky’s speech this week to the European Parliament. In a tidal wave of emotional support a raft of MEPs called for plucky Ukraine to be put on the fast track to membership. A coterie of French-led MPs, however, pointed out that – according to Transparency International – Ukraine is the second most corrupt country in Europe (Russia is the first). Moldova was spurred into action by a Lukashenko press conference in which the Belarussian dictator displayed a map which showed Moldova as the next target for invasion. There are already 1,500 Russian troops in Moldova based in the breakaway Russian-speaking Transnistra Province. As for Georgia, they have been expecting a full-scale Russian takeover since Putin’s tanks grabbed South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008.

There was another major speech this week in Washington: President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union Address (aka SOTU). His pledges of unwavering support for Ukraine resulted in a rare and vociferous display of bipartisan support which rivals the unity being displayed in Europe. Biden said Putin struck because he thought the West was divided. “He was wrong,” said the President. “We are ready. We are united.” He went on to promise that “Putin’s war will leave Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.” However, Biden’s fine words were tempered with a refusal to commit any troops to fighting in Ukraine. Forces are being rushed to the Eastern flank of the Western Alliance to protect “every single inch” of NATO but “our forces are not engaged and will not engage in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.” Meanwhile Donald Trump, de facto leader of the American Opposition, is reversing his position on Putin’s invasion. Last week he described Putin as “genius”. This week he said the attack was “a holocaust.” A volte face from double-down Trump is a big news.

Most of the world continues to line up behind Europe and the US against Putin. But not everyone. One interesting surprise is a big chunk in the Middle East. Iran is understandable on the basis of your enemy is my enemy, but both the Saudi and the United Arab Emirates – usually seen as American proxies in the Arab world – are backing the Russians. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the two OPEC stalwarts have close relations with Moscow through the oil cartel. Russia in fact, is an unofficial member and the cartel is now regularly referred to as OPEC + 1. The other reason is dissatisfaction with the Biden Administration which has cut off arms supplies to Saudi and UAE forces fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. Russia has quickly filled the supply gap and won kudos from the Arab armies. Even Israel’s support for the West is lacklustre at best. It has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine but refused to send weapons and has asked the US and UK not to sanction controversial Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich because of his support for Jewish charities. The weak support from Israel is likely linked to its own expansionist territorial ambitions and the fact they would be undermined if Putin fails to annex Ukraine.

Another chink in the anti-Putin alliance is the South Asian antagonists Pakistan and India, both of whom are neutral leaning towards Moscow. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was visiting Putin on the day the invasion started. India is a key member of the anti-Chinese Quad alliance but now the US is considering sanctions against the Indians because they abstained from a UN General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion. Pakistan wants to maintain good relations with Moscow because of instability in Afghanistan. The Indian army has long-standing and close relations with Russia which remains one of the country’s main weapons suppliers. But both countries share a common cause that pushes them towards support for Putin: Kashmir. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is about competing claims based on territory, culture and history. So are the competing claims in Kashmir of Pakistan and India.

China continues to walk the Ukrainian tightrope but is starting to lean ever so slightly towards Kyiv. A news anchor on Chinese state television appeared dressed in the Ukrainian colours of blue and yellow. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with his Ukrainian counterpart and upgraded his description of the invasion to “from deteriorating situation” to “conflict.” The Chinese-controlled Asian International Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) has stopped loans to both Russia and Ukraine. This weekend there is a meeting of the Chinese National Assembly. Watch it for more directional wind changes. China is torn on multiple levels. It has 60,000 nationals living in Ukraine. It exports 90 percent of its grain from Ukraine. But it is also the world’s largest energy importer and much of its fuel comes from Russia. In addition, there is little doubt that there is a strong personal relationship between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xijingping, although both men would probably throw the other under a speeding tank if it served their purpose. Geopolitical considerations also loom large. Ukraine is forcing to reassess its relationships across the board—with Russia, Taiwan, Europe, India, Australia…. It is very aware that the showdown on the other side of the Eurasian land mass is being viewed around the globe as a battle between autocracy and democracy, and, if democracy wins, it is bad news for autocracy in China and elsewhere. So, for the time being, Beijing continues its tightrope walk.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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4 Comments

  • It is true to say that when it comes to a contest between the strategic interest of military powerful counties that such interests always have and probably always will trump International law or the rules based order.
    The security guarantees given to Poland in 1939 could not prevent its invasion and dismemberment by both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR or the Soviet occupation for the ensuing 50 years. Likewise the 1994 Budapest agreement whereby Russia, the USA and UK guaranteed Ukraine’s security has proved ineffective. Ultimately, the right to self-determination of former soviet states can only be guaranteed by allying with Nato.
    As Hitler invaded Norway in 1940, Stalin invaded Finland but was held off by the Finns in the Winter war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may well see Sweden and Finland join the Nato alliance to avoid a repeat of these events in the Baltic.
    In geopolitics and International relations the Thucydidean premise of might is right prevails. If the post-war promise of self-determination for independent states is ever to be secured then the premise that the weak must suffer what they will has to be rejected once and for all. In May 2021, following the annual UN General Assembly debate on R2P, member states voted to adopt Resolution 75/L.82 on “The responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The challenge remains as to how to most effectively get the permanent members of the security council to respect these resolutions. For now we have to rely on the International criminal court as a deterrent.

  • “For now we have to rely on the International criminal court as a deterrent.”
    Trouble is that deterrent also really depends upon having someone big providing some teeth – like the US…

  • Brad Barrows 6th Mar '22 - 6:15pm

    @Joe Bourke
    Actually Finland had to agree to territorial concessions to the Soviet Union at conclusion of the Winter War and then tried to reclaim the territory, and win more besides, by joining with Hitler’s Germany to attack the Soviet Union in 1941.
    Finland has been independent for just over a century, having previously been Russian territory for over 200 years, and Swedish for hundreds of years before that, so it is unlikely that Putin considers Finland as ‘historical Russian lands” in the same way he views Ukraine.

  • Mark Frankel 7th Mar '22 - 7:44am

    “The weak support from Israel is likely linked to its own expansionist territorial ambitions and the fact they would be undermined if Putin fails to annex Ukraine.” Reuters reports rather differently. “Israel has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, expressed solidarity with Kyiv and sent humanitarian aid. But Bennett [the Israeli PM] has not met Ukrainian requests for military assistance and has kept channels open to Russia, with which Israel coordinates its operations against Iranian deployments in Syria.”

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