Officially, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has overtaken NFTs as the subject that people love to talk about but don’t understand very well. That’s not a bad thing to say about anyone. Even people who follow the news for their jobs haven’t spent the last 10 years studying Eastern European politics.
That person is Alex Kliment, a geopolitical analyst who helps write and edit Signal, a global affairs newsletter published by GZERO Media. Kliment helps write and edit Signal, which is great (you can find it here). We asked Alex a lot of high-level questions about what was going on and why we should care.
There is a long history between Russia and Ukraine. Can you tell us a little about it?
Russian civilization began in what is now Ukraine a thousand years ago, so the “brief” history goes back that far.
In 1991, Ukraine became its own country after the Soviet Union broke up. Before, it has been in a tug of war between Russia and the West:
Eastern and southern parts of the country have a lot of people who are Russian, so there is a lot of support for Russia in those parts of Ukraine.
Central and western Ukraine tend to be more pro-Western, but it’s very, very hard to make generalisations about all of the people in the country.
The Kremlin, on the other hand, sees Ukraine as an important part of its area of power. Russia doesn’t want Ukraine to ever join NATO, which has been talked about in many ways. This is a very important red line for Russia. But there’s also this other thing going on where Putin says that Ukraine isn’t a real country. For him, it’s just a small part of a bigger Russian empire that it’s his job to bring back to life. Most people in Ukraine don’t like this.
He said this would be the biggest war in Europe since World War II. In the past, there have been a lot of European conflicts. So why is this one so much more important?
This is one reason: because they’re so big. Yugoslavia’s civil war in the 1990s was the worst European conflict since World War II. It took place in a country that was breaking apart and had 23.5 million people. Ukraine has more than 40 million people. One of the two countries fighting is a nuclear power, so that’s something to keep in mind.
Second, a big idea in post-war Europe is that you don’t change the borders of Europe by force, because that always ends up bad. And yet, Russia, a major world power, is doing the same thing right now. So Russia’s challenge isn’t just to one country (Ukraine) but to the whole order.
Third, it’s clear that there’s a lot of money involved. This is about a war between a country called Russia and another country called the United States. Russia is Europe’s largest source of natural gas and a major exporter of oil around the world. Since 1945, no European war has been as bad for Europe’s economy and finances as this one has been for the country.
What is most likely to happen in the war? Is Russia guaranteed to get as much land as it wants?
It is clear that the Ukrainians aren’t going to be easy to deal with. They’ve been well-armed and well-trained by the Western world since 2014. If there were a full-scale invasion, most military experts think that Russia would be able to get to key cities quickly. That said, the Russian forces are just much bigger.
After that, what will happen? Invading a country is one thing; occupying it, if that’s what Putin wants to do, is another. Most of the time, the Russians would not be welcomed as “liberators.” If there is urban warfare or a popular insurgency, things could get very bad. I’m not a military expert, but I’ve heard that things could get very bad. There is a good chance that the West would help make life difficult for the Russians who are there.