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Russian fears of encirclement have some justification

Posted on 19 January 2022 by Prairie Post

Lethbridge Herald Editorial Board

As most of us sat down for the holiday season ensconced in the warmth of hearth and home, in another part of the world a massive Russian troop build up on the Ukrainian frontier appeared to be a harbinger of things to come, and drifting inexorably towards war.

This week Russia and the United States sat down for last-minute security talks to try to avert any possible armed conflict in the region, but they still appeared to be miles apart in their respective positions. And there didn’t look to be any promising prospects for further detente between the two powers over Ukraine going forward.

While speculation about a possible Russian invasion is now rampant, one suspects — along with a flurry of other observers and analysts — that Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin may be attempting to play a much deeper game. Ratcheting up the military pressure on Ukraine’s border may very well be an attempt to squeeze concessions out the West and NATO — namely preventing Ukraine’s possible NATO membership — rather than intending to spark a conflict which could very quickly spiral out of control.

In the West, Russia’s actions always appear to be — and are often framed that way by our media — as clear evidence of the nation’s aggressive posture and foreign policy, and tendency to be a destabilizing force in world affairs rather than working towards de-escalation. Russia is no saint, and its actions over the past decade should give anyone pause before naming them among the who’s who of freedom-loving nations.

However, in this case, Russia’s demands of the West in exchange for some form of de-escalation might seem unreasonable to many of us, but not to those with even a passing familiarity with geography and recent Russian history. Russians have a pathological fear of encirclement on their borders, and with good reason being invaded twice via Europe in the 20th century. In terms of human lives, estimates of how many Russians were lost in WWII sometimes run as high as 27 million, more than any other victor in the conflict. People tend to have a long memory for that kind of horror.

Almost immediately in the post-Soviet era in the 1990s, NATO began encroaching on areas that had always firmly been considered a Russian sphere of influence, in the Baltic and other parts of Eastern Europe, including former Warsaw Pact satellites and even Soviet possessions like Ukraine. This was viewed with increasing alarm by the Kremlin, and has been ever since. 

To see things through Russian eyes is difficult, but we should at least try. If Ukraine were to join NATO, from the Russian perspective this would be almost like a hostile military power setting up shop in Canada or Mexico would be viewed in the United States. The analogy isn’t an exaggeration, and illustrates that perhaps Russia does have a bone to pick with the West after all. 

While creating a military build-up on the Ukrainian border and destabilizing the region might not be the best way to achieve results, ham-handed military efforts and shows of force are also in keeping with the Russian character in recent years, and in the past as well. We can’t really be sure if war, or something else, might be their intent.

However, these types of escalations are also inherently dangerous when opposing military forces are in such close proximity. It only takes one shot, one plane downed, one ship sunk, or a position shelled before matters could rapidly deteriorate out of control. Let us hope that cooler heads prevail in Eastern Europe or else global conflict might be the result.

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