There is a school of thought which argues that whatever the U.S. does in the geopolitical arena, Russia should be entitled to do as well because both countries are major powers and each is entitled to its own sphere of influence. What this argument ignores is the fact that simply possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t make a country a superpower. No one thinks of North Korea as a superpower.
Russia is not a superpower by any current measure. Its GDP at the end of 2021 was $1.7 trillion, smaller than South Korea’s of $1.8 trillion. South Korea doesn’t make demands for other countries to bend to its will, as Russia is currently doing in Ukraine. U.S. end-of-2021 GDP was just shy of $23 trillion. In 2020, the U.S. had a military budget totaling $725 billion, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). World Bank data shows that Russia’s military budget amounted to just $62 billion in 2020.
The only non-Western country that comes close to America in terms of military and economic might is China, whose GDP in 2021 was $17.7 trillion. But that figure somewhat overstates China’s power. At $252 billion, China’s military budget in 2020 was just about a third of America’s. Also, America’s 2021 per capita GDP of $56,200 versus $8,840 for China means that the U.S. could afford to spend much more on its military without materially compromising the standard of living of its citizens, as opposed to what China could do. So, even when it comes to mighty China, it will probably take several more decades, if ever, for it to reach parity with America economically and militarily.
Putin’s reason for invading Ukraine is that Ukraine had been making efforts to join both the EU and NATO over Russia’s objections. He conveniently fails to mention—or forgets—that in 1994, Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum, which expressly prohibits the use of force against Ukraine that the world is currently witnessing.
Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan housed large quantities of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal when the union broke up in 1991. As part of its nuclear non-proliferation efforts, the George H. W. Bush administration wanted to have all those weapons consolidated in one country. The administration managed to convince the three newly independent states to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances, which were spelled out in the Budapest Memorandum. All three agreed and shipped their arsenals to Russia.
Ukraine was the third largest nuclear power in the world at the time, with a reported 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads located on its soil. By signing the memorandum, Russia and the other signatories, the U.S. and the U.K., pledged, among other provisions, “to respect Belarusian, Kazakh and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in the existing borders” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against any of the three countries agreeing to give up their nuclear arsenals.
Crimea was part of Ukraine at the time the memorandum was signed. So whatever Putin’s reasons were for annexing the peninsula in 2014, he clearly broke an agreement that his country had ratified. He accuses the West of breaking unwritten promises with respect to NATO expansion, but thinks it is perfectly fine for him to break formal agreements. He is certainly not the paragon of virtue he consistently portrays himself to be.
NATO, for all intents and purposes, is a defensive alliance. There seems to be a widespread assumption on the part of Putin sympathizers that having a NATO member country on Russia’s border automatically translates into likelihood of a military attack on Russia. With regard to international relations over the last couple of decades, the evidence doesn’t quite support that hypothesis.
For example the EU was formed mainly to integrate the economies of western European nations and through that, discourage the internecine wars that had plagued the continent for centuries. Nowadays, not many countries in the world are particularly interested in hot wars. Geopolitical competitions are now mostly economic in nature. The U.S., the EU, and Canada, the staunchest of traditional allies, have been engaging in that type of warfare lately. In the last few years, they have all slapped tit-for-tat tariffs on some of the goods they trade among themselves.
Of course Russia’s concerns about NATO and its weapons being so close to Russia’s borders cannot be completely dismissed. Any type of dispute could turn into a hot war unexpectedly. Putin and his supporters constantly point to America’s opposition to the Soviet Union’s attempt to station nuclear weapons in Cuba to justify their current veto of Ukraine’s EU/NATO membership. Even if it were valid, this argument would imply that all of the social, economic and geopolitical realignments that have taken place in the world over the last sixty years since the Cuban missile crisis mean nothing and should be ignored completely. In essence, the world should forever be frozen in history.
Ukrainians are fighting tooth and nail to maintain their independence from Russia and to align themselves with the rules-based Western order because they simply don’t like the picture they see when they cast their eyes over the border fence with Russia. Anyone who has experienced life under a brutal dictatorship can understand why the Ukrainians and other eastern European citizens want to steer clear of Russia. Today’s Russia is a country that denies its citizens many forms of human rights. Ukrainians see themselves as people of an independent nation, something Russia itself recognized in 1994, and they want the freedom to determine their life trajectory. They haven’t volunteered to be Putin’s human shields against NATO.
A lot of foreign policy experts have always considered Putin to be a brilliant strategist. His colossal blunder in Ukraine seriously calls that reputation into question. He astonishingly failed to recognize the severity of his country’s economic and military limitations were Russia to engage in any conventional war with the West. He also badly miscalculated the extent of the resistance his forces would meet in Ukraine.
Pythons strangle and swallow all kinds of animals, but they know not to try gobbling up porcupines. As it is, Putin tried to swallow Ukraine and is choking badly on it. Even if he manages to subdue the country and tries to digest it, he would be fortunate to escape with just abdominal pains. The outcome could actually be fatal.