By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Russia's campaign that is not going
advances ‘creating fissures’ for Russian forces, so Chechen leader Ramzan
an 11-minute-long voice message to the Telegram messaging app on Saturday,
where he conceded the campaign was not going to plan.
Russian forces are
not conducting a controlled withdrawal and are hurriedly fleeing southeastern
Kharkiv Oblast to escape encirclement around Izyum. Russian
forces have weakened the northern Donbas axis by redeploying units from this
area to Southern Ukraine, complicating efforts to slow the Ukrainian advance
or, at minimum, deploy a covering force for the retreat.
But Ukrainian gains
are not confined to the Izyum area; Ukrainian forces
reportedly captured Velikiy Burluk
on September 10, which would place Ukrainian forces within 15 kilometers of the
international border. Ukrainian forces have penetrated Russian lines to a depth
of up to 70 kilometers in some places and captured over 3,000 square kilometers
of territory in the past five days since 6 September 6 – more territory than
Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April.
Neither are Russian
forces are not conducting a controlled withdrawal and are hurriedly fleeing
southeastern Kharkiv Oblast to escape encirclement around Izyum.
Russian forces have weakened the northern Donbas axis by redeploying units from
this area to Southern Ukraine, complicating efforts to slow the Ukrainian
advance or, at minimum, deploy a covering force for the retreat.
As Russian forces
abandoned town after town on Saturday, Putin was opening Europe’s largest
Ferris wheel in a Moscow park. At the same time, fireworks lit up the sky over
Red Square to celebrate the city’s founding in 1147.
Ukraine and the importance of 1991
Last February, Russia
invaded Ukraine in what was merely the newest iteration of Russia’s timeless
struggle for strategic depth. In doing so, it sparked a conflict that has
implicated, however indirectly, much of the rest of the world. The U.S. and its
allies are arming Ukraine even as they impose severe sanctions on the Russian
economy. The sanctions, in turn, have compounded energy and food insecurity in
Europe and beyond. It’s not exactly a new Cold War, but history certainly has a
way of rhyming. Meanwhile, China is rising despite its myriad internal
problems, and all still feel the economic consequences of the COVID-19
pandemic. With that in mind, we republish the following essay, originally
written a month before the Russian invasion, which brings home the fact that
the more things change, the more they stay the same.
We do not usually
think of 1991 as a defining year. We are aware of particular events that might
have changed something, but we rarely think of 1991 as more than that. It was a
year of global and intersecting change. It did not change the human condition,
but it changed much about how humans lived and saw the world.
1991 was the year the
Soviet Union collapsed and brought the Cold War to an end. The fear of nuclear
war, which had haunted the world since the 1950s, subsided, as did the fear of
a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The Soviet Union broke into its parts,
which is very real today.
1991 was the year 12
European heads of state signed the Maastricht Treaty. With this agreement, they
tried to do what Europe had never done: create a single structure abolishing
the history of Europe. This drew Europe away from the United States, but as the
Soviet Union collapsed, so had Europe’s urgent need for American power.
1991, an American-led
coalition executed Operation Desert Storm, driving Iraq out of Kuwait,
weakening Iraq, and enabling Iran to regain its balance after a brutal decade
of war with Iraq. The most important thing that emerged from this was a
powerful Islamist force, a significant component of which was al-Qaida. The
Islamists saw the American presence in the region as both sacrilege and a
threat to regional autonomy. The Middle East was transformed, and with it, on
9/11, the United States.
1991 was the year the
Japanese economic miracle ended in a massive financial crisis. Until then,
Japan was seen as the economic challenger to the United States and quite likely
the winner in the battle. Japan managed its crisis by spending a decade
becoming a normal superpower and avoiding extremes in economics.
1991 was the year
China accelerated its economic growth. The first growth period was interrupted
by Tiananmen Square and sanctions from the U.S. and Europe. The sanctions were
suspended in 1991. Like Japan before it, China surged, replacing Japan as an
Asian powerhouse, growing dramatically and imprudently.
1991, President George
H.W. Bush made a speech proclaiming the New World Order. He delivered the
speech in the wake of Desert Storm and envisioned it as the model in which a
united world would enforce peace and crush its violators. The speech replicated
Europe's dream of abolishing conflict and having a shared vision of the future.
It replicated a Russian dream of ending the barrier between Russia and the
world and joining the family of liberal democracy and wealth. And the dream
spoke to Japanese hubris and the world’s awe of Japan, reminding them that no
one could surpass the United States, for the New World Order speech was about
American greatness since it is evident that only the U.S. could manage a world
united in a search for peace and prosperity. Even the response to Tiananmen
Square and the outcome signaled the New World Order.
Bush’s speech was
sincere in the belief that human history can be managed to global satisfaction
and that it was the mission of America, as the only great power left, to manage
this system. There have been moments like this, such as the Treaty of
Westphalia or the founding of the United Nations. They were all disappointed,
as 1991 disappointed. Men love their nation more than the world because it is
theirs and because it puts them above others. It also gives them a chance to
define what is to happen. The world is vast, and if it is to be managed, it
will be by a hegemon of inhuman justice who can measure China's needs against
Japan's and make sagacious decisions. Or we can have a committee. The Soviet
Union was run by the committee after Stalin – and was horrid even while Stalin
was there. The United States has many committees designed to allow us to pursue
blatant self-interest. The center has been held for over 200 years. The
European Union was designed to be a committee of leaders willing to care more
about Europe than their own countries. The creaking sound we hear is Maastricht
tottering. Japan survived its near fall because it was a nation of Japanese
with a common past and common fears. They shared the pain.
Sharing the pain of
your countrymen is possible if not every day. Sharing it with strangers is much
more complicated. Desert Storm was the opening not to new world order but to a
new threat to the world: radical Islam, a threat stretching from Xinjiang to
lower Manhattan. But of course, those who believe in the truth of their version
of Islam do not see themselves as threats but as liberators and teachers. And
the Russians and Chinese know that if they don’t care for themselves, no one will.
The New World Order proved as pitiless as the old.
1991 was also the
year that Gorbachev wanted Kohl to encourage the West to rescue the
Soviet Union. He wanted the chancellor to portray the impending collapse as a
catastrophe that could send the entire world into turmoil. Or course, he also
hoped for support in his fight against his most formidable rival, Boris
The two men once
again on the evening of Feb. 20, 1991. Kohl had called Gorbachev, after
Yeltsin, in a television address on the previous day, had called upon Gorbachev
to resign from his post at the Kremlin. Gorbachev never published this
conversation because it reveals the extent to which he had underestimated his
rival and incorrectly assessed the situation.
1991 is not remembered by many as a decisive year. It
was not a single event, like 1945, to be viewed as a moment. 1991 was a
collection of more minor points that, when taken together, represent a moment
when all things dreamt of by the enlightenment might be possible. The moment
slipped away because it was never there. The main issue highlighted by the
crisis on the Ukraine borders was when Putin
as a KGB case officer in Dresden whose main opponent was from the
The why of the Ukrainian Trident
We know that Ukraine’s national symbol is the trident.
It can be found among relics of the state that Vikings founded in Kyiv about a
thousand years ago. After receiving Christianity from Byzantium, the
Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire, Kyiv’s rulers established secular law. The
economy shifted from slavery to agriculture as the people became subject to
taxation rather than capture. In subsequent centuries, after the fall of the
Kyiv state, Ukrainian peasants were enserfed by Poles and then by Russians.
When Ukrainian leaders founded a republic in 1918, they revived the trident as
the national symbol. Independence meant freedom from bondage and the liberty to
use the land as they saw fit. Yet the Ukrainian National Republic was
short-lived. Like several other young republics established after the end of
the Russian empire in 1917, it was destroyed by the Bolsheviks, and its lands
were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Seeking to control Ukraine’s fertile
soil, Joseph Stalin brought about a political famine that killed about four
million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine in 1932 and 1933.
overrepresented in the Soviet concentration camps known as the gulag. When Nazi
Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler aimed to control Ukrainian
agriculture. Ukrainians were again overrepresented among the civilian victims—this
time of the German occupiers and the Red Army soldiers who defeated the
Germans. After World War II, Soviet Ukraine was nevertheless subjected to a
slow process of Russification in which its culture was degraded.
When the Soviet Union ended in 1991, Ukrainians again seized on the
trident as their national symbol. In the three decades since, Ukraine has
moved, haltingly but unmistakably, towards functional democracy. The generation
that now runs the country knows the Soviet and pre-Soviet history but understands self-rule as
self-evident. When democracy is in decline worldwide and threatened in the
United States, Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression provides a surprising
(to many) affirmations of faith in democracy’s principles and future. In
this sense, Ukraine is a challenge to those in the West who have forgotten the
ethical basis of democracy and thereby, wittingly or unwittingly, ceded the
field to oligarchy and empire at home and abroad.
Unlike the exciting way the country came about,
Czechoslovak, Ukrainian leaders instead chose to fight and were supported, at
least in some measure, by other democracies. In resisting, Ukrainians have
staved off several very dark scenarios and bought European and North American
democracies valuable time to think and prepare. The full significance of the
Ukrainian resistance of 2022, as with the appeasement of 1938, can be grasped
only when one considers the future it opens or forecloses. And to do that, one
needs the past to make sense of the present.
The classical notion of tyranny and the modern concept
of fascism are both helpful in understanding
the Putin regime, but neither is sufficient. The fundamental
weaknesses of tyrannies are generic and long known—for example, by Plato in
his Republic. Tyrants resist good advice, become obsessive as they age
and fall ill, and wish to leave an undying legacy. All of this is certainly
evident in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Fascism, a specific form of
tyranny, also helps explain today’s Russia, characterized by a cult of
personality, a de facto single party, mass propaganda, the privileging of will
over reason, and a politics of us-versus-them. Because fascism places violence
over reason, it can be defeated only by force. Fascism was quite popular—and
not just in fascist countries—until the end of World War II. It was discredited
only because Germany and Italy lost the war.
Ukraine is fighting a
war against a tyranny that is also a colonial power. Self-rule means not just
defending the democratic principle of choosing one’s rulers but also respecting
the equality of states. Russian leaders have believed that only some states are
sovereign and that Ukraine is nothing more than a colony. A Ukrainian victory
would defend Ukrainian sovereignty in particular and the principle of
sovereignty in general. It would also improve the prospects of other
post-colonial states. As the economist Amartya Sen has argued, imperial famines
result from political choices about distribution, not food shortages. If
Ukraine wins, it will resume exporting foodstuffs to the global South. By
removing a significant risk of suffering and instability in the global South, a
victorious Ukraine would preserve the possibility of global cooperation on shared
problems such as climate change.
For Europe, it is also essential that Ukraine win and
Russia lose. The European Union is a collection of post-imperial states: some
of them former imperial metropoles, some of them post-imperial peripheries.
Ukrainians understand that joining the European Union is the way to secure
statehood from a vulnerable peripheral position. Victory for Ukraine will have
to involve the prospect of EU membership. As many Russians understand, Russia
must lose, and for similar reasons. The European states that today pride
themselves on their traditions of law and tolerance only truly became
democracies after losing their last imperial war. A Russia fighting an imperial war in
Ukraine can never embrace the rule of law, and a Russia that controls
Ukrainian territory will never allow free elections. A Russia that loses such a
war, one in which Putinism is a damaging
legacy, has a chance. Despite what Russian propaganda claims, Moscow frequently
loses wars, and every reform period in modern Russian history has followed a
Is Ukraine going to win this war?
full-scale reinvasion of Ukraine approached the half-year mark, Volodymyr
Zelensky had a victory on his mind. “We can and should think only about how to
win,” the Ukrainian president said in his Aug. 18
address to the nation.
And on the six-month
anniversary of the invasion on Aug. 24, a date that coincided with Ukraine’s
Independence Day, Zelensky spoke even more forcefully about victory—and
spelling out exactly what that would mean.“For us,
the most terrible iron is not missiles, aircraft, and tanks but shackles. Not
trenches, but fetters. And we will put our hands up only once—when we celebrate
our victory,” Zelensky said that day.
“Donbas is Ukraine.
And we will return it, whatever the path may be. Crimea is Ukraine. And we will
return it. Whatever the path may be.”
Throughout August, in
the weeks before Zelensky’s remarks, Ukraine’s armed forces conducted multiple attacks
against targets on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia forcefully and illegally
seized in 2014. These have included a series of
strikes against an
airstrip and munitions depots that Ukrainian authorities say were orchestrated
by elite military units operating behind enemy lines. They also included drone attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in
The strikes marked
the first time that Ukraine seriously challenged Russia’s dominance of the
peninsula in more than eight years and shifted the narrative of the war in
Ukraine’s favor. Combined with the recent victories in Kherson and Kharkiv,
they suggest that a Ukrainian victory—rather than a defensive stalemate—is
genuinely possible, if still a long way off.
Ukrainian victory is
not an assured possibility. But if it happens, it would be a paradigm-shifting
event for European security, on the scale of the events of 1989, when the
countries of the old Warsaw Pact liberated themselves from Soviet domination.
Officials in Washington and other Western capitals must be prepared for the
It was also the year
that Gorbachev wanted Kohl to encourage the West to rescue the Soviet
Union. He wanted the chancellor to portray the impending collapse as a
catastrophe that could send the entire world into turmoil. Or course, he also
hoped for support in his fight against his toughest rival, Boris Yeltsin.
The two men spoke by
telephone once again on the evening of Feb. 20, 1991. Kohl had called
Gorbachev, after Yeltsin, in a television address on the previous day, had
called upon Gorbachev to resign from his post at the Kremlin. Gorbachev never
published this conversation, either, because it reveals the extent to which he
had underestimated his rival and incorrectly assessed the situation.
At the beginning of
the 2022 war, the prospect of a Ukrainian victory against the fifth-largest
standing army in the world appeared beyond absurd. The assumption at that time
was that Russian troops would take Kyiv in a matter of weeks, if not days.
But Russia’s initial
blitzkrieg aimed at decapitating Zelensky’s government failed miserably.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region is deadlocked. And on Aug. 29,
Ukraine launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive in the south that aims to liberate the
occupied—and strategically vital—Kherson region, followed by a quick,
strikingly successful offensive in Kharkiv.
After making earlier
attempts to settle the issue, Western policymakers now appear to have reached a
consensus about the war in Ukraine: the conflict will settle into a prolonged
stalemate, and eventually, a weakened Russia will accept a peace agreement that
favors the United States and its NATO allies, as well as Ukraine. Although
officials recognize that Washington and Moscow may escalate to gain an
advantage or prevent defeat, they assume that catastrophic escalation can be