On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi army to invade and occupy Kuwait in an operation that led to Iraq’s defeat in war, rebellions crushed in blood, 13 years of UN sanctions, defeat in a second war, foreign occupation, and two decades of civil conflict that is only now drawing to an end.
More than thirty years later, Vladimir Putin sent his tanks and soldiers into the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, enclaves whose independence he recognized, provoking a furious response and threats of retaliation from NATO states.
Putin’s actions may not provoke a wider war in the short term. Most immediately, this will depend on whether or not Russian forces press beyond the present front line and seek to expand the territory controlled by the separatist republics.
“Personally, I think that that is it for the moment,” one expert on Ukraine told me. “Putin already controls everything in Donetsk and Luhansk, and to move further would bring his forces into ‘resistance’ held territory.”
But the Russian advance has a political impact that goes far beyond the Donbas region and affects the future of Ukraine and Europe. By recognizing the independence of the two separatist republics Putin has ripped up any prospect of a diplomatic solution with Ukraine. At the heart of the Minsk-2 agreement of 2015 was an unimplemented accord for autonomy for the pro-Russian republics within Ukraine that looked like the only feasible diplomatic road forward – and this is now gone forever.
In his rambling speech on Monday, Putin said that he considered that Minsk-2 had become “a sterile process”.
This raises another important question. How far does Moscow regard the government in Kyiv as legitimate since Putin keeps on saying he regards it as a Western proxy and puppet? This brings us to the question of whether or not Putin intends to launch a full blown invasion of Ukraine.
Television screens are filled with maps showing red arrows where Russian tank columns might sweep out of Belarus heading for Kyiv or advance north from Crimea to seize Ukraine east of the Dnieper River. This may happen one day but I doubt if it will happen quite yet.
For all the furor over the Donbas there has yet been only limited skirmishing and no big military clashes as yet. Likewise, it is still unclear how far Western states will fast forward sanctions designed as a punishment for a full scale Russian invasion of the whole of Ukraine.
Compare the military strength of Saddam Hussein and Iraq three decades ago with that of Putin and Russia today. The Iraqi dictator had a powerful army, which had been fighting Iran for eight years, but nothing that could stand up to the American-led coalition. He also famously had no WMD, something that Putin possesses in profusion.
The US deployed a powerful army to evict the Iraqi army from Kuwait. But in Ukraine, the NATO powers have made it clear that they are not going to send their own troops into combat.
Instead arms and equipment will be sent to the Ukrainian military, but according to a detailed study by the Jamestown Foundation these are unlikely to be put to good use. It says that some $2 billion spent on military modernization in Ukraine since 2014 has had no effect. “It is remarkable and stretching credibility,” says the report, “that after seven years of war neither the Ukrainian military nor the defense industry has undergone any substantial or lasting reforms.”
Whatever these failings, a prolonged Russian military campaign would probably be a disaster for Moscow but it might go on for a long time and be very destructive.
Putin may be happy with what he has got in the Donbas and will claim that he saved the pro-Russian separatist republics from massacre. It is too early to know how the take-over of Donetsk and Luhansk has impressed Russian public opinion. Putin was never so high in the polls in Russia as when he annexed the Crimea in 2014.
It may make sense for the Kremlin to keep its military forces surrounding Ukraine as an unused threat, their presence all the more menacing because the east Ukraine invasion makes it clear that Russia is prepared to use military force. Much will depend on how adept Putin and his advisers are in political maneuvering, all the signs so far being that they are not skillful at all.
“The caliber and intelligence of the men around Putin is probably below the level of any group of advisers to a Russian leader since Tsar Nicholas 11 [executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918],” said one expert on Russia.
The invasion of eastern Ukraine makes it more and more difficult to resolve the crisis which may go on for years. This is bad news for Ukraine, Russia and their neighbors because their economies will be strangled by the uncertainties of hot and cold war and economic sanctions. This is what happened in Iraq and Syria. Sanctions, in particular, are a very blunt instrument that cripple whole societies and economies.
The biggest blow for Russia so far has been Germany suspending the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Russian stock exchange fell 14 per cent in dollars following Putin’s announcement of impending intervention, and Ukraine says it is losing $2-3 billion a month because of the crisis.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Iraqis believed that he must have thought through the consequences of his actions and waited for him to start substantive negotiations or conduct some diplomatic maneuver – until war came.