Ukraine troops
An instructor trains members of Ukraine's Territorial Defence Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022 Image Credit: AP

Ukraine may be the second largest country by area in Europe after Russia, with a sizeable population of 41 million people, but it is an economically weak nation. It has now become the focal point of a dangerous conflict between Russia and the West.

It’s a scary playing field that appeared all the scarier when on Saturday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN that “if a single additional Russian force goes into Ukraine, that would trigger a swift, a severe and a united response from the US and from Europe.

The following day, President Biden — who had walked back his muddled statement at a news conference last week that “a mere incursion” might not elicit the same response from the US as would “an invasion” — declared that his administration was “considering” the possibility of deploying thousands of American troops to Eastern Europe in order to “deter the Russian threat”.

By any measure, them are fighting words.

An imminent invasion?

Not to be outdone, Moscow has already massed more than 100,000 troops at Ukraine’s borders, raising fears that an invasion may be imminent.

In a nutshell. Our world became unipolar three decades ago, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Russian Federation.

Though this federation was no longer a global power dominant in world affairs, it nevertheless became a regional power, one with its own sphere of influence, in its own neighbourhood — and that included the Ukraine, a country that Russia borders to the east and northeast.

When the US’s allies in Europe began to make their forays into that neighbourhood, not too long after the end of the Cold War, by drawing countries of the former Warsaw Pact into their orbit — nation-states that had traditionally represented centers of economic and political gravity on the periphery of Russia — Moscow seethed but opted to bite the bullet.

The attempt by these allies, along with the US, to do the same with Ukraine, however, has drawn unexpectedly heavy pushback from the Kremlin from the very outset.

Oh, the games big powers play while we, the little people — as the Queen of Mean Leona Helmsley once called us — watch on in horror, wondering why the US and Russia could not bring themselves to adopt a more measured stance and why they think the framework of rules for conflict prevention and crisis management applies to us but never to them.

Caught in the crossfire

We say “in horror” because when these big powers get into a shoot-out — and by definition big powers are armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction — the likelihood is that we will get caught in the crossfire.

You recall reading, no doubt, about how in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the rapid, downward spiral of political confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union came within an inch of morphing into a nuclear one, a crisis that played out over 13 days — arguably the most dangerous 13 days of the Cold War — when humankind came closest to total annihilation.

It was a time when we still lived in a bipolar world divided between two superpowers waging relentless battles against each other in a cold war that at any moment could’ve become hot.

The crisis in Ukraine clearly does not approach the scale of that in Cuba, nor are we living today in a bipolar world of two competitive superpowers, but, as a crisis with international implications, this one has pushed, or will soon push, a dangerous situation to the brink of disaster, effectively reigniting the Cold War.

So, who is to blame?

Foreign policy blunders

It is naive to say that the US is blameless, and blameless because, as my-county-right-on-wrong patriots will tell you, American foreign policy is always propelled not just by national interest but also by a politico-moral impulse, indeed by the will to do good around the world — a view that is belied by all manner of dreadful foreign policy blunders stretching all the way from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, countries that never posed a threat to the US but the US nevertheless chose to war against.

It is not so naive, however, to say, as so many analysts in the American and European media have argued, that the US, which tends to be a global sphere of influence, has encroached upon Russia’s regional own sphere of influence, and did so by its upfront efforts to transform Ukraine and redirect its future.

And a regional power, by its definition of being that, seeks primacy in the region it controls. In short, Washington and its allies have stepped on too many of Moscows toes. And Moscow is now pushing back.

It is difficult for this columnist — one never known to ever hold a brief for Russia’s foreign policy or any of its military adventures, all the way from Chechnya to Syria — to find himself in full agreement with those analysts.

But you have, as we say, tell it like it is.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile