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  • Petr Zhilin

Ignored Warning Signs: Putin's Ukraine Conflict Unveiled


A year into Putin’s military adventure in Ukraine, with tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers dead, many observers and experts are asking questions. How did this happen? Did no one notice the warning signs earlier? Why did Vladimir Putin decide to wage war now? Many critics, of course, claim that Putin’s problematic behavior dates back at least to 2014, and that we should’ve done something more than the ineffective sanctions at that point in time. But the truth is, Putin’s violations of human rights go back even longer, and weak responses then led to the conflict now.

Putin’s first notable crime was before he even became President). In September 1999, whole blocks of apartments in Moscow and other cities in Russia fell victim to five bombings, with bombs strategically placed by terrorists to cripple buildings at their core; 300 people died in those bombings, killed by the force of the explosions and buried by the rubble afterward.


It is the fifth bombing, however, that remains the most interesting. The perpetrators were revealed to be agents of the FSB, or Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, and it was found that the terrorists had called a Moscow FSB office several times for instruction. Initially, the FSB claimed it wasn’t true and that there was no fuse or mechanism to prove it to be an attack, but alternative theories have emerged suggesting potential involvement or manipulation by elements within the Russian government. In spite of this, then Prime Minister Putin called for bombings of Chechnya, even though there was no proof that a legitimate Chechen group was linked to these bombings.


While terrorism in Chechnya was a legitimate issue and threat to Russian safety, the Russian government, rather than using local alliances to maintain safety and stability in the region as recommended by opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, might have killed 300 innocent civilians in order to justify a prolonged conflict.


Yet, with a boom in Russia’s economy in the 2000s and initial successes in Chechnya, no inquiry was ever made. In 2002, the unofficial Kovalyov commission was formed by a few oppositional leaders in the Russian Duma; that group concluded these attacks were likely an inside job, but ultimately no action was taken. Later on, several members of this commission, including Yuri Shehochikin, Sergei Yushenkov, and Mikhail Trepashkin all died under suspicious circumstances.


For most Russians, it seemed that the stability provided under the Soviet Union - where they believed that they could live for the rest of their lives with job security and a government looking over them was gone, while obscure people who had previously held insignificant jobs suddenly became rich overnight and owned massive industries.


Similarly, millions of Russians looked upon Putin in distrust. Putin needed to somehow legitimize himself in the eyes of the people by establishing himself as a young and fierce arbiter of justice.


So, why didn’t the West do anything? The answer lies in three dynamics, the War on Terror, the Status Quo, and Resource Dependence.


The first such reason was 9/11. With the US’ War on Terror, it needed as many allies as possible, including Russia.


Another reason was the established ‘90s Status Quo, as the Russian government committed a great many crimes, including the original Chechen War from 1994-1996. Yet, because of Russia’s supposed adherence to Western values and agreements, these crimes were overlooked. With Russia giving up a lot of their nuclear weaponry under various agreements and transferring to a free market economy in that decade, it seemed that even with some hiccups here and there, Russia would inevitably become a free country.


The final and most important reason is fuel reliance. From the 1970s onward, starting with Germany’s Ostpolitik policy of friendliness with the Soviet Union, more and more countries in Western Europe began buying oil and gas from Russia as a hedge from unreliable Middle Eastern oil suppliers. The cost for any kind of action against Russia would be Russia cancelling or restricting oil sales, which would of course force these countries to look at things from two perspectives; either they would resist Russia in the name of Democracy and have millions of their own citizens starving and dying, or they would concede in exchange for cheap heating and warm baths in the winter.


The issue is that all of these factors combined have enabled Putin to get away with a lot. In the Russian part of the equation, over time his destruction of Russian democracy has caused him to move past his role as an oligarchical successor and to tap into his darker and more cynical side.


The international problem ended up manifesting in the 2014-2021 Ukraine conflict and later the 2022 “Special Military Operation,” in which hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers have died. Additionally, the West’s blissful ignorance allowed many countries like Germany and the United Kingdom to increase their reliance on Russia’s natural gas. Germany is still reeling from the effects of the cutoff from natural gas and switch to other providers. The government is considering subsidizing its industries to the tune of 25-30 billion dollars per year to keep them competitive on the European market (https://www.cleanenergywire.org/news/german-economy-minister-wants-lower-industry-electricity-costs-billions-subsidies). Similarly, the UK was preparing statements for its citizens on planned blackouts in case Russia randomly decided to cut off all winter supplies, where they estimated that planned blackouts would be possible for three hours per day.


The lesson that the West should learn here is one of security and self-reliance. While there is nothing wrong with free trade or investing in developing countries, when said countries repeatedly show signs of aggression and an unwillingness to cooperate with the global order, continuing to rely on them ends up causing near-catastrophic events such as the aforementioned crises and wars. With Russia becoming a pariah and Chinese aggression increasing, it is up to the West to continue ensuring its own safety and security on a global stage, investing in its own industries, encouraging long-term planning for resource security and fuel independence.

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