Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin imagines himself to be Perseus, the god-man seemingly thrust by fate to be the “redeemer” for ordinary mortals to claim righteous power and territory while by-passing the beneficence of Zeus, the god of Olympus, personification of Peace and Harmony among all. But the clash of the titans — the mortals fighting for control — has been resolved by the classic lessons of ethics and morality in Greek mythology: that the common good must prevail over self-good, and peace and harmony must be maintained in respect of the rights of others over the rights of one.
Perseus could have maximized his elevated status as son of a god and a mortal woman to broker power from the gods to ambitious mortals, but he did not. Andromeda, whom he saved from the power-grabbers, offered him to be king and co-rule Argos with her, but he refused. He fought Hades, the god of deception and lies, and won, vanquishing greed and corruption. Zeus offered him godhood, but Perseus declined and chose to remain an honorable ordinary mortal.
There might not be so many honorable ordinary mortals today who can lead without greed and the ambition for continued power and glory. Putin and other world leaders fighting for territory and influence are not anywhere near Perseus’ strict ethics of respect for the rights of others and the common good, in their determination to win. But the end does not justify the means. Russia’s insistent claims on Ukrainian territories have aggravated other countries’ economic and political issues, and exacerbated the long-staying threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. This raises the chimera of a World War III — a super clash of the titans.
After the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (better known as the USSR) in December 1991, 15 independent countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan — emerged from it, with Russia as the surviving country of the collapsed USSR. There must be at least some regretful nostalgia for the USSR, the successor to the Russian Empire of the tsars, which had the world’s longest coastline and the longest frontiers. During the period of its existence, USSR was by area the world’s largest country.
“Russia needs to reinvent itself as a modern state and stop clinging to the idea of the reconstruction of the Soviet Union. It’s already gone,” Vsevolod Chentsov, the Ukrainian ambassador to the EU, said (cnbc.com, Jan. 19, 2022). “Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no bones about the fact that he thinks the breakup of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for Russia, once describing it as the ‘greatest geopolitical tragedy’ of the 20th century.” (Ibid) Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and openly declared that it would regain control of the other Ukrainian provinces that have common borders with it — as it felt justified to by “elections” where pro-Russian Ukrainians’ (and possibly others coerced) expressed willingness to be controlled by Russia. Military attacks and interchanges since January 2022 have blown the conflict into a full war in Ukraine, killing thousands of soldiers and civilians, and razing property to the ground.
Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories actually started in 2014 after the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, with the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (an oblast is a form of administrative division similar to a province) taken over by the mostly unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, established by Russia during the War in Donbas. In 2022, Russian forces initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and successfully occupied territory throughout the country. As of October, Russian forces continued to occupy parts of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, as well as the entire territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.
The earlier-occupied territories of Chernihiv, Kyiv, Sumy, and Zhytomyr were given up by Russian forces in early April due to continued fierce Ukrainian resistance, coupled with logistical challenges on the side of the Russians. Was there a glaring lack of enough friendly support from expected foreign-country sympathizers with the Russian aggression of Ukraine, in contrast with the ready and actual material and moral support given to Ukraine by other shocked countries concerned with peace in the world?
Much about Putin’s angry disappointment with Ukraine is in its expectant clinging to Western sympathy and support (mainly the US, and secondly the EU), starting from when Crimea was forcibly taken from it to Russian control. This “upstart” Ukraine wanted to be with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), against Putin’s objections. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Joe Biden (then head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee) successfully urged NATO to accept Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as member states in the late 1990s. In 2004, seven Eastern European countries joined the alliance, and in 2008, US President George W. Bush pushed NATO to issue a declaration that Ukraine and Georgia would become members in the future. The new alliances threateningly pushed NATO to Russia’s borders. Thus, Ukraine’s common borders with Russia are the first targets for Russian territorial and political take-over.
Surprisingly, last week on Nov. 9, the Russian military forces announced a pull-out from Kherson, with its shared borders with Russian-annexed Crimea, and its three strategic bridges across the Dnieper, Ukraine’s largest river which bisects the ex-Soviet nation into the largely Russian-speaking east, or left bank, and the Ukrainian-speaking west, or right bank. After eight months of occupation, why would the Russians give up Kherson? Maybe it is a trap to fool Ukrainian forces to confidently move in to be massacred, some think. Or maybe Russia can no longer afford to keep its forces on the Dnieper’s right bank amid daily attacks delivered by Western-supplied missiles, a Kherson regional lawmaker said (aljazeera.com, Nov. 10, 2022).
The “West” and the peace-loving countries of the world are immersed and involved in the Russian war on Ukraine. More than 30 countries have imposed sanctions against Russia, cutting energy imports, blocking financial transactions, and halting shipments of key imports such as semiconductors and other electronics (usembassy.gov, Aug. 16, 2022). The United States, the EU, and other countries expanded sanctions to include Vladimir Putin personally, and other Russian government members. They also cut off selected Russian banks from the SWIFT internal payments system. The 2022 boycott of Russia and Belarus triggered the 2022 Russian financial crisis (reuters.com various).
Putin hoped to have retaliated dramatically against the sanctions when, on Oct. 5, the OPEC+ (of which Russia is an oil-producing member country) announced that their oil production would be cut by two million barrels per day (bpd) in November (aljazeera.com/news, Oct. 6, 2022). OPEC+ controls more than 40% of global oil production. It would have hurt the world economy grievously, with the supply cut raising oil prices and causing deeper inflation for countries already debilitated by recession in the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic. But the announced oil production cut was revoked by OPEC+ just before the US mid-term elections (on Nov. 8), which was critical to US President Biden who needs the support of winning Democrats in the Senate and in Congress. (Election results are not yet complete as of this writing.)
How much longer will the war on Ukraine continue? Vladimir Putin will probably not give up and lose face and stature among his people and in the world. Will he use nuclear weapons, as he often threatened? When Russian forces suddenly withdrew from Kherson on Nov. 8, officials said, “this (retreat) was taken to save the lives of Russian soldiers in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive and difficulties to keep supply lines to the strategic city open” (aljazeera.com, Nov. 8, 2022). Putin supporter and former advisor Sergei Markov said “the surrender of Kherson is the largest geopolitical defeat of Russia since the collapse of the USSR” and warned that “the political consequences of this huge defeat will be really big” (Ibid.).
Hopefully, the clash of the titans will end soon.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.