Has the long-promised Ukrainian "spring offensive" already started? With summer just knocking on the doors, the question is making the rounds in political circles in Europe and the United States. By last Monday, French military analysts were still trying to equivocate on the subject. "The offensive may have begun in parts of southeast Ukraine," one retired general told a TV audience.
In the US, however, another retired general, David Petraeus, sounded more certain, telling The Washington Post that the offensive has already started and that he expects the Ukrainians to make significant gains.
Whistling a different tune, the maverick mandarin of realpolitik, John Mearsheimer, also mused about "large chunks of territory changing hands", predicting that Russia will seize a big chunk of Ukraine and end the war.
These comments reminded me of an episode during the so-called "Great Game" when the Russian and British empires were at daggers drawn over Central Asia. In that episode, a Russian task force was approaching Merv, a forlorn oasis close to the Persian border. As British imperialist officials panicked, the popular press in London spoke of "a moment of Mervesness" that could have "unforeseeable consequences".
Politicians, pundits, and pranksters wondered whether rivalry over control of a speck of dust in a vast ocean of territory would lead to war between the two great empires.
They were making the same mistake that many commentators on the Ukrainian conflict are making today: believing that the struggle was over a piece of land. British and French leaders made the same mistake in 1938, when they believed that all that Hitler wanted was the so-called Sudetenland, a chunk of Czechoslovakia where ethnic Germans formed a majority of the population. Even when Hitler wanted another chunk of territory, the Danzig Corridor in Poland, there were many advocates of realpolitik who demanded that the Führer be appeased.
It is no accident that the Russian state emblem is a two-headed eagle wearing crowns. One head looks east, towards a vast sphere in which Mongol and Tatar cultures remain as sediments of a glorious past. Even today when Russia looks east it sees political and social systems that resemble its own ideal of statehood: the People's Republic of China, Mongolia, and North Korea. Even Japan, a bit further, is closer to the Russian idea of statehood than "decadent" democracies in Western Europe or North America.
Since the end of World War II, Japan has been a de facto one-party state. The newly-independent Central Asian republics are also familiar to Russia with a virtual one-party system headed by a "strong man".
The two Russian eagles don't look south. But if they did they would see reassuring images.
After the fall of the Soviet Empire, the eagle looking west seemed in vogue. But the hordes of Western, especially American experts, investors, businessmen, fixers and charlatans who rushed to Russia offered a dark image of a market economy and bourgeois democracy. Vladimir Putin is the product of those dark years. Having started as a passenger on the gravy train built in Boris Yeltsin's era, he quickly realized that only by reviving the autocratic system could he perpetuate his rule and keep the gravy train on the rails.
The invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were designed to test the will of Western democracies and put a stop to the relentless advance of "the democratic disease" toward Russian borders.
Putin fears that if Ukraine goes "Western", soon Belarus would also be "lost" for Moscow while the younger generation in Russia is also in danger of becoming Westernized. With more than two million Russians, mostly young people, leaving the country in the past two years that fear is not without foundation.
Thus the extended war that Putin started over a year ago isn't about chunks of land or even the conquest of Ukraine as a whole. Knowing that he cannot make the rest of Europe like Russia, he hopes to create a cordon sanitaire to prevent Russia from becoming like the rest of Europe.
The war in Ukraine should not make us forget its core cause: Russia's identity crisis. Russia is a great and potentially powerful nation. It cannot conquer the whole of Ukraine but it has the wherewithal to continue this war for years to come. Regardless of how this war ends, what caused it will remain. Even the end of Putin may not solve a problem with which Russia has grappled for more than two centuries.
Focusing attention on what happens on the battlefields of Ukraine should not make us forget that this war, like all wars, has deep political and cultural causes that cannot be addressed through the barrel of a gun. Finding a proper place for Russia in Europe is a huge task that cannot be undertaken by politicians struck by the short-termism of electoral cycles. The answer must come from within Russia itself, with Western democracies in supporting roles. The eagle looking west ought to see brighter horizons. Right now, however, it sees an endless war, while the eagle looking east sees Russia's increasing dependence on China.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.