Both leaders assaulted smaller neighbouring countries as part of the historical dynamics that began with the end of the Cold War.

As the Russian military continues its attacks on Ukraine, the dynamics are similar to another event when another larger country invaded its smaller neighbour. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 offers valuable lessons on why countries invade others in the post-Cold War era.

Of course, there are substantial differences between Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein, and Russia and Iraq. However, this article argues that both events are part of historical dynamics that began at the end of the Cold War.

First, both leaders denied the history of their smaller neighbours to justify and legitimise the incursion. Second, both Russia and Iraq are petrostates that can finance large militaries. Third, both leaders presided over states that had little access to ports and the open seas. Fourth, both made foreign policy decisions based on domestic security calculations. Finally, both invasions sought to restructure the post-Cold War security order in their respective regions.

Empire and the Cold War

History is a battlefield over memory in the present, where events of the past become weaponised. The lead-up to the attack on Ukraine has illustrated this dynamic.

Saddam Hussein argued that the historical area that comprised Iraq, particularly the Ottoman province of Basra, included Kuwait. According to his argument, it was only British colonial intervention that separated Kuwait from the Ottoman Empire. Once the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Kuwait always maintained precarious independence from its larger neighbour to the north, Iraq.

World War I not only led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire but the Russian Empire as well. Ukraine enjoyed a brief period of independence before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union, a neo-Russian empire that refused to call itself as such. 

As the Soviet Union’s power waned in 1990, Iraq no longer had the support of its historic patron. Iraq invaded Kuwait for a variety of reasons, but one was to hand the US and international community a fait accompli. In invading Kuwait, it sought to demonstrate to its regional neighbours and the international order that it was the strongest power in the Middle East. 

After the USSR collapsed in 1991, Ukraine achieved independence again. The Russian incursion seeks to demonstrate to the US and its regional neighbours that it is the strongest power in Europe. 

In other words, both cases were attempts to gain recognition of power in the aftermath of the end of the bipolar rivalry between the US and USSR.

Such actions are thus driven by calculations of pure politics, shaped by the region in which these states exist. 

Claiming that both states were once part of the larger neighbour attempts to construct a reality for the domestic audiences, whether it is Iraqi or Russian. Sometimes international audiences buy into these constructions.

The military aspect

Both Russia and Iraq are rentier states that charge a “rent” on natural resources such as hydrocarbons, including oil and gas. With that revenue, Putin and Saddam could build up the largest militaries in their respective regions.

Yet both states also sought a large navy in addition to the land forces. Both Ukraine and Kuwait held deepwater ports where each state could project naval power into the Black Sea and the Gulf, each constricted by narrow waterways, the Bosporus and Straits of Hormuz, respectively. To project power over those narrow waterways, each state needed a large navy.

Saddam failed in his attempts to seize Kuwait’s port, yet Russia succeeded in securing the Crimean port of Sevastopol from Ukraine in 2014. Its assault on Ukraine by land also sends an implicit threat to Türkiye. 

The domestic rationale

When Saddam and Putin mobilised forces on the borders of their smaller neighbours, standing back would have made them appear weak to the security forces and clique that prop up each leader.

Incursions into Kuwait and Ukraine demonstrated how both leaders sought to persuade their internal nodes of support of their resolve.

One of the reasons Saddam invaded Kuwait was to punish it for its unwillingness to write off the debt that Iraq owed it from taking loans to finance the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988.

Russia's full-fledged attack on Ukraine aims to punish it for considering joining NATO and moving toward the EU in 2014.

If neither leader “punished” the weaker states, they would have lost respect from their internal constituencies.

What Saddam did not calculate was the resolve of the US – albeit belated – to respond to the Iraqi invasion and develop an international coalition to expel it from Kuwait.

The implications of Russia’s assault are now squarely in the hands of the international community and how the UN, NATO, and the EU reacts.

The 1990 to 1991 Gulf War symbolised an ensuing decade of American military unipolarity. As of now, it is up to these international institutions to decide what the third decade of the 21st century will look like: one where aggression goes unpunished, or one where multilateralism can finally deter such actions.

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Source: TRT World