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Russia has amassed about 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, sparking off fears of an invasion. In addition, on 11 February, amidst the ongoing tension, Russia moved 30,000 troops into Belarus—a close ally of Russia—for a 10 day joint military exercise. This is widely being seen as yet another attempt to coerce Ukraine to toe the Russian line.
To defuse the crisis, French President, Emanuel Macron, on 7 February, held a meeting with President Putin in Moscow and thereafter flew to Kyiv, where he held talks with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy for over three hours. As expected, there was no breakthrough achieved in the talks. While Macron stated to reporters that he was “reasonably optimistic but I don’t believe in spontaneous miracles,” the spokesperson from Kremlin was blunt: “the situation is too complex to expect decisive breakthroughs in the course of one meeting,” he said.
The US has warned of a “very distinct possibility” of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and has asked all US citizens to leave the country. Moving beyond rhetoric, President Biden, in a video call he had with President Putin on 11 February, warned that the US and its allies would respond “decisively and impose swift and severe costs” if Russia invades Ukraine. The response is unlikely to be a military one and will most likely involve sanctions. This could, inter alia, include some or all of the following:
- Imposing sanctions on the secondary market in Russian bonds.
- Closing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to northern Europe, which though completed, is yet to receive certification for use by the German energy regulator.
- Impose full-blocking sanctions on large Russian banks, energy companies, defence firms and also on investment and provision of services to conventional Russian oil projects.
- Sanctions on oligarchs and their families, where sanctions could be imposed on Putin-friendly oligarchs.
- Exclude Russia from Swift, the global electronic payment system, based in Belgium. This perhaps would only be used as a last resort.
The situation that has developed and led to the face-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine can perhaps better be understood through a historical lens. The territory which comprises present-day Ukraine has had a contested history. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, following the partition of Poland and the Russian conquest of the Crimean Khanate, the area came under the control of the Russian Empire and Hapsburg Austria. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to a period of chaos and instability in the region. It was during this time that the Ukrainian Bolsheviks defeated the national government in Kiev and established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which on 30 December 1922, along with Russia, became one of the founding republics of the USSR. Post the Second World War, NATO was created in 1949 as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. It comprised the US, Canada, and several western countries.
In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, the then Premier of the Soviet Union, transferred Crimea to Ukraine. Crimea had been a part of Russia since 1783 when it was annexed after Tsarist Russia inflicted a defeat on the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Kozludzha. The reason for the transfer was stated to be the “unity of Russians and Ukrainians” and to the “great and indissoluble friendship” between the two peoples. The real reason, however, had possibly much to do with Khrushchev seeing the transfer as a way of fortifying and perpetuating Soviet control over Ukraine.
In 1990, to get Russian support for the unification of Germany, US diplomats spoke about the non-expansion of NATO beyond East Germany. Russia, accordingly, supported the reunification, which took place on 3 October 1990, but no formal agreement stating that NATO will not expand eastwards exists. In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent country, like other constituents of the erstwhile USSR. Subsequently, many countries which were earlier part of the Soviet Bloc, sought and were granted membership of NATO. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO despite Russian opposition. In 2004, seven Central and Eastern European countries, viz Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia joined NATO. Albania and Croatia joined NATO on 1 April 2009 and more recently, Montenegro and North Macedonia joined NATO on 5 June 2017 and 27 March 2020, respectively. The present face-off is a result of Ukraine expressing its intent to join NATO.
Russia believes its security interests have been compromised by the refusal of the West to honour its pledge. President Putin spoke of this in a speech he delivered at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, especially as the Baltic countries had joined the alliance by 2004, when he asked, “What happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?” Here, President Putin was referring to the famous “not one inch eastward” assurance given by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker on 9 February 1990, in his meeting with President Gorbachev. This was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991, which made Gorbachev agree to it and disband the Warsaw Pact. Gorbachov was also of the view that the future of the Soviet Union depended on its integration into Europe, for which Germany would be the decisive actor.
This is however not viewed in the same light by the western powers, who state that the deal only concerned a reunified Germany, with further eastward expansion being inconceivable at the time as no one could have predicted the collapse of the USSR and the historic upheavals that followed. In a major speech in Warsaw, Poland, on June 15, 2001, President Bush lent support to Clinton’s policies, when he stated: “all of Europe’s new democracies, from the Baltics to the Black Sea, should have an equal chance to join Western institutions”, thus forcefully making the case for NATO’s eastward expansion. Putin at that time stated that if NATO were to continue “becoming more political than military” Russia might reconsider its opposition to enlargement. While this was hardly an expression of Russian support for enlargement, it did indicate a Russian desire to accommodate a development that it did not like, but lacked the means to stop. But Putin has drawn the line with attempts to make Ukraine a member of NATO.
For Putin, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s is viewed as “a decade of humiliation” in which Bill Clinton’s US “imposed its vision of order on Europe (including in Kosovo in 1999) while the Russians could do nothing but stand by and watch”. If NATO enters Ukraine, then Russia loses a buffer and will be directly confronting NATO. This is perceived to be against the vital security interests of Russia.
NATO, on the other hand, has an open-door policy, which is central to the NATO alliance. The policy, enshrined in NATO’s original 1949 treaty, grants any European nation the right to ask to join and actually recruits them. If Ukraine were to become a NATO member, then the alliance would be obligated to defend it against Russia and other adversaries. However, the grant of membership has to be by unanimous consent and in the past, both France and Germany as also other European countries have opposed the inclusion of Ukraine into NATO. A war over Ukraine will hurt both Russia and NATO and in the long term, benefits only China which will be watching from the sidelines.
There will be consequences for NATO too. Russia can fuel the insurgency in the Donbas region as seen by the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine and NATO will have to grapple directly with ongoing Russian-fuelled conflicts. Russia could also impose other costs on Europe, such as withholding gas exports.
India, while not being directly involved, will nevertheless be seriously impacted. It has close relations with both the US and Russia and would not like to place in a situation where it would have to choose sides. Its close relations with the US as well as its dependency on Russian military hardware, including the recently concluded S-400 deal, make the situation more complicated. A continuing rise in energy prices would hit India hard as the country is just recovering from the after shocks caused by the pandemic. More importantly, a conflict in Europe shifts the focus away from Chinese intransigence in the Indo-Pacific, the South China Sea, and the India-Tibet border, where Indian and Chinese troops are facing each other in Eastern Ladakh.
An end to the tension prevailing in the region can perhaps only come about with the US and its NATO allies giving a firm assurance that Ukraine will be kept out of NATO and that the matter could come up for discussion after a period of time—say ten years. This would give enough time for all sides to cool down and review their respective positions. But there is no guarantee that better sense will prevail and we could well be looking into a European conflict that will bruise all the actors involved. Diplomacy is stalling and the threat of war is no longer a distant mirage, although as of the time of this writing some concessions are in the offing from both Ukraine (whose government now says it is ‘flexible’ about NATO adhesion) and whose President openly questions the US claims about an imminent Russian invasion and the US.