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Russia is defined by its geographic characteristic of indefensibility. Unlike most powerful countries, Russia’s core region, Muscovy, has no barriers to protect it, leading to its invasion several times. Consequently, Russia has expanded its geographic barriers towards natural barriers to establish a redoubt and create strategic depth between the Russian core and its perceived enemies.[i] Even if the natural barriers are reached, the North European Plains would remain open. It’s a region where Russia, historically, has claimed as much territory as possible[ii].
From the Baltics, south to the Romanian border, the borders have historically been uncertain and conflict frequent. This is where Europe’s greatest wars were fought and this was the path that Napoleon and Hitler took to invade Russia. This explains the Russian penchant to create some kind of empire and to push its border as far west as possible to create a buffer. With majority of the population living west of the Urals, present day Russia’s security in the west remains questionable.
Despite having some of the finest farmlands in the world which has made Russia an agricultural superpower, it still remains dependant on food imports, a large part of which originate in Ukraine and Europe. Consequently, since the 17th century, Russia has sought ‘economic integration with’ and ‘strategic depth in’ its immediate west. Hence, both during the reign of Peter the Great as well as in the erstwhile USSR, Ukraine and Belarus along with Russia, constituted the heart of the empire. This came to be also known as Kyiv Rus. More of a historical and cultural concept, the term originates from the term Kyivan Rus, denoting a loose federation of East Slavic, Baltic and Finnic peoples in Eastern and Northern Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century, under the reign of the Rurik dynasty. All three – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – claim their origins from it and thus enabled forming the privileged heart of the empire.
The Soviet Union: Collapse and after
To further safeguard its interests, the Soviet Union maintained special privileges for the Russian speaking regions in Eastern Ukraine and Belarus. Consequently, these regions were comparatively more urbanised, industrialised and prosperous. As the Soviet Union collapsed, West sought reunification of Germany, leading to the ‘Treaty of Final Settlement with Respect to Germany’. Signed in December 1991, Russia strongly believes that the discussions leading to it had assured its security. Thus, in their view, NATO expansion is unacceptable. The western view albeit is that the first Chechen war and Russian assistance to the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia in the south Caucasus indicated that Moscow was prepared to act militarily to pursue its security objectives. This, in their view, threatened the East European nations, who consequently sought to be part of the European security structure.
The Russian suspicions were further hardened by the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) respectively, which ousted pro-Russian regimes. Russia saw these as a western attempt to disintegrate it. Coming to power in the wake of Kosovo war (where Russian requests of west not going to power with Serbia were ignored), Putin formulated a three-pronged strategy of regaining Russian influence and maintaining its security. These included:
- Creating a system of economic alignment and strategic depth with the former Soviet republics without funding their economies.
- Creating economic interdependence with Europe.
- Keeping NATO and US busy elsewhere in places like Syria, Iran etc.
To achieve the above, Russia had two major tools: energy and military. The latter has been further strengthened by its adoption of cyberspace as a tool. The first glimpse of this was visible in the Georgian war where Russia displayed both its power and its willingness to use it. This war also showed up the limitations of US/NATO assurances.
The present crisis has its origins in 2014. Despite the Orange Revolution of 2004, Russia has, over the decade, managed to regain substantial influence in Ukraine. However, in the 2013-14 ‘Revolution of Dignity’[iii] the Ukraine Government (which Russia believed to be democratically elected and legitimate) was ousted. Russia believed that Western interference was the cause and reacted as under:
- Annexation of Russian speaking Crimea, which not only gave it a dominant location in the Black Sea but once again demonstrated the limitation of US/NATO assurances.
- Orchestration of a civil war in the Russian speaking Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.
While a semblance of peace was restored with the Minsk agreement of 2015, disputes remained with regard to implementation of its provisions. The deterioration of Belarus’s relations with the West and Ukraine seeking NATO membership further precipitated the situation. Ukraine is about 480 km from Moscow at its closest point. Thus, if Russia loses Belarus or Ukraine, it loses its strategic depth, which accounts for much of its ability to defend the Russian heartland. From the Russian viewpoint, if the intention of the West is not hostile, then why is it so eager to see the regime in Ukraine transformed? It therefore responded with concentrating large forces on its border with Ukraine.
Russian Aim and Options
Long-term and multi-decadal Ukrainian neutrality is the one non-negotiable Russian aim. It may come through either by Ukraine assuring Russia of the same or through NATO rescinding its expansion policy, possible in its next summit in end June 2022. It could also come through an assurance by a major NATO partner like France or Germany that it would veto Ukrainian membership of NATO. In addition, it could come through by implementation of the Minsk agreement in accordance with Russian interpretation of the same—substantial autonomy to Donbas and a veto to the region over Ukrainian foreign policy decisions.
If Russia fails to achieve the above, it may resort to any of the under-mentioned options, singly or in combination.
- An invasion of Ukraine. This would be a costly proposition and considering the size of Ukraine, difficult to sustain. An installation of a puppet regime would lead to civil war, which would bleed Russia. Even a partial invasion, if it is to make any contribution towards Russian security, would have to reach the Dnieper River—nearly 1.5 lakh square kilometres of heavily urbanised area. Annexing it to Russia would also remove the pro-Russian vote share and ensure an anti-Russian Government in the balance of Ukraine.
- Cuban missile crisis redux in which, apart from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua too, may be available. All the three face US sanctions and their presidents have been spoken to by Putin in the last week alone. The outreach may not amount to much, but the option is available.
- Intensification of the civil war in Donbas. An offensive launched in response of any major real/claimed incident, would not only expand the territory held by the rebels but would be highly destabilising for the Ukrainian regime.
- Cyber-attacks to include amongst others ransom ware, encryption and data wiping off attacks as also attacks which can actually cause physical damage to pipelines and power stations. Russia has demonstrated capabilities for all of these. Russia also has many cyber-criminal gangs on its soil. For its part, while the US has the wherewithal to counter most of these threats, it still needs Russian co-operation to control and police the cyber-criminal gangs. EU does not have the capability to counter Russian cyber capabilities leave alone cyber-criminal gangs. Even if state sponsored attacks are not resorted to, Russia can cause trouble for the NATO members by withdrawing cooperation in respect of the cyber-criminal gangs.
Western Response: Impact of Sanctions
NATO and US have stepped up supplies to Ukraine and have threatened crippling sanctions if Russia were to invade Ukraine. However, for its part the Western alliance seems divided over the latter. Nearly 47% of European gas imports are from Russia. To make matters worse, the crisis comes in the beginning of summer, a season in which Europe traditionally fills its reserves for use in winters. Any sanctions which reduce or stop the same would adversely affect it. Cutting off the supply all together may not be a preferable retaliation by Russia (as it would be incentivise Europe for long-term dependence reduction) albeit it can reduce supply making it difficult to fill reserves as well as raise prices.
Apart from petroleum products, Europe also imports a large quantum of agriculture and raw materials, chemicals and iron and steel from Russia and exports manufactured goods to it. In 2020, their two-way trade amounted to €174.3 billion apart from services. For European economies recovering from the Covid-19 drawdown, it would be a substantial loss. Russian economy, on the other hand, has suffered less in the pandemic. It also has a ready partner in China for its exports.
Conflict in the region and sanctions against Russia are also likely to lead to an increase of food prices. Russia and Ukraine between them accounted for nearly 30% of world wheat exports and almost similar share in other grains like corn, barley, rapeseed etc. For a net grain importer like Europe (as well as the rest of the world) it would be an issue of concern. However, despite these reservations, Europe is dependent upon US and NATO for its security and hence would have to broadly follow the Alliance.
In US also, there is a realisation in some that the net gainer of conflict and sanctions would be China. Apart from giving it access to surplus Russian exports, it will be in a position to expand Renminbi acceptability, especially when Russia seeks hard currency. China will also benefit as Russia is driven even more close to it and would most certainly tap into latter’s armament technology.
The current Ukrainian crisis is rooted in the perception of Russian security. Russia is unlikely to fully stop its disruption activities till its objective—of multi-decadal Ukrainian neutrality—is achieved. Its options include less than war alternatives, which if used would adversely affect not only the region but also European and world economies.
[i] Natural barriers would include expansion to the Carpathian Mountains (across Ukraine and Moldova), the Caucasus Mountains (particularly to the Lesser Caucasus, past Georgia and into Armenia) and the Tian Shan on the far side of Central Asia
[ii] Such as the Baltics, Belarus, Poland and even parts of Germany.
[iii] Also known as Maidan revolution.