No eastward expansion into Ukraine
Russia believes that NATO’s presence on its borders will only lead to instability, so it has decided to take an interventionist path
There is an African proverb that says: “When elephants fight, the grass is trampled”. Europe, which was in the American rearview mirror as the United States focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the Indo-Pacific, is now the region where the spotlight has returned. Ukraine is currently the country in the eye of the storm as the standoff between NATO and Russia continues to escalate. The crisis led Yuval Harrari to declare: “Humanity’s greatest political achievement has been the decline of war. This is now in danger.
If this impasse is the defining crisis, we need to understand the structural and root causes that led to it. Ukraine owes its origin to the word ‘Okraina’ which in Russian means ‘border’. It was part of the Soviet Union and two Soviet leaders – Khrushchev and Brezhnev – were from Ukraine and even Gorbachev’s maternal side were ethnic Ukrainians. Putin also owes his name Vladimir to the King of Rus who ruled this region from 980 to 1015. Therefore, it may not be wrong to say that Ukraine is a fundamental strategic interest for the Russians; it is an area for which the Russians are ready to fight and die; or, in other words, putting security interests above economic interests.
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Europe, without a doubt, has been the most important location for American strategic interests. Both world wars were fought there and it is the region where they have their most powerful friends, deep trade ties and with whom they share similar values. The Cold War was fought there, but the “hot peace” has its own unique sense of challenges – and while “much has changed, much remains the same”. Some analysts also call it the “new cold war”. However, the question that remains unanswered is whether European armies have the capacity required to confront Russian forces without the help of the United States, as conventional forces suffered drastic cuts after the end of the Cold War.
The Russians under President Putin are now setting the red lines. The first time we saw this was at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, where he opposed US plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as bids for accession of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO. By the way, Stalin was Georgian, and Russia opposes Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, as they see it as a direct threat to Russia.
The root structural causes must be attributed to the West’s desire to integrate Ukraine with it by integrating it into NATO, a security alliance, and the EU, an economic alliance. The Orange Revolution was seen as promoting democracy, as the West believed that whoever was elected would be pro-Western.
However, the fact is that Ukraine is a deeply divided country. The eastern part is Russian-speaking, while the western part is Ukrainian. The Donbass region comprising the People’s Republic of Donetsk and Luhansk which declared its independence is opposed to closer ties with NATO and wants closer ties with Russia. Crimea is already controlled by Russia and Sevastopol is unlikely to be the home port of the NATO fleet.
Incidentally, this region has been integrated into Russia in more ways than one since its currency is the rouble; it follows the Russian educational system, civil service salaries and pensions are paid by Russia, the population has been vaccinated by Sputnik V and the population is asking for Russian passports. President Putin, in his recent speech, stated very clearly that: “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 led to the annulment of the election results because it was feared that they were rigged in favor of Yanukovych. He then won the following elections but was finally forced to flee the country in February 2014 following the Euromaidan clashes. However, unlike the bloodless Orange Revolution, the clashes resulted in many deaths. Later that month, Russia took control of Crimea and incorporated the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol as federal subjects.
For the world and especially for India, the tightening of the embrace between Russia and China will have even deeper ramifications. Ironically, in the early 1970s the United States made overtures to China to prevent a Sino-Soviet partnership because they feared the rise of communism today they are pushing the Russians in that direction. This tightening will only be accentuated with the imposition of sanctions because Russia, unable to sell its oil and gas to Europe, will now turn to China.
As far as India is concerned, we are now a power that counts with interests in the United States, the EU and Russia. The US is India’s largest trading partner and US investment is also among the highest; furthermore, there is a large, influential and wealthy diaspora as well as a large number of students and growing military ties and of course the two countries that are part of the Quad. With respect to Russia, while trade may be minimal compared to the United States and China, strategic and military ties in terms of defense force inventory, spare parts requirement and space cooperation and nuclear power closely bind the two countries. . Incidentally, much of our military equipment imported from the Soviet Union had its origins in manufacturing facilities located in Ukraine.
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“War as we know it no longer exists”, to paraphrase the first line of General Rupert Smith’s “The Use of Force”. Black and white has given way to a colorful mosaic where gray dominates the canvas. There are people who have lived with this uncertainty for years in some parts of the world. However, now that the dominant theme in the Western Hemisphere is a potential contest between enemy peers, Putin seems to have busted the myth about nuclear deterrence preventing conflict and has once again brought conventional forces to the fore – the damage that result in terms of bleeding stock markets and rising oil and commodity prices are visible.
The words of Professor John J Mearshiemer over six years ago – “The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine will sink” – sadly have some truth to them. As tank tracks now leave their mark on what Russia considers to be its domain, the most important question on the minds of all analysts is whether NATO and in particular the United States will be prepared to deploy troops on the ground to counter this threat. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been supported by public opinion, but on the horizon, planned operations against Afghanistan are unlikely to work against a peer enemy backed by strong military capability and demonstrating a willingness to use strength.
Sanctions have been imposed, but the Russian economy is strong and Russians are ready to face difficulties. Wasn’t Moscow burnt down before Napoleon could enter it in 1812? The sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea seemed to have led only to a resurgence of nationalism and are akin to the German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Thus, the sanctions will not deter Russia and the reverse will bring it closer to China. But does the United States have the resilience and the will to confront both China and Russia?
President Putin undoubtedly wants to restore Russia to its rightful place in the world order. He considers it a global power and there is no doubt that Russian pride was hurt when President Barack Obama called Russia a regional power in 2014 and described its actions in Ukraine as an “expression of weakness rather than strength,” rejecting a suggestion from Mitt. Romney that Russia was America’s main geopolitical enemy. Putin undoubtedly wants the world to respect Russia.
There is no doubt that NATO’s eastward expansion has struck a chord. The circumstances that led to this action from a particular point of view can be interpreted as compelling. Russia believes that NATO’s presence on its borders will only lead to instability and has therefore decided to take an interventionist path.
Putin seems to have set himself the goal of integrating the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine and controlling the western region by installing a pro-Russian government, in addition to restoring Russian pride. He is unlikely to back down until he achieves his goals.
The author is an army veteran. The opinions expressed are personal.