K.C. Singh | Ukraine crisis poses a big challenge for India, world

The question then arises as to what does Mr Putin wish to achieve

The standoff over Ukraine refuses to drift away with Russia deploying over 150,000 troops on the periphery of the targeted state. Multiple theories are circulating as to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s real intentions. The simplest is the “madman” theory, based on the premise that leaders like Adolf Hitler are not mad, they just pretend to be. Their bluff, consequently, mostly enables them to achieve their desired strategic objective without a fight. The classic case in this regard was the appeasement of Hitler by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in Munich on September 24, 1938. The question then arises as to what does Mr Putin wish to achieve.

The immediate root of the crisis can be traced to the displacement of a pro-Russia ruler by a democratic alternative in 2014. Russia then seized the Crimea and destabilised Ukrainian control over its two eastern provinces -- Luhansk and Donetsk -- by using irregular fighters. But at the back of it exists a desire, since the revival of Russian power under Mr Putin, to create a buffer zone between Russia and the European Union. Russia desires to restore its sphere of influence in areas of the erstwhile Soviet Union. In Central Asia, this push has encountered Chinese and American counter-pressure. In Europe, it is simply a case of a pushback against the eastward expansion of Nato.

In his February 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Mr Putin, referring to Nato’s expansion, had asked: “What happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?” He quoted the 1990 speech of Nato’s secretary-general that Nato was not ready to deploy its forces “outside of German territory”. Once again, after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Mr Putin had decried the eastward expansion of Nato.

Mark Kramer has drawn on declassified Western records to assert that no assurance was given or even discussed by the Western nations when negotiating German reunification. What the Germans, as well as the Americans, British and French had agreed on was not to deploy non-German forces on the territory of the former German Democratic Republic. Article 5(3) of the 1990 Treaty on Final Settlement states that after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, German forces could be deployed in the former GDR. The only bar was on foreign forces or nuclear weapons. In an interview with “Russia behind the Headlines”, the Soviet Union’s last President Mikhail Gorbachev revealed that “the topic of Nato’s expansion was not discussed at all”.

Thus, Mr Putin’s claim about the West reneging on its commitment on Nato expansion appears to be baseless. But the Western desire to extend its sphere of influence over the former Warsaw Pact nations has been undeniable, while Russia underwent a major power depletion after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Today, the allegation of “betrayal by the West” captures the Russian people’s imagination, whether or not it is true. Mr Putin is using it to force a redrawing of the strategic order that was settled in 1991 as the Cold War ended.

Ukraine is an instrument to achieve that end. Earlier, the Russian intervention in 2015 in Syria was to reassert Russia’s role in West Asia. What looked like a dangerous gamble then has worked out quite nicely for Russia as the Islamic State was dismantled and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus stabilised. Russia’s meddling in Ukraine began after a pro-Russia regime was displaced in 2014.

Even more bothersome to Russia was the possibility of a functioning democracy taking root, as it did in most nations liberated from Russia’s yoke. Mr Putin would hardly desire such an example flourishing on Russia’s borders. If anything, the popular uprising in Kazakhstan, put down by Russian security forces invited by the tottering regime, would have rattled Mr Putin. The election of US President Donald Trump in 2016 was preceded by serious allegations of Russian interference in the US electoral process in 2015. Simultaneously, the two Minsk agreements were signed in 2014 and 2015. Ukraine figured prominently in President Trump’s impeachment proceedings.

The current standoff entered an escalatory phase last week when US President Joe Biden claimed that a Russian military attack on Ukraine was imminent. Earlier, on February 4, alongside the Winter Olympics inauguration, Mr Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met. In a joint statement, their “friendship” is described as leaving “no forbidden areas of cooperation”. A bilateral agreement on oil and gas was augmented.

Even more tellingly while Russia endorsed Chinese opposition to Taiwanese independence, China decried Nato’s eastward expansion. With this strategic convergence complete, Mr Putin signalled the ability to defy Western economic sanctions. Thus, he ratcheted up the military pressure on Ukraine, while continuing to talk to Western leaders and keeping the dialogue open.

President Biden, meanwhile, managed to get the European leaders more aligned to the approach that any Russian attempt to breach Ukrainian sovereignty would be met with strong European sanctions. Germany hinted that it may even discard the almost-ready Nord Stream II Russian pipeline, owned by Gazprom. The US is suggesting that even secondary sanctions may be imposed on countries assisting the primary target.

While Ukrainian President Voldomyer Zelentsky sought, at the Munich Security Summit, a timetable to join Nato, Russia decided to leave in Belarus its 30,000 troops sent there for a military exercise. Diplomacy still has a narrow window. The two Minsk agreements of 2014-15 provide a path to de-escalation. Its 13 points weave together steps towards restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas region, Russia’s withdrawal of its irregular forces, greater devolution of powers to that region, etc. The problem is how to choreograph those steps.

Moreover, if Mr Putin is seeking a new European security order in which Russia’s veto is embedded, then risky military blackmail is hardly the right path. The Russian threats will only enhance cohesion on the Nato side.

Some analysts are suggesting a “reverse China” strategy. This implies that while 50 years ago US President Richard Nixon had engaged China to isolate the Soviet Union, it now needs to wean Russia from China. This assumes that the primary threat to the US is from China. But this can succeed only if Russian insecurity can be successfully handled.

For Indian diplomacy, a Russian attack will present a challenge as remaining silent would seriously upset its American and European partners. India has dithered over extracting many thousand Indian students from a possible war zone. Russia and Ukraine are two big wheat exporting nations. Interrupted global supplies will cause prices to rise and human distress. Thus, Ukraine needs urgent de-escalation.

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