Jan 27, 2023
Jan 27, 2023
Currently, international news is abuzz with the Ukraine Crisis with many political and war pandits speculating on an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine any time that may also trigger a global crisis with the US and other NATO allies joining the war with the powerful communist nation supported by the communist allies. For the last few months, the Russia has been reported to have amassed a military build-up on its border with Ukraine with huge concentration of troops, armour, missiles, and other heavy weaponry. The US, international strategists and analysts believe that the war may lead to heavy casualties on either side but Ukraine may not be able to withstand the Russian onslaught for more than fourty-eight hours. However, such a situation has not precipitated all of a sudden in a few days or weeks. Actually, the seeds of the Russian-Ukrainian discard and consequent conflicts were sown in early 2014 itself and it has gradually reached to a boiling point only now, for which no single party or country can be blamed or held responsible. One needs to analyse and understand the geopolitics and economics of this Slavic region in its fairly long historical perspective.
Actually, the rivalry of the US led broad alliance of the NATO nations and erstwhile USSR led communist block comprising chiefly of Eastern Europe is several decades old since the cold war era. The majority of the West European countries had already joined NATO well before 1997 and after the disintegration of USSR in 1991, the cravings for the openness and democratic institutions and NATO nations’ constant endeavour to dent the Russian image and influence globally have worked in the latter’s favour and many East European countries (Warsaw Pact Group) like Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and so on, have joined NATO alliance since 1997. Russia has traditionally had deep cultural and historical ties with Ukraine and its coming under the NATO fold would mean direct threat reaching onto the Russian border with the two countries sharing about 2,300 km of the mainly land and some maritime border. The wary Russia has made it clear many times that their country does not want a war but it wants assurance that Ukraine will not join the NATO alliance, which the latter constantly refuse to give.
During the last few days, while the French President Emmanuel Macron and The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had separate meetings with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to diffuse the tension on the Ukrainian-Russian border. In these meetings, the Russian President has denied any reported plan of incursion but emphasized that Moscow’s security concerns should be seriously taken and addressed by the West. However, the American President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, key NATO partners, altogether talk at a different pitch that includes even a war and sanctions on Russia. According to the recent press statement of the American President, the Russia has amassed about 150,00 troops, armour, missiles, and other heavy war equipment, which shows a clear intention of invasion on Ukraine. Resorting to a war rhetoric, President Biden has warned Russia not to commit any mistake as the United States would defend every inch of NATO territory with full force and an attack against one NATO country would be taken an attack against the US and NATO allies. Such a war rhetoric, clearly not a peace talk, comes on behalf of Ukraine when the latter has not even filed a formal application for joining the NATO alliance so far.
Lineage and Ethnicity of Ukraine and Russia
Some of the ancestors of the modern Russians and Ukrainians were definitely the Slavic tribes, who are believed to have gradually settled in the Western Russia in two streams towards the ninth century: One moving from Kiev (modern day Kyiv) towards Suzdal and Murom and second from Polotsk towards Novgorod and Rostov. According to historians, the Scandinavian Norsemen called Varangians dominated the waterways from the eastern Baltic to the Black and Caspian Seas during the time and one of their leaders “Rurik” established his rule in Novgorod around 860 CE. Later, his successors further moved down south and established their rule in Kiev expelling the Khazars. Subsequently, the Kievan Rus' dominated the Russian history for nearly four centuries and it was around 1283 CE that the importance of Kiev declined with the seat of the Russian empire and influence shifting to further north centred around Moscow and then Saint Peters-burg.
Even when the traditional reign of Russian Tsars (emperors) ended in March 2017, followed by the protracted Bolshevik revolution and bloody civil wars leading to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922, this encompassed the today's independent states of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Moldavia, and several Caucasian and Central Asian countries. The Ukraine emerged as an independent state after disintegration of the USSR in 1991 following the then President Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). This little background is relevant because of the Western countries’ traditional outlook of ‘holier than thou’ approach towards other countries of the world whereby they tend to judge evil and wrong doers from own coloured vision based on their geo-political and economic interest. Therefore, any impartial and independent view on the present Ukrainian-Russian conflict should be only be taken keeping in view their shared common history, ethnicity, geography and socio-political traditions, as well as the current developments.
Even after disintegration of USSR, the Russia and Ukraine continue to remain the largest and second largest countries, respectively, in Europe. The overwhelming majority of the Russians and Ukrainians belong to the same Slav ethnicity and racial composition; a large number of the latter still speak and understand Russian and the two languages too have many elements of commonality like many linguistics in Indian sub-continent. Even if we consider religiosity, both the countries are predominantly orthodox Christian in spite of the fact that usually the communist regimes (Russia) do not endorse any state religion. According to PEW Research Centre few years back, estimated 71% Russians were Christians; similarly, Ukrainians too are predominantly Christians with relatively high percentage in central and south Ukraine compared to other regions. Of the majority Ukrainian ethnic population, at least till some time back, over fifty percent people were known to speak and use Russian in their day-to-day routine and in the major cities like Kyiv, Odessa, and so on, Russian is still abundantly used in grocery stores or hailing a taxi. So, President Putin is not entirely wrong when he says that the Russians and Ukrainians are the same people.
While of late Crimea and associated areas have been a bone of contention between the two countries, the history of Crimea itself is quite revealing. We need not go long past; the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was created in 1921 which was dissolved in 1945 to become an oblast (province) of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1945 to 1954 and then transferred by USSR leadership to the Ukraine to stay as its province till 1991. After the disintegration of USSR in 1991, Crimea was allowed to stay as Autonomous Republic within the independent Ukraine. However, with the deteriorating relations between Russia and Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula was again taken over by Russia and integrated with it after a referendum. A peninsula along the northern coast of the Black Sea, the Crimean population is predominantly ethnic Russian with considerable Ukrainian and Tatar minorities. While the western region of Ukraine if predominantly pro-West and Ukrainian speaking, also the majority youth are now pro-West preferring openness, the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine are still under the considerable Russian influence. According to an estimate, almost every fifth Ukrainian family would have some emotional bond and/or relatives in the Russia mainland.
The Background of Ongoing Crisis
After Ukraine became free in 1991, it still had a limited military partnership with Russia and other CIS countries and later it expressed a desire for the partnership with NATO in 1994. The same arrangement with Ukrainian inclination continued for nearly two decades without major upheaval. Then pro-Moscow government of the Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych suspended the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and sought closer economic ties with Russia in 2013, which triggered months long Euromaidan protests ultimately leading to overthrow of Yanukovych and the formation of a new government under Oleksandr Turchynov. He was in office for less than four months and was replaced by President Petro Poroshenko who stayed full term in office and was replaced by the popular comedian turned politician and current President Volodymyr Zelensky in election. The incidents of protests and demonstration of 2014, also known as Ukrainian Revolution, led to a reactionary response of the Russia annexing Crimea and pro-Russian protests and consequent civil war in Donbass region led to the formation of two so far unrecognized states, the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic. While the international community mainly the US and Western European countries treat Crimea and Donbass as Ukrainian territories, Russia favours their right of self-determination and is against any outside intervention in the region.
After annexation in 2014, the Russia administers the Crimean Peninsula as two federal subjects, the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol. On the other hand, Ukraine considers both as integral part of its territory rejecting the 2014 Crimean referendum. International community too is divided in their support as per their leanings towards Ukraine or Russia. In 2016, Ukraine sought free trade agreement with the European Union leading to certain disputes including the Russia making allegations of terrorist attacks and Ukraine resorting to the court of arbitration for the use of Kerch Strait; however, Russia had their way in limiting the transit across the strait that included construction of a bridge, imposition of new regulations and detention of certain Ukrainian vessels for their alleged violations. In 2021, another unpleasant incident occurred wherein three Ukrainian boats entered into an incident with the Russian Coast Guard ships in the Kerch Strait, consequently the Russian warships seized the boats detaining about two dozen Ukrainian sailors for a certain period.
Russia is the major exporter of the natural gas to Europe with the traditional transit route through Ukraine, which garnered a handsome revenue of approximately $3 billion to the latter every year. Since Russia launched the Nord Stream pipeline, bypassing Ukraine, under the Baltic Sea to Germany in 2011-12, the gas transit through Ukraine sector is constantly decreasing which is another source of friction between the two countries. At least two sabotage attempts were reported with the bomb explosion and damage to the Russian Urengoy–Pomary–Uzhhorod pipeline in Rozhniativ district of Ukraine in May 2014 and in the Poltava Oblast in June 2014. With the growing tension between the two countries following Ukraine’s political shift towards the Western nations, it’s natural that Russia would prefer to minimize her dependence on the increasingly belligerent neighbour. In May 2021, Ukrainian President had expressed their disappointment over the Biden administration’s waiver of CAATSA sanctions (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) on Russia's Nord Stream company. Although in July 2021, the US and Germany had reached an agreement of using sanctions if Russia used the gas pipeline as political weapon, Ukraine declared in August 2021 that the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany was a dangerous weapon for Ukraine and whole of the Europe, accusing Russia in September 2021 of using natural gas as a geopolitical weapon.
Thus, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has both geopolitical and economic overtones which is natural considering their legacy of common history, culture and the fact that till 1991 both were integral part and partners in the progress and development of the erstwhile USSR. As mentioned earlier, after disintegration of the USSR, there has been a gradual shift of Ukraine towards the Western Europe and US, therefore, Russia is naturally wary that this would bring NATO threat close to its border escalating its security concerns. The Russian military deployment and exercises has considerably increased along the Ukrainian-Russian border and neighbouring Belarus since March 2021, one of the reasons why Ukraine is concerned about a potential invasion. In December 2021, Russia is believed to have put forth two draft treaties seeking a legally binding assurance that Ukraine would not be a member of NATO alliance as well as the reduction of the NATO troops and military hardware in the Eastern Europe. However, the NATO has ignored the Russian request with a warning of swift and severe action in the event of Russia invading Ukraine.
Salient Features of Current Crisis & Hostilities
The origin point of the discord leading to the current crisis could be trace back to 14 September 2020, when Ukraine's new National Security Strategy was revealed by the president that provided room for the distinctive partnership with NATO with the aim of seeking membership in NATO. Following that President Zelensky also signed the document (Decree No. 117/2021) eliciting the "strategy of de-occupation and reintegration of the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol”, which were integrated with Russia after a referendum in 2014. As expected, either of the moves had not gone well with Moscow and the Russian President Putin published an article in July 2021 on the theme of the Russian and Ukrainian history suggesting that the two were one and the same people. To this, several views and sharp reactions came from the US and other Western powers. For illustration, the US historian Timothy Snyder suggested that the Putin’s idea only smacks of the imperialism; the British journalist Edward Lucas cited this as revisionist while some others too described the Russian view as the distorted version of the modern Ukraine and its history.
The allegations and counter-allegations on the subject included the Russian objection of the Ukraine membership to the NATO being a threat to the Russia’s national security while Ukraine and NATO countries blame President Putin of trying to create another Russian Empire with his aggressive military strategies and manoeuvres. Sizeable troops build up from both sides on the Ukrainian-Russian border and the Crimean Peninsula was initially reported during April-June 2021. However, the de-escalation of the aforesaid troops build-up also took place after a few weeks. Many incidents of shelling and violence at low key were also reported at occasions between the two countries during 2021. A rather serious confrontation took place in the Sea of Azov on the night of 14-15 April in Kerch Strait between three Ukraine artillery boats and six Russian Coast Guard vessels. Following the event, Russia closed parts of the Black Sea for the vessels and warships of other countries for nearly six months in the pretext of own military exercises. In October 2021, Kremlin’s views were reflected through a high official of the Security Council of Russia in an article published in Kommersant, a national daily, for the public consumption suggesting that Ukraine had become a “Vassal” of the West; hence it was pointless to hold any dialogue with the current ignorant and unreliable Ukrainian leadership. The same official held that Russia was ready to wait till another Ukrainian government, genuinely interested in improving bilateral relations, comes in power.
In November 2021, the deployment of the US warships to the Black Sea was interpreted by the Russians as a threat to the regional security and strategic stability, which, according to them, was done to explore the US theatre of operations in the event of Ukraine opting to use force in the south-eastern region. In the same month, the Ukraine President and American sources reported yet another Russian military build-up at the border. In turn, Russia too alleged that Ukraine had deployed about 125 hundred troops at Donbas to deal with rebels in violation of the tripartite (Russia, Ukraine and OSCE*) Minsk Protocol signed in September 2014 as a confidence building measure and action by the parties including ceasefire, constant monitoring and resolution through peaceful dialogue. Among growing tensions, the US President Biden added fuel to fire by his surmise on 19 January 2022 that Russia will move in to Ukraine but warned that President Putin would pay a serious and dear price for an invasion to regret it. The following day, Russia announced on 20 January that the Russian naval fleet would hold a major exercise involving about 10 thousand soldiers, 140 vessels and 60 aircrafts in all neighbouring seas/oceans.
While giving an interview to The Washington Post in January 2022, President Zelensky alleged that the Russian forces might invade to take control of eastern Ukraine such as the Kharkiv Oblast which may lead to a large-scale war between the two countries. In the first week of February 2022, the US reported huge assemblage and military preparations of Russia with a motive of full-scale invasion on Ukraine. Around 10th February, Russia dispatched six warships to the Sevastopol Naval Base in Crimea capable of landing troops and armour ashore and announced naval exercises in the Black Sea. On 11 February, the US national security adviser quoting intelligence sources warned that the Russia could attack Ukraine any time before the conclusion of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Following these and many other dispatches/updates, the US also ordered evacuation of its diplomatic and military staff from Kyiv to other safe destinations. Similarly, UK, Japan and some European countries too issued advisory to their citizens to leave Ukraine. Among the hectic political and diplomatic activities in the Europe and America, the reports of minor clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine forces in the Donbas region are coming while speculations in the international media are rife about an imminent war in the region.
On the Russian part, President Putin has stated on 15 February 2022 after a meeting with the German Chancellor that Russia did not want a war and Moscow was willing to talk to the US and NATO about the limits for the missiles and troops deployment, while simultaneously giving indication that some forces deployed near Ukraine border have already begun to return to their bases. So only time will prove whether the much-hyped war as per rhetoric of the US and other Western sources would indeed materialize or not but this has certainly triggered a wave for liberal funding/aid packages for Ukraine. The European Union Parliament has approved Euros 1.2 billion aid package for Ukraine fearing the Russian attack would hurt its economy. The US has offered $1 bn in credit guarantees for Ukraine for the country to withstand the threat of war against Russia. According to the US secretary of State, this measure will bolster Ukraine’s economic stability, growth and prosperity in the face of the Russian threat. Canada has announced to donate over $7 million of lethal weapons to Ukraine. Japan has warned imposition of sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine. The British Foreign Secretary and their Norwegian counterpart have expressed imminent fear of the Russian attack and warned Russia to rethink and desist from taking any hasty action.
War Perspective and Its Underlying Objective
It may be relevant to briefly also touch upon the demography and economy of Ukraine. With over six hundred square km in area, Ukraine is the largest country of the Europe only next to Russia, which is spread over both in Europe and Asia. However, currently it is among the poorest in Europe economywide with the GDP per capita at about $3100 in 2021 as compared to the corresponding Russian average of about $11,000. Thus, Ukraine is a lot poorer now than Russia while the per capita income was nearly at par when both the countries were part of the USSR. According to the Transparency International, Ukraine is also among one of the most corrupt countries in the world with the rampant corruption in all walks of life. As the saying goes that one could buy a gun, an education degree, or even a court decree in Ukraine, provided one has money and is willing to use it. There may be some exaggeration but these allegations or averments may not be entirely out of place: for instance, currently about fifteen thousand students from India are studying in Ukraine and a large number of them are medical students, who could spend money but could not secure medical entrance through the open competition. The Indian government too has issued advisory to the Indian students to return to India unless due to exigencies their stay is mandatory there.
Even with the technological advances throughout the world, many large organizations in Ukraine are reportedly still paying salaries in cash, and tax and pension evasion is rampant. Overall economy of the country is not in good condition with some of the heavy industries, high-technological goods and transport products corporations are mostly of the USSR era. Demography of the country too is not favourable: For instance, during the last twenty-five years, Ukraine’s population has reduced from about 51.1 million in 1996 to 41.6 million in 2021 owing to a lower birth-rate and large-scale immigration to the countries like Russia, Poland, the European Union, the US and Canada due to the shortage of employment opportunities at home. Ukraine has reasonable deposits of iron ore and coking coal; hence steel industries have come up mainly in the eastern part of the country. Besides, due to fertile land and good water availability, Ukraine is also known in global business for the export of the agriculture produce. In addition, the natural gas transit fee has been a good source of revenue but it is declining now with Russia opting to alternative means to supply it to the European countries.
After the USSR disintegration, the Russia has been wary about the NATO expansion in the Eastern Europe; hence also keen that at least the former USSR republics should stay under its influence. Notwithstanding this, East European countries like Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and many erstwhile USSR republics, which were once a part of the Russian Block, have already joined NATO since 1997. Russia considers eastward expansion of NATO as an existential threat to their continued relevance but the US has remained unwilling to come on the negotiation table on this issue, probably with no other NATO country in a position to significantly influence the American stance on the subject. The Russia friendly government in Ukraine was ousted in 2014 Euromaidan revolution which many Russian strategists feel was actually US sponsored. The Russians felt like cheated and had then reacted by annexing Crimean Peninsula duly conducting a referendum there; approximately 75 percent of the Crimean population is of Russian origin and it is also a huge base of the Russian Navy. It appears that the tripartite Minsk agreement reached then has never been honoured by Ukraine in its letter and spirit. The major underlying objectives of the current border tension could be the Russian move to curtail further NATO expansion and pressurise Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreement.
In fact, the concerns of the Russian leadership about the eastward NATO expansion are almost three decades old, an issue which has constantly compromised the relationship between the Western world and Moscow. As back as in 1993, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin had personally written to the then US President Bill Clinton wherein while making a reference about the keenness of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic about joining the NATO alliance, he even conceded that every independent nation had right to choose own course. However, he simultaneously also emphasized that the Russian people perceived the eastward expansion of the NATO as a sort of neo-isolation of Russia that must be addressed by the West. In the same communication, Yeltsin had also referred to the “Two Plus Four Treaty” pertaining to the East and West Germany’s reunification in 1990, and that the spirit of the treaty precluded the option of expanding the NATO into further East. Ever since NATO has admitted 14 countries of the Eastern Block in its alliance but, clearly, the issues highlighted in the 1993 letter were never addressed by the US and allies and have remained a constant source of major discord and irritation. Even recently, Putin is known to have complained that US and allies have cheated them shamelessly. These facts and many allied details have also been lucidly brought out by Klaus Wiegrefe, a German journalist and historian, in his recent essay on the subject.
Prospects of the War
Prima facie, the Russian military exercise and amassment the troops and armament on the Ukraine border under certain stimuli in the Crimean and Donbas regions appear to be the immediate cause of the escalation of hostilities between the two nations. Also, keeping the Russia under constant scanner and provocative statements by the US and Ukrainian authorities, including the respective heads of state, have also served as fuel for the war hysteria despite the Russian President stating more than once that they do not want a war with Ukraine. Apparently, a war hysteria has purportedly been created in certain parlance of the West including the international media, while it appears unlikely that the Russia will indulge in any full-scale invasion of the Ukraine. There are some definite reasons too for this surmise: Firstly, the Ukraine is not as weak as is being depicted by the US and international media. Over a period, it has developed its own military capabilities and then US and other Western countries are also supplementing it with some economic aid and military hardware; secondly, Russia is pretty well aware that Ukraine is an independent nation with a right to self-determination and it would actually be a liability to control people of a hostile nation in a long-term perspective. Of course, President Putin might try to legitimize separatists controlled Donetsk and Luhansk in the troubled Donbas region by recognizing the two as independent Republics, which may further lead to a war situation if the US and allies do not constructively respond to Russia's security concerns.
Raising the pitch of the war hysteria, President Biden, citing credible intelligence and warning Russia, has once again stated on Friday, the 18th February 2022 that President Putin has decided for the invasion on Ukraine. In this context, the recent statement of the Czech President Milos Zeman rebuking the US intelligence agency CIA over the ‘Russian invasion’ hype speaks it all, very lucid and clear. He said that the Western-touted assertions about Russia’s plan to launch an invasion of Ukraine on 16 February 2022 proved to be a fiasco. He stated that the recent allegations of the United States about the Russian plan are analogues to their past claims on Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq war, despite a much hype created by the US, any weapons of mass destruction were not discovered; similarly, they (US) claimed that the Taliban would never take Kabul, but the whole world saw what actually happened there. Mr Zeman revealed that he had also received a secret message from CIA sources about the alleged preparations for the Russian invasion of Ukraine five days before 16 February but he did not question its source or legitimacy. He, however, concluded with the assessment that there will be no war because the Russians are not insane to launch an operation that would cause them more damage than benefits. At best, there may be some surge of hostilities in Donbas but that is completely different from a full-scale Russian invasion.
The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov too have echoed somewhat similar views insisting that the allegations of the West and Kyiv about the Russian invasion are empty and unfounded, merely a ploy for escalating tensions. He, however, also warned that any use of the concocted allegations to justify use of military force in the south-eastern Ukraine would lead to serious consequences. While the major European powers like France and Germany are working to minimize tensions, the UK has hitherto fore stayed firmly behind the US in making inflammatory statements. Therefore, a lot more would depend on the US whether they favourably respond to the Russian regional security concerns by deferring further NATO expansion at least for the time being. A better chance for the quick restoration of peace in the region would certainly be a NATO deferment of the issue of Ukraine membership for a given reasonable period. If good sense prevails and Ukraine agrees with a sincere commitment for the implementation of the Minsk agreement, a long-term peace would stand a better chance else the small-scale conflicts between the rebels (supported by Russia) and Ukraine forces might continue hitherto fore. Ukraine should avoid becoming subterfuge in the hands of the NATO countries because it is unlikely that other than some sanctions and diplomatic maneuvering any of them will actively come to rescue them in an event of war. Also a war in the region would certainly have grave political and economic implications for Ukraine and Russia including the escalation of oil / natural gas prices.
In the context of the Russian apprehensions about the Ukraine joining the NATO alliance, it reminds the author of nearly six decades old Cuban Missile Crisis in October-November 1962 when a dangerous confrontation occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union, which made the entire world wary of an imminent nuclear holocaust. The Americans had deployed nuclear armed medium range Jupiter ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey and in response the Russians (then USSR) too attempted deployment of the matching ballistic missiles in Cuba. The US presidential elections were underway and under tremendous pressure the US President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval "quarantine" (avoiding the term blocked) to stop further missiles reaching Cuba. The entire world was tense fearing the dangerous nemesis and after intense yet largely secret negotiations, an agreement was reached between the two superpowers, whereby Russians agreed to dismantle their offensive weapons with the US declaring not to invade Cuba and the Jupiter missiles from Turkey too were quietly withdrawn by the US. The de-escalation of crisis also underlined the need for a quick, clear and direct hotline between the US and USSR to avoid any nuclear mishap due to misunderstanding in future. While some people might take this as a far-fetched illustration but bringing Ukraine under the NATO fold would indeed bring its direct threat to the Russian border. Afterall if some strategic developments in Cuba, located offshore Florida, can have implications on the US security, the same should also hold true to Russia in the context of any NATO deployment in Ukraine. Therefore, it would be congruent for the US and allies too to appreciate the sensitivities of Russia and proceed wisely, and cautiously, in the matter.
* The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
More by : Dr. Jaipal Singh