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Putin’s Ukraine gambit

THE unfolding crisis over Ukraine has heightened the danger of prolonged turmoil and instability in Europe. After weeks of failed diplomacy to avert this crisis, the situation took a fateful turn when President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to two rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine and recognised them as independent regions. He then launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in violation of international law. This has created a perilous situation with global ramifications.

The response from the US-led Western community was swift. Russia’s action was roundly condemned by the US and its allies. Ukraine’s president urged the world to stop the war and vowed to resist the Russian attack. President Joe Biden called Putin an aggressor and said he would have to bear the consequences of war. Calls from across the world urged restraint and de-escalation of the crisis. Putin’s justification for his military action went beyond protecting the Russian-speaking people of Donbas and involved ‘defending Russia from Ukraine’, which he accused the West of using as an instrument to threaten Russia.

The crisis had built up over months with Russia amassing tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border. Despite the diplomatic dash to Moscow by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Russia’s core security demands were not met. They included a commitment to bar Ukraine from joining Nato, no deployment of strategic weapons in Ukraine and Nato’s return to its pre-1997 borders. All were rejected by the US and Nato.

The question now is whether the West’s response to the Russian invasion, of censure and sanctions, will pressure Putin to step back. Before considering this, it is instructive to recall what happened eight years ago, as Putin’s latest move marks a continuation of developments that unfolded in 2014 and led Russia to prise Crimea from Ukraine. The dramatic chain of events was triggered by the ouster of pro-Moscow Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich, who rejected closer association with the EU, and was forced from office by a popular uprising backed by the West. American officials and politicians had showed up in Ukraine to openly express solidarity with anti-Russian demonstrators.

The unfolding crisis has created a perilous situation with global ramifications.

Moscow reacted furiously, and weeks later, invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. Putin later accused the US of orchestrating Ukraine’s 2014 ‘coup’. A ceasefire agreement — Minsk I — was forged in 2014 to end fighting in Donbas but failed to stick. It was followed by Minsk II mediated by France and Germany in 2015. This involved constitutional changes by Ukraine to accord full autonomy and ‘special status’ to the Russian-speaking regions of Donbas. As Henry Kissinger noted in 2014 “the root of the problem” lay in “efforts by Ukrainian politicians to impose their will on recalcitrant parts of the country first by one faction and then by the other” in a nation with a “polyglot composition”. Minsk II was never fully implemented and marked a lost opportunity. But it remained a touchstone for a peaceful solution.

Western sanctions now imposed on Russia aim at crippling its economy. They include limiting its access to international capital markets and freezing its overseas assets. Russian officials dismissed the sanctions and recalled that their country has long faced Western restrictions. Putin has in any case sought to make his economy immune to sanctions by building foreign exchange reserves (over $630 billion) and taking other measures. He can also inflict economic pain on Europe as Russia is the continent’s largest source of oil and natural gas as well as important raw materials.

Against this backdrop, is there space for diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis and find a peaceful resolution? For now, diplomacy seems to be off the table. With Russian forces poised to seize Kyiv and more sanctions imposed by Western countries, the diplomatic window has closed. Moscow has offered talks to Ukraine but only if its forces surrender. The beleaguered Ukrainian government has said it is ready for talks with Russia including on a neutral status regarding Nato. But it is now too late for this. Meanwhile, Europe is bracing for the economic fallout of the crisis which will also be consequential for the global economy. Markets are in turmoil, grain shortages loom while the crude oil price has surpassed $100 a barrel. This will intensify inflationary pressures and involve economic pain for the West as for much of the world.

It is a moot point now whether this crisis could have been averted if America and its allies had been responsive to Russian security concerns in US-Russia talks in January and earlier. Would an offer of a moratorium on Ukraine’s Nato membership have satisfied Moscow? Several Western analysts have also suggested that Washington erred in encouraging the eastward enlargement of Nato in the late 1990s after the end of the Cold War. Others have pointed out that the US had given Moscow assurances in 1990 at the time of German reunification that Nato would not expand eastwards. This is apparently reflected in declassified American and German documents. Many analysts argue that this unkept promise fuelled Russian grievances over decades.

However, what matters now is how this crisis plays out. A firm assessment is difficult in the midst of an ongoing conflict. It appears that Putin’s goal is to first militarily subdue Ukraine and then bring about regime change. When — and if — military coercion achieves this to then negotiate with the West to reconfigure Europe’s security architecture including Nato deployments in eastern Europe. This plan seems to rest on Moscow’s calculation that beyond sanctions and bluster the West can do little as it is unwilling to commit boots on the ground. Ukraine’s president has already said it has been left alone to fight Russia. With the UN paralysed there is little to deter Putin from the path he has taken. Whether this gambit works or backfires only time will tell. It may turn out to be overreach and a strategic mistake if Russia gets bogged down and faces Ukrainian resistance in the long run as well as anti-war protests at home. But for now, the East-West confrontation is taking a bloody toll on Europe where the post-Cold War order has broken down.

Maleeha Lodhi, "Putin’s Ukraine gambit," Dawn. 2022-02-28.
Keywords: Foreign relations , Foreign policy , Foreign debts , Foreign aid , Foreign exchange , Russian attack , Ukrainian border