Another round of inconclusive negotiations ended recently in Geneva, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and American Secretary of State Antony Blinken attempted to unravel the stand-off over Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden had discussed the situation in December, raising hopes of lowering of tensions. Earlier, they had an in-person meeting in June. Preceding the summit meetings, bilateral talks at various levels, including between the intelligence chiefs of both sides, had taken place amidst a barrage of threats. Both sides are adamantly sticking to their positions.
Russia has deployed around 1,20,000 of its armed forces on the Ukrainian border, poised for a military intervention, though she has denied any such intention. The US has warned of further economic sanctions if Russia were to invade Ukraine. The unrest in the Donbas region of Ukraine has gathered momentum since the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and his government. Moscow has been blamed for fomenting unrest, as ethnic Russians are the largest minority in Donbas. Its recent intervention in Kazakhstan was instrumental in controlling the unrest there and protecting the government of pro-Russian President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Geopolitics in this region is mired in the architecture of security ties and alliances that have evolved in the post-Cold War era. Russia is demanding binding security guarantees, banning Ukraine from joining NATO and the withdrawal of that group’s forces to positions held in 1997, before the former Warsaw pact East European countries joined the EU. The US has agreed to send a written response to Russian demands. America and her NATO allies maintain that joining the group is a sovereign decision by an independent country—sidestepping the fact that they have been actively wooing and expanding NATO closer to the Russian border.
The US warning of economic sanctions has not deterred Russia, which has put her security above the impact of such threats. America has airlifted military assistance to Ukraine and begun increasing NATO troops and arms build-up in frontline states like Poland and the Baltic nations, and increased naval forays into the Black Sea. It has upped the ante by announcing withdrawal of family of Embassy personnel in Kiev, thinning down diplomatic presence and issued an advisory asking its citizens to avoid travelling to Russia.
Russia is already under Western economic sanctions, following the dramatic 2014 takeover of Crimea. This annexation was the first case of changing an international border in Europe in recent times, causing a major geopolitical dispute that led to Western condemnation and sanctions. Russia organised a referendum that endorsed annexation of Crimea. The strategic dimension of Russia’s annexation was to protect its naval base at Sevastopol. Russia had obtained this area from Ukraine on lease after the Soviet Union broke up and was apprehensive that it might not be renewed. The Sevastopol base is crucial for Russia’s naval operations in the Mediterranean and beyond.
The US and EU are not on the same page on sanctions. The resignation of the German Navy chief, soon after his visit to India, exemplifies divisions within that country, the EU’s biggest economy. The German Navy chief had made remarks supportive of Putin. Germany has also opposed military aid to Ukraine by some EU countries. European nations have ruled out sending NATO troops to defend Ukraine and seem lukewarm on agreeing to specific sanctions. Meanwhile, the UK and US have supplied lethal arms to Ukraine and charged Putin with attempting regime change in Kiev. Regime change policies have long been the staple of Anglo-American interventions in various parts of the world. In Ukraine, Western powers instigated unrest to overthrow the pro-Russian Yanukovych government. Ironically, they are alleging that Russia is trying to force a regime change in Ukraine.
The US, EU and NATO are culpable for provoking Russia, by expanding NATO into Moscow’s “backyard”. Not even all EU members are included in NATO—Sweden and Finland are not. So why insist on Ukraine? Many important American strategic experts had opposed NATO’s expansion eastwards. Apparently, old Cold Warriors are still active in the US. Putin’s Russia is seen as authoritarian and a challenge to Western interests in Europe and West Asia. Instead of accommodating Russia in new EU structures, Western nations have been provoking her, though with her GDP comparable to Spain, she poses no real threat to Europe or the US.
The post-Cold War agenda of democracy promotion and maintaining a liberal global order that became guiding principles of American foreign policy led to another version of containment against Moscow. Russia has been sandwiched between the West and an economically powerful and stronger China. In stark contrast is the approach of the US towards a far more aggressive China, which is openly identified as a geopolitical competitor. The reason is obvious: Wall Street and American businesses have invested heavily in China. In contrast, Russia is economically unimportant, except for oil and gas supplies to EU countries, which explains the reluctance of Europe to apply sanctions. The US is still smarting from her humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan and, perhaps, wants to put up a more muscular face towards Russia. Accepting Russia’s demands on rolling back NATO will add another failure to Biden’s foreign policy and undermine the alliance with Europe.
If war breaks out in Ukraine, it will be a lose-lose development for all, including India, which has developed closer ties with the US and has traditional close links with Russia. Taking sides is a no-go area for India, which explains the lack of any official comment from the government. If Russia edges closer to China as a result of this crisis, it will complicate matters for India, given her requirement of military hardware from the former. Russia and China are locked into an energy partnership worth $400 billion. Russia’s oil and gas exports add up to 80% of her exports. Unrest in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries can disrupt gas pipelines to China. The NATO edging closer to China’s borders cannot be a cause of comfort for Beijing. Geopolitics in the Eurasian theatre will impact China-Russia ties, as Moscow reasserts her primacy in former Soviet republics. Currently taking tentative steps towards economic recovery, a military conflict in Ukraine is not only irrational but the last thing that our pandemic-hit world needs.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
Former Ambassador and Secretary in MEA, and Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi
(The author is also founding Director of DeepStrat, a think tank)