In Retrospect

Theatre of war

Ukrainian crisis is a sordid saga of geopolitical interception of a nation’s march towards democracy and socio-economic stability — converting it into a battleground where ‘superpowers’ could flex their muscles

Theatre of war

A large part of the world is in a state of turmoil with the perception of an imminent war in Ukraine looming large. The 'convinced' Biden administration has been crying hoarse that Russian invasion of Ukraine is at the doorsteps but Putin refuses to be holding any such intentions. Ukraine, at the same time, has reiterated several times that a full-scale Russian invasion is less likely to occur.

Materially, Russia and Belarus — another significant ex-Soviet republic located in the north of Ukraine — have announced the administration of military drills around Ukraine and Black Sea region. Days after Putin had announced gradual withdrawal of troops, the US claimed the deployment of Russian troops along Ukraine borders to be between 1,59,000 and 1,90,000, ready for the war. As a response, the US has also started deploying 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania, apart from approving a USD 6 billion sale of 250 Abrams battle tanks and related equipment to Poland. The US and Europe have also intensified allegations of cyber-attacks by Russia on Ukrainian infrastructures. Meanwhile, Ukraine has reported shelling within the country, allegedly by Russian-backed separatist factions from the eastern part of the country.

This complex interplay of perceptions and realities has put the world in a truly confounding position — which is not new by any account. Ever since the Crimean annexation by Russia, or even before that, Ukraine has served as a hot battleground for the West and the East. The cyclical game is being played between Russia and the West. Using the pretext of apprehension, both parties have been militarising the region in a cyclic manner for around a decade — leading up to the present build-up which many say represents the peak after WW2. Amid all this, Ukraine's struggle is plain and simple — that of acquiring and maintaining a certain degree of stability.

It will be foolish to predict or deny a war between contesting parties at this point unless one has a peek into the minds of global leaders, particularly Putin. However, in this article, we shall try to put a holistic context around the entire issue that may allow us to keep track of the developments in a comprehensive manner.

Historical perspective: Putin's obsession with Ukraine

The past is inseparable — be it for individuals or for the nations! Emergence of nation states in Europe and elsewhere in the 18th century was centred around the theme of commonality — that of language, religion, collective struggle against a common enemy among other things. Russia claims to have this crucial element of commonality with Ukraine — particularly in the historical sense.

He asserts that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians were "all descendants of Ancient Rus" some thousand years back and had a common language in the past known as 'old Russian'. However, this Central rule declined over years and the "fragmentation intensified after Batu Khan's devastating invasion, which ravaged many cities, including Kiev" — broadly leading to a bifurcation into Duchy of Lithuania and Duchy of Russia.

As per Putin's account, both duchies had cultural exchanges between them — at least at the leadership levels — before the ruling elite of Lithuania converted to Catholicism in 14th century. In the 16th Century, Lithuania "signed the Union of Lublin with the Kingdom of Poland to form the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth".

But ultimately, Moscow Rus was able to reunite the regions — including the city of Kiev — with the signing of Treaty of Perpetual Peace in 1686. Putin projects that the incorporated region was called "Malorossia" — or the little Russia. And then, following the war with Ottoman Empire in 18th century, "Russia incorporated Crimea and the lands of the Black Sea region, which became known as Novorossiya" which was "underlain by the common faith, shared cultural traditions, and – I (Putin) would like to emphasize it once again – language similarity".

Cutting straight to the post-World war era, with the creation of the USSR in 1922, a federation of equal republics came into existence. Under the Constitution of USSR, 1924, republics were given the right to "freely secede from the Union" — which Putin refers to as a 'time bomb' that would explode towards the end of the century! Furthermore, Bolsheviks had the concept of loose internal territorial demarcation. Putin's conviction is that as the USSR grew in power over decades and acquired regions, many parts were added to Soviet Ukraine — also relegating internal lands to Ukraine.

Putin says that "Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era. We (Putin on behalf of Russia) know and remember well that it was shaped – for a significant part – on the lands of historical Russia."

Take another leap to December 1991, when the three republics — Ukraine, Belarus and Russia — decided to dissociate themselves from the Union, all the three for their own set of reasons. Ukraine had the aspiration for striving towards democracy. Interestingly, after the disintegration of the USSR, the United States had rushed towards Russia to strengthen its democracy! But gradually, it realised that it was Ukraine that needed its services more, and could serve as a better control for geopolitics in the region. It has since then been selling the idea of a "democratic and corruption-free nation" to Ukraine. Notably, Putin understands the relevance of Ukraine but, at the same time, he also understands that it has slipped away from Russian hands. What he is apparently trying to do is to prevent it from falling completely under the hands of the West and become "anti-Russia".

For Ukraine, the struggle is for stability. Being at the border of Russia and Europe, it has already paid a lot of prices. It would be interesting to see whether it falls prey to either the East or the West, or carves out a path of its own!

Geopolitical perspective

At the centre of the geopolitics in the Ukrainian region are two important considerations — NATO's expansion and Putin's quest of establishing the pre-Cold War geopolitical structure.

Ever since the Cold War concluded and the US emerged as an undisputed leader in global geopolitics, NATO has been on an expansion drive. Its path was unhindered as the world — to a certain extent — had become unipolar for at least some period of time. In 2004, NATO expanded for the fifth time in a decade and a half, incorporating seven new countries — including erstwhile Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It didn't stop here and, in 2008, threw the dice open for Ukraine and Georgia. This irked Russia which, by then, had consolidated greater footing in the aftermath of the USSR disintegration. Russia clearly enunciated that inclusion of Ukraine into NATO will be a "hostile act towards Russia".

To make its presence felt, Russia also entered into the August war with Georgia — which was initiated by Georgia itself. Ever since, Vladmir Putin has been trying to pull Ukraine within his fold — if not in territorial and political sense then at least in economic sense. Interestingly, the Ukraine card was paying dividends for him! His waning popularity within Russia got a new boost.

This blend of nostalgic attachment with Ukraine, its geopolitical significance and political rewards internally, emboldened the Russian President to go an extra mile for what some perceive as an attempt to "reconstruct the pre-Cold War structure" — it appears to be a far-fetched conjecture though. The emboldened Putin went on to capture Crimea in 2014 through a bloody war that claimed at least 14,000 lives.

Putin's response no more remained reactionary to the actions of the West — even though he projects so. He is playing a more proactive game to bargain greater proximity with Ukraine (or to wean it away from the West)

It would be pertinent here to bring in at least two other players who hold stakes in the geopolitics of the region — Europe and China.

Inclusion of Ukraine into NATO is still not a majority sentiment in Ukraine, though the West-inclined leadership may have expressed the willingness to do so. But inclusion into the European Union is an obvious choice.

In fact, when in 2013, Ukrainian President Yanukovych scrapped the plans to bolster closer economic ties with the European Union, a countrywide protest by the name of Euromaidan erupted in Ukraine — ultimately leading to the ouster of Yanukovych. The allegations were that he had scrapped the plan at the insistence of Putin who was planning to come out with his own Eurasian Economic Union. So, essentially, Europe doesn't need to do something extraordinary to maintain its solidarity with Ukraine — a natural alliance appears to emerge between the two.

However, when it comes to direct confrontation, the solidarity of European nations falls apart, with individual countries struggling to balance between their economic and other interests in Russia and their military cooperation in NATO. Countries — striking example being Germany — were seen to wither away as they feared that Russia would cut off the Nord Stream gas pipeline. While European countries are partially dependent on Russia for energy supplies, many have significantly greater dependence.

Russia and China jointly resolved on the occasion of Winter Olympics to stand together against the onslaught of the West. But unlike the united Western powers of Europe and the US, China and Russia may have mutually conflicting interests in the region. Russia is aware that ceding ground to China in the region is in conflict with its own interests. China already has excessive trade and economic engagement in Ukraine and the surrounding region. Courting its global geopolitical positioning might be as critical for Russia as being in the race of Asian leaders!

In case the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine escalates, it would be interesting to see how China and Russia proceed mutually.

Lead-up to the current crisis

The script of the current crisis was written way back with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Ever since, both the Russian leadership and the US-led NATO have intensified their covert actions to maintain dominance in the region.

While annexation of Crimea was significant strategic gain for Russia, Putin's machismo had weaned a section of Ukrainian population — particularly in the Western Ukraine that is believed to have ideological and geographical proximity with Europe — away from Russia. At the same time, his advocacy for the rights of Southeast Ukrainians polarised the "separatist" inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and an internal rife was created between the two segments. Some estimates place the number of deaths on account of separatist's encounter with Ukrainian military to be over 10,000 since then.

A couple of months later, a Malaysian flight was attacked over the Ukrainian airspace killing all the 298 travellers. The West alleged Russian hand and certain investigations are known to substantiate the allegation, though Putin denies. While Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia managed to pull out a Minsk Accord for putting a check on violence in 2015, NATO started deploying troops in Eastern Europe on a rotational basis. Then in 2018, NATO graduated its sale of lethal weapon systems to Ukraine and also had military exercises in the region. Russia was further secluded by allegations of launching multiple cyberattacks on Ukraine.

By October last year, Putin started moving his troops along Ukrainian borders. Then in December, the country took a maximalist stance in bargain by demanding that inclusion of Ukraine in NATO be ruled out in writing and military equipment supplied to Ukraine be curtailed. To what extent Russia will be able to bargain in the process remains to be seen. Not much, it seems presently. Putin's actions could further take Ukraine closer to the West as they fight collectively.

The energy weapon

Russia is weaponizing its gas pipelines to deter a significant part of Europe from acting against it in the case of direct confrontation. Talking of demand and supply of Russian stock of natural gas, there are broadly four players — Russia as a supplier, Europe as a consumer, Ukraine as providing for the transit route and the United States as an alternative supplier (or at least a facilitator). These all stakeholders constitute the overall oil economy ecosystem in the Eurasian belt — and all of these, except the US, stand to lose if the system is interrupted.

Currently, The European Union gets 41 per cent of its natural gas from Russia which, in turn, earns 60 per cent of its import revenues from the EU. The leading European importers of Russian gas include Germany, France, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia etc. Germany, in particular, has grabbed the spotlight as it is destination to the prospective Nord Stream Pipeline-2 which is an undersea route for transporting Russian natural gas to Germany. The construction of the pipeline is completed but the German regulator has not yet approved it due to some legal roadblocks — the Russian firm Gazprom holds 50 per cent stake in the pipeline, which is more than the regulator believes is allowed. The remaining 50 per cent of the stake lies in the hands of European firms from France, Austria and Germany. Notably, Nord Stream-2 is seen as an alternative or complement to Nord Stream that has been functional since 2011. Nord stream runs across the territories of Poland and Ukraine — for which these countries collect heavy transit fees from Russia. Plainly, Europe — which is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy supplies — faces the risk of disruption of supply chains by Putin.

This brings us to another stakeholder — the United States. It has since long been antagonistic to Russia's dominance as a supplier in Europe. It has time and again warned the European nations against over-dependence on Russia. Meanwhile, the US is also a major supplier of energy fuel to Europe. Europeans shifting away from Russia could mean direct advantage for the US. It is in the process of taking Europe into confidence by facilitating talks with countries like Norway, Qatar, Azerbaijan and Algeria that can also partly fill the void left after Russians.

But is Russia willing to leave such a booming market? Certainly not. Russia, at this point in time, is fully aware that blocking the gas supplies, while it will hurt Europe, will also not be less wounding for Russia itself. Of course, it has an alternative in the form of China. Not only China has been a major customer of Russian natural gas over the past one and a half decades, both the countries have recently signed a 30-year contract in this regard plus the construction of a pipeline. Everything said and done, for Russia, Europe is too big a market to be compensated for with anything else.

The remaining player, Ukraine, to a great extent, has come out of the shadow of Russian dominance in natural gas supplies but the transit fee it takes for transactions through Nord Stream is a lucrative thing and it won't want to do away with it.

So, presently Russia and Europe have mutual economic interests. Though a sentiment of getting out of the shadow of Russia is surfacing in Europe, and the US is propelling it further, to what extent will it practically pull Europe out of the Russian supply web is a difficult question.

It is true that the possibility of Russian invasion cannot be ruled out but flexing of muscles by involved parties appears more of a power-balancing exercise. If anything that could lead to worsening of the situation, it is provocation — deliberate or otherwise — by any side. Any such attempt should be condemned in harshest terms.

Views expressed are personal

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