Russia’s Ukraine Gambit
By mobilizing its forces on a large scale against Ukraine, Russia has unleashed the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War. Following the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24 this year, the war in Ukraine is now in its fifth month with no signs of de-escalation. So far, Moscow has failed to capture major cities across the country, including Kyiv, the capital, and has been denied a swift victory it had anticipated. It has been facing tenacious resistance from Ukrainian soldiers and civilian fighters, bolstered by military and economic support from the West. However, by not budging from his earlier stance, Putin’s ultimate goal is to capture Kyiv, topple the current Ukrainian government, and subsume the country into Russia’s orbit.
In the pre-1991 era, both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was amongst the 15 republics that got independence. Many Ukrainians are native speakers of Russian language. Ukraine and Russia have shared past history. Currently, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe after Russia. It is located between Russia and what the Nato considers its eastern flank. Though Ukraine is not a member of European Union or Nato yet, it receives considerable financial and military support from Europe and the United States, while Russia considers it within its natural sphere of influence. Both Russia and the West see Ukraine as a potential buffer against each other.
Ukraine gets military support and weapons from the West, which Russia does not like. Russia fears that, like most of its former allies, Ukraine is also aspiring to join Nato. Currently, Ukraine is not a Nato member, but Nato calls it a partner country, which means it could join the organization in the future. All these have greatly angered Russia. In this backdrop, Russia is using its military might to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western military alliance.
This aggravated situation to the extent that President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to enter two rebel-held areas in Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine and recognized them as independent regions. He then launched full-scale invasion of Ukraine in clear violation of international law. However, Russia has now focused its energies mainly on eastern Ukraine. Currently, according to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russia controls 20% of Ukrainian territory.
To stop this invasion, Russia wants these promises to be met: Nato should get out of Russia’s neighbourhood; it wants guarantee from the West that Ukraine will never be admitted as Nato member; Nato should stop further expansion to the East; Nato should withdraw military deployment from Eastern Europe; and last but by no means least, Russia wants neutral status of Ukraine. Nato and the US have rejected these demands. They say Ukraine is a sovereign country and Russia cannot dictate its rules on other countries. Putin says Ukraine is a part of ancient Russian lands. The West is sending money and weapons to Ukraine, and is targeting Russia with tougher sanctions. Russia is now the most-sanctioned country in the world with 5,581 sanctions currently in place.
The roots of the current crisis lie in the history. Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was formed in 1949 primarily to contain the influence of Soviet Union. Soon after, to tight grip on USSR and diminish its sphere of influence, countries in Eastern Europe, along the other regions, were welcomed to this military alliance. However, in 1990s, while ending the decades-long Cold War, the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev repeatedly received assurance that Nato would not expand eastwards, and that it will not disturb the Russian sphere of influence. This promise was a critical feature in engaging Soviet Union on Germany’s reunification. Moreover, Russia only agreed to Germany’s membership of Nato on the American promise that there will be no expansion of Nato one inch to the East. However, there was no written form of this promise and it was all promised orally, validity of which is arguable. Historians are still debating what was or wasn’t said.
Since the collapse of Soviet Union, Nato is expanding Eastwards. It now includes countries that Russia sees as being in its backyard like Poland, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states. Six countries, either all of them had been part of the Soviet Union at one point, or within its sphere of influence, are now member of Nato. Russian president Vladimir Putin sees it as a major threat and accuses Nato of breaking its promise to never expand eastwards. But Nato says there was no such promise.
Russia sees all this as a reduction in its power. Most former Soviet republics have already joined the European Union or Nato. It does not want Ukraine to be next on the list. However, being penchant towards the West, the Ukrainian tilt towards the latter felt like the final death knell for Russian power in Eastern Europe.
Having shared history, Russia considers Ukraine as a little brother and does not want to let it go and join in the Western camp. In 2013, it was between a rock and a hard place in deciding whether to tilt towards the West and European neighbors or Russia. Viktor Yanukovych, the then pro-Russian Ukrainian president, was to sign a political and economic deal with European Union. But, contrary to the expectations, he signed a deal with Moscow which most of the Ukrainian saw as a pressure from Moscow, and they felt like to be sold out to Moscow. Resultantly, Viktor Yanukovych was ousted through popular protests and the European Union deal was signed by the new president.
Now to salvage the situation, in 2014, President Vladimir Putin ordered attack on Crimea, a strategically important peninsula on the Black Sea that’s the part of Ukraine. Its people are Russian speakers. Its status was debated between Ukraine and Russia. To solve this enigma, there was a referendum in Crimea. Its people voted to join Russia. The West labelled the referendum as illegal. Thus Russia attacked and, resultantly, annexed Crimea.
Meanwhile, there was also a fight between the pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian army in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine which is comprised of two areas of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia is accused of backing the separatists with troops and weapons, an allegation it denies. Series of talks between the West and Ukraine and Russia resulted in the Minsk agreement in 2014. Both sides agreed to ceasefire, military withdrawal and that Ukraine will hold election in the rebel-held areas. Eight years on, the Minsk Accord remains unimplemented.
By escalating war in the Donbas region, Russia has played tactically because Nato and EU do not give membership to any country that has ongoing border dispute. However, this move has caused Finland and Sweden, the two neighbours of Russia, to secure Nato membership. Sweden and Finland have applied for Nato membership. They have both been neutral for decades. The war in Ukraine has shifted things and not in a way that Putin would have wanted. He has given Nato a new purpose, and even a strong foothold in what he considers his backyard.
The Russian invasion continues. This has created a perilous situation with ramifications being felt globally. Some of the world’s main grain supplies are routed through the Black Sea, which borders both Russia and Ukraine. Both blame each other for deadly mines in the Black Sea. Due to this, the supply chain has greatly been disrupted. Russia and Ukraine export 30% of the world’s wheat. Military actions have disrupted both grain production and distribution, raising food costs, and have caused food shortage across the world. About 75% of sunflower oil — a primary cooking oil in many parts of the world — exports come from Russia and Ukraine. This has led to high cooking oil prices globally. Moreover, oil exports from Russia, which is one of the largest oil producers in the world, has been sanctioned, which has created oil shortage across the world. This has led soaring to the skyrocketing oil prices and, resultantly, the inflation.
Thus, to avoid further catastrophe, and to prevent the onset of World War III, both sides must come to the negotiating table to come to a fruitful conclusion. Though the US and other Nato members support Ukraine militarily and financially, they have until now restrained from direct confrontation with Russia. Shall it occur, the consequences for the world peace will be horrific. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing that can justify Russia’s attack on Ukraine. But the West should also consider the legitimate concerns of Russia, ignoring which has compelled Russia to take such extreme action. For this conflict — like all other ones — to come to an end, diplomacy is the best option.
The writer is currently serving as an educator in KP Government.