Vladimir Putin
In happier times . Courtesy : www.moscowtimes.com

By JK Verma

JK Verma

New Delhi. 05 January 2022. As the world was all set to bid 2021 a goodbye, Biden and Putin talked on phone for about 50 minutes on 30 December. U.S. President asked, “Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine.” And also threatened that U.S. and allies “will respond decisively” in case Russia attacks Ukraine. However, Putin also warned that in this case there would be a rupture in U.S. Russia relations. Russia insisted for a written assurance that NATO membership would not be given to Ukraine and there would be no deployments of troops in Central and Eastern Europe.  

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine can become a major disaster not only for the region but for the whole world. Ukraine claims that Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops on the border and the chances of its invasion cannot be overruled. In 2014 Russian forces attacked Ukraine and captured Crimea. It was the first time after Second World War when an European country seized territory of another country.

Ukraine was an important part of erstwhile Soviet Union and both Russia and Ukraine have close family, linguistic and cultural ties. Ukraine is strategically important for Russia and since it became independent after disintegration of USSR both West as well as Russia are trying to wield influence on it. The West considers Ukraine as a buffer state between Russia and West and wants to keep Ukraine away from Russian influence. The West is trying from many years to induct Ukraine in The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) while Russia is averse to this, as in this way United States controlled military alliance NATO would reach at its doorway.

President Viktor Yanukovych
President Viktor Yanukovych

There were massive demonstrations in whole of Ukraine in November 2013 and the demonstrators were protesting against President Viktor Yanukovych who decided that Ukraine would join Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union while the protesters were demanding that Ukraine should join European Union. The demonstrators claimed that President Viktor Yanukovych was pro-Russian while Russians alleged that the demonstrations were supported and financed by West. These demonstrations which are known as Euromaidan movement hit high spot in February 2014 when President Yanukovych had to fled from the capital.

In view of rising influence of West in Ukraine, Russian forces annexed Crimea which was a component of Ukraine. Not only this Russia started assisting secessionist movement in eastern Ukraine. Large number of people of Russian origin live in eastern Ukraine and they extend support to Moscow. Annexing of Crimea has increased the popularity of Putin in Russia. Putin feels that if Ukraine joins Europe, it would be a great security risk to Russia and it means that West is trying to isolate Russia. Takeover of Crimea gave maritime advantage in the region to Russian forces. Although the world powers condemned the annexation of Crimea and West has also imposed some sanctions on Russia.

Moscow has stationed large number of forces on Ukrainian border and demands a clear assurance from West that Ukraine would not be inducted in NATO. Nonetheless President Biden has refused to give the assurance. Hence Russian forces are on the borders so that they can enter Ukraine in short notice. 

Before 30 December Biden and Putin also had a two-hour virtual summit on Ukraine on 7 December in which Biden warned Putin that in case of invasion of Ukraine there would be heavy economic penalties and NATO forces would be repositioned in Europe and the action would be much stringent in comparison to the action taken at the time of annexation of Crimea in 2014. Biden also threatened that Nord Stream II gas pipeline project would also not be completed. Biden threatened, “that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now”. The U.S. has committed weapons including counter artillery radars, drones armed patrol boats and even Javelin anti-tank systems which Ukraine avoided to deploy. 

Biden and Putin talked
Courtesy : journalstar.com

The Kremlin gave the detailed account of 7 December meeting and mentioned that Putin cautioned Biden that military activities of NATO near Ukraine jeopardize Russian security and it means that they are nearing a “red line”. Russians also claimed that their forces are in their country hence they are not violating any law. Putin also told that the stakes of Moscow are much higher in Ukraine than of the west.

Some assumptions are that the West is trying to go back to Minsk Protocol which was not liked by Ukraine and Russians never adhered to it. The Minsk Protocol was written by a Trilateral Contact Group to finish war in Donbas area of Ukraine. The Trilateral Contact Group included Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Minsk II was signed in February 2015 but failed to restore normalcy.  

Now U.S. and Russian officials agreed to meet on 10 January to discuss Ukraine issue as well as other security issues. Russians also announced that about 10,000 troops would be withdrawn from Ukraine border but it is not much relief as about 100,000 troops are still on Ukraine border. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated in an interview that they are waiting for the reply from NATO about the various security concerns Moscow wants to know. Russians made it clear that Ukraine and Georgia should not be made part of NATO. Russians also demanded that NATO should not deploy forces or armaments in the countries which joined NATO after May 1977. NATO claims that no forces or armament was deployed in these countries till 2014. The situation changed after Russians annexed Crimea. NATO forces were deployed in Baltic and Poland however chances of withdrawal of forces from these countries is remote.

Russians also want veto on Ukraine membership on NATO. Western diplomats mentioned that though they are willing to meet with Russians but the conditions are not acceptable. However, several NATO countries are also not keen that Ukraine becomes NATO member as they understand that it may trigger hostility with Moscow. But they also do not want to change the “Open Door” policy of NATO under Russian pressure. Hence there would be a middle path Ukraine would not be admitted in NATO but the ‘open door’ policy would continue.

The NATO-Russia Council meeting is scheduled to be held on 12 January 2022 and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Permanent Council is scheduled to be held on 13 January 2022.

The chances of military conflict between NATO and Moscow are remote, nevertheless, Russian territorial ambition in Ukraine is not fully satisfied and the conflict is not easy to resolve. In past when Ukraine wanted to invite UN peacekeepers in Donbas, Russia blocked the move. Not only this neither European Union nor NATO have offered full membership to Ukraine both are offering integration without membership. NATO members are aware that if Ukraine becomes member of NATO, then it would be NATO’s war with Russia. Putin cannot compromise on Ukraine as majority of Russians feel that Moscow should control Crimea and there is close relationship between Russians and Ukrainians.

Russia-Ukraine tensions
Courtesy : you tube

Ukraine understands that they cannot face the mighty Russian forces hence they are training their civilians in insurgency. Private armies, para military forces and civilians would give nonmilitary resistance to Russian forces. Besides Ukraine other countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all are training their civilians to fight in case Russian forces invade them.

Putin and large number of Russians feel that disintegration of Soviet Union was a great geopolitical disaster of the country. They also claim that West took advantage of it and several former Soviet states joined Western organisations like EU and NATO. Hence Putin is determined that Kiev would not be allowed to join NATO. Moscow took hard decision when Ukraine elected pro-west government which wanted to establish close relationship with EU and NATO.

Meetings are planned on January 10, 12 and 13 at different levels to resolve the issue diplomatically so that the peace is restored in the area.  As Russians are not withdrawing their troops from the Ukrainian border the situation would remain tense. However, the West should not allow Ukraine to join NATO as it may become disastrous for the world peace.   

(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and member of United Services Institute of India and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at editor.adu@gmail.com)