If 2020-2021 were years when China and USA were in the news, whether for reasons right or wrong, the year 2022 started with attention being shifted from China, slowly and steadily, but USA remained in the media attention. Russia came onto the scene with its threatening posturing against Ukraine, although the seeds were sown much earlier; the Russian posturing was not well accepted by USA and NATO nations. The crisis reached a stage that USA warned the world at large that Russia could invade Ukraine any day now, even specifying a date of February 16, 2022!
What led to such a situation that some NATO nations think that should a war between Russia and NATO happen now, it would be as severe as those of 1940s. A brief on the genesis of the current crisis would be in order to update the reader. As is well known, USSR, the erstwhile Soviet Union, in 1991 ‘disintegrated’ into 15 new, independent nations, signalling the end of the Cold War. Immediately thereafter, a prominent historian, John Lewis Gaddis, commented that, “We know that a series of geopolitical earthquakes have taken place but it is yet not clear how these upheavals have rearranged the landscape that lies before us.”
USA and Russia, the two major nations in the current crisis, have, however, continued to have a rather turbulent relationship since 1991. The USSR, as aforementioned, dissolved into 15 countries and into a new entity, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Without going into details of the charter of the CIS, suffice it to say that Russia and Ukraine were two of the eleven founding members, with Georgia joining in 1993, only to leave in 2008, and Ukraine in 2018. Once again, not going to the details of the various separatist movements, prominent amongst which is the Chechen movement, Russia, as the de facto leader of the CIS, has continued to have strained relations with Ukraine since 2013-14.
It is pertinent to mention here that relations between Ukraine and NATO commenced in 1992 even while fearing a Russian invasion. Russia feared that an integration of Ukraine with the NATO, would have the latter knocking on its door. Russia has been, since then, wanting to portray its supremacy that it exercised as the Soviet Union. Ukraine, even as an independent country, on the other hand, has been wavering between Russia and the EU and NATO.
The reader may raise a query: why is Russia so obsessed with Ukraine? On the surface, it’s because Ukraine has a lot of native Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians; Russians also have long felt a special historical connection to Ukraine, which plays a central role in present-day nationalism. The very idea of an ancient connection, is important to Russian nationalists to even attempt a reacquisition of Ukraine, to show that Russia continues to be a great power. The question then arises, why is Russia going through the motions of aggressive posturing, if it did not want to invade Ukraine? Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict, military and political, since 2014, when Ukraine’s Russia-friendly leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was forced out from office by a popular uprising, making him flee Kiev to Russia. The response by Russia was to annex the Crimean Peninsula and then back a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, resulting in severe US and EU economic sanctions against it.
The present crisis has, to some extent, perplexed the world, but some do believe that Russia has done this due to domestic compulsions and following Ukraine’s inclination to initiate ties with NATO. Russian nationalism has been on the rise, under the leadership of President Putin, who wants Russia to regain its past glory and hegemony that it enjoyed during the Soviet days. Russia, hence wants: to stir up nationalistic fervour at home for political purposes, and repossess territory for strategic purposes. At the same time, Russians do not want to have a full-blown war with Ukraine, which would result in massive fatalities on both sides.
There is another aim here as well, and more pragmatic. Right from the beginning of the present-day Ukraine crisis, Russia’s involvement has been about preventing Ukraine from breaking away from its influence towards, what Russia sees as an ever-encroaching Western conspiracy to encircle it with hostile governments. Estonia, a part of NATO, is just about 200 miles from St Petersburg! Russia may well have seen this crisis as a make-or-break moment for its ‘special connection’ with Ukraine and wanted to intervene, lest it lose Ukraine permanently.
Fast-forward to 2021-22. In March and April 2021, Russia massed about 100,000 soldiers and military equipment near its border with Ukraine, making it the highest force mobilization since the country’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. This was confirmed with satellite imagery, which showed movements of armour, missiles, and other heavy weaponry, thus ringing alarm bells in the Western world of an imminent invasion of Ukraine leading to a Russian expansion towards east Europe. The crisis was partially diffused when some troops were removed in June 2021, only to be re-mobilised by the end of the year and hence renewing the crisis.
In December, 2021, Russia forwarded two draft treaties to NATO, containing requests of what it referred to as “security guarantees”, one of which was a promise that Ukraine would not join NATO, while also asking for a reduction in NATO troops in Eastern Europe. Russia terms this promise as legally binding! As was expected, the ‘requests’ were rejected outright by NATO, and instead of a reduction in NATO troops, USA increased its boots-on-ground by 3000 in Poland!
January 2022 saw hectic build-up of Russian troops, not just combat units, but also combat-support units, such as ammunition stocking yards and field hospitals; blood-banks were reported to have moved to the region on January 28. Additionally, the movement of troops into Belarus, strengthened speculations that Russia would invade Ukraine from the north due to the close proximity of Kiev from the Belarus-Ukraine border. The deployment in Belarus was purportedly for a joint military exercise to be held in February, which has since been completed; no nation believed this!
While the movement of Russian troops has not led to any war, a war of words, some threatening and some placating, did break out between USA and NATO on one side, and Russia on the other, with some supporting statements from China. President Biden has threatened Russia with dire consequences in the event of an invasion, while also implying in his statements that a “minor incursion” could be overlooked! Russia has kept the world guessing about its intentions, was it going to be war, or just war-games!
Since early November, 2021, the phone-lines and airspace between USA, EU and Russia and Ukraine have been extraordinarily busy. Officials from the US State Department, CIA officials and the Director himself, the foreign ministers of France and Germany have been in dialogue with their counterparts in Russia and Ukraine; the presidents of USA and Russia have spoken twice through video-conferencing in early and end-December, while the French president and the German Chancellor visited Russia and Ukraine in early February. Such was the worry! The hectic activity in the region resulted in other nations expressing their concern and asking all parties to exercise restraint. The intelligence community in USA and NATO has been kept busy analysing the satellite information of the “unusual Russian military activity” around Ukraine, while Russia went about its task of war-games in Belarus, the Russia-Ukraine border, and major naval drills in the seas adjacent to Russia, and also in the Mediterranean, the NE Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Even as this piece is being written, Russian Defence Minister has announced the return of some of the deployed troops to their barracks on the culmination of the exercise in Belarus. This announcement has been met with scepticism by the US president and NATO Secretary General.
The crisis has indeed been a battle of wits, between the main actors, USA, EU, Ukraine and Russia. Since April 2021, Ukraine has been talking of a “grave threat” from Russia on its eastern border, with USA and its allies ‘crying wolf’ of an impending invasion. Russia, on the other hand, has all along steadfastly denied any intentions of an invasion. Then on January 28, 2022, the Ukrainian President called upon the Western nations not to create a “panic” with the continuous warnings of “an imminent attack” as it was harming the economy of the country; it was only then, on February 02, USA mentioned in a statement that it would no longer describe the potential invasion as “imminent”!
It is quite unlikely that Russia has threatened war simply to obtain more intelligence about NATO troops and exercises in the vicinity. Russia has been upset for long at being excluded in the post-cold-war world order as a whole. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakness in the 1990s and early 2000s, promises made to Russia on the expansion of NATO were not kept. In 1997, Russia ‘willingly’ accepted NATO expansion, when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were invited to join NATO; permanent deployment in East European nations by NATO armies was ruled out as a reciprocation. As late as 2010, by which time about a dozen nations had joined NATO, relations continued to be affable. It was only when former Soviet territories, now sovereign nations, wanted to go their way towards democracy, that relations deteriorated and Russia felt threatened.
Deterrence and diplomatic dialogue seem to have averted the crisis for the present. Additionally, it appears that President Putin has realised that the benefits of an attack would be severely outweighed by the costs. Russia may feign a withdrawal and attack a little later, willing to accept the high costs now, rather than have NATO troops at its doorstep a decade later, is another possibility. Ukraine would, hence, remain in the cross-hairs for Russia. Geopolitics and domestic politics, combined with Russia’s desire to exercise similar influence as in the Soviet era, would, however continue to stoke tensions for some time to come.
–The writer is an IAF veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda