Hotspot Ukraine
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 05 Jan , 2022

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During the December 7, 2021 virtual summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine, Biden reportedly warned Putin that an invasion of Ukraine would result in heavy economic penalties, lead NATO to reposition troops in Europe and end Russian hopes of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline to Europe. Jake Sullivan, US National Security Adviser later said Biden told Putin “things we did not do in 2014 (response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea), we are prepared to do now.” According to the Russian government, Putin warned Biden that Western military activity in and around Ukraine was approaching a “red line” threatening Russia’s security.

The Minsk Protocol and the follow up Minsk II memorandum of understanding to end war in the Donbas region of Ukraine (signed on February 12, 2015) have failed to bring peace to the region. Minsk II was signed by: former president of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma; Russian ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov; separatist leaders Alexander Zakharchenki and Igor Plotnisky, and Swiss diplomat and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative Heidi Tagliavini.

It was the threat of non-renewal of the port of Sevastopol, because of which Russia annexed Crimea, where Sevastopol is situated, in 2014 to protect its geopolitical interest in the Black Sea; Sevastopol is the only warm water port in Russia.

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says there is “evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves including efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, as well as large-scale military operations.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that Moscow would pay a “high price” for using force against Ukraine.

Russia has given a set of demands for which it wants NATO to give written guarantees. These include: NATO would not expand east towards Russia and halt all military activity in former Soviet republics; commitment that Ukraine will not be given NATO membership, and;  withdrawing NATO troops from Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which were earlier part of the Soviet Union.

Addressing the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin had accused NATO of violating assurances given to  Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that it would not expand eastward. Putin recently stated, “Any attempts by NATO to place advanced missile systems in Ukraine would not be taken lightly. If some kind of strike systems appear on the territory of Ukraine, the flight time to Moscow will be seven to 10 minutes, and five minutes in the case of a hypersonic weapon being deployed. Just imagine: What are we to do in such a scenario? We will have to then create something similar in relation to those who threaten us in that way. And we can do that now.”

On December 30, 2021, Biden and Putin had a 50-minute phone conversation with Biden reportedly urging Putin to take steps to ease an unremitting crisis on Russia’s border with Ukraine, again warning dire economic consequences in case Russia proceeds with invading Ukraine.

NATO has rejected the Russian demands saying Russia cannot dictate NATO’s military posture but said it is prepared to discuss the issue. The US-Russia talks on Ukraine are reportedly scheduled on January 10, 2022, followed by Russia-NATO talks on January 12 and a larger meeting to include Russia, US and several European countries on January 13.   Biden has said he does not plan to send troops to Ukraine although US Special Forces have been in Ukraine since Russian forces entered Crimea.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a renegade in Moscow’s view. Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union in 2014, which brought it into the fold of European regulation; much to Russia’s dislike. Zelensky is expanding partnerships with the US, UK and other NATO member countries. America has provided military assistance to Ukraine and NATO is helping to train the Ukrainian military. In October 2020, Zelensky shut down all pro-Russian TV channels in Ukraine. In October 2021, Putin noted with concern that though Ukraine may not be formally inducted into NATO, military development of Ukrainian territory by NATO is already underway.

The US is planning economic penalties on Russia in conjunction with European allies. Cutting off Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) and targeting the Russian Direct Investment Fund is also being mulled. Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the US says that NATO’s military exploration of Ukraine poses an existential threat to Russia and the future will hinge on the West’s willingness to engage in dialogue.

Smarting under the ignoble retreat from Afghanistan (fighting Taliban in 2001 and handing Afghanistan back to Taliban in 2021) and failure on its policy on Syria, the US finds Ukraine a rallying point for its allies, even EU who has been looking for independent defence structure after being literally abandoned in Afghanistan. But Russia retains a firm hold on the European energy market. The Nord Stream II pipeline will cement German dependence on Russian natural gas. Both Russia and Ukraine have been conducting exercises. The US and Russian forces have been exercising with nuclear weapons even though nukes remain of deterrent value.

Russian action to secure its geostrategic interests is unlikely to be for annexing Ukraine. But certainly it would like to annex the Donbass region plus some part of southern Ukraine to directly connect mainland Russia with the Sevastopol port. This would also provide a buffer zone with NATO forces in eastern Europe. In doing so Putin would have taken into account NATO threat of paying a “high price”. If NATO uses force, Russia too would have plans to strike NATO member countries. Russia has warned Turkey against its plans to sell at least 20 Bayraktar armed drones to Ukraine.

From the looks of it, the scene appears to be a Catch 22 situation over Ukraine; like the talks on the Iran Nuclear Deal where Iran wanted the sanctions against it removed first. In the instant case, NATO is unlikely to agree to the Russian demands and the talks may continue inconclusively for months and Biden demands Russia should de-escalate. This is unlikely to be acceptable to Putin.

The US fails to understand that its game of applying maximum sanctions and maximum pressure has brought China and Russia in tighter embrace. Despite sanctions, neither China nor Russia is in any kind of geopolitical retreat. China too appears getting ready for confronting the US in Western Pacific. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has called China an ongoing challenge for the US and Chinese fighter jets in Taiwan straits a “rehearsal”.

The US and Japan are planning to set up an attack base along the Nansei island chain for a possible Taiwan contingency; which is to be finalized at the 2+2 US-Japan meeting on January 7 in Washington. Concurrently, Russia has increased its deployments in the Sakhalin islands.

Putin has said Russia and China are jointly developing high-tech weapons and Moscow-Beijing relations are a stabilizing factor in the international arena. China claims its small satellite captured photographs of a vast region around a US city in just 42 seconds, crisp enough to recognize a military vehicle on the street and tell what type of weapon it might be carrying.

The Ukraine hotspot requires arriving at a strategic stability solution in a rational manner. The US needs to play a lead role in this. If this is not achieved, there will be no stopping Putin securing Russia’s strategic interests by force. Putin has reaffirmed that NATO membership for Ukraine or the deployment of weapons there is redline for Moscow. Conflict in Ukraine could see simultaneous flare-ups in the South China Sea and Iran. As for India, the US is aware of China again massing military forces on the Sino-Indian border albeit the US would welcome the confrontation and India taking a harder stance. It is a conflict India will have to fight itself. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

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2 thoughts on “Hotspot Ukraine

  1. Isn’t US aware that sanctions force countries to align with China? Isn’t it aware that sanctions have not worked in any part of the world including China, Russia, Iran etc? Why despite being aware, US is at this game? US policy aims at using force through terrorism by supporting terror groups and sanctions to contain Russia. Keep Russia busy in it border through Ukraine at the cost of providing some weapons, probably as a sale & not a gift. If there is fighting, it will be done by Ukraine & possibly by EU countries. This will slow down Russia’s growth. It is this reason why Nord Stream-2 is being prevented from operationalising leaving Russia with no money for development. Sanctions do the same job. The problem is the countries that are being instigated are unable to see through US’ aim. Now US is attempting the same strategy in Myanmar. Contain China-starve it of oil & gas, Tin, rare earth minerals & copper. Taiwan is yet another US tool to keep China engaged.

    Will US change course? Not at least till a multi-polar world takes shape & countries take up the lead of other major players and tell US to get out.

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