Vladimir Putin draws redline for NATO: No eastward expansion towards Ukraine

Russia feels NATO’s presence on its borders will only lead to instability, hence decided to take an interventionist path

Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh February 26, 2022 13:50:05 IST
Vladimir Putin draws redline for NATO: No eastward expansion towards Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday. AP

There is an African proverb which states, “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” Europe, which had been in the American rearview mirror as the US focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the Indo-Pacific, is now the region where the spotlight is back. Ukraine is the country presently in the eye of the storm as the standoff between NATO and Russia continues to escalate. The crisis has led Yuval Harrari to state: “Humanity’s greatest political achievement has been the decline of war. That is now in jeopardy.”

If this standoff is the defining crisis, we need to understand the structural and deep-rooted causes that led to this. Ukraine owes its origin to the word ‘Okraina’ which in Russian means ‘borderland’. It was part of the Soviet Union and two Soviet leaders — Khrushchev and Brezhnev — hailed from Ukraine and even Gorbachev’s maternal side were ethnic Ukrainians. Putin also owes his name Vladimir to the King of Rus who ruled this area from 980 to 1015. Hence, it may not be incorrect to state that Ukraine is a core strategic interest as far as the Russians are concerned; that is an area that the Russians are willing to fight and die for; or in other words, place security interests over economic interests.

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Europe, no doubt, has been the most important place as far as the US strategic interests lay. The two World Wars were fought there and is the area where they have their most powerful friends, deep trade linkages and with whom they share similar values. The Cold War was fought there but “hot peace” has its own unique sense of challenges — and while “much has changed, much still remains the same”. Some analysts also call it the “New Cold War”. However, the question that hangs in the air is whether European armies have the requisite capability to take on the Russian forces without US help as conventional forces have seen drastic cuts following the end of the Cold War.

The Russians under President Putin are now laying down the red lines. The first time we saw this was at the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit where he opposed the US plans to deploy missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic, and also opposed Georgia and Ukraine's NATO membership bids. Incidentally, Stalin was a Georgian and Russia is opposed to both Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO as they view it as a direct threat to Russia.

The deep structural causes should be attributed to the West’s desire to integrate Ukraine with it by making it a part of NATO, a security alliance, and EU, an economic alliance. The Orange Revolution was seen as promoting democracy as the West felt whoever gets elected will be pro-West.

The fact, however, is that Ukraine is a deeply divided country. The eastern part is Russian-speaking, whereas the western part is Ukrainian-speaking. The Donbass region comprising the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republic which has proclaimed independence is against closer ties with NATO and but seeks close ties with Russia. Crimea is already controlled by Russia and it is unlikely that Sevastopol will be the home port of the NATO fleet.

Vladimir Putin draws redline for NATO No eastward expansion towards Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers walk past debris of a burning military truck on a street in Kyiv on Saturday, 26 February 2022. AP

Incidentally, this region was integrated with Russia in more ways than one as its currency is the rouble; it follows the Russian education system, the public service salaries and pensions are paid by Russia, the population has been vaccinated by Sputnik V and the population apply for Russian passports. President Putin in his recent address stated quite clearly that: “Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 led to annulling of election results as there were concerns that the same were rigged in favour of Yanukovych. He later won the next elections but was eventually forced to flee the country in February 2014 following the Euromaidan clashes. However, unlike the bloodless Orange Revolution the clashes resulted in many deaths. Later that month Russia took control of Crimea and incorporated the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol as its federal subjects.

For the world and particularly for India, the tightening of an embrace between Russia and China will have even deeper ramifications. Ironically, in the early 1970s, the US made overtures to China to prevent a Sino-Soviet partnership as they feared the rise of communism today they are driving the Russians in that direction. This tightening will only increase with the imposition of sanctions as Russia, unable to sell its oil and gas to Europe, will now turn to China.

As far as India is concerned, we are now a power that matters with interests both with the US, EU and Russia. The US is India’s highest trading partner and US investment is also amongst the highest; in addition, there is a large, influential and wealthy diaspora as well as a large number of students and growing military ties and of course both countries being part of the Quad. As far as Russia is concerned, while trade may be minimal in comparison to the US and China, the strategic and military ties in terms of the inventory of the defence forces, the requirement of spares and space and nuclear cooperation bind the two countries close together. Incidentally, much of our military equipment imported from the Soviet Union owed its origin to manufacturing facilities located in Ukraine.

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“War as we know it no longer exists,” to paraphrase the opening line from General Rupert Smith’s ‘Utility of Force’. Black and white has made way for a colourful mosaic with grey dominating the canvas. There are people who have lived under this uncertainty for years in some parts of the world. However, now the dominant theme in the Western hemisphere is a potential contest between peer enemies, Putin seems to have destroyed the myth regarding nuclear deterrence preventing a conflict and has once again put conventional forces to the forefront — the resultant damage in terms of bleeding stock markets and rising oil and commodity prices is visible.

The words of Professor John J Mearshiemer over six years ago — “The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is Ukraine is going to get wrecked” — unfortunately, have a degree of truth. While tank tracks are now leaving their imprint on what Russia considers is its domain, the question uppermost in everyone analysts mind is whether NATO and particularly, the US will be willing to deploy troops on ground to counter this threat. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was backed by public opinion, however over the horizon operations as planned against Afghanistan are unlikely to work against a peer enemy backed by strong military capability and demonstrating a will to use force.

Sanctions have been imposed but the Russian economy is strong and the Russians are willing to face hardship. Was not Moscow burnt to the ground before Napoleon could enter it in 1812? The sanctions imposed post the annexation of Crimea seemed to have only led to a resurgence of nationalism and parallels German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Hence, sanctions are not going to deter Russia and conversely will push them closer to China. But does the US have the resilience and willingness to take on both China and Russia?

President Putin no doubt wants to restore Russia's rightful place in the world order. He sees it as a global power and there is no doubt that Russian pride was hurt when President Barack Obama called Russia a regional power in 2014 and described its actions in Ukraine as an “expression of weakness rather than strength”, rejecting a suggestion by Mitt Romney that Russia was the US’ principal geo-political foe. Putin no doubt wants the world to respect Russia.

There is no doubt that the eastward expansion of NATO has touched a raw nerve. The circumstances leading to the present action from a particular perspective can be construed as compelling. Russia feels NATO’s presence on its borders will only lead to instability, hence decided to take an interventionist path.

Putin seems to have set his objective of integrating the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine and controlling the western region by installing a government which is pro-Russia, apart from restoring Russian pride. He is unlikely to back down until he achieves his aims.

The author is an Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.

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