Updated: February 24, 2022 10:36:11 pm
Russian aggression on its border with Ukraine has triggered one of the greatest security crises in Europe since the Cold War. In 2014, Russia had seized Crimea, an important port region in Ukraine. Conflicts between the two militaries continue till this day but the recent Russian build-up of 100,000 troops along the border has escalated tensions to unprecedented levels.
Moscow has denied that it is planning a military intervention, but it has presented NATO with a list of security demands including banning Ukraine and other former Soviet states from joining the organisation. Additionally, Russia has asked NATO to abandon military activity in Eastern Europe, which would mean pulling out combat units from Poland and the Baltic states. To put it simply, Russia wants NATO to return to its pre-1997 borders.
In response, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has said that Russia has “no right” to interfere while the EU, UK, and US have condemned Moscow for its aggressive posture.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine have both current relevance and a historical precedent. For centuries, Russia has viewed the Black Sea as central to its security due to its abundance of warm water ports, including Sevastopol in Crimea. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea from the Ottoman Turks in 1783 and in the words of one nationalist Russian politician, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave hope to the Russian dream of being able to wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
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Russia’s desperation for a warm water port is not unfounded. Most of its ports on the Arctic freeze for several months of the year while Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, is ice-locked for four months of the year and enclosed by the Sea of Japan which is dominated by the Japanese. By seizing Crimea, Russia got access to its only true warm water port in Sevastopol. However, access out of the Black Sea into the Mediterranean is still restricted by the Montreux Convention of 1936, which gave Turkey, now a NATO member, control of the Bosporus. Russian naval ships do transit the strait but would likely be banned from doing so in event of a conflict. That in turn also explains Moscow’s recent advances towards Ankara.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union became the dominant power in the Black Sea. However, after the collapse of the empire, Russia lost most of its territory in the region with former Soviet states slowly inching closer and closer to the West. Russia had an agreement with Ukraine which allowed them to divide the Black Sea Fleet which remained docked in Sevastopol. In 2010, Kyiv renewed Moscow’s lease on the fleet until 2042 but after pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine in 2014, Putin feared it may renege on the agreement.
There is also a significant Russian population in Ukraine. Moscow has backed this community in the last decade by providing Russian passports to over 500,000 people. According to the most recent census, which was conducted in 2001, there are around eight million Russians living in Ukraine, mostly in the South and East. The Kremlin has a law which compels the government to protect ethnic Russians which is defined very loosely, even including people who simply speak Russian. To justify his support for separatists in southeastern Ukraine, Putin employed the argument that he was protecting the interests of ethnic Russians, going as far as to describe the area as Novorossiya or New Russia.
The willingness of the international community to accept this argument is worrisome, especially given the fact that several million ‘ethnic Russians’ still remain inside what was the USSR but outside of Russia. There is a fear that Putin would employ similar tactics to seize control of other neighboring states like it did both in Crimea and in Georgia in 2006. Moreover, Putin’s imperialistic foreign policy has proved to be extremely popular at home with interventions in Ukraine pushing Putin’s approval ratings to 80 per cent following a period of steady decline.
Most importantly, Russia is considerably threatened by the prospect of NATO expansion. In the 1990s, Russia received various assurances from NATO that it would not expand. Since 1997, however, the alliance has grown to include several states including the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania. Putin is clearly concerned with any signs of NATO expansion and justified his invasion of Crimea by saying, “if you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this”.
Russia’s concerns are understandable given that NATO was founded as a direct counterbalance to the USSR and that Russia shares considerable land borders with NATO countries, leaving it vulnerable to missile strikes in the event of conflict. However, NATO has taken some measures to assuage Russian fears.
In 1997, even as it was expanding, the alliance signed a pact with Russia that prevented it from deploying combat forces or nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe. They have upheld that agreement thus far. Moreover, America withdrew huge numbers of troops from Europe after the Cold War and European countries shrunk their armed forces dramatically. Most notably, NATO has repeatedly refused to accept Ukraine into the alliance, which, according to one Brookings Institute report, tacitly gives Russia the green light to invade the country.
How Russia gets away with it
The simple answer to why Russia has chosen such an aggressive stance is simply because it must and it can. Russia holds significant sway over large parts of Europe because of its abundance of natural gas supplies and NATO has shown a reluctance to severely penalise Moscow for its infringement on the sovereignty of other nations both in 2006 and 2014.
Most of the natural gas supply to the EU comes from Russia with Russian gas supplies accounting for 43 per cent of the total gas imports into the EU. Around one third of Russian gas to the EU travels through Ukraine which makes European nations particularly sensitive to conflicts between the two. During past disputes, Russia has turned off its gas pipelines through Ukraine, leaving millions of Europeans without heat during the winter months in 2006 and 2009. In light of this risk, European nations have attempted to diversify their energy sources, leading to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which bypasses Ukraine by running under the Baltic Sea on route to Germany.
However, while the Nord Stream 2 may not cross Ukraine, it is still susceptible to the whims of the Kremlin. In his book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), Robert Kaplan explains that this reliance on Russian gas is what prevents countries like Germany from taking a harsh stance against Russia. In contrast, countries like the UK are less dependent on Russian gas and therefore more willing to criticise Putin.
The Americans attempted to decrease Europe’s reliance on Russia by offering to sell the EU its excess shale gas production. However, this strategy has its limitations. In order to sell American surpluses, first, the gas has to be liquified and shipped across the Atlantic. This in turn requires European countries to build liquified natural gas terminals and ports to receive the supply and turn it back into gas. As a result, American shale gas is 40 per cent more expensive than its Russian alternatives and is unlikely to completely replace the latter. As long as Russia holds the upper hand, European nations will give Moscow a longer leash in its dealings with Ukraine.
Another reason why European nations and NATO take a soft stance vis-a-vis Moscow is because of their reluctance to engage in direct conflict with Russia. While the US and other countries did impose economic sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Crimea, they didn’t have the desired effect on the Russian economy as in order to work, the sanctions had to prove costlier than the potential loss of Ukraine to NATO. Following the sanctions imposed after the Crimea invasion, the IMF estimated that Russia’s GDP dipped by between 1 and 1.5 per cent.
However, when Biden threatened more extreme sanctions following recent aggression, the Russian stock market and currency barely budged. Russian policymakers also know that many of the tactics that could hurt Russia, like curbing commodity exports, would be costly to the West as well. Additionally, in order to distance Russia from the global economy, Washington would need to seek the help of China. Russia’s largest trading partner is China and it’s uncertain whether Beijing would stop dealing with Russian firms, were the US to blacklist them.
Russia has a few options at its disposal moving forward, according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs Magazine. One is to change the government in Kiev by force; a prospect that would be extremely costly and would evoke significant international condemnation. Another option is to impose costs on Ukraine by decimating their army or occupying critical territory until Ukrainian leaders agree to sever their ties to the West. The third, a strategy that Moscow is currently adopting, is to demand concessions from NATO and the US. However, that too comes with its risks and Putin will be conscious of the fact that if he were to back down, it would have massive implications reputationally.
Whether the confrontation results in a full-on conflict is yet to be seen. However, regardless, the situation has highlighted the end of a unipolar world. In 1994, former US National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski described a stable Ukraine as a “counterweight” to Russia, stating that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” While calling Russia an empire may be a stretch, it seems safe to say that the post-Cold War dominance of the US started fading in 2006 and has steadily diminished over time.
The renewal of great power competition has led to a new emphasis on the US Grand Strategy. A recent Department of Defence (DOD) report stated that the US was looking to strengthen its combat deterrent against Russia and enable NATO forces to operate more effectively. The DOD has already instituted a couple of recommendations including lifting the 25,000-man cap on active-duty troops in Germany and permanently basing 500 US Army personnel in Germany.
While the US is increasing its presence in Europe, recent withdrawals from the Middle East signal that Americans are wary of another protracted and costly conflict. Trump’s insistence that other NATO countries increase their defense spending both represents a strengthening of the alliance and America’s reluctance to continue being coalition leaders. When Russia first annexed Crimea, NATO, which was faltering at the time, saw a sharp resurgence in fortunes. A Russian invasion of Ukraine could similarly bolster the alliance against a common enemy.
On the other hand, any strong posturing towards Russia could have negative ramifications for the US. Given Russia’s trade relations with China, and Europe’s reliance on Moscow for its energy needs, the US may be bargaining from a weakened position. If Russia were to take a part of Ukraine, and the US were to respond by cutting Russia out of the global banking system, it is uncertain whether other countries would follow their lead. If Russia cut off gas supplies, countries like Finland, Bulgaria, and Greece, who depend on Russia for over 60 per cent of their supply, would be decimated. While many of the countries reliant on Russia are liberal democracies, realpolitik looms large and European nations may feel as though an antagonistic Moscow is a better ally than a petulant US.
Given that NATO is unlikely to acquiesce to Russia’s current demands, the situation seems to be at a stalemate. War would be devastating for all countries, while peace seems like a pipe dream at the moment. The best outcome for everyone involved is to maintain the status quo – uphold the right to Ukrainian independence while keeping it at arm’s length from the West.
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