The escalating Russia-Ukraine rift
The Russia-Ukraine crisis began in 2014 and since then has aggravated over the years as now
Ukraine seeks NATO membership. The conflict between the two is predicted to escalate into an all-out war given the troop build-up by Russia and NATO aiding Ukraine which is also backed by the United States.
In his statement last week the Russian President Vladimir Putin had ruled out the probability of a full-scale war by adding that he hopes both countries can eventually find a solution to settle the conflict. But Russia has serious reservations over the US inciting and further adding fuel to the crisis with Ukraine; making it difficult for any negotiations to take place anytime soon.
In order to accurately assess the current situation, The Nation recently spoke to a number of experts including geo-political analysts, international relations and foreign policy experts to discuss and see the possible options on cards which could help in mitigating the tension between the countries.
Aisha Saeed, an acclaimed policy analyst believes that Russia has accused the US of wanting another war in the region but has also reminded the US of the consequences given Russia’s military and nuclear supremacy against Ukraine.
For her, Russia may not attempt to escalate the conflict in fear of sanctions, it will not hesitate to respond with force either. While Ukraine has the support of the UK, the US, and NATO allies, Russia is backed by China.
“This complicates the already fragile regional alliances and international politics –hinting at what experts call the push towards multipolarity of the world,” the policy analyst said while adding that the crisis is however unlikely to have direct implications for Pakistan when it comes to being a close ally of China and the growing ally of Russia.
Saeed believes that as for now the Russia-Ukraine crisis remains limited to a closed conflict and not a war. In case diplomacy fails to yield a tangible outcome – and a war breaks out, the heat will have repercussions for Pakistan – those could be an increase in oil and gas prices.
She maintained that as far as the question regarding whom Pakistan may support in this Russia- Ukraine conflict is that Pakistan will side with Russia while calling for a peaceful settlement of the issue and may even offer to facilitate talks.
It is not yet clear if Pakistan will be discussing this matter as Prime Minister Imran Khan embarks on his visit to Moscow.
“The timing of the visit is coincidental and does not come due to Russia’s Ukraine crisis. Hence, while there is a chance the issue may be discussed casually but it would not be a part of the official agenda of Khan’s visit,” Saeed concluded.
Behzad Taimur, a researcher and development professional with a keen eye on history, geo-politics and international relations had somewhat different views to express. While speaking to The Nation, he said, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis is about as complex as it is straightforward. We have to deal with the Cold War and US and western European countries’ rivalry with the USSR.
“Beginning with the so-called Long Telegram, the US and allies have been pursuing a policy of “containment” against Russia,” Taimur said while adding that over the decades, they have progressively moved the line forward from the Berlin Wall and closer and closer to Moscow. What that means in reality is that the US and allies have moved their sphere of influence closer and closer to the gates of Moscow.
For him, the primary manifestation of this is the mutual defense treaty organization, NATO. By expanding eastward, the West has striven to move its offensive military capabilities close to Moscow. By doing so, the West has intended to reduce the time required to militarily engage and hit Russia.
With that context in mind, it should become easier to understand the core of the present Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Ukraine is Russia’s immediate neighbor. If the West succeeds in getting Ukraine into NATO, it would have brought a decidedly anti-Russia military alliance quite literally next door to Russia.
He believes that, if NATO is able to position military capabilities on Ukrainian soil, it would be in a position to hit Moscow with, for example, cruise missiles in less than 15 minutes. Even if the West does not place military capabilities so close to Moscow, it would still be sitting within Russia’s immediate neighborhood.
The geopolitical analyst maintains that understandably, Russia views eastward expansion of NATO as an existential security threat. It does not want NATO at its doorstep. It does not want Western influence in its immediate neighborhood. It definitely does not want NATO military capabilities deployed minutes away from its heartland. This is why Russia has acted with hostility and aggression in Ukraine.
Taimur recalled that In 2014, when a pro-Russia government was brought down in Ukraine, Russia responded by supporting separatist groups in the country and militarily annexed Crimea, a southerly region within Ukraine. Since then, Russia has continued to back separatist groups in Ukraine and intervene militarily in their support.
On their part, Western powers have been arming the Ukrainian military since 2014. Recently, Ukraine began to move more and more troops into separatist-held areas which are also on the Russian border. Russia took this as a direct threat to its territorial integrity. No country would take lightly the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops of a hostile country, especially one that is being armed by historical rivals.
In response, Russia also began to redeploy its army along the Ukrainian border. This has been interpreted as Russia intending to invade Ukraine. Interestingly, Russia has continued to maintain that it has no intent of invading Ukraine and even Ukraine has tried to downplay the possibility of any war breaking out at all between the two neighbors. Yet, war hysteria continues to build.
The people most interested in drumming up war hysteria have, interestingly, been US and Western European countries.
“Under the pretext of protecting Ukraine from a Russian invasion, the US and its allies have managed to relocate significant military capabilities in countries around Russia,” Taimur said while adding that the US has even managed to put two warships in the Black Sea near Crimea.
For him, even if Ukraine never joins NATO, the US and its allies have already moved military capabilities quite literally to Russia’s doorstep. Thus, on this strategic level, the US and allies have already achieved their objectives of moving one step closer to Moscow. Technically, this should mean that the likelihood of war will now come down.
However, when war hysteria has been drummed up so high and stakes have been raised to such an extent, that even a small spark can trigger a big explosion. If that happens, then we’re looking at, what US President Biden has himself called, the most significant military event since World War II, he concluded.
Ex-Ambassador M Alam Brohi, who had served three decades in Pakistan’s foreign office and is an expert on Russia, US and Afghanistan affairs believes that the Ukraine is strategically important to Russia. It has a naval base in the Crimea city of Sevastopol in Black Sea. Secondly, all Russian gas pipelines to Europe pass through Ukraine. The mainstay of the Russian economy is the supply of its gas to Europe.
“Therefore, Russia wanted NATO to not extend eastward and the EU to not take Ukraine as a member. Russia cannot afford to have a defiant government in Kiev, Ambassador Brohi opines while recalling that earlier, Brussels had assured Russia that it would not include Ukraine in the EU. But the EU support for the orange revolution and the protests against the pro-russian President Victor Yanukovych in 2014 made Russian leaders suspicious of the EU intentions.
For Ambassador Brohi, Russia came to believe that diplomatic niceties apart, NATO countries wanted to encircle their country and eject it from the strategic Crimea and Sevastopol.
“This prompted Russia to annex the Crimean peninsula in 2015, and stirred an insurgency in Donbas, the eastern region of Ukraine which has a substantial population of Russians. With the help of Russia, the low intensity war in Donbas has been going on since 2015,” he recalled.
After the Crimean annexation, Russia signed two agreements with Kiev in Minsk for withdrawal from Crimea. However, Russia has prevaricate to implement Minsk agreements.
He believes that now Russia has deployed over a hundred thousand troops along Ukraine’s borders. It would send its tanks rolling into Ukraine if it does not get ironclad guarantees from the US and EU to stop the eastward extension of NATO, to refuse EU membership to Ukraine.
Ambassador Brohi opined that it would be difficult for Russia to climb down from this brinkmanship without such guarantees from the West.
“Vladimir Putin is conscious of the crippling effects of US economic sanctions. But he has to choose between economic advantages and strategic gains which Russia has acquired under his leadership,” he said while adding that It would also adversely impact the US position as the world leader if it backs off and gives Russia a carte blanche in Ukraine.
However, acclaimed analyst Imtiaz Gul also believes that the US as usual is once again trying to keep up the pressure on Russia, in order to prevent it from presumed invasion of Ukraine.
Gul further believes that the Russian leadership has managed to draw the US and its NATO allies into a conflict which they can never win because if they deploy their troops in the region, which may come under attack by the Russians that would mean an involvement of foreign troops almost on the Russian soil.
“I think they have a very good example of how Hitler’s troops were decimated after they invaded Russia so confronting Russia literally on its territory can be very disastrous not only for US but also for the smaller countries that will provide bases there and at the same time it will simply push up the temperature around the global which would not be a good omen for global peace,” he concluded.