The past few weeks have witnessed a heightening of tensions between, mainly the United States and Russia, though European allies have also been involved, albeit in varying degrees and at various levels. Nevertheless, it has brought the whole of Europe on edge, with the western allies appearing to be redoubling restraints on Russia, and Russia in turn, returning compliments with aggressive, and often ambiguous gestures. The crux of the problem is Ukraine. It is a country that broke loose from the Soviet Union and became sovereign in 1991. But it remained, among other things given its geographical location and economic assets, of critical significance to the Russian Federation, successor to the Soviet Union. This led the Russia's phlegmatic President, Vladimir Putin to annex a chunk of that country, Crimea, and generally wanting to ensure a compliant nation in a territory that was once controlled by Moscow. Also, Moscow was working to obtain a measure of political autonomy for a region sympathetic to it, the Donbas, to deny Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, an unimpeded linkage to anti-Russian Europe.
As a part of a continuing endeavor to constrain the power of Putin and Russia, the western allies have been instrumental in taking their powerful military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) further eastward, close to the borders of Russia. There has been talk of using NATO's "Open Door "policy- meaning, wishing to join it would be each country's sovereign choice- to bring Ukraine into its fold. In recent times, though, it is surmised as an unfeasible proposition, as Ukraine would not satisfy all necessary criteria, also being too corrupt among other things. Nonetheless, the West, particularly the United States sees benefit in touting it as a theoretical possibility. But now Russia has cried foul. It has issued a stern warning against any further eastward expansion of NATO. It has demanded foolproof guarantees that no other former Soviet Republic, including and in particular, the Ukraine, should be allowed to join NATO. To drive home the message, Russia has allegedly massed 100000 troops and heavy arms along the Ukrainian border, specially within its ally, Belarus, neighbour to both Russia and Ukraine. President Joe Biden, and senior US officials like Secretary of State Anthony Blinken declared that a Russian invasion was imminent. This was followed by a flurry of activity on their part designed to address that threat. Putin and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied any such motive, claiming that troops were there for a scheduled military exercise. Nevertheless, they asserted the need for the US and NATO to comply with their specific demands, vis-à-vis NATO's expansion. Also, Lavrov called for ties between Washington and Moscow to be "mutually respectful". It was unclear if this was related to when some months ago, in a public interview, Biden referred to Putin as a "killer"!
In any case tensions soared, and for a while in January war clouds seemed to loom large over Europe. The conflict, however, happily remained verbal. Unable, for domestic political reasons as well as with former President Donald Trump and the Republicans on the lookout for any signs of weakness in a highly contested and divided American polity, Washington retained an aggressive posture and threatened severe sanctions. In a rare move sanctions were also threatened on Putin personally should the Russia invade Ukraine, whose possibility Russians continued to deny. It would appear that the West, like Don Quixote, would be merely tilting at the windmills, were it not for the fact that in contemporary times any military accident or strategic misperception could leave the world with horrendous consequences!
Also, Putin is known to keep things close to his chest. If the differences on NATO expansion continue to persist, Russia could create issues by threatening to move some key military assets closer to US shores as to Cuba or Venezuela, which would impose near unbearable pressure on Biden and his team. The distance could also somewhat dampen European enthusiasm for conflict, compounding problems for NATO.As it is, the European countries and leaders are not necessarily in synch. France, and its President Emmanuel Macron are a case in point. In the recent past, Macron was peeved at US actions scrapping a lucrative submarine deal with Australia. Even now France sees value in a separate security order in Europe with Russia on board. Last week Macron had a long telephone conversation with Pitin when the latter told him that he is unhappy with the US written reactions to his demands. The new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz has always been known to be pragmatic in Russia. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia is expected to satisfy Germany's critical energy needs, that Europe's largest economic power is, whether it likes it or not, dependent on. Its Naval Chief resigned reacting to criticism for suggesting Putin deserves more respect than is being accorded him. Only the United Kingdom, the US fellow Anglo-Saxon ally remains gung-ho, as does its Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Indeed, Johnson took a quick trip to Kiev to make his point. He is also severely handicapped at home in the aftermath of the party-gate scandals, and some predict his end may be nigh!
But what of the eye of the storm, the Ukraine, itself? Its reactions have been curious and conflicted. Its President, Volodymyr Zelensky who was elected on the premise that he might improve relations with Russia, played down the prospects of a Russian invasion. With economy now growing at a solid 3.2 per cent a war would bring disastrous results. "We do understand what the risks are "he said to the media, but also opined that "we do not see a bigger escalation". He made light of the US media's constant mention of a forthcoming invasion, by asking his people to relax over a barbecue. This seemed to imply that he might be wondering that with friends like the West, who would require enemies? But in an attempt at a modicum of balance the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Russia must continue diplomatic engagement and pull its military forces back from his country's frontiers!
Ironically, in the end, the one country which possibly can defuse the situation is China. Only till recently China had been subjected to relentless bashing by western allies. To date it had remained silent in public over the burgeoning crisis. Driven by imperatives, Blinken finally called his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for help to de-escalate the situation. Putin and China's President Xi Jinping are close chums. China also has influence over Ukraine, though diminishing due to US pressures, and Beijing has interest in Ukraine's military-technological assets. Under normal circumstances in human relations, one would have expected Wang Yi to turn a deaf ear to Blinken's appeal. But States tend to behave differently from individuals and are actuated more by interests than sentiments. Wang Yi, doubtlessly flattered at being approached, listened politely and publicly urged calm. In private China pursued its interest in getting Russia not to upset the applecart for now just when the winter Olympics are due to open in Beijing on 4 February. Ironically, the Beijing Olympics that the Western countries once considered boycotting is being seen by them (and much of the world) as a fortuitous boon!
The Olympics in Beijing will end on 20 February. So might the hiatus in tensions. The parties, the West and Russia, must take advantage of the small window of opportunity between 4th and 20th February to negotiate the de-escalation. But if China does succeed in forging this short-term truce, it will have the possibility to win global kudos by trying to bring about, if not peace, at least the continuation of the absence of war! Under the circumstances, that would be the best of a bad bargain.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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