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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 21, New Delhi, May 8, 2021

Will Russia-Ukraine Relations Improve? | R G Gidadhubli

Saturday 8 May 2021

by R G Gidadhubli

23rd April 2021

Relations between Russia and Ukraine, which are both Slavic States having close social, political and economic relations for centuries have witnessed downward trends during the last several years leading often to conflicting situations. Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 has resulted in the on-going conflict between the two countries. Moreover, Ukraine has alleged that separatists are holding parts of the Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, in which ethnic Russians who are predominant inhabitants for centuries, are getting support by Russia and getting arms and ammunitions and financial support to sustain conflicts in the region where on-going fights between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

The latest event has been that in the first half of April 2021 the Ukrainian government and Western officials alleged that Russia had moved over 100,000 military troops as well as tanks and even warplanes to areas bordering eastern part of Ukraine causing security threat to Ukraine. Hence being worried about retaining control over these disputed regions, the Ukrainian president Mr. Volodymyr Zelenskiy was seeking Western support to deal with the military build-up by Russia on the Eastern part of the country. The USA has been highly supportive of Ukraine during the last over two decades. Hence in response to Ukrainian president’s request, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed a bill to deliver military assistance to Ukraine, including lethal weapons, to help the Eastern European country counter any Russian aggression. Mention may be made here the fact that as per the Ukraine Security Partnership ACT the USA would provide Ukraine with up to $300 million per year in military assistance until 2026, $150 million of which is subject to conditions. It needs to be passed by both the House and Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden to become law. While the US policy has been consistently supportive of Ukraine, has been critical of Russia and has often put economic sanctions that have badly hit Russian economy.

On this latest issue there are charges and counter-charges between Russia and West. Russia has charged that there were increasing military activities of NATO in this region. Hence Russia not only denied that the latest military buildup in March- April 2021 was a threat to Ukraine but also it was part of its routine security related exercise in Russia’s own territory from its own security perspective.

However, considering the concern of Ukraine and the West, Russia made positive response not to escalate tension and conflict. As per reports on 22nd April 2021 Russia ordered troop withdrawal amid heightened tensions with the West over its military buildup around the areas of eastern Ukraine.

Appreciating Russia’s response of withdrawal, an unidentified NATO official has stated in Brussels that "any steps toward de-escalation by Russia would be important and well overdue" even as the Western alliance "remains vigilant. Moreover, the official called on Russia to "withdraw all its forces from Ukrainian territory." The US President Joe Biden has appreciated Russia’s policy decision of reducing military built-up in the region. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed his positive response that the "reduction of troops on our border proportionally will reduce tensions." However, he asserted Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military peace. He was grateful to international partners for their support. On 20th April he stated that he was ready to meet Putin for talks on calming tensions. Reciprocating that Putin has reiterated that to improve bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine he was prepared to host Zelenskiy in Moscow at “any time.”

As stated by Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense policy of Russia ‘There has been some de-escalation and now the confrontation has returned to the political and diplomatic sphere. Equally important is that it is appreciable that as per reports the US President Joe Biden called the Russian President Vladimir Putin appealing him to reduce tensions and even offering a summit meeting. Hence these are positive developments to reduce conflicts between Russia and Ukraine which should become a reality.

The United States has been opposing Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline which is 95 pc complete and which would bring gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea circumventing Ukraine. By opposing the project, Biden wants to use it as economic sanction against Russia depriving it income of billions of dollars by exporting oil and gas to Germany and other West European countries. Moreover, several European companies are not allowed to supply equipments to Russia for completing this pipeline. While Nord Stream 2 will deprive Ukraine income as gas transit fees, Russia is unhappy with USA on this issue and worsening relations with the West. On its part Russia which has used pipeline passing through Ukraine to export oil and natural gas to many East European countries is ready to use it again that will bring benefit to Ukraine as well which is itself dependent on Russian oil and natural gas.

Hence under these circumstances when and where Putin and Zelenskiy will meet and whether they will be able to improve bilateral political, economic and social ties are matters of great concern and speculation.

(Author: Dr R.G.Gidadhubli, Professor And Former Director, Center For Central Eurasian Studies, University Of Mumbai, Mumbai)

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