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Mainstream, VOL LX No 11, New Delhi, March 5, 2022

The Ukrainian Crisis: Solution lies in creating a neutral Ukraine | P S Jayaramu

Saturday 5 March 2022


by P. S. Jayaramu


The Ukrainian Crisis is very much in the news. When the crisis began, it was fondly believed that Putin’s order of moving troops to the Ukrainian border was only an act of brinkmanship and that the crisis would get blown off soon. But, the invasion of Ukraine, the subsequent marching of Russian troops to the major cities of the country, including the capital city Kyiv, the intentional crippling of Ukraine’s military capabilities, the loss of civilian lives and the flow of refugees to the neighbouring countries, (at the time of writing this article) has brought to the fore the seriousness of the crisis in the European continent for the first-time after the end of the Cold War. Putin’s decision to keep Russian nuclear forces alert amidst reportedly initiatives for delegation level talks between Russia and Ukraine, raises both fears of escalation and hopes of a thaw.

A brief history of Ukraine:

To understand the Ukrainian crisis from a broader perspective, it is useful to take a brief look at its history. While one can trace the history of Ukraine well into the 17 th century, if not earlier, the starting point for our understanding can be the Russian Revolution of 1917 which led to the emergence of the Ukrainian People’s Republic from the civil war which had preceded during 1917-21. The Ukrainian Bolsheviks, who had defeated the national government in Kiev, established the Ukranian Socialist Republic, which on 30th December 1922 became one of the founding Republics of the Soviet Union. However, it is interesting to note that during the second world war, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought for independence from both Germany and the Soviet Union. In 1945, the Ukrainian Socialist Republic became one of the founding members of the United Nations. After Stalin’s demise in 1953, Khruschev, as head of the Communist Party of Soviet Union, assisted a Ukrainian revival, in view of his Ukrainian origin. The attempt which was however short-lived, as Ukraine was ultimately made to become subservient to the Soviet Union as a member of the Warsaw Pact.

Post- 1991 developments:

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became independent again and ushered in a transition to the market economy. But sadly, the transition did not help as Ukraine suffered recession for eight years. Subsequently however, its economy revived, witnessing a high increase in GDP growth. But, Ukraine got cought in the global economic recession in 2008. Its efforts to integrate with the European Union did not bear fruit. Revival of the Russian economy and military under Putin in subsequent years led to increased Russian control over Ukraine and a corresponding shrinking of Ukraine’s aspirations for an independent role in regional and international affairs, though the eastern Donbas region’s struggle for independence as a low-key activity has been going on since 2014.

At this stage, we need to bring in the United States, whose key foreign policy goal after the disintegration of Soviet Union was to bring about an eastward expansion of NATO, in sharp contrast to the winding up of the Warsaw Pact. It was in keeping with the American imperial ambition of encircling Russia to prevent it from raising its head as a challenger to American hegemony in global politics. The US succeeded in 1999 in making Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic join NATO. Another expansion of NATO happened in 2002 with the the seven Central and Eastern European countries, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovalia and Slovenia joining the alliance. Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and Macedonia in 2020 joined NATO. The strength of NATO which was 14 once, has risen to 30. In 2021, NATO recognised the aspiration of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance. Clearly, the central objectives of American foreign policy are to maintain its hegemony in the international system, encircle Russia and keep her in number two position.

Russian interests:

Putin is primarily interested in realising his Czarist ambition of bringing back Ukraine, the second-largest country, into the Russian fold. But, his desire is not likely to be realised as Ukraine is fiercely nationalistic and independent-minded. Now that he has modernised the Russian military (including nuclear) forces, the Ukrainian crisis is only a pretext for Putin to reintroduce the Cold War competition in Russia’s relations with the United States. Secondly, from the security angle, Putin does not want Ukraine to cross over to the NATO alliance as that would result in a possible stationing of NATO forces close to Russian border. He wants Ukraine to be under the Russia’s sphere of influence. Thirdly, Ukraine is also rich in resources which include natural gas and oil, iron ore, coal, manganese etc, over which he wants to have control. Thus, geo-strategic, security and resources factors and his own imperial ambition dictate Putin’s foreign policy behavior in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. His decision to recognise the independence of two breakaway provinces of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, are also to be seen from the larger perspective of his desire to control Ukraine.

Interests of United States:

As regards the United States, it is clear that the American interest is not so much in Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. Its twin interests lie in taking Ukraine into the NATO fold to encircle and limit Russian power, in view of its strategic location and the desire to establish control over Ukraine’s resources and markets. As some American experts say, if Washington was truly interested in the independence of Ukraine, it would press for a package granting autonomy to the eastern Donbas region, where a struggle for secession from Ukraine is going on since 2014.

Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, America has imposed stringent economic sanctions on Russia- it’s central bank and the oligarchs who are supporting Putin- with the intention of crippling the Russia economy and thereby forcing it to end the war and return to the negotiating table. Tthere are, however, reports that the present state of its economy and foreign exchange reserves can help Russia withstand the effects of sanctions in the short and medium term.

Western European nations, including United Kindom, have strongly condemned the Russian invasion and joined hands with the US in imposing sanctions, though they all have independent trade relations with Russia, apart from their dependence on oil supplies from Russia and do not want them to suffer in the long term. Germany has indefinitely postponed the certification of Nord stream 2 pipeline intended for the supply of gas from Russia.

The west, has augmented economic assistance to Ukraine and promised to support it with weapons in its valiant efforts to fight back the advancing Russian forces. But, neither the US nor the other NATO powers are willing to commit their troops for the defence of Ukraine.

Efforts at resolving the crisis:

The Russian invasion has predictably led to a flurry of diplomatic activity in the United Nations, in addition to consultations between and among national leaders and their ministers and officials. The UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine with Russia exercising its veto power and China and India, apart from UAE abstaining from voting. The UN General Assembly is likely to discuss the matter soon and pass a resolution to mount pressure on Russia to end the war.

The Indian role:

There has been a debate over India’s role role to assist a resolution of the Ukrainian crisis. The United States and Western powers are unhappy about India not voting in favour of the UNSC resolution condemning Russian invasion. But it is necessary to understand the Indian role from the perspective of her national interests. Even when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and the matter was discussed in the UN General Assembly, India abstained from voting in favour of the resolution. At that time, Mrs. Indira Gandhi asserted by stating that India ‘does not want to join the chorus of condemnation’. Additionally, India has a time-tested relationship with Russia and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Present day India, as earlier, depends on the Russian military hardware and has to factor in issues like the close strategic relationship between Russia and China, in fashioning her response. The Indian permanent Representative rightly called for the resumption of the diplomatic dialogue and called upon parties to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of each other. The obvious reverence was to Russia. The Prime minister too is reported to have reiterated the same in his conversations with President Putin and the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, apart from promising the latter all possible help to tide over the humanitarian consequences of the Russian military offensive.

What is the way out?

At a fundamental level, it must be realised that war is not a solution to any crisis and presently, the Ukrainian crisis, which is affecting the whole world in one way or the other. Diplomacy and negotiations are the only viable recourse to end the imbroglio. It is a measure of satisfaction that Russa and Ukraine are showing willingness to resolve the tangle by agreeing to talk to each other. The following things need to be pursued in that regard:
1. Putin must realise that he can not pursue his Czarist ambition of taking back Ukraine to the Russian fold as Ukraine is a large independent country.
2. Putin should also realise that electing its President and the regime is the democratic right of Ukrainians and that he can not bring about a regime change to satisfy his personal ambitions.
3. In the interests of its security and independent existence, Ukraine too should consider seriously to strive for a neutral position for herself in Eastern Europe by assisting from joining NATO. Pragmatism demands that Ukraine should become a bridge between eastern and western Europe.
4.The United States too should set aside its goal of using Ukraine to encircle Russia. Big / Super power rivalry leading to smaller nations being treated as satellites/ client states has no place in a rules-based international order based on peace, security and coexistence.

In conclusion, it can be asserted that the big powers, specially the United States and Russia ( China too must be included in this category in view of its expansionist goals and strategies) play their role as responsible powers in the international system. Otherwise, it will result in what was said during the hay days of the nonaligned movement that when elephants fight ( the reference was to US and Soviet Union), the grass underneath suffers. In the ongoing Ukranian crisis, if Russia and the West fight, or even allow the crisis to escalate, it is Ukraine which suffers. Hopefully, wise counsels prevail and diplomacy will ultimately triumph.

(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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