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Mainstream, VOL LX No 20, New Delhi, May 7, 2022

Ukraine Crisis may Spin Out of Control - Absence of Strategic Dialogue between USA — NATO and Russia | Gautam Sen

Friday 6 May 2022

by Gautam Sen *

The Ukraine war or `special military operations to de-militarise and de-Nazify Ukraine` as termed by Russian president Vladimir Putin soon after he launched a multi-dimensional military campaign on 24th February 2022, is in its fourth month with no sign of it de-escalating. There is a pause or rather different orientation to the Russian assault since March 2022 end, but no de-escalation in the real sense. Western sources indicate a strong military noose put by the Russian forces around many Ukranian coastal or near-the Black Sea and the Azov Sea coastline. The Ukrainian administration of president Volodymyr Zelensky with undoubted comprehensive support of entire Ukranian society except in the Donbas region, has dug in determinedly to repulse the Russian forces out of the country, and even attempt to militarily weaken the separatists in the Donbas area of Luhansk and Donetsk enclaves bordering Russia`s Rostov oblast (administrative sub-division). In the meantime, substantial humanitarian and military aid from European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military alliance member countries, and most importantly from USA, have been channelised to Ukraine and the Zelensky government.

Mariupole is one such city on the north coast of Sea of Azov, in the south-eastern littoral of Ukraine, where a deadly ground assault and military strangulation effort by the invading Russian forces are on, against a determined last-ditch stand by the politically and ethnically determined Azov battalion soldiers of the Ukrainian Army, their national guardsmen and even elements of armed personnel of foreign legion who have joined the Ukranian military forces to combat the invading Russian armed forces. These defenders against the Russian forces are bottled up within the large sprawling Avostal Steel Plant in Mariupol. With no sign of let up in warfare, evacuation of Ukranian civilians in the entrapped steel plant, has become next to impossible.

The overall war scenario indicates that, though the Russian ground forces have withdrawn from Kviv region and other areas on the north of the country, virtually entire Ukraine is under assault. Aerial strikes by Russian missiles from surface platforms in the Black and Azov Seas as well as from Russian aircraft launched from military bases in Russia and even Belarus in the northwest, are continuing. Russian ground forces are also continuing their operations in north-eastern Ukraine and in zones in a southwest to northeast alignment of the country. Mariupol is in this area. There is speculation on Russian president Vladimir Putin`s strategic plans and eventual intentions.

A significant symbolic impact on the Russian government`s morale, has been the sinking of its Black Sea flagship, battle cruiser Moskva, reportedly by missile attacks by Ukranian forces from shore launch pads with drones deployed in tactical coordination. Most ominously, some Russian state spokespersons have hinted that Moskva`s sinking may be deemed as a prelude to World War-III. Former Russian president and present chairperson of Russia`s state security council, Dimitry Medvedev, has also made subsequent belligerent gestures posing the possibility of likely retaliatory action in Gulf of Finland (against NATO countries and Finland, a neutral state bordering Russia but poised to join NATO soon), with the deployment of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetzov (capable of carrying nuclear warheads as part of tactical deployment) and its supporting assault naval platforms.

The countervailing backdrop is that USA has stepped up military assistance to the beleaguered Zelensky government. It is interesting that, top cabinet members of US president Biden`s administration, secretary of state Anthony Blinken and defence secretary Lloyd Austin, accompanied by senior US officials, have recently visited Zelensky on 24th April, for an assessment of the military position of Ukraine in the on-going war, need for more enhanced US and NATO military support to the Ukranian forces and also on measures to keep the civil administration and relief measures in the war-devasted country, functional. US $1.70 billion worth military supplies have already been supplied by US to Zelensky government and substantially inducted into Ukraine through adjoining NATO countries, over and above civil supplies aid. President Biden has also sought US Congress`s approval for more than US $ 33 billion overall aid to Ukraine. Quite a few supportive and symbolic visits of leaders of NATO and EU member countries to Ukraine, have also taken place. However, the recent Blinken-Lloyd Austen visit to Kviv, with the Ukrainian capital still under missile and ground-launched projectile attacks, is significant and was intended to signal to Putin the very high level of US political and military commitment to Zelensky and his government. Though not articulated with all its manifestations, the Biden administration seems now committed to Zelensky and his government`s intended action to repulse the Russian forces and supportive elements from entire Ukraine including the bitterly contested Donbas region in Ukraine`s north-east where, a sizeable Russian speaking and populace culturally affiliated to Russia, though Slavic, oppose the Kviv administration. The latest Russian aerial assault has been the missile attack on Kviv on 28th April 2022, when UN secretary general Antonio Guterres was on a official visit there to appraise with Zelensky the extent of humanitarian disaster consequent on the present war. This demonstrative strike, further signals Putin`s determination to adhere to his military campaign irrespective of decisions and action of the United Nations (UN) and political support built up by the Western nations within the international body and its affiliated agencies, against Russia like expelling the latter from the UN Human Rights Council.

A vital pivot of the Russian military drive in the present war, is the Putin government`s determination to sever the Donbas region from Ukraine proper. Moscow has already recognized the Donbas components, the Luhansk and Donetsk republics as independent countries, on 21st February this year, even before launching its military campaign. The Russian forces are now trying to overrun Mariupol and seize control of the entire littoral strip along present Ukraine`s Black Sea and Sea of Azov coastline and have total military control of the area from a strategic perspective and convert present Ukraine to a much restricted geopolitical area, make it landlocked and virtually a rump state. It is clear that the Biden administration of USA and majority of the EU member states and all the NATO alliance participants, will work to prevent this outcome.

The opposition of Donbas people had started since the Euromaidan revolution of 2014. This revolution — popularly termed `revolution of dignity` was apparently intended to reform the Soviet-era coercive state apparatus which remained even after Ukraine emerged as an independent state on 24th August 1991. However, Moscow and the Donbas separatists have been feeling threatened with the trajectory of Ukranian politics since 2014. With Zelensky in power since 2019, the threat perception from Russian, and particularly Putin`s perspective, had accentuated. There are also economic attributes behind Russian interests and the Donbas` Russified populaces` desire for political and economic autonomy of this region and affiliation towards Russia. The geopolitical implications of the election victory of Zelensky in 2019, his express intention to integrate Ukraine with the EU and interest in association with NATO, have been a matter of strategic concern to Putin, and deliberately or otherwise, not reckoned appropriately by USA and NATO, from strategic implications point of view.

The Minsk agreements of 2014 , aimed at ending the conflict in Donbas region, are for all practical purposes dead. So is the Normandy format of negotiations evolved by the then German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emanual Macron with support from EU and NATO, for instituting a workable ceasefire between the Kviv deployed military forces and the Donbas armed elements along the Donetsk and Luhansk contact lines with opposing militaries across the line. Donbas today, is a de-facto heavily Russified area which was originally agrarian Ukranian, because of significant mineral deposits. Any agreement to be viable has to reckon this fact.

However, no stable European security architecture or even a world order at large, can evolve with complete change in character and configuration of an established state by force of military might. Therefore, a modus vivendi on Ukraine can only evolve with complete withdrawal of Russian military forces and its irregulars from Ukraine, with a ceasefire under some joint NATO-Russia monitoring mechanism, put in place as an essential preliminary. An essential concomitant has to be an internationally recognized autonomy for Donbas within Ukraine or co-habitation of two political entities of Ukraine and Donbas republics, which however, seems difficult with Donetsk and Luhansk recognized as independent republics by Russia, but could still be worked out.

The post-Yelsin European security order has collapsed. USA and NATO has obviously not lived up to their commitment conveyed in an unistitutionalised manner after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, not to expand NATO eastward, when gradually NATO included former Warsaw Pact countries which were earlier part of Communist Soviet Union`s sphere of influence and strategic disposition. The expansion has not been sudden and was expected. The downturn in the security status of Ukraine has been since the Maidan revolution of 2014, and active involvement of US officials like the present under secretary of state Victoria Niuland, herself of Ukranian origin. For Moscow and Putin, accession of Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia was still acceptable, but not a large state like Ukraine, bestriding the Black Sea and Sea of Azov adjacent to Russia`s south-western strategic underbelly. The threat to the Russian Black Sea fleet, its access and presence in the Mediteranean Sea through which the Russian deployment in Syria and presence around West Asia has been sustained substantially, seemed to be under threat with an uncooperative Zelensky government in power. The West, particularly the USA had failed to perceive the threat visualized by Putin or deliberately underplayed it. It may also be that, Washington wanted the huge, nearly one and half a lakh deployment of Russian forces along Ukraine`s periphery prior to launch of the invasion on 24th February this year, to actually take place, test the military prowess and effectiveness of its forces and systems and prepare for a final denouement to subdue Russia to a position of eventual subservience vis-à-vis the NATO and the EU, economically, tactically and strategically. The moot point is, whether Putin and his regime accept such an outcome. Herein lies the danger of the strategic milieu in Europe, spinning out of control, miscalculations by either side, USA-NATO and Russia.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was for thirteen days only as against the present Ukraine war spilling over to the fourth month. There was direct contact and most exclusive secret dialogue between USA`s president John Kennedy and Soviet Union`s premier Nikita Khrushchev — even bypassing the Soviet Communist Party `s politburo, wherein a mutual strategic understanding was reached between the two leaders on not to effect regime change in Communist Cuba, dismantle the Soviet nuclear missiles already positioned in Cuba, the Soviet flotilla proceeding to Cuba in defiance of USA imposed quarantine, to turn back midway, and USA to gradually reduce the NATO missile deployment in Turkey. There is no comparable dialogue evident on the Ukraine crisis. Re-configuration of Ukraine as a nation state is being attempted by a belligerent neighboring nuclear power. The present crisis to some extent resembles the years 1936-39, with nation states being truncated (Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia), Nazi control being imposed in Austria through Anschluss and destruction of a non-Nazi Austrian state, etc, and finally British premier Neville Chamberlain proclaiming after the Munich agreement of 1938 that he has achieved a ``peace for our time``, only with Nazi German and Soviet aggression and World War-II to start shortly thereafter.

* (The author is Gautam Sen, a retired Civil Service Officer who has served in senior appointments of the Union and state governments.)

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