Russian brinkmanship in Ukraine and echoes of the Cold War

Mar 06, 2022 04:11 PM IST

As per US intelligence, February 16 was the date given by President Joe Biden for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Over the past few years, the debate on international relations has been around the changing geopolitical strategic shift from Europe to Asia, with China emerging as the most potent US adversary in the Indo-Pacific region. This defies the odds that U.S.-Russian enmity and power struggle is a thing of the past and may no longer be central or relevant to world politics the way it was during the Cold War. However, with the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, regional equations have been altered with Europe once again becoming the central theatre of command.

A local resident reacts as a house is on fire after heavy shelling on the only escape route used by locals to leave the town of Irpin, while Russian troops advance toward the capital, 24km from Kyiv, Ukraine.(REUTERS)
A local resident reacts as a house is on fire after heavy shelling on the only escape route used by locals to leave the town of Irpin, while Russian troops advance toward the capital, 24km from Kyiv, Ukraine.(REUTERS)

As per US intelligence, February 16 was the date given by President Joe Biden for Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The invasion did not take place as stipulated, putting American credibility at risk and leading to accusations of hyperbole and fear-mongering.

Moreover, Russia claimed to have withdrawn its troops but Biden administration officials disputed that claim and said that as many as 7,000 had joined the 150,000 already near the border. The US continued to sound the alarm and did not rule out a scenario where Russia would not invade, warning that even if an attack did not take place on the given date the imminent threat prevailed. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan categorically stated “Russia has everything required to invade Ukraine”.

The perennial question concerning the Ukraine crisis - “Will Putin invade or will he not”? was settled a week later. Russia President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine’s Donbas region and send strong warnings to other nations of severe consequences if they interfere. After Putin's statement, Ukraine is now in the throes of a violent conflict with many drawing parallels to the Cold War and re-emergence of the great power rivalry between the US and Russia.

With the outbreak of war in Europe, there are number of questions that reverberate across the globe. What does Putin want with the invasion of Ukraine? Is Russia trying to redraw the global security map and increase its sphere of influence in Eurasia? What is NATO’s role? What is the relevance of the United Nation, the brainchild of members directly involved in the conflict? How widespread could this conflict get? What are the solutions on the table to stop the conflict? What does the future look like for Ukraine and the region at large?

Russia’s concern: A threat to its national security?

Ukraine, where this high-stakes drama is taking place, got its independence in 1991 and remains one of the largest successors to the USSR by territory, population and economy. The current Ukraine crisis goes back to early 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of key government buildings in the country’s east by pro-Russian separatists. Russia terms it 'accession' but the West calls it 'annexation'.

What raised the geopolitical temperature between the US and Russia was massive troop deployment of Russian forces near the Ukraine border, including Crimea, and the US repeatedly warning of "severe consequences" if Moscow sought to alter the status quo in Ukraine. Though this seems to be the immediate cause of the conflict, the crisis has historical, strategic, economic, and political causes.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, both Russia and the West have struggled to maintain greater influence in Ukraine and so maintain the balance of power in their favour. Secondly, Ukraine has a strategic location - it is the crucial buffer zone between Russia and European nations. Third, Ukraine's proximity to the Black Sea will give Russia geopolitical advantages; it will enhance its projection of power into adjacent regions and provide transport support for goods and energy.

Since 2014, eastern Ukraine's Donbas region has been facing a pro-Russian separatist movement actively supported by the Russian government against the Ukraine government. Russian paramilitaries make up 15 to 80 per cent in the Donbas region.

Beginning of the crisis: Was US strategy flawed?

In June last yea Biden decided he would meet Putin as relations between the two countries were in a virtual stand-off after allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 American presidential elections. Another major issue were cyber-hacking allegations called solar winds, where hackers from Russia allegedly hacked into critical US institutions.

Against the backdrop of this disquieting and heated atmosphere, Biden and Putin met to promote stable and predictable relations between both countries. The meeting was considered valuable and it resulted in the launching of a dialogue on strategic stability and cyber security.

In September, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A Milley, and Russia Chief of General staff, General Valery V Gerasimov, met in Helsinki where both sides talked about deep conjunction and possible cooperation in Afghanistan during the US pull-out and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

While these talks were happening, Russian troops started building up on the Ukraine border with military equipment and a supply line. It reached this crescendo starting from November and, since then, the numbers kept increasing. Meanwhile, dialogues and diplomatic talks took place between major stakeholders from both countries but, according to Russia, its grievances were not addressed.

Putin’s big offensive: Will Russia widen the war?

At the heart of the current crisis, and what has really irked Moscow big time, is the eastward expansion of the grouping’s footprint to its border and Ukraine's incessant demand to join NATO. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Alexeyevich Ryabkov categorically stated Russia’s concern: “It's absolutely mandatory to ensure Ukraine never, ever, becomes a member of NATO”. Moreover, Russia wants rolling back of NATO membership to pre-1997 levels and that military deployment should minimise on its border.

Second, NATO in Ukraine means Russia is vulnerable to an invasion through Ukraine's porous borders up to Moscow and Russia can’t accept this possibility from a security consideration.

Another consideration is the port of Sevastopol in Crimea, which is the only warm water port and key for maritime routes between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Russia’s ambition to become a great power requires it to have a stronghold on its maritime power projection and that is the reason it took Crimea - due to its strategic location - and wants to retain that position.

Lastly, the Russian nation claims its origin from Slavic tribes that originally settled in Kyiv during the 15th century. Clearly half of Ukraine is Russian-speaking people in the country and where Crimea dominates more than 90 per cent Russian-speaking population. Therefore Russia claims ethnic and linguistic affinity that goes beyond friendship or enmity.

However, Russia’s maximalist position left both the US and Russia in a major stand-off.

Putin first signed the order on February 21 declaring the rebel-held Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk) to be independent provinces. Russia’s systematic plan unfolded with Putin’s big announcement of a full-scale “special military operation” in Ukraine, a move that invoked Cold War-era history. More than 150,000 Russian troops attacked by land, sea, and air.

The battles continue to rage in major Ukrainian cities with Russian forces launching attacks from all three sides in Ukraine. Resistance against the invading force so far shows a failure on the part of Russian strategy. If the war goes on for longer than ten days it will certainly put Russia on the back foot. The economic costs and loss of lives will outweigh benefits and change the way it perceives Ukraine.

The 21st century: Is the world order changing?

In the words of historian APJ Taylor, “history has refused to turn” and the ghost of polarisation is once again haunting the world order. What we are witnessing is the re-emergence of the great power rivalry in the 21st century that will change the course of Transatlantic relations in particular and world order at large.

Whether it is China’s bellicose behaviour in the Indo-Pacific or Russia’s belligerence in Europe, it seems to show nations are guided by national interest and morality in international relations becomes a matter of ex-post-facto rationalisation.

The great power competition between US-Russia-China harkens back to the perilous strategic triangular relation of the Cold War era, with Ukraine emerging as one of the proxies in Europe.

A Russia-China partnership (countries considered to be major adversaries in US national security strategy doctrines) is likely to create more ambiguity and uncertainty in the international order. The United States is aware it has a lot at stake when it comes to ensuring its great power position and sycophantic influence across the world.

Putin chose an unwarranted ‘war of choice’ that holds no water or justification for the armed intervention in Ukraine. It is likely to have potential economic fallouts and unprecedented domestic political risks for Russia in the days to come.

Moreover, the West's actions and reactions to the war, be it in the form of imposing severe sanctions, cutting diplomatic ties with Russia, freezing the assets of Russian leaders, or providing timely foreign and military aid, logistics, and diplomatic support to Ukraine - is going to be watched closely by its allies and adversaries across the world.

(About the author: Prerna Chahar, Research Scholar, Centre for Canadian, United States & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies. Jawaharlal Nehru University)

Story Saved
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Monday, March 27, 2023
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals