February 06, 2022
For those ignoring history, the recent Ukraine crisis is a perfect reminder that it repeats itself. This current episode of Russia’s advances appear to be part of a sequel that first played out before the global audience – roughly around the same time in 2014 when Russian troops marched into Ukraine’s Crimea region and seized control of the territory.
Back then, the invasion, President Vladimir Putin explained, was needed to protect the rights of Russian speakers in the region. The global community – particularly the United States, under President Barack Obama, decided to draw a red line for Russia and as history shows – Ukraine was on the other side of that line. In Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, that fears being on Moscow’s invasion wish list, the former US president delivered a speech vowing to defend former Soviet territories in the Baltic region. For Ukrainians, the message Obama delivered on Russia’s doorstep in Tallinn, came out straight and clear: Washington wants to help – but it would not do anything that would stop the Russian invasion.
Subsequently, the US provided $60 million worth of nonlethal equipment that included items like night-vision goggles, protective vests, and sleeping bags. In addition, it shared intelligence, but enough for the Ukrainians to target Russian positions.
Conversely, Europe’s decision makers also felt it was safe not to escalate tensions with Russia, even considering the view that Moscow’s influence over a state with which it has had historic connections must be acknowledged. Former German chancellor Angela Merkel, the most influential European leader at the time, opposed actions that would risk a military confrontation in Ukraine. Perturbed by Russia’s actions in 2014 that were described by analysts as a threat to Europe’s postwar order, the former German chancellor said: “The lesson of the past is to learn cooperation instead of confrontation.”
As expected, Russia’s actions invited sanctions back then. Some were aimed at specific sectors of the Russian economy. Fast forward a few years, the world is now witnessing the second episode of Russia’s advances – representing another attempt to assault Ukraine and the international order that has kept Moscow out of the inner circle of the big league since the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
But what exactly does the longest-serving Russian leader want from the world? To answer this question The Express Tribune interviewed several experts. Many believe that the current Ukraine crisis is a symptom and not the cause of the conflict. And by threatening a former Soviet State, Moscow perhaps wants to assert its point – which is to stop the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) expansion – particularly inviting former Soviet states to join the Western alliance. Considered as a thorn in Russia’s flesh ever since the collapse of the USSR, both Beijing and Moscow recently called in a joint statement for NATO to halt its expansion. Putin and his Chinese counterpart openly opposed further enlargement of the US-led security alliance and urged that its “ideologized Cold War approaches” must be abandoned.
“Putin wants to reverse the terms on which the Cold War ended. He wants to renegotiate the entire security architecture of Europe, and this will have global implications. He wants to push the US out of Europe. This is not really about Ukraine, it is much bigger than that,” explained Dr Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East.
Shortly before the full-fledged escalation, Moscow proposed new security treaties with Washington and NATO. Western experts were quick to dismiss Russia’s wish list as unrealistic, suspecting it was designed to be turned down to provide Moscow a reason to escalate its aggression on Ukraine.
As anticipated, the long list of security demands by Russia called for a halt to NATO’s eastward expansion, removal of Western troops and military bases from former Soviet States, and a complete ban on military assistance to Ukraine. The wish list came with a caveat and Moscow was adamant about it. In short: if its demands were not sorted out diplomatically, it would use military force to get its way.
Since then, more than 100,000 Russian troops have been deployed along with all the military machinery that is required for an invasion – suggesting that Moscow is on the verge of walking the talk – particularly that threat of using military force.
Although described as unacceptable by Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, some of Russia’s proposed demands may be granted. “Conflict-averse Western leaders have a track record of accepting Russia’s demands through being terrified of the alternative,” wrote Giles, who is a leading expert on security issues affecting Russia, and on its Armed Forces.
According to Dr Borshchevskaya, the collective Western confusion that was on display in the days after the recent military buildup around Ukraine also shows that the West very much underestimated the Russian threat after the invasion of Crimea.
“The West very much underestimated what came next—the military intervention in Syria, which many thought would turn into a quagmire for Russia; but to the contrary, the intervention was designed precisely to avoid a quagmire, it was a very different type of operation that Moscow had conducted in the past; and having achieved many key objectives in Syria bolstered Moscow’s self-confidence to continue to push back against the US-led global order,” said Dr Borshchevskaya via email from Washington where she is based.
Commenting on Russia’s goals, Dr Ashok Swain, a professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research of Sweden’s Uppsala University , told the Express Tribune that Moscow , through this crisis, is sending a strong message that it will not allow the expansion of NATO – particularly to its doorstep. The Sweden-based expert described the recent escalation as President Putin’s attempt to set the red line. “Through this crisis, Russia is telling the US and the rest of the world that it has its own areas of influence and security corridor – which it would not allow them to enter,” said Dr Swain in response to a question about the Russian president’s goals.
After the Cold War ended, he pointed out that NATO started expanding without taking into consideration Russia’s concerns. “Being victorious, the Western alliance went ahead doing whatever they wanted and didn’t really take into account Russia’s concerns.” President Putin, he said, has been waiting for a very long time to act. “One of the reasons for Putin to act now is the manner in which US forces withdrew from Afghanistan. It puts into question America’s strength and commitment. Secondly, President Biden doesn’t seem to be on the same page with many of his European counterparts, and then lastly, the allies are also somewhat divided,” Dr Swain explained.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops poised to invade Ukraine for the second time in the past ten years, the West is left with very limited options. One of them is to use its diplomatic machinery to dissuade Russia or as they say, talk the once sleeping giant out of this military misadventure. But efforts seem to be bearing no fruit. According to Dr Borshchevskaya, who is also a contributor to Oxford Analytica and a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy, the West has been very slow in waking up to the full picture of how dangerous the situation is, and what implications it carries.
“Instead of deploying all tools of statecraft available, the West mostly focused on threatening to impose sanctions, and provide military aid to Ukraine. But overall Western hesitation, confusion, and disunity has been on full display for the world to see, and it stood in contrast to Kremlin resolve,” Dr Borshchevskaya told the Express Tribune. “Rushing to come up with a diplomatic solution and grant Moscow concessions out of fear would be the worst thing possible; it will only embolden Putin to push further,” the expert cautioned.
“A recipe for success is to recognize that the West needs to unite, that deterrence requires hard power, and that countries such as Germany need to put principles above economic interests,” she added. Earlier this month, Russia’s leader signaled that he was open to a diplomatic solution to the brewing crisis that could lead to full-scale conflict – that has the potential of dragging several nations. But experts believe there is a significant gap between Moscow’s wish list and what the West is even willing to negotiate.
While Washington presents itself as the leader of the free world, European decision makers have made their own attempts to reach out to President Putin, who has been on the cusp of authorizing a military assault on Ukraine, in an effort to de-escalate the situation. However, there has been little success. The Kremlin wasted no time in snubbing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, describing him as ‘utterly confused’ and terming British diplomacy a complete waste of time.
Uppsala University’s Dr Swain also described the US and European diplomatic efforts as being ‘confused’. Washington, in particular, he said has issued a number of confusing statements on the crisis. “They hint war in one statement and then at the same time say conflict is not an option. Then, they deploy troops. So, there are a number of confusing statements from the US.” Most of the leading European nations, the Sweden-based expert said, have been reluctant. “They don’t want war. Despite difficulties, they have economic and other ties with Russia.”
On the US involvement, Dr Swain said, Washington should allow leaders from Europe to manage the crisis and address it in a manner that prevents further escalation. “Instead of presenting itself as the leader of the Western response to Russia, the US should let European allies handle this.”
War, Dr Swain said, is not an option. “War is never an option, particularly, in this case, a war between Russia and NATO allies is not an option. You need to negotiate, and negotiate until there is a peaceful solution for all sides,” he cautioned.
What will dissuade Putin?
The unified strategy to prevent the Russian President from invading Ukraine appears to be dependent on the success of the sanctions that are being considered against Moscow. However, Dr Borshchevskaya places Western unity in the face of the threat right at the top.
“Military deterrence, strategically-positioned US and NATO troops, for example in Poland, Belarus, other parts of Europe, and the Middle East can dissuade Putin. Western unity in the face of the threat is important. An understanding that the West has to come together and put its differences aside, and present a united front; and use all tools available in its arsenal, including coercion—just as Putin is using coercion – will be necessary,” the Washington-based expert said.
Sanctions that have been tried and tested since the annexation of Crimea, Uppsala University’s Dr Swain explained will not help in this case. “Russia and those in president’s Putin’s inner circle have survived and know how to operate under financial restrictions. They have found ways to prosper under them.”
Above all, Dr Swain said, Russia now has China’s support. “Sanctions will not dissuade Putin in any way. They are counterproductive and perhaps even make Putin stronger and popular.” Beijing, he pointed out, is already working to help Moscow survive the fresh round of economic restrictions that previously seem to have had little effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Impact on EU-US ties
Commenting on the overall impact of the Ukraine crisis on EU-US ties, Uppsala University’s Dr Swain said: “It exposes the fissures further.” The transatlantic ties, he said, were not in great shape during former US president Donald Trump’s term, and as much as pundits had expected, they haven’t improved on President Biden’s watch. “Europe and the US don’t appear to be on the same page – particularly on the Ukraine crisis. Germany is not looking at the crisis through the same lens as the US. And other smaller European nations have different views on the subject.”
Europe, the expert said, has to work with Russia. And that leaves Washington with very limited room to maneuver against Russia. “Europeans neither want tougher sanctions nor do they want conflict. That limits Washington’s options.”
While the degree to which Europe’s ties with Russia act as a barrier remains unclear, Dr Borshchevskaya said Putin knows that the path to Europe lies through Germany.
“The fact that Germany donated mere helmets to Ukraine when they needed weapons is also a clear indicator on where Germany stands—as compared to other countries that are sending real military aid.”
Another issue, the Washington-based expert said, is that sanctions that cut Russia off from the SWIFT system also will require European unity. “States such as Italy have already voiced hesitation on this issue, so it remains unclear if these types of sanctions will be possible to pass,” she added.
Has Putin bitten off more than he can chew?
While analysts are still calculating Russia’s next move in this crisis, the outcome that appears to be certain is that President Putin will not leave Ukraine alone. The question, Washington Institute’s Dr Borshchevskaya said, is how far will the West let it go. “I think the outcome remains undetermined because it’s unclear how far the West is prepared to go to deter Putin. But one way or the other, Russia is not going to leave Ukraine alone, the question is how far will the West let it go,” the expert said.
While the sabre-rattling by Russia raises the spectre of war, Dr Swain hopes sanity will prevail. The Russian president, he said, is fully aware of the divisions within NATO and that the US will not consider military action in this situation. “Deploying 8,000 troops against the Russian threat does not make much difference. At this particular time – when the US army has just walked out of a conflict in Afghanistan, it is not going to confront an enemy like Russia.”
Despite all the bravado and threats, Dr Swain said, Putin is playing his cards well. “The buildup of troops is just to escalate the crisis. I hope it eventually brings all sides to the negotiation table – which is the only way out of this crisis.” Russia too, he said, doesn’t want to occupy Ukraine.
The other challenge
The Ukraine crisis has brought China’s Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin of Russia on the same page against a common adversary – that is the United States. The two leaders issued a joint statement against NATO’s expansion and Beijing has promised to support Moscow throughout the crisis – should the West act against it.
Describing the alliance between Russia and China as the biggest security threat to the United States, Uppsala University’s Dr Swain said: “The Biden administration has brought Moscow and Beijing closer. If Biden had been smart, he would have followed Richard Nixon’s foreign policy, and had done whatever needed to divide and rule.”
“After four years of Trump, the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the turbulent ties with Europe, Biden should have focused on renewing America’s position and simultaneously keeping Moscow and Beijing at bay. That would have been a smart policy.”
The Russia – China alliance, he said, will go against the US superpower status or whatever is left of it. In both economic and military terms, Washington faces a threat in the shape of this new alliance between two of its most fierce adversaries in the world. “I don’t understand why the US is helping Russia and China to bond together. It is self-defeating because when you impose sanctions against Russia, it will get China’s help and when you try to diplomatically isolate China, it has Russia standing right behind it,” he explained.
Amid growing tensions with the West, both China and Russia seem to be closer than they have ever been. According to a report published by Al Jazeera, both leaders, who have reasons to oppose Washington, reaffirmed their support for each other’s foreign policy – including Russia’s backing of China over Taiwan. They also agreed on wider security issues during the meeting held in Beijing.
Both Xi and Putin criticized the US over what they said was a negative US influence in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific region. Western analysts monitoring the meeting said both leaders are presenting a united front against the US. However, it does not seem like the Chinese leader would support the idea of a military invasion or an attack on Ukraine.
Last year, during a phone call with China’s Xi, the Russian president hailed his country’s model ties with Beijing, calling his counterpart a very close and dear friend. The real test of this friendship, analysts said, would be when Russia actually proceeds with the invasions and has to deal with the bevy of financial sanctions aimed at crippling its economy.
President Biden – who many thought would bring calm to the world that suffered turbulence throughout his predecessor’s term, has fared poorly during the first twelve months of his time in the Oval Office. Like Trump, his unpredictable predecessor, Biden too has flustered Washington’s European allies through his statements over Russian meddling in Ukraine – signaling that the world’s leading power is suffering from a crisis of leadership.
According to Washington Institute’s Dr Borshchevskaya, Biden, like his predecessors, underestimated Russia. “Earlier in the year he wanted to create a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, implying that he wants to put Russia aside so he can focus on China; but it doesn’t work like that,” the expert said.
“A mark of a truly great global power is one that can focus on several issues at once, as Biden could not put forth a coherent strategy that would address both Russia and China together. His decision to lift sanctions against Nordstream 2 and especially the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal further suggested to Putin that the West is weak and that American global credibility is on decline; plus regardless he was bound to test any new president,” added Dr Borshchevskaya. Up until the recent deployment of NATO troops to Europe, she said, Biden has not done enough to counter the Kremlin threat. “Let’s hope that maybe now there is still time,” Dr Borshchevskaya told The Express Tribune.