As Ukrainian troops rapidly advance towards the heartland of pro-Moscow rebels, it is becoming clear that Russia is making a rapid retreat from its hardline position and unlikely to intervene to prop up the ailing rebellion.
Probably Russia believes that if it cannot twist the hand of the enemy then it must kiss it. Yes, the Ukrainian crisis has shown Vladimir Putin that his Russia is still not in a militarily, politically or economically strong position to confront the West in a new Cold War setup.
Last week, tension rose to a new high when confrontation between the Russian and Ukrainian troops became inevitable. This happened when Russia decided to send an aid convoy to Eastern Ukraine to help the besieged people there. But Ukraine and its Western backers alleged that that Russia was using the aid convoy as a Trojan horse to send in advanced weapons to the pro-Russian rebels. It was one such weapon, the West alleges, that brought down the Malaysian airline flight MH 17 with 298 passengers and crew last month, though some analysts now point their finger at the Ukrainian military and say this is why the West has lost interest in the investigation into the air tragedy.
"With Putin now pussyfooting to intervene directly in Ukraine as the rebels lose stronghold after stronghold in the defence of their self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, questions are being asked whether Russia’s turnaround was a tactical move"
Last week as the West feared that Russia would make use of the worsening humanitarian crisis in the war-affected Eastern Ukraine to justify a military intervention, European stock market indices took a nosedive. But Moscow wriggled out of the crisis in the face of warnings from the West that tougher sanctions would be imposed if Russia resorted to military action. The 260-truck aid convoy is still stuck at the border as the Ukrainian forces take the upper hand in the four-month conflict, which, according to the United Nations, has killed an estimated 2,086 people, including civilians and combatants.
Russia’s compromise suggests that it has backed down from its rhetoric that it would not hesitate to send troops to protect ethnic Russians irrespective of whether they lived within or outside Russia.
Ethnic Russians form more than a third of the population in Ukraine’s east where a majority of the people irrespective of ethnicity prefer closer ties with Russia than with the European Union.
With Putin now pussyfooting to intervene directly in Ukraine as the rebels lose stronghold after stronghold in the defence of their self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, questions are being asked whether Russia’s turnaround was a tactical move.
Political realism demands that a nation must demonstrate its power only if it is certain that such demonstration will enable it to enhance its power. Putin is not unaware of this simple logic in power politics, although Russia’s need for intervention in the Ukrainian crisis is overwhelming and crucial for Moscow’s survival as a world power. If Russia takes a hands-off policy in Ukraine, Nato will be on Russia’s border in a matter of years, if not months. This will be a major threat to Russia, a nuclear power.
Prior to the Ukrainian crisis, Putin mistakenly believed that there was an understanding with the West that neither Russia nor the West would mess around in each other’s regions of influence. Russia kept a close watch on countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, taking whatever steps necessary to keep these countries from getting closer to the West, especially the United States. They included military, political and economic measures. Russia intervened militarily in Georgia in 2008. Seen as a move to punish Georgia for trying to become a Nato member, Russia’s military intervention removed South Ossetia and Abkhazia from the direct control of Georgia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been recognised as independent states by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru.
If this was a military measure by which Russia asserted its authority over its backyard, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation became a political means by which Moscow brought together four key Central Asian states in a security pact which also includes China. On the economic front, Russia promoted a customs union with its immediate neighbours and wanted Ukraine to become part of it. But the wily West, especially the US, spent millions of dollars to engineer a coup against Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych in February this year and installed a pro-Western regime in Kiev.
In this power game, the West seeks to create a Russia stripped of its nuclear arsenal and economically dependent on the West.
Against this backdrop, Russia’s compromise appears more a tactical move. But this retreat could be costly and perhaps irreversible, too. The ground situation shows that the pro-Russian rebels’ military defeats have also created political turmoil in the rebel leadership and it is only a matter of weeks before the Ukrainian troops will declare victory and an end to the rebellion.
The resignations of Alexander Borodai, the prime minister of the rebel territory, and Igor Strelkov, the territory’s military commander, have sent shockwaves across the rebellions’ rank and file. But the two leaders who together had formed the rebels’ leadership against Ukrainian troops since the rebellion began in April this year, would not have done so without Russia’s consent or command. They are ethnic Russians and their resignations have fuelled fears that ethnic Russian fighters may abandon the insurgency to make it an all-Ukrainian affair.
Thus some analysts believe that the chaotic situation offers Putin a face-saving exit from the Ukrainian quagmire. Even some rebels, according to a Reuter story, see the command changes following the resignations of the two leaders as an attempt by Moscow to distance itself from the conflict. Reeling under tough Western sanctions, Moscow, of late, has been saying that it is seeking a negotiated settlement to the crisis that was triggered by the February coup. As an initial response to the coup, an angry Russia annexed Crimea, but stopped short of doing the same when pro-Russian people in Ukraine’s Donetsk’s region declared independence following a referendum and expressed willingness to become part of Russia. Instead, Moscow armed and trained the rebels in a calculated confrontation with the West.
Moscow is now taking a different line, giving more weight to diplomacy, as the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates with street-to-street fighting in some key cities, including Lugansk, the fall of which will be seen as a major victory for Kiev in its fight against the rebels. Buoyed by the victories, Ukraine’s nationalist politicians urge the government not to heed Russia’s proposal for a ceasefire. Finish the rebels, irrespective of the war’s humanitarian cost, they urge President Petro Poroshenko. But it will not be that easy.
Putin and Poroshenko will hold face-to-face talks next week at Minsk in Belarus as part of a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at finding a win-win situation or a road map to end the civil war and normalise relations between Russia and a new Ukraine that has decided to economically and militarily align with the West, much to the chagrin of Moscow.
Ahead of the Belarus summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kiev tomorrow to facilitate a solution, which if it works out, will benefit her country immensely as it was German companies which have been hit hardest by the sanction war between the West and Russia. On Monday, Germany’s Bundesbank warned that global tensions, such as the crisis in Ukraine, were putting “earlier assumptions about the strength of the country’s growth at risk.” Germany depends on Russia for a third of its energy supplies.
Last Sunday, foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France met in Berlin to work out a solution to the Ukrainian crisis. Russia called for greater devolution to the regions as part of a solution but Kiev has insisted that Ukraine would remain a unitary state. “Ukraine is and should remain a unitary, democratic and European state and second, Ukraine should follow a European course…” said Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlov Klimkin. Kiev also urged Russia to stop arming and training the separatists and insisted that the rebels should lay down their weapons before any talks. The rebels say they are ready to talk but refuse to disarm. They also say that Kiev should recognise their independent state.
A diplomatic solution may give Russia some respite and EU countries may be more than happy to lift the sanctions which are hitting them also. But the whole exercise raises a question regarding Russia’s ability to prevent countries in its backyard from drifting towards the West.
Already Russia is feeling the pinch, with Nato reinforcing its East European bases with more troops and equipment. Next month’s Nato summit in Wales will, among other matters, discuss preparations for a war on Russia. Ahead of this summit, US President Barack Obama will visit Baltic states in Russia’s neighbourhood to reaffirm Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to the mutual defence of Nato and its allies.
If Russia abandons Ukraine, countries such as Georgia, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan may be emboldened to strengthen their economic and military ties with the West. Will Russia let itself fall into a situation like a helpless wretch?
Unlikely. Russia may go for a diplomatic solution now, but will not abandon Eastern Ukraine. It will bide its time, awaiting an opportunity to strike back militarily. Nato chiefs see this a strong possibility. If not militarily, Russia can strike economically. This is because Russia still has the ability to choke Ukraine economically – either by blocking gas supplies or by refusing to sell gas at concessionary prices. Already Ukraine owes Russia more than US$ 4.5 billion on account of gas purchases. But gas deals bind the two nations in a symbiotic relationship. Just as Ukraine depends on Russia for much of its energy needs, Russia depends on Ukraine to send its gas and oil to Europe via pipelines. Thus the Ukrainian crisis is much more than meets the eye or the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine.