“LAND POWERS are perennially insecure, as Mahan intimated. Without seas to protect them, they are forever dissatisfied and have to keep expanding or be conquered in turn themselves. This is especially true of the Russians, whose flat expanse is almost bereft of natural borders and affords little protection. Russia’s fear of landbound enemies is a principal theme of Mackinder.” – The Revenge of Geography, Robert D Kaplan.
Russia has invaded Ukraine. After weeks of troops build up, intelligence reports claimed by the US-led West and failed attempts at diplomacy, Russian President Valdimir Putin announced that his ‘peacekeepers’ were on a special military operation in Ukraine but not to occupy the country’s territory. “We will aim at demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine,” announced Putin addressing the global community but with the domestic regional audience in mind.
With explosions reported from several cities, missiles hitting their targets, boots on the ground, chaotic air spaces and national state of war in Ukraine, a country with a population a little over 4 crore, some key questions arise.
1. Will It Be A Short Invasion Or a Long Drawn War ?
The crisis has been in the making not for the past few weeks but for several years now. With the invasion taking place, will it lead to a full fledged military assault and retaliation by Ukrainian forces with NATO support? Will there be a counter military action to stop the Russians? At the moment the appetite for NATO deployment on non NATO territory looks unlikely. Olaf Scholz as the new German Chancellor is fighting with the shadow of Angela Merkel’s legacy and US President Joe Biden carries the baggage of Barack Obama’s wars. The chances of a US-led West military retaliation leading to a full blown war in Europe are doubtable.
What Ukrainians will receive a lot immediately will be emotional support. Financial sanctions against Russia will intensify which in turn will hit the people more before it pinches the elite regime. Post his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Biden wrote on Twitter, “I condemned this unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces. I briefed him on the steps we are taking to rally international condemnation, including tonight at the UN Security Council.”
“Tomorrow, I will be meeting with the Leaders of the G7, and the United States and our Allies and partners will be imposing severe sanctions on Russia.We will continue to provide support and assistance to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” Biden added in his tweet as he spoke of the Russian ‘aggression’.
The President of Finland Sauli Niinistö also tweeted, “I strongly condemn the military measures Russia has started in Ukraine. Russia’s acts target Ukraine, but at the same time they are an attack on the entire European security order. We feel deep compassion towards Ukraine and are seeking ways to increase our support to Ukraine.”
2. The future of NATO?
The question of Ukraine signing up for the membership of the Non Aligned Treaty Organisation (NATO) catalysed the current crisis. Putin has demanded security guarantees including no expansion of NATO to stop any further expansion to the east. He wants NATO’s withdrawal from former Soviet states and return to its spheres of influence as it existed before 1997.
The dynamics changed rapidly since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 by Putin. NATO deployed reinforcements in member states in the region deemed as vulnerable to Russian aggression. The Baltic state of Lithuania that joined the bloc in 2004, allowed the stationing of the Enhanced Forward Presence multinational battalion on its soil in 2017.
“This is a grave breach of international law, and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security. I call on Russia to cease its military action immediately and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. NATO allies will meet to address the consequences of Russia’s aggressive actions. We stand with the people of Ukraine at this terrible time. NATO will do all it takes to protect and defend all allies,” said the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Question is what happens if Russia gains full control of Ukraine and how will it impact NATO? If NATO does not militarily deter Putin will it be forced to step down and give in to Putin’s demands?
“Until now, Russian forces could deploy only as far as Ukraine’s eastern border, several hundred miles from Poland and other NATO countries to Ukraine’s west. When the Russians complete their operation, they will be able to station forces – land, air and missile – in bases in western Ukraine as well as Belarus, which has effectively become a Russian satrapy,” argues Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in his column in the Washington Post.
3. What Does Putin Want?
Putin was seen rebuking his own top spy chief this week in a viral video, asking him to ‘speak plainly’ at the security meet recently ahead of recognising the separatist break away regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in Donbas.
The 69-year-old authoritarian leader is not looking to stitch back the former Soviet Union. But there is little doubt that he wants a new sphere of Russian influence, one that hinges on his Eurasian Vision with Moscow as the economic powerhouse driving it.
“With the eastward expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions sputtering to a close, and with China still primarily focused on South and East Asia, Moscow feels it has the window to begin consolidating a new Eurasia. Rather than have the territory of the former Soviet Union effectively “partitioned” into European and Asian “spheres of influence,” Russia instead can reemerge as a leading global power by creating a new bloc of states that will balance the European Union in the West and a Chinese-led Asia in the East,” argued Nikolas K Gvosdev in The National Interest in 2012.
“Putin has now demanded a reset and wants all NATO forces withdrawn. In effect, he wants recognition that these nations are within Moscow’s sphere of influence,” wrote Geoffrey Van Orden of the Gold Institute for International Strategy, in an opinion article for Euronews.
In issuing veiled nuclear threats to the US-led West, Putin has upped his ante for a plan that has been in the making for a while now.
4. Global Diplomacy and India’s Dilemma
Finally the Ukrainian invasion once again leads to questions about the timeliness and efficacy of international diplomatic efforts and the UN security architecture itself. From unilateral wars to invasions, reimagining and building new security and peace architecture is a challenge that global leaders have been struggling to meet. Putin initiated his moves even as the Security Council was deliberating and appealing for dialogue and de-escalation.
The Normandy Process involving diplomats from France, Russia, Ukraine and Germany to resolve the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine was revived in January 2022 after a gap of several years since its creation in 2014. The ceasefire deal between Ukraine and the Russia backed separatists inked in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in 2014 was thrown out of the window as Putin recognised the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
How can peace be negotiated? What will be the give for the take?
And can India continue to take a measured position and not condemn unequivocally the military action by its tried and tested friend Russia?
“The immediate priority is de-escalation of tensions taking into account the legitimate security interests of all countries and aimed towards securing long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond,” India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Tirumurti reiterated at the Security Council special debate on February 22.
With its deep defence ties including supplies of S-400 Triumf missiles, India has so far not joined the Western partners in condemning Russian aggression and seeking action against the moves. India’s differing position has not surprisingly been welcomed by Moscow.
But with no ambiguity left now on Russian military invasion, New Delhi finds itself in a tight spot with difficult tight rope walking between Russia and the US-led West. The presence of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, however ill timed, in Moscow and strategic alignment of Russia and China on security issues will only add to Delhi’s woes.