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Russian-Ukraine Standoff: Competing For One-Upmanship – Analysis

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The United States has undoubtedly intruded into erstwhile Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe with NATO’s eastward expansion. Putin has been working hard over the last two decades to efface the slur of its dismemberment 30 years ago with the collapse of Soviet Union (USSR) in 1989-90. Both the sides are trying to contain each other’s advance in the region. The fall-out of the escalating conflict would not remain limited to the region alone but would also determine their global image, in terms of their power and military strength. This is also the testing time of diplomacy on both sides.

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What are Demands of Putin?

  • That Ukraine be permanently barred from exercising its sovereign right to join the Western alliance;
  • That other NATO actions, such as stationing troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed.
  • That the separation of Ukraine and Belarus from Russia into two separate states is artificial. Putin and Russia seem to have not accepted the fact of dismemberment of Ukraine and Belarus from Russia and have been claiming that these two countries are a part of historical Russian linguistic and Orthodox motherland
  • That the partition of Ukraine and Belarus from Russia occurred owing to political mistakes during Soviet era.
  • That the partition of Ukraine has been sustained largely by a malevolent ‘anti-Russia project’ supported by US since 2014.  

The demands thus make it obvious that Russia is aiming at regaining its lost glory, especially on its neighbourhood front. 

NATO’s Response:

  • NATO has declared that demands are unacceptable as joining the alliance is a right of any country and does not threaten Russia.
  • NATO also views that Russia is increasingly getting frightened of advance of democracy in its neighbourhood than NATO.

Dynamics of the Conflict:

  1. As alleged by critics of Putin that Putin is frightened of not NATO, but of an emergence of a democratic and prospering Ukraine. It may be possible that a democratic state in Russia’s neighbourhood may offer an alternative to Russian populace which are said to be under the autocratic rule. Hence, a successful Ukraine may prompt Russians to appeal and demand for greater autonomy and democracy. 
  2. Putin may be interested to recreate its own arena of influence in eastern Europe, which it has lost with the fall of Berlin Wall and dismemberment of erstwhile Soviet Union amidst collapse of Cold War. Eastern Europe remained a good buffer zone between the NATO and the USSR during the days of Cold War. That stands encroached upon by the Western alliance-led NATO in the aftermath of Cold War. 
  3. NATO has orchestrated inclusion of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic in the aftermath of the collapse of Cold War. This eastward expansion of NATO is surely a great cause of concern for power projection of Russia and attenuation of its international personality. This is bound to be resisted by Russia as fall of Ukraine to NATO’s fold would mean arrival of NATO at Russian doorsteps.   
  4. Most countries have been wary of Soviet era domination during the days of Cold War that did not allow them to prosper. Accordingly, most of these countries are now exposed to Western-free-market system and thus are aspiring to secure freedom, independence, and prosperity for themselves joining the Western alliance. This is being detested by Russia as it would enhance the threat perception of Russia as it involves deployment of NATO on Russian borders, thereby compromising its security. 
  5. Countries of the Eastern Europe are on the other hand frightened of a strong Russia as it would gradually dominate over them given its nuclear stockpiles and military build-up. Hence, they have been rushing to join NATO. They are doing so probably to keep Russia weak which may help them to keep their sovereignty intact and continue to enjoy freedom.  

Thus, NATO’s eastward expansions and Russia’s growing threat perceptions have perpetuated the situations of ‘Tug of War’ between Western alliance-led NATO and Russia. NATO trying to reach the Russian border and Russia contesting to keep NATO at bay. Hence, Russia this time has adopted a strong psoture by deploying huge military force near Ukraine border. 

Russia led to the formation of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in response to NATO. CSTO was formally brought into existence in 2002 after six countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) signed to transform Collective Security Treaty into CSTO as a military alliance. Now under the garb of CSTO Russia has been articulating military interventions in CSTO countries. It happened recently in \Kazakhstan, where Russia deployed its military to restore political order amidst violent protests. Thus, NATO seems to have been getting worried about CSTO expanding role in the region, which once again may facilitate Russia to re-establish itself as another pole within the existing global order.   

Compulsions of US Tough Posture:

President Joe Biden has taken a tough stand against amassing of the troops on Russia’s Ukraine border owing to number of compulsions.

First, Biden immediately after assuming presidentship endeavoured to take a lead towards bringing-out US from years of isolation during the days of Trump and regain the lost glory of US as global leader in all walks of international relations. Hence, even in this case he has committed 8,500 troops on high alert. Troops would probably be deployed in Europe as part of NATO ‘response force’. 

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Secondly, Biden has been facing number of problems on domestic turfs: the COVID-19 pandemic; resurgence of inflation; crisis of legitimacy as a large number of US electorate does not recognise his presidency; and a Congress that has blocked number of his social and climate change related bills. Thus, the issue has potentials to divert the attention of US citizens from domestic to the international issues. 

Thirdly, Biden on the one hand has been saying that a military intervention in support of Ukraine will not be resorted to. On the other hand, he has reposed greater trust in diplomatic endeavours. Accordingly, he has been rallying his European allies and promises of severe and painful sanctions against Russia if it resorts to military adventures against Ukraine. This makes it quite confusing as to what the Western allies are up to even if they wish to adopt pressure tactics to contain Russian military adventures in Ukraine?  

Fourthly, Biden also finds it difficult to keep all the NATO allies on the same board. It means there may be differences brewing-up among the NATO’s erstwhile allies so far as orienting the right response to Russian military tactics in Ukraine are concerned. 

These notions of Biden have led to confusion about US articulations of responses to Russian military adventures. Thus, what comes out of the muscle flexing approach of USA that Russia still would be able to purse its agenda without being affected by Western aggressive postures.

Prospects of Russian Attack on Ukraine:

History is a witness to the fact that Russia has invaded Ukraine in 2014 when the Crimean crisis capitulated into its separation from Ukraine and merge with Russian federation. The Russian invasion faced little reaction as it had the support of pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists who were engaged in fighting with the Ukrainian government at Kyiv. This was a war that led to liquidation of nearly 14,000 people including 3000 civilians. Thus, a limited theatre war between Ukraine and Russia may not be ruled out, if Western pressure escalates and Ukraine remains adamant to be part of Western alliance led NATO. However, Putin must be knowing and have calculated that a full-scale war with the involvement of NATO would be suicidal. Russia has been continuously denying that it is planning any invasion of Ukraine.  

Challenges Ahead:

Both the sides are going to have challenges ahead as the standoff continues or if the conflict escalates into a war.

First, challenge is before the Western alliance as to how long they are going to continue on-boards with complete solidarity against a Russian adventure or so-called misadventure.

Second challenge is whether the US, EU and NATO would be able to sustain collective resolve to protect Ukraine’s choice of aligning with the West or letting it succumb under Russian pressure.

Third challenge is before Biden as to how it is going to convince the Congress about its foreign policy and military interventions in Russo-Ukraine quagmire. What is the ultimate objective and real gain of US in this endeavour would be a difficult proposition to answer, for Biden? 

Fourth challenge would be before Putin as to whether he would really resort to a full-scale war on Russo-Ukraine border to achieve its objective of changing the mind of Ukrainian leadership to remain loyal to Russia and must not try to shift sides with USA or NATO. War would be suicidal both for Ukraine as well as for Russia in terms of their economic loss, which is already in dilapidated conditions owing to Pandemic over the last couple of years. Russia would still suffer more as West may come to help Ukraine even economically. 

Fifth challenge is again before Putin, whether he would succeed or fail in his nationalist ambition of teaching lessons to Ukraine and sending a message to Belarus, and other East European countries that they must not create threat to its security aligning with US and EU-led NATO. 

For now, both Russia and the US seems to be deep in quagmire with Ukraine becoming the scapegoat. Ultimate loss would be of Ukraine and its citizens as both USA and Russia are flexing their muscles to establish their power, not alone in the European world but also at the global level. An attack from Russian side would be a futile misadventure and a full-scale war would be suicidal; hence nothing of the sort seems to be possible in near future. The entire episode is a one-upmanship game.       

Dr. Alok Kumar Gupta

Dr. Alok Kumar Gupta, Associate Professor Department of Politics and International Relations, Central University of Jharkhand Ranchi, Jharkhand, India

One thought on “Russian-Ukraine Standoff: Competing For One-Upmanship – Analysis

  • January 28, 2022 at 11:17 pm
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    Russia/Ukraine/Byelorussia is the ideal country as these people have most everything in common except for minor language difference in western Ukrainians Galicia region. Same Slavic origins, Orthodox religion , Cyrillic alphabet, intermarriages ,etc.

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