World Affairs: Ukraine

Deepening crisis in Ukraine

Print edition : May 20, 2022

At a rally in central Kyiv on April 27, people demanding that international leaders organise a humanitarian corridor for the evacuation of Ukrainian military personnel and civilians from Mariupol. Photo: Gleb Garanich/REUTERS

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (centre) with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during their high-profile visit to Kyiv on April 24. Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Getty Images

A Flakpanzer Gepard “anti-aircraft cannon tank” shooting at air targets during a practice session in October 2004. Germany announced in the last week of April 2022 that it would supply the Ukrainian army with 50 of these tanks, which are used to shoot down aircraft but can also be used against targets on the ground. Photo: AFP photo/Handout/Michael Mandt/Bundeswehr

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Moscow on April 26. Photo: Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich/Kremlin VIA REUTERS

The conflict in Ukraine seems to have no chance of easing as the U.S. and its NATO allies continue with their bellicose statements and an ever-increasing supply of heavy military hardware to the embattled nation.

Even as the Russian army is making steady military advances into eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, there are ominous signs of the conflict evolving into a bigger war. There are more than a few concerned statesmen and diplomats around the world now talking about a conflict similar to the last world war breaking out if diplomacy does not prevail. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Moscow in the last week of April to meet with the Russian leadership. It was his first visit to Moscow since the conflict broke out in late February.

Speaking to the media after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Guterres said that he had obtained an agreement “in principle” with Moscow to evacuate civilians from the port city of Mariupol. Although Mariupol is now under the control of the Russian army and the Donbas militias, many civilians continue to be holed up in the city’s massive steel plant. Russia claims that remnants of the Ukrainian army and a far-right militia that are refusing to surrender are holding the civilians as hostages. Putin had ordered the Russian army to cease fire so that civilian lives could be spared and more bloodshed avoided.

Putin said that the U.N. and the international community were being deliberately misled and that Moscow had provided humanitarian corridors for those residents who wanted to leave Mariupol and other cities in the east. He said many civilians voluntarily went to Russia while others preferred to go to parts of Ukraine that were under the control of Kyiv. The Ukrainian government claimed that the Russian side prevented civilians from leaving besieged cities and towns.

Putin told Guterres that the talks with Ukraine would continue virtually but cast doubts about a “security agreement” being reached any time soon given the western-backed leadership’s outright refusal to concede Moscow’s primary demand for the recognition of the Crimean Peninsula as part of the Russian Federation and the acknowledgement that the two Russian-speaking Donbas republics had seceded from the Ukrainian state.

Also read: Why Donbas is so important for Russia

Guterres’ meeting with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took place just after the provocative high-profile visit to Kyiv of the United States Secretaries of State and Defence, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin. During their visit they reaffirmed that Washington would continue to fully support and further bolster the war aims of the government in Kyiv.

After returning from Kyiv, the two senior U.S. officials assembled a virtual war council on Ukraine at the Ramstein U.S. military base in Germany. The top military officials of 40 countries, including Israel and Australia, attended the meeting. Austin said that the “Ukrainian Contact Group” would meet every month and that the focus was on “winning the conflict” with Russia. The Contact Group, Austin said, should “move at the speed of war”. Gen. Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s commander in Europe, was even more forthright. He said that the main goal of the West in the Ukrainian conflict was “breaking the back” of the Russian army.

With tacit encouragement from its western backers, the Ukrainian government had increased its targeting of border areas inside Russia. In late April there was a series of Ukrainian attacks on Russian border towns. Blasts were reported in the provinces of Kursk and Voronezh. There were attacks on the Russian enclave of Transnistria located within Moldova. The local authorities there and Russia blamed Ukraine for the attacks. Russia has troops stationed in Transnistria, which is located just 50 km from the Ukrainian port of Odesa. The Ukrainian government has so far not taken any responsibility for the attacks, but an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “when you attack another country, sooner or later the debts have to be paid”. The Ukrainian government has also said that its goal is to drive all Russian forces out of eastern Ukraine. A large part of the east has been self-governing since 2014. The Ukrainian army has had no presence there for the last eight years.

The gloves are off

It is clear that the Biden administration has decided to significantly up the ante in its confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. When the conflict started, President Joe Biden had said that he did not want a direct military confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces in Ukraine. “Direct confrontation between NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] and Russia is World War III,” Biden proclaimed in early March. Now the Biden administration has thrown discretion to the winds and the gloves are off. Speaking after his visit to Kyiv, Austin said that the U.S.’ goal now was to ensure that Russia was so “militarily weakened” that it would no longer pose a threat to any of its neighbours.

The sanctions the Biden administration imposed on Russia in recent months were specifically aimed at curbing Russia’s military strength. The U.S. has imposed a ban on the export of high-tech components that the West claims are essential for Russia’s defence industry. The West claims that Russia, unlike China, does not have the expertise to produce its own chips.

Also read: Ukraine conflict begins to resemble virtual NATO-Russia war

According to many foreign policy analysts, the U.S.’ increasingly belligerent posture and the recent statements of top Biden administration officials are a signal that it is preparing for the long haul to undermine Russian influence in the region. The recent U.S. strategic moves coupled with the gargantuan increase in military supplies for the Ukrainian army come at a time when Russia is consolidating its military position in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.

Russia has been warning that the West’s ever-increasing supply of lethal weapons to the Ukrainian army is in itself an act of aggression. By the end of April, the Americans and their allies had dumped more advanced weaponry in Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles, tanks and tactical drones. Ben Wallace, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence, said that Ukraine was justified in targeting Russian territory and announced that Britain would be providing Ukraine with armoured vehicles capable of targeting Russian planes. U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss claimed that Ukraine’s “fate is in the balance” and that its allies should “ramp up” military production, including of tanks and planes, to help.

The British establishment has taken Russophobia to such a ludicrous extent that it has now banned Russian and Belarusian tennis players from participating in this year’s Wimbledon tournament. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) had the courage to criticise the decision, saying in a statement that the “unilateral decision by Wimbledon” to exclude players from Russia and Belarus “is unfair and has the potential to set a damaging precedent for the game”. It went on to say that “discrimination based on nationality also constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP rankings”.

Germany, which was initially reluctant to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine despite intense prodding from the U.S., has now decided to fully throw its weight behind the campaign to militarily bleed Russia. It announced in the last week of April that it would supply the Ukrainian army with 50 Flakpanzer Gepard “anti-aircraft cannon tanks”, which are used to shoot down aircraft but can also be used against targets on the ground. Germany has also supplied Ukraine with shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and surface-to-air missiles, many of them of Soviet vintage. After German reunification, East Germany’s large Soviet-era arsenal, which included Mig-29 fighter jets, became part of the country’s military arsenal.

Also read: E.U. struggles to find unity on Russian oil embargo

Germany’s political establishment has used the war in Ukraine as a pretext to triple the country’s defence budget: 100 billion euros has been earmarked for defence for this financial year. Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the government would be spending more than 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence. The U.S.-instigated wars in Europe have given Germany an excuse to rearm itself once again. The German Air Force saw its first serious military action since the Second World War during the NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia at the end of the last century. Since then, Germany has played a role in all the U.S.-led wars in the world, including in Afghanistan. The U.S. has been encouraging both Germany and Japan to rearm themselves to help it confront its two main strategic rivals, China and Russia.

Reacting to the decision of key NATO member countries to accelerate the supply of sophisticated weaponry into Ukraine, Lavrov said that the West was effectively sabotaging the prospects of peace talks. “They will continue that line with Ukraine,” he told the media after the talks with Guterres in Moscow. “If that continues, negotiations won’t yield any results.” Asked about the possibility of a nuclear conflict breaking out, Lavrov said that such a scenario was “unacceptable” to Russia but added that the risks had increased because “NATO had engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and was arming that proxy”.

While addressing Russian MPs on April 27, Putin warned the West that there would be a “lightning quick response” from Russia to western meddling in Ukraine. “We have all the tools for this that no one else can boast of having,” Putin said in his speech. “We won’t boast about it. We’ll use them if needed. We want everyone to know that. We have already taken all the decisions on this,” he warned. Putin pledged to complete the “special military operation” in Ukraine and blamed the West for instigating the current conflict. “All the tasks of the special military operation we are conducting in the Donbas and Ukraine, launched on February 24, will be unconditionally fulfilled,” Putin said. He also emphasised that the western attempts to “economically strangle Russia” through sanctions had failed.

Suspension of gas supplies

The Russian government made its toughest response yet against the West since the conflict in Ukraine escalated when it announced in the last week of April the “complete suspension” of gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria with immediate effect. Poland is the main conduit for the supply of NATO weaponry to Ukraine, and 45 per cent of its gas imports are from Russia. Bulgaria gets 90 per cent of its gas supplies from Russia. European Union (E.U.) countries have rushed in to help, with many of them diverting their own supplies of Russian-supplied gas to the two countries.

Also read: Russia's Gazprom cuts gas supplies to Poland, Bulgaria

Most of western Europe is heavily dependent on gas from Russia. The formal reason it gave for the decision to cut the gas supply was the two countries’ refusal to accede to Russia’s demand that they pay for the imported gas in roubles. No E.U. member state, except Hungary, has so far agreed to pay through the rouble mechanism. Payment in roubles will force Western government to deal with the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. After the West imposed wide-ranging sanctions, the Central Bank was cut off from the international banking system. Half of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves parked in the U.S. have been frozen because of sanctions. It could now only be a matter of time before Russia cuts off gas supplies to countries such as Germany and Italy that have become the biggest military backers of Ukraine, along with the U.S. and the U.K. As it is, oil and gas prices have started soaring not only in Europe but in other parts of the world as well because of the conflict in Ukraine.

Europe is facing a serious short supply in cooking oil, much of which was sourced from Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine is the world’s biggest producer of sunflower oil. Similarly, wheat prices are also rising. There is a shortage of the cereal because of the sanctions imposed on Russia. Ukraine and Russia are among the biggest wheat exporters in the world. Social unrest could break out in countries such as Egypt that are almost completely dependent on imported wheat. The populace in many West Asian countries is dependent on subsidised bread. The Ukraine conflict is having a ripple effect, adversely impacting the economies of almost all countries.