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Ukraine

Ukraine conflict begins to resemble virtual NATO-Russia war

Print edition : May 06, 2022 T+T-
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Service members of pro-Russian troops on a road leading to the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 15.

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In the second week of April, Slovakia, a NATO member, announced that it had transferred S-300 Soviet-era air defence units to Ukraine. This photograph taken on December 13, 2013, shows an S-300 PMU-1 anti-aircraft missile launch during a Greek army military exercise on the island of Crete.

At the instigation of the Biden administration, the conflict in Ukraine has now been virtually transformed into a NATO-Russia war. However, hopes that the Russian army would be caught in a military quagmire in that country are fading by the day.

By mid April, the Russian military had shifted most of its focus to the eastern, predominantly Russian-speaking part of Ukraine. The Russian Defence Ministry made an official statement in late March that it had achieved its major military objectives in the rest of the country and was therefore lifting the siege on cities outside the Donbas region, like the capital, Kyiv. It has been clear for some time that the eventual goal of the Russian military operation is to ensure the long-term security of the Donbas republics and the Crimean Peninsula, which had opted to break away from Ukraine.

Speaking to the media in the second week of April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with the West to supply even more weaponry, warning that if the entire Donbas region fell, then the capital would again come under siege. The Russian military and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been reiterating that the limited military operations in the rest of Ukraine are over and that the Russian armed forces are now completely focussed on “the liberation” of the Donbas region.

While calling for more military help from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Zelensky is at the same time continuing to insist that he is willing to negotiate a peace deal with Moscow. He has been saying for some weeks that his country would no longer aspire to be a NATO member and would embrace neutrality if the West agreed to provide his country with binding security guarantees. The United States, the United Kingdom, Poland and Turkey, all NATO members, were quick to signal that they were amenable to this proposal. It was no surprise that Russia threw cold water on the latest proposal, which would mean a back-door entry for NATO into Ukraine. Zelensky claims that the security guarantees from the West are needed as Ukraine had voluntarily given up its nuclear weapons. It is true that Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal between 1993 and 1996 after becoming an independent country following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). However, it is also a fact that the de facto ownership of the nuclear weapons was with the Russian Federation. Kazakhstan, another member state of the USSR, also voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons. It was mainly Russian scientists and nuclear technicians who were in charge of the nuclear installations in the former Soviet Union. The West was happy when the Ukrainians and the Kazakhs decided to give up their nuclear weapons.

Immense damage to Ukrainian economy

Zelensky continues to pay lip service to the need to end the conflict, which started in the last week of February and has caused immense damage to the Ukrainian economy. In a recent report, the World Bank predicted that the country’s economy would shrink by a staggering 45.1 per cent this year as a result of the conflict. The Russian economy is predicted to shrink by more than 10 per cent. The rouble has bounced back considerably after the initial shock resulting from the draconian economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West.

Putin made a prediction in mid April that the U.S.-led sanctions would boomerang on the West. He pointed out that Western countries were already feeling “the pain”. Fuel and food prices have registered a sharp increase in European countries. Inflation is rising not only in western Europe but also in the U.S. as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. Putin said that the European Union countries had shown once again that they were acting as a “poodle” of the U.S. Speaking to the media in mid April, Putin claimed that the U.S.-led “blitzkrieg” to humble Russia had failed yet again. “We are not going to isolate ourselves, and it is generally impossible to isolate anyone in the modern world, and most certainly not a country as huge as Russia,” Putin said. He conceded that what was happening in Ukraine was “a tragedy” but once again reiterated that Russia had been left with no option but to invade Ukraine as the West was turning the country into an “anti-Russian bridgehead”.

Also read: IMF slashes global growth outlook amid Ukraine conflict

Ever since the U.S. announced its intention to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia into NATO in 2008, Russia had been warning that under no circumstances would it accept such a development. Russia had reluctantly accepted as a fait accompli the incorporation of former Soviet republics such as Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia into NATO but had drawn a “red line” in the case of Ukraine and Georgia, the two countries with which it has close historical and cultural ties.

Lulled by the Russian military’s seeming inability to capture Ukraine’s big cities, the West is pressing the Ukrainian army to go on fighting. However, the hope that the Russian army would be caught in a military quagmire in Ukraine is fading by the day. In the first two weeks of April, the West has funnelled in more lethal weaponry to the Ukrainian armed forces. The conflict in Ukraine has now been virtually transformed into a NATO-Russia war at the instigation of the Biden administration.

In the second week of April, Slovakia, a NATO member, announced that it had transferred S-300 Soviet-era air defence units to Ukraine. The S-300 is a surface-to-air missile system. The U.S. immediately gifted the Slovaks with its Patriot missile system as a token of gratitude. “To enable this transfer and ensure the continued security of Slovakia, the United States will reposition its Patriot missile system to Slovakia,” President Joseph Biden said in a statement. The Biden administration had failed earlier to persuade Poland to transfer its Mig-29 fighters to Ukraine. Russia had warned that it would consider such a move an act of war. Eduard Heger, the right-wing Prime Minister of Slovakia, hastened to clarify that his government’s move did not mean that the Slovak Republic “has become part of the armed conflict in Ukraine”. U.S. military experts said the decision to send S-300s to Ukraine marked a new phase in the ongoing conflict.

But within days of the announcement, the Russian military spokesman claimed that four S-300 units transported into Ukraine by NATO had been targeted and destroyed in the city of Dnipro. The Russian military has made it clear that it will destroy Western military equipment as soon as it crosses the Ukrainian border. Biden meanwhile continues with his insulting tirade against his Russian counterpart, calling him a “dictator” who has committed “genocide” in Ukraine. In the third week of April, the White House said that the U.S. would be providing another $750 million in military assistance to Ukraine.

Existential threat

Professor John Mearsheimer, an international relations expert who teaches at the University of Chicago, recently said that Russia viewed Ukrainian and Georgian membership of NATO as “an existential threat”, and therefore, this was a “must-win” conflict for the Russian government. Speaking on Russian television, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the main goal of the “special military operation” in Ukraine was “to put an end to the reckless expansion and the reckless course towards complete dominance, of the United States”.

Speaking at the opening of a new spaceport in the Far East of Russia on April 12, Putin said that peace talks had reached “a dead end”, putting the blame on the recent actions of the Ukrainian government, including conducting “false flag operations” in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Putin said that “British Intelligence” had fabricated evidence about a massacre of civilians in Bucha. He described it as a “provocation” staged by the British government. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in Kyiv soon after the horrific pictures of the killings in the Kyiv suburb hit international headlines.

Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who was also present at the ceremony presided over by Putin, said that there was clinching evidence of British involvement in the staging of the alleged Bucha incident. The Western media glossed over video footage of Ukrainian forces executing Russian soldiers and the arrests of thousands of civilians, prominent politicians and businessmen on the suspicion of being Russian sympathisers or spies.

Also read: Why Donbas is so important for Russia

Putin also said that the inflexible negotiating position adopted by the Ukrainian side during the talks in Istanbul was unacceptable to Russia. He said that the “military operations will continue until its full completion”. He once again specified that the goal of military operations centred around the Donbas region, which has been up in arms against the central government since the U.S.-sponsored Euromaidan revolution of 2014. “We will act rhythmically and calmly, according to the plan that was initially proposed by the General Staff,” Putin said. “Our goal is to help the people of Donbas who feel an unbreakable bond with Russia.” The Russian army seems to be on the verge of achieving its military goals in the eastern part of the country. The important southern port city of Mariupol has been the first to fall. More than a thousand Ukrainian marines defending the city surrendered in the third week of April. The capture of Mariupol would allow Russian troops to move north to link up with the Russian army that is trying to move south from the city of Izyum. If this happens, the bulk of the Ukrainian army concentrated further east will be surrounded by the Russian forces. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city, is also under immense pressure from the Russian military and the Donbas militias.

The U.S. has used the alleged human rights violations by Russian forces in Bucha and other parts of Ukraine to further isolate Russia in international forums. A U.S.-sponsored resolution in the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was approved in the first week of April after a majority of member states voted with the U.S. The Biden administration had put considerable pressure on governments to vote for the resolution. Despite this, 24 states voted against it and 58 abstained. India was among the prominent countries having good relations with Russia that abstained. China, as expected, voted against the resolution. Moscow had urged all its friends and allies to oppose the resolution, stating that abstention would be viewed as an “unfriendly act”. After the vote, Russia announced that it was quitting the UNHRC.

The Indian government has been abstaining in all the resolutions on the Ukraine conflict tabled in the U.N. so far. The Biden administration has not hidden its disapproval of the Indian government’s stance and its willingness to do business as usual with Russia. Biden told Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of the recent 2+2 ministerial meeting in Washington between the Indian Foreign and Defence Ministers and their U.S. counterparts that India should not increase its reliance on Russian oil and gas.

Also read: Power and myth of the Kremlin

The U.S. was angry with India’s decision to buy discounted Russian oil soon after the conflict in Ukraine broke out. “We share a close and growing major defence partnership,” Biden said in his opening remarks. “The United States and India will continue our close consultation on how to manage the destabilising efforts of the Russian war.”

The Indian side has been pointing out that the U.S.’ European allies such as Germany, Hungary and Italy are against a ban on the import of Russian oil and gas. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said that the amount of Russian oil India purchased in a month was less than what countries like Germany purchased in a day. Russian oil accounts for less than 1 per cent of India’s energy imports. Top officials in the Biden administration have also been advising the Indian government to wean itself off Russian armaments; 60 per cent of India’s arms imports are sourced from Russia. One senior U.S. State Department official even advised India to loosen ties with the Non-Aligned Movement and the G77 group of developing nations. Some U.S. officials are warning of adverse consequences for India if it does not further distance itself from Russia. The U.S. wants to use the Ukraine crisis to force countries like India to give up their strategic autonomy and get further enmeshed into putative U.S.-sponsored military alliances such as the Quad.

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