Ukraine conflict: Russia's military gambit

Russia invokes the right to protect civilians doctrine, which was used by the U.S. in its post-Soviet Union wars, to a launch special military action in Ukraine and strike against the American “empire of lies”. For President Vladmir Putin, the expansion of NATO to include Ukraine was a “direct threat” to his nation’s security.

Published : Mar 15, 2022 06:00 IST

Ukrainian   service members look for and collect unexploded shells after a fight with Russian raiding group in Kyiv  on February 26.

Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after a fight with Russian raiding group in Kyiv on February 26.

AFTER FAILING TO FIND A DIPLOMATIC solution to the impasse with the West on the issue of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of “a special military operation” in Ukraine in the last week of February. In a television address to his countrymen explaining the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine, he said the goal was to “demilitarise” Ukraine and that there was no intention to “occupy” that country. Putin tried to differentiate between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the United States-led war on Yugoslavia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the military interventions in Libya and Syria in the last decade.

Putin recalled that the Yugoslav war was conducted by NATO right in the heart of Europe without the authorisation of the United Nations Security Council. Putin said the attack on Iraq was the most blatant violation of international law. The West, he said, preferred to forget these events. “I have to recall these facts because some Western colleagues prefer to forget them, and when we mention the event, they prefer to avoid speaking about international law,” he said.

Putin said the Russian military action in Ukraine was a strike against the American “empire of lies”. Moscow had been trying for the past 30 years to come to an agreement with leading NATO countries “regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe”, he said

The Red Line

Putin said Russia’s proposals were met with “either cynical deception and lies or attempts at pressure and blackmail”. In the meantime, the NATO military machine moved inexorably towards Russia’s border despite repeated protests and concerns from Moscow. Putin said he warned repeatedly that the expansion of NATO was a question of “life and death” for his country. “This is the red line that I was talking about multiple times”, and “they have crossed it”, he said.

Putin said the West took advantage as the Soviet Union grew weaker in the 1980s. “We lost confidence only for one moment, but it was enough to disrupt the balance of forces in the world,” Putin said while announcing the dispatch of Russian troops to Ukraine.

The President recalled that another attempt was made in December 2021 to reach an agreement with the West on the principles of European security and NATO’s non-expansion. He said those last-ditch attempts were in vain. The NATO alliance led by the U.S. had taken the sanctimonious position that every country has the right to choose its own military partners. Washington has been jealously guarding its sphere of influence for more than two centuries now. The previous U.S. administration even talked about reviving the infamous “Monroe Doctrine”, which defined the entire American continent as being within Washington’s zone of influence.

Also read: How the Ukraine-Russia crisis reached a tipping point

Putin warned Russia’s enemies that if they interfered in Ukraine the response from Moscow would be immediate “and will lead you to such consequences that you have not experienced before”.

In his speech, Putin accused leading NATO countries of extending support to ultranationalist and neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine following the Western-supported regime change in 2014. A day before the military intervention, Russia formally recognised the autonomous regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, which were formed in the industrial Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in May 2014. Putin said another important reason for the military action was the request for assistance from the leaders of the two republics. They had sought autonomy from Kyiv after the constitutional coup of 2014 led to the overthrow of the Viktor Yanukovych government.

Yanukovych had wanted Ukraine to remain neutral and not join either the European Union (E.U.) or NATO. After his ouster, the Russian-speaking people of Donbas rose in revolt against the new government.

R2P Doctrine

Russia invoked the R2P (right to protect civilians) doctrine, which the U.S. frequently uses as a pretext to intervene in other countries militarily, while sending its forces to Ukraine. It is a fact that the Russian-speaking minority in the region was under constant attack from Ukrainian nationalist forces in the past eight years. During the period, Ukrainian forces, armed and trained by NATO, became stronger than the forces in Donetsk and Lugansk.

While announcing the recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, Putin said that Ukraine was not only a neighbour but “an inherent part of our history, culture and spiritual space”. The President pointed out that modern Ukraine was “completely created” by Russia after the Communists took power and created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and recalled that in 1954 the Soviet leadership had removed Crimea from Russian jurisdiction and ceded it to the Soviet republic of Ukraine.

Power and influence of Orthodox churches

After the break-up of the USSR, the power and influence of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches were revived. The Ukrainian Orthodox denomination has been historically under the overall control of its Russian counterpart. But since the Maidan Revolution of 2014, the Ukrainian government has been working overtime to create a schism between the two branches. Putin had warned in 2018 that attempts to divide the faithful “could turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed”. In the current conflict, the Ukrainian clergy loyal to the Patriarch in Moscow is praying for peace while the breakaway Ukrainian branch is calling on its followers to fight for their country. The Russian Orthodox Church originated in Kyiv when Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity in 988 C.E.

Also read: The role of the Orthodox Churches in the Ukraine conflict

Putin said politicians and oligarchs who took power in Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR “had nothing to do with its independence”. He said the current leadership in Kyiv had taken power after overthrowing an elected government in 2014 by taking advantage of popular anger over corruption.

Making another serious accusation against the present Ukrainian government, Putin said Ukraine could be planning to make nuclear weapons. Some leading members of Ukraine’s ruling establishment have been openly talking about the need for Ukraine to have a nuclear deterrent. Putin said Moscow was not taking the threat lightly as Ukraine possessed Soviet-era nuclear technology. Putin said Russia could not exclude the possibility of Western powers helping Kyiv with building a nuclear weapon, given the fact that it is flooding the country with sophisticated weaponry worth billions of dollars.

‘Direct threat’ to Russia

Putin highlighted the “direct threat” Ukraine could pose to Russia’s national security if it were admitted to the Western military alliance. The “training centres” that have been established in Ukraine were de facto military bases and “illegal” under the country’s constitution. Putin also spoke about the deployment of “dual-use” American missile defence systems in eastern Europe, which could be used to target locations deep inside Russia. The U.S. has walked out of almost all the nuclear arms treaties it had signed with Russia.

In 2019, the Donald Trump administration announced that the U.S. was suspending its participation in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The treaty, signed in 1987, was meant to eliminate the presence of land-based nuclear missiles with a range of 500 kilometres to 5,500 km from Europe. Moscow had said Washington’s withdrawal from the treaty was part of a larger plan to weaken the norms surrounding the use of nuclear weapons.

Also read: Why Russia has a problem with NATO’s eastward expansion

A deployment of NATO’s radar equipment in Ukraine would allow the Western military alliance to effectively control all airspace over Russia. The Russian side had warned on several occasions in the last couple of months that if its demands for a change in the security architecture of Europe was not met, then it had the right to respond with “military and technical measures”. Senior Russian officials have suggested that these measures may not be confined to the European theatre but may extend to West Asia and all the way to Latin America.

Punitive sanctions

The Russian government went ahead with its military operations in Ukraine despite dire threats from the West. At the Munich security conference held in the third week of January, Western leaders had warned that punitive sanctions, including the cutting off the Russian economy from the E.U., would be imposed on Russia if it went ahead with its military plans in Ukraine. The West has acted on its threats: the most punitive sanctions in history have been imposed on Russia now. Two of Russia’s leading banks were excluded from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT). International business in dollars is conducted through this mechanism. It is a messaging service that connects banks worldwide. MasterCard and Visa have suspended their dealings with Russia.

The American dollar is the “ de facto global reserve currency”. The aim is to cripple the Russian economy by provoking a banking crisis. “We will provoke the collapse of the Russian economy”, the French Finance Minister Bruno La Maire said. According to the Minister, nearly $1 trillion of Russian assets had been frozen as a result of the new sanctions.

Reacting to the latest round of sanctions, Putin said they are “equivalent to a declaration of war”. His government was preparing to secure its $1.5 trillion economy since the events in Ukraine in 2014. It has been steadily removing its oil-dominated economy off the dollar and had started stockpiling other foreign currencies and gold. Russia has stockpiled $630 billion in foreign exchange reserves. Russia has already started dealing with China in yuan. Russia has assured India that their defence and other deals will not be affected as both sides will have the option to switch to the rupee-rouble trade bypassing the dollar.

Also read: Sanctions against Russia over Ukraine crisis - will they work?

Russian commercial flights have been banned over western Europe and North American airspace. Russian media outlets such as the popular Russia Today (RT) network and Sputnik were taken off the air in Europe and America. The RT network suddenly went off the air in India on March 5, with the service provider saying that it was due to a temporary technical glitch. The West has conveniently forgotten all the talk of freedom of expression.

The Russian football team has been banned from participating in the playoffs for the November-December 2022 World Cup and its football clubs have been prevented from participating in matches outside the country. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) imposed a ban on Russians from participating in the February 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing. The sanctions regime against Russia stooped to an absurd level after the International Federation of Felines banned the import of Russian cats.

One of the U.S.’ demands, even before the situation in Ukraine escalated, was for the suspension of the multibillion Nord Stream 2 project for the direct supply of Russian gas through a 1,200-km gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from the coast of St Petersburg to Lubmin in northern Germany. Germany shelved the project on February 22. The project, which was finished in September 2021, was due to be operational soon. Germany was initially reluctant to freeze the project but caved in after intense pressure from the U.S. following the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine. The U.S. and its allies have never been subjected to the rigorous legal and moral standards that Russia is being forced to endure after its forces entered Ukraine.

Russian music conductors and artistes working in Western capitals have been sacked from their jobs when they did not comply with requests to condemn the Russian President and state. Among those who lost their jobs was the internationally acclaimed chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Opera, Valery Gergev, and the star soprano Anna Netrebko at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “It is not fair to force artistes, or any other personality, to express their political opinions in public and denounce their homeland,” Netrebko said.

Also read: Are bans against Russian arts the right target?

For the first time since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Russia has been involved in a war outside its borders. In that period, the U.S. has waged war on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria and helped its allies in the past seven years wage a war that has killed more than a hundred thousand civilians in Yemen. It was the decisive Russian military intervention in Syria, at the request of the country’s government, that helped rescue West Asia from the clutches of radical Islamist forces. That intervention had thwarted Washington’s plans for regime change in Damascus. The U.S. political establishment has never forgiven Russia for its military support to Syria.

Military push ‘according to plan’

From available indications, the Russian military has been making a slow but steady progress in the initial phase of its military intervention in Ukraine. In order to avoid collateral damage to civilian property and unnecessary loss of human lives, the Army has not deployed its full forces in the first week of fighting. Putin, speaking on March 4, said that the Russian military advance in Ukraine was “going according to plan”. The capture of the strategic city of Kherson in early March is an important gain. The area near Kherson, situated on the Dnieper river, was the source of water supply to the Crimean Peninsula until 2014.

Most military analysts believe that it is now only a matter of time before the other major cities, including Kyiv and Kharkov, to fall to the advancing Russian forces. Putin said Russians consider Kyiv the “mother of all Russian cities” and, therefore, did not want to order a full-scale offensive.

Odessa, Ukraine’s third biggest city and its largest port, is also under assault. It Odessa falls, Ukraine will no longer have access to the Black Sea. Most military analysts are convinced that Russia’s important military goal is to secure a land corridor linking the Donbas region to Crimea.

Also read: Putin's ploy in Ukraine an act of war or peacekeeping deployment?

According to reports, the Ukrainian forces put up a fight in the early stages of the war. The Ukrainian Army is one of the biggest in Europe with 170,000 active-duty soldiers, 100,000 reservists and a 100,000-strong territorial defence force consisting of Army veterans. The Ukrainian government ordered all able-bodied men in the ages of 18 to 60 to enlist. NATO countries have been sending sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine and are also providing intelligence and helping Ukraine in the propaganda war. Most of the lethal military aid to Ukraine, including Stinger missiles and anti-tank weaponry like Javelin missiles, is being routed through Poland.

In the past eight years, the U.S. Special Forces have been training Ukrainian combat units in Lyiv, which is in the western part of the country. U.S. military analysts said that the training has helped the Ukrainian forces from preventing a quick military victory for Russia. The U.S. has deployed an additional 15,000 troops on Russia’s borders. Other NATO members such as France and Germany have also been sending troops to Ukraine’s borders. Germany, until the end of February, had even declined to dispatch weapons to Ukraine. Now it is sending Patriot anti-missile batteries to the country and soldiers to the border with Russia. Washington has given Berlin the green signal to embark on a militaristic path once again.

Ukrainian refugees

Moscow will view all these moves as another illustration of the continuing NATO interference in Ukraine. Russia has said that around 500 of its soldiers have been killed in action in the first week of fighting. The casualty figures among Ukrainian forces are expected to be much more, although the government in Kyiv has not given any figures as of early March.

As happens in wars, civilians are suffering the most. More than 1.3 million Ukrainians have left the country after 10 days of fighting. The United Nations Refugee Agency has warned that Europe will soon face “the largest refugee crisis in this century”.

Also read: Ukraine conflict forces E.U. refugee policy reversal

Ukrainian refugees are, however, being welcomed with open arms and provided with food and shelter by European countries. The E.U. has waived residency and other requirements for Ukrainians treating them almost on a par with other E.U. citizens. A different yardstick is being applied to non-European refugees from Ukraine, including Indian and African students fleeing the war in Ukraine.

African students said that Ukrainian soldiers hindered them from leaving the country. The African Union (A.U.) and the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, among others have condemned the treatment of Africans trying to flee Ukraine.

Russia may have been ostracised by the West after the recent events but it is not isolated internationally. India and China have both abstained in crucial U.N. Security Council and General Assembly votes on Ukraine. Both countries have called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and respect for the sovereignty of all nations. Ukraine wants China to play the role of a mediator in the current conflict. The Chinese Ambassador to the U.N. said that Ukraine was “a bridge between the East and the West” in Europe.

The Joe Biden administration put a lot of pressure on India to censure Russia at the U.N. As New Delhi declined to do the needful, there are signs that U.S.-India bilateral relations are in danger of fraying. Donald Lu, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, speaking to a Senate subcommittee, a day after India’s third abstention on a vote on Ukraine at the U.N., said that New Delhi as a strong partner of Washington, should have taken into consideration “the extreme criticism” Russia had faced. He stressed that it was time for India “to further distance” itself from Russia. He told American lawmakers that India had already started acting on U.S. concerns by cancelling orders for MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and anti-tank missiles from Russia.

Also read: E.U. prepares for millions of Ukrainian refugees

The State Department official did not rule out sanctions on India if it went ahead and imported the S-400 missile system from Russia. He said he did not want “to prejudge the decisions” of the U.S. President or “whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will bear on the issue”.

Countries in West Asia and Africa have refused to take sides. South Africa was among the 14 African nations that refused to join the West in condemning Russia in the General Assembly vote held in the first week of March. Many South Africans remember that the U.S. supported the apartheid regime almost until the bitter end. Lt Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, said in a tweet “that a majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine”.

In the Asia-Pacific region, only the U.S.’ long-standing military allies such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia have agreed to international sanctions against Russia. President Biden’s pledge of making Putin “a pariah on the international stage”, if current signs are any indications, will be a difficult goal to achieve. Mexico, the U.S.’ immediate neighbour, has refused to impose sanctions on Russia. “We are not going to take any sort of economic reprisal because we want to have good relations with all the governments in the world,” Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said. He also criticised the censorship of the Russian media by the West. Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing President of Brazil, surprisingly, has refused to support Washington. On a visit to Moscow before the Russian military action in Ukraine, Bolsonaro said without elaborating that he “was in solidarity with Russia”. Brazil, like India, is a member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping of which Russia is a key member.

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