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Russia-Ukraine

Ukraine conflict: Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky responsible for crisis

Print edition : Mar 25, 2022 T+T-
FL25History-of-UKRAINE

February 3, 2022, Ukraine, under threat of invasion from their Russian neighbours to the east and occupying a strategic position for NATO to the west, has for centuries been at the crossroads for major regional powers. Graphic shows history of Ukraine since 750AD.

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June 3, 1961: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Vienna. The world was on the brink of a nuclear war in October 1962, and a good part of it might have been destroyed if Kennedy and Khrushchev had listened to the hardliners among their advisers. They both displayed judgment and diplomatic skills of a high order to arrive at a compromise .

Presidents Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky should urgently find a way out of the crisis they are responsible for. If these three men had not collaborated, however unwittingly, to escalate the dispute into hostilities, the course of history would have been different.

The war on Ukraine, fallaciouslyde scribed by Russian President Vladimir Putin (69) as a “special military operation”, is an unfolding Greek tragedy, unscripted, with no foreseeable end in sight even as over a million human beings have fled their homes to neighbouring countries. Women and children have left husbands and fathers behind. There are cases of fathers, brothers and husbands accompanying their families to neighbouring countries and then going back to fight the invaders. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has estimated that if the war lasts, about 10 million of Ukraine’s population of 43 million will be displaced. About 6 million will be displaced within the country and the rest outside it. Until now, Ukrainian refugees have been received in Europe with open arms.

Who is responsible?

The first question that comes uppermost to our minds about any war is, Who all are responsible for it? Obviously, it is not always correct to say that the person who fired the first shot started it. We need to examine the context in which the first shot was fired.

To understand what is happening in 2022, we need to go back to 1962, when Putin was 10 and United States President Joe Biden, 20. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine was not even born. The Central Intelligence Agency of the U.S. did not stop its attempts to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba even after the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 1961. Fearing invasion from his big neighbour, Castro asked Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for missiles. When U.S. President John Kennedy came to know of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, he took the stand that their presence so close to his country endangered its security. He demanded the removal of the missiles.

The world was on the brink of a nuclear war, and a good part of it might have been destroyed if Kennedy and Khrushchev had listened to the hardliners among their advisers. They both displayed judgment and diplomatic skills of a high order to arrive at a compromise for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and American missiles from Turkey. Kennedy would have faced much political embarrassment if he had had to give it in writing that he had agreed to the removal of missiles in Turkey. Khrushchev did not insist on a written commitment.

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

To understand what happens in human history, we often need to resort to contrafactual reasoning. Blaise Pascal (1623-62) gave the most famous contrafactual argument in history: “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

Obviously, if Biden and Putin had the wisdom and diplomatic skills of Kennedy and Khrushchev, there would have been no war. The responsibility for the war is not entirely that of Biden and Putin. Zelensky too has played a major role. If these three men had not collaborated, however unwittingly, to escalate the dispute into hostilities, the course of history would have been different.

French President Emmanuel Macron, the only Western leader who talks to Putin from time to time, has argued that it is “Putin’s war”. Other Western leaders, including Biden, of course, concur. However, that argument does not stand up to historical scrutiny. Most wars have two sets of causes: the deep ones and the immediate ones. In the present case, the deep causes go back to the U.S.’ wrong policy towards Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union that collapsed in December 1991. At that time, there was a window of opportunity to induct Russia, which held a MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) relationship with the U.S., into a cooperative security system in Europe. Washington naively imagined that the “unipolar moment” would last for years.

U nkept promise on NATO expansion

In 1985, years before the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended after Mikhail Gorbachev took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He introduced Perestroika (Restructuring) and Glasnost (Openness) and presided over the transition to democracy in the member states of the Warsaw Pact. In 1989, he outlined his vision of a “unified European community for the 21st century” based on political reality and a doctrine of restraint and targeted on the creation of a “vast economic space from the Atlantic to the Urals”. When Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany and to withdraw the Soviet military from East Germany, the West told him that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would not expand eastward. Some Western pundits have speciously argued that since nothing was given in writing, the West is not bound by it. That argument is a sad commentary on “liberal” morality.

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

The promise made about NATO not expanding eastward did make sense. It can be taken to its logical conclusion. NATO was formed in 1949 to “keep the USSR out and Germany down”. Since the Soviet Union is no more and Germany has no interest in militarising itself and dominating Europe, is there still any need for NATO? When the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO could have been dissolved and a cooperative security system could have been established in Europe.

The military-industrial-congressional complex in the U.S., more correctly, the merchants of death, did not want peace in Europe. Peace means less profit for them.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his compatriots in his farewell address in 1961: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Alas, the U.S. chose to ignore the counsel of Eisenhower, and the complex has only increased its clout in the government. This is the explanation for the eastward expansion of NATO starting from the late 1990s. In 2007 at the Munich Security Conference, Putin expressed his serious reservations about the expansion of NATO. Washington did not take note. At the 2008 NATO summit held in Bucharest, it was decided to keep pending the applications from Georgia and Ukraine. The U.S. was for immediate acceptance, but Germany, France and the United Kingdom wanted to wait. Four months after the Bucharest summit, Russia militarily intervened in Georgia to support a separatist movement in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The separatists prevailed thanks to Russia’s military support. NATO had to eat humble pie.

Also read: How Russia's invasion of Ukraine threatens geopolitical order

Putin used force without any challenge from NATO. It should have been obvious to anyone that Russia would intervene militarily if Ukraine moved closer to NATO. The West refused to learn any lesson from the misadventure of Georgia. In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea about which there is much misinformation in the public mind. Western propaganda and “public diplomacy” have succeeded in misleading the public. The prevailing impression is that an aggressive Putin annexed the Crimea with a weak political leadership in the West helplessly looking on. A robust leadership in the West could have prevented Putin from carrying out the annexation or made him reverse it after it occurred.

A timeline will help us understand.

1654

After a failed revolt in Crimea against Polish rule, the Cossacks decided to accept the suzerainty of the czar in Moscow.

1783

In search of a warm-water port, the Russian Navy starts building a port at Sevastopol in Crimea.

The same year under the Treaty of Paris, England recognises the United States of America.

1954

To honour the 300th anniversary of the 1654 agreement, the Supreme Soviet, upon a request from Khrushchev, decides to transfer Crimea from the Russian Federation to Ukraine. Khrushchev had a soft spot for Ukraine as he was born there and was in charge of it for many years under Joseph Stalin. For the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet Union was sempiternal, and it did not make any difference whether Crimea was with Russia or Ukraine.

1990-91

The Soviet Union collapses and a dispute arises between it and Ukraine over the ownership of the Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol.

1997

Ukraine agrees to a lease valid until 2017.

2010

President Viktor Yanukovych signs an agreement extending the lease until 2042 against Russia’s supplying gas to Ukraine at a discount. Yanukovych announces that he was not going to seek NATO membership.

2014

Yanukovych refuses to approve a Bill for closer association with the European Union. He flees to Russia in February following demonstrations against him. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, takes part in the demonstrations.

Putin fears that unless he acts quickly, one day Sevastopol will become a NATO base. Russia sends more troops to Crimea where Russia always had troops. Putin completes the annexation by March 2014.

Revolts against the Ukrainian government break out in the Donbas region of Ukraine that adjoins Russia and where the majority of people are Russian speakers. Russia supports the revolt, and the Ukrainian military is defeated twice. The “Republic of Donetsk” and the “Republic of Luhansk” are declared with Russian support.

2022

In February, before invading Ukraine, Russia formally recognises these two “republics”.

In short, Putin acted for solid national security reasons. He was aggressive, but we need to ask, Why was he aggressive? The West imposed sanctions on Russia. Such sanctions did not force Putin to reverse the annexation. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote that the U.S. should accept the annexation and Ukraine should be “a bridge” between Russia and NATO, without joining the latter. Kissinger counselled a neutral status for Ukraine taking into account its own mix of Ukrainian speakers adhering to Catholicism in the west of the country and Russian speakers following the Orthodox Church in the east. U.S. President Barack Obama ignored Kissinger’s advice.

In 2015, when France celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Obama refused to sit for dinner with Putin. French President Francois Hollande as the host had two dinners that evening.

Since the annexation of Crimea, the U.S. has pumped in more than $2.5 billion as military aid to Ukraine. It is difficult to see the logic of this policy as the U.S. did not want to take Russia on militarily and as no amount of military aid can make the Ukrainian military strong enough to resist the Russian military. Obviously, the “merchants of death” controlled policy.

Also read: Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk: A tale of creeping occupation

In December 2021, Russia handed over to the U.S. and to NATO two draft treaties making two demands. First, NATO should give an undertaking that Ukraine would never be admitted into the organisation. Second, NATO should reduce its military deployment in the member states adjacent to Russia.

Biden resorted to public diplomacy and publicly declared that Ukraine had every right to seek NATO membership and that NATO would maintain its “open-door” policy. He did not want to admit that Kennedy took the same position in 1962 as Putin did in 2022.The meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and other meetings, proved fruitless partly because before every meeting Russia was publicly berated and threatened with sanctions. The U.S. and its European allies had only the option of economic sanctions as NATO does not want to wage a war with Russia. Body bags are to be avoided at any cost. If Biden believed that the threat of sanctions would deter Putin, that was a flawed assessment.

Biden’s mistakes

Apart from publicly threatening Putin with sanctions, Biden made Zelensky believe that Ukraine would get all the support it needed from the U.S. and NATO. Zelensky’s request for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which the U.S. and NATO were bound to reject, should not have been made in public.

In his State of the Union message, Biden exhibited a degree of malicious pleasure from the pain inflicted on Russia. He has publicly called Putin a “pariah”. Such a display of contempt towards a fellow head of state is wrong. The U.S. does not seem to understand the nature of relations between China and Russia. As the Russian military was being deployed at the border, the U.S. shared intelligence with China and asked it to dissuade Putin. After a while China told Russia about the U.S. approach.

Also read: Russia relations are still 'rock solid': China

By confronting China and Russia simultaneously, Biden is deepening the nexus between them. The pundits in the U.S. who believe that China might have second thoughts about supporting a “sanctioned” Russia might be proved wrong.

Russia has raised an issue about the resumption of the nuclear deal with Iran, which is currently under discussion. Lavrov has asked for a written assurance from Blinken that the economic sanctions imposed on Russia will not come in the way of Russia’s obligations under the deal to help Iran in the development of nuclear energy for civilian use. Since sanctions against Russia’s export of oil and gas are being talked about, Russia would not like to see sanctions against Iran lifted right now. If for any reason the deal is not resumed, Iran will get closer to China and Russia. China has signed an agreement with Iran to invest $400 billion there over 25 years. Pakistan is likely to go with China. An axis linking China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan will not be in the interests of India or the U.S. Since Biden has taken away $3.5 billion from the assets of the Afghan Central Bank kept in the U.S. to be distributed among the families of those killed or injured on 9/11, we might see Afghanistan too join the axis.

India’s policy dilemma

The U.S. expected, without any good reasoning, India to join the international condemnation of Russia. India abstained on resolutions harshly critical of Russia. Those who say that India voted for Russia and against the U.S. do not get it right. India voted for India.

The U.S. might put more pressure on India. It might even threaten sanctions on the India’s purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. India should stand firm. India had meekly obeyed when U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Iran and stopped importing oil from that country. It has been reported that the Reserve Bank of India wants to revive the rouble-rupee trade arrangement.

Also read: The possible way out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Putin had the option to declare victory after a few days of military operations. Having recognised the two republics in Donbas, he could have said that he was ready to negotiate. Obviously, he intends to inflict destruction on Ukraine on a big scale. By depriving the Ukrainians of basic needs such as power and water, he might be hoping to compel Ukraine to sign on the dotted line.

We do not know the future. It is painfully clear many human beings will die and many more will see their lives endangered in many ways.

The Greeks who wrote the first tragedies had a saying: “Character is destiny.” The three Presidents (Putin, Biden and Zelensky) should urgently find a way out of the crisis they are responsible for.

It is difficult not to quote Count Carl von Clausewitz: “War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means…. For political aims are the end and war is the means, and the means can never be conceived without the end.”

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