World Affairs: Ukraine

Will Ukraine be the next flashpoint?

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Rescue service personnel checking a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine on December 8. Photo: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden via a video call in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on December 7. Photo: Mikhail METZEL / SPUTNIK / AFP

While Russia has repeatedly denied that it has any plans for military intervention in Ukraine, the United States insists that an invasion is imminent even as Ukraine stated its intentions to reclaim both Crimea and the Donbas region from Russia.

The tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which have been simmering for many years since the so-called “Maidan revolution” of 2014, are now threatening to go out of control. The United States government under President Joe Biden has adopted an even more hawkish position than its predecessor, encouraging the Ukrainian government in Kyiv to take a more belligerent political and military position against Moscow. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. had provided sophisticated military hardware, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, to Ukraine. Earlier, this kind of weaponry was only given to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member countries in Europe.

Moscow is especially worried by Ukraine’s recent acquisition of Turkish Bayraktar combat drones. The drones proved their worth in the recent war over Nagorno Karabakh. According to experts, the military drones played a crucial role in the Azeri victory over Armenian forces. In September, the U.S. promised an additional $60 million in military aid to Ukraine just before a meeting between President Biden and his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The U.S. has so far committed more than $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the conflict erupted in 2014. U.S. military aid to Ukraine constitutes 90 per cent of all foreign military aid. The U.S. has supported the Ukrainian government’s frequent claims that Russia was planning a military invasion, despite repeated denials from Moscow stating that it has no such intentions. Instead, the Kremlin has alleged that the accelerated military build-up in Ukraine is for aggressive purposes. The Ukrainian government has been stating its intentions to forcefully take back the Donbas region which is under the control of those opposed to the right-wing government in Kyiv. Its threats to use force to take back the Crimean region are not being taken too seriously in Moscow. Crimea is now fully reintegrated into the Russian Federation.

During the meeting with Biden in Washington, Zelenskyy once again pleaded for his country to be admitted into NATO. He also demanded that Washington put pressure on Germany and the European Union (E.U.) to block the Nord Stream gas pipeline. The pipeline under the Baltic Sea, built at a cost of $11 billion, will bypass Ukraine and Poland to directly supply Russian gas to Germany. Washington has been trying unsuccessfully to pressure the German government into cancelling the contract with the Russians.

After the meeting between Biden and Zelenskyy, the Kremlin issued another warning that the U.S. military largesse to Ukraine would only encourage the government in Kyiv to behave in a more dangerous and unpredictable manner. The statement issued by the Kremlin also expressed regret that the growing closeness between Washington and Kyiv was motivated by opposition to Russia. In the last couple of months, both Moscow and Washington have further hardened their respective positions on Ukraine and other issues.

Moscow sees red

In late November, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a stark warning saying that there are certain “red lines” that Washington cannot cross in Ukraine. One “red line” was the deployment of U.S. troops and weapons in Ukraine. Such a move, Putin warned, would elicit a strong response from Russia. Moscow has stated from the outset that it is against Ukraine being made a member of NATO and the further expansion of the U.S.-led military grouping along the borders of Russia.

In a speech delivered at a business conclave in Moscow on November 30, Putin questioned why the West was ignoring Russia’s repeated warnings and continuing with the expansion of NATO. Recently, the U.S. installed Aegis Ashore missile defence systems in Poland and Romania. Putin said that he feared that NATO was on the verge of installing missiles on Ukrainian territory that would be capable of targeting Moscow in just 15 minutes. “The emergence of such threats represents a ‘red line’ for us,” Putin said. “I hope that it will not get to that and common sense and responsibility for their own countries and the global community will eventually prevail.”

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Putin said that because of the looming military threats from across its borders, Moscow had had to develop hypersonic weapons that would match the weapons being deployed by the U.S. He said that Moscow also had reason to be worried about the recent exercises that NATO and Ukrainian forces conducted along its borders. “Strategic bombers which carry precision weapons and are capable of carrying nuclear weapons were flying as close as 20 kilometres from our border,” Putin said. “That represents a threat to us.”

Putin has demanded “legal guarantees” from Washington that NATO’s further expansion to the east will be stopped. “We’re constantly voicing our concerns about this, talking about red lines, but we understand our partners—how shall I put it mildly—have a very superficial attitude to all our warnings and talk of red lines.” Addressing the annual Valdai discussion forum meeting in October, Putin said that the formal membership of Ukraine in NATO “may fail to take place, but the military development of the territory is already under way. And this really creates a threat for the Russian Federation.”

Naval exercises in the Black Sea

NATO has been carrying out provocative naval exercises in the Black Sea waters and deploying more troops in the Baltic states. In November alone, the U.S. sent three of its warships to the region. The Russian Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu, said that there was a considerable increase in the activities of U.S. strategic bombers along Russia’s borders. He said that they were practising how to “employ nuclear weapons against Russia simultaneously from the eastern and western side”.

The U.S. and the E.U. had announced way back in 2008 the intention to incorporate Ukraine, which was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until 1991, into NATO. Recently, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General, even talked about the possibility of relocating nuclear weapons based in Germany to Eastern European countries bordering Russia. He said that only NATO members had the right to decide on Ukraine’s membership. He added: “Russia has no say, no right to establish a sphere of influence to control its neighbours.”

In the first week of December, following a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Stockholm, the two sides decided to lower the tension by a couple of notches. Blinken announced that the U.S. and Russian Presidents would speak to each other on matters relating to Ukraine. The U.S. side realised the urgency of the situation and expedited the meeting. Putin and Biden spoke on December 7. According to the statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov warned that “drawing Ukraine into the geopolitical games of the United States against the background of deployment of NATO forces in the immediate vicinity of our borders will have the most serious consequences.” The statement said that Lavrov repeated Putin’s demand for “long-term security guarantees” along the country’s western borders. The implicit threat from Russia was that in case Ukraine was inducted into NATO and if its lethal weaponry were based there, then all options would be on the table. Lavrov said that Russia was prepared to “take retaliatory measures to correct the military strategic balance”.

In a speech delivered to the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) before his meeting with Blinken, Lavrov said that military tensions were rising in the continent and expressed the hope that Russia’s proposals for a new European security pact would be seriously considered. He added: “The architecture of strategic stability is being rapidly destroyed. NATO refuses to constructively examine our proposals to de-escalate tensions and avoid dangerous incidents. On the contrary, the alliance’s military infrastructure is drawing closer to Russia’s borders. The nightmare scenario of a military confrontation is returning.”

In November, Russia had suspended the activities of its diplomatic mission at the NATO headquarters in Brussels and ordered the closure of the NATO mission in Moscow. The move followed the expulsion of eight Russian diplomats assigned to NATO headquarters in Brussels, on charges of spying.

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Ukraine claims that Russia has massed more than 90,000 troops along its borders and is planning an invasion. Moscow says it has every right to deploy any number of troops on its own territory. Blinken issued a warning in Stockholm “of the severe costs and consequences” if Russia takes aggressive action against Ukraine. He said that Moscow and Kyiv should both fulfil the commitments made in the 2015 Minsk agreement. The agreement was signed between the Western-backed government and the Russian-supported separatist forces in the Donbas region. The Minsk agreement had stipulated that Kyiv should grant autonomy to the Donbas region. The Ukrainian government has reneged on its commitments made in Minsk and is instead talking of militarily subduing the rebels. Russia is not even mentioned in the Minsk agreement.

Blinken’s remarks in Stockholm were a continuation of the Biden administration’s insistence that Russia was on the verge of taking military action. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it has any plans for military intervention. Talking on national television, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, said that talk of war “is malicious propaganda” by the U.S. State Department. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said recently: “The hysteria is created artificially.” He told the Russian media that the accusation from the West and Ukraine was “not very logical or decent”. Peskov added: “We are being accused of some kind of illegal military activity on our territory by those who have brought in their armed forces from across the ocean. That is the United States of America.” He further stated: “The number of provocations is growing and growing significantly. What’s more, these provocations are being carried out with weapons supplied by NATO countries. And we are observing it with great alarm.”

Lavrov told the media in Stockholm that Moscow had reiterated its offer to talk to Kyiv to resolve outstanding issues. He said: “We, as President Putin stated, do not want any conflicts.” At the same time, the Kremlin said that the probability of a new conflict erupting between the opposing Ukrainian sides remains a real possibility in the eastern part of the country. The Kremlin said that it was concerned about the “aggressive” rhetoric emanating from Kyiv and an increase in provocative actions along the line of contact between the government and the pro-Russian separatists.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence, the Ukrainian government said that it would reclaim both Crimea and territories in the eastern Donbas region, which it had lost in 2014 to the Russian-supported separatist forces. The country’s official defence strategy document has highlighted these goals. A resolution to the conflict in Ukraine can only be achieved if the West takes Russian apprehensions seriously. Ukraine’s territorial integrity can be ensured if the country reverts to the neutral position it adopted immediately after independence. Russia will not object to Ukraine becoming a buffer state that would not be a member of any military alliance or bloc.

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