Putin has more trumps in Ukraine gamble

By Ameen Izzadeen
Amid tough talk and military buildups by Moscow and the West, the crisis in Ukraine has now shifted from Crimea to the country’s east along Russia’s western border.
Just like Crimea, the eastern regions of Ukraine are largely inhabited by Russian-speaking people. Following Crimea’s example, they want to hold a referendum and join Russia. The disintegration of Ukraine is what Russia may be threatening the West with. The West and the West-installed government in Kiev did not foresee such an eventuality and are now caught in a quagmire from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves.
The West accuses Russia of fomenting separatism in Ukraine’s Russian majority regions. But the bottom line is that Russia has more trump cards than the West as the biggest political crisis to engulf Europe since World War II moves dangerously close to a civil war in Ukraine or an all-out war between the world’s big powers.
As the US sends warships to the Baltic, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin appears unperturbed by the Western moves and is ready to face further sanctions. With the situation still volatile amidst clashes between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian activists in the east, Russia has deployed some 40,000 troops on its western border, ostensibly for a massive military exercise. But analysts say these heavily armed battle-prepared troops can move in and capture Ukraine or much of it within a matter of days.
Russia can also cut off gas supplies to Europe, precipitating a major economic crisis there. In fact, Russia did warn that it might cut off supplies to Europe. Russia provides more than half of the European Union’s fossil fuel imports. Germany is the biggest recipient of Russian gas. But almost two thirds of this energy supply to Europe goes via Ukraine. Yesterday the European Union said it was willing to hold talks with Russia and Ukraine on gas security.
Putin is simply not ready to blink in this eyeball-to-eyeball game with the West and compromise Russia’s survival, security and self-respect.
But the West, instead of recognising Russia’s security concerns, especially Ukraine’s importance as a buffer state in Moscow’s strategic equation, took a gamble and engineered a regime change in Kiev. The West also plays a hands-on role in the goings on in Ukraine. Its signature was seen in Ukraine’s military campaign this week against pro-Russian separatists in the east.
It is increasingly evident that Ukraine launched its military campaign only after it got assurances from the US and Nato, which is rapidly strengthening its military presence in Eastern Europe. In the words of NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, there would be “more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land.”
Prior to sending its military to the east, the Ukrainian government issued a Monday ultimatum to pro-Russian activists to leave the government buildings that they had captured or face a military response. But the ultimatum only toughened the resolve of the activists. When the ultimatum ended on Monday, Ukraine pussyfooted. But with some prodding from the US and the West, Ukraine on Tuesday launched the military campaign despite Putin’s warning of mass bloodshed. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Ukrainian government had a responsibility to maintain law and order, and these provocations in eastern Ukraine were creating a situation to which the government had to respond.
His remarks indicated that Washington supported the military operation which came a week after Central Intelligence Agency Chief John Brennan visited Kiev to assess the situation.
When asked what the CIA chief was doing in Kiev, Carney replied bluntly: “We urged the Ukrainian government to move forward, gradually, responsibly, and with all due caution, as it deals with this situation caused by armed militants… Let’s be clear: the way to ensure that violence does not occur is for these armed paramilitary groups, and these armed so-called pro-Russian separatists, to vacate the buildings and to lay down their arms.”
Supported by fighter jets and helicopters flying low over the area, the Ukrainian troops had early success. They recaptured a military airfield which had been taken over by the pro-Russian groups. Four pro-Russian protesters died during the early hours of the military campaign.
But by Tuesday, the military campaign turned out to be a big humiliation for Ukraine with pro-Russian activists and civilians overpowering the Ukrainian troops, some of whom surrendered and pledged their loyalty to Russia.
Ukraine’ military misadventure has dealt a major blow to the West, especially the United States, while strengthening Russia’s position on the ground and at the negotiating table in Geneva. Yesterday, Russia’s foreign minister, the United States’ Secretary of State, Ukraine’s foreign minister and the European Union’s foreign policy chief met in Geneva to hold talks aimed at defusing the Ukrainian crisis.
The tone of the Ukrainian foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia’s remarks in Geneva indicates that Ukraine and the West have mellowed — or so it seems.
Deshchytsia said: “I think that we still have a chance to de-escalate the situation using the diplomatic means. And we will try hard. We are trying hard — not only Ukraine — but also the United States. However, the time is now, not only to express the concerns, but to look for a more concrete and adequate response to Russia’s plans and actions.”
The remarks were a far cry from Ukraine’s rhetoric over the weekend before it launched its military campaign. Last week Ukraine’s security services deputy chief Vasily Krutov threatened to “destroy” anti-government activists in the country’s east stating, “They must be warned; if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed.”
Pro-Russian activists point out that the West could endorse pro-West Ukrainian protesters’ occupation of government buildings in Kiev and elsewhere in the run-up to the overthrow of democratically elected President Victor Yanukovych in February. They ask why it cannot accept the pro-Russian people’s occupation of government buildings and facilities as a legitimate way of expressing the people’s opposition to an illegitimate government in Kiev. The pro-Russian people in the east are in no mood to compromise and accept the authority of the West-backed government of acting president Oleksandr Turchynov. The West charges that the activists in Ukraine’s eastern towns are being handled by Russia. Moscow denies the charge but has indicated that it will protect the ethnic Russians whether they are citizens of Russia or any other country.
Russians may argue that if the United States could invade Grenada on the pretext of trying to protect a handful of American students studying there, Russia also can interfere to protect millions of Russians living in Ukraine’s eastern regions. After all, Ukraine’s eastern regions once belonged to Russia and were annexed to Ukraine during the Soviet era.
These arguments apart, yesterday’s Geneva talks offer little hope unless the West learns to respect Russia’s security concerns. Russia which seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region and then rapidly annexed it last month, insists that Ukraine devolve power to the regions and adopt foreign and defence policies of non-alignment: In other words, Ukraine should not have any deals with Nato or the European Union. True, such a demand sounds intrusive and undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty. But foreign policy making is an art of compromise with prudence being the key element. If a country’s national interest goals clash with those of other countries, especially a powerful neighbour’s, prudence demands the country should strike a balance between its national interest and those of other countries. To some extent, the ousted president of Ukraine had struck a balance in his foreign policy. But the West saw him as a Russian agent and played a direct role in the coup to overthrow him.
Obviously, this angered Putin whose foreign policy doctrine tolerates no outside interference in Russia’s backyard. If he lets go of Ukraine, he fears that it will trigger a domino effect with countries in Russia’s backyard, one by one, coming under the influence of the West and this process could eventually end in the overthrow of his own government in Moscow.
Yesterday, as this column was being written, Putin was answering questions from the public during his yearly call-in show titled “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin.” News agencies following the telecast quoted Putin as accusing Ukraine’s new authorities of driving the country towards the abyss. He also expressed hope that Russia and Ukraine could reach a compromise, saying the neighbours had a huge number of common interests.
Putin is right: The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is symbiotic. Russia will suffer economically if Ukraine blocks the pipelines that take Russia’s gas to Europe. On the other hand, Ukraine had, prior to the outbreak of the present crisis, benefited from cut-rate gas prices, concessions and credit facilities from Russia. Besides, more than a million Ukrainians are working in Russia and the billions of rubles they send home prop up Ukraine’s economy.
But such a mutually beneficial neighbourly relationship was an irritant to the western strategists who wanted to weaken Russia economically and militarily.
However, as the crisis in Ukraine, which is preparing to hold a presidential poll next month, drags on, the silver lining amidst the dark war clouds is that the parties to the conflict still talk to each other. US President Obama keeps talking to Putin, while US Secretary of State John Kerry regularly meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In yesterday’s television show, Putin renewed his offer to resolve the crisis through diplomacy: “I very much hope that I am not obliged to use the right {to send Russian troops to Ukraine} and that through political and diplomatic means we can solve all the acute problems in Ukraine.”
The US and its western partners, instead of aggravating the crisis by imposing more sanctions and provoking Russia, should grab this offer for a dialogue.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
This entry was posted in Political analysis and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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