Russia-Ukraine Conflict and the Battle Lines

Brig (Prof) JS Rajpurohit, PhD
25th February 2022

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

Friends and foes surround Ukraine. Erstwhile friends have turned foes and once adversaries are becoming friends. Series of recent conferences, meetings and movement of troops, war-waging weapons and equipment are making waves in the wintry mornings of 2022 in the regions expanding to three continents of Asia, Europe and USA. If the war breaks out, Ukraine will become an epicentre of new man-made disasters. Redundant alliances are resurfacing again with new imaginations of how far NATO can extend and move troops into Ukraine. Lines are being drawn and redrawn between NATO members, Ukraine and Russia. It’s a perfect chessboard scene where timelines are uncertain with the possibilities of war looming large. Strategic analysts assess January-February 2022 as the Russian offensive’s critical time.

Eight years since Moscow captured the Crimean southern peninsula and a blood bath in eastern Donbas, the war clouds are up again. Donbas region is the flashpoint where over 14,000 civilians have lost lives since 2014, and Russian backed separatists rule the roost. Cease Fire Violations (CFVs) is a common phenomenon between Russian backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s republic (LPR) and Ukrainian forces. Minsk Agreement of 2014-15 is at risk of losing relevance. The significant issues are the establishment of peace in Ukraine and the role of Ukraine in the regional and strategic scenario.

Ukraine is strategically located between Russia and other Central European countries. It has been a strategic part of erstwhile USSR with nuclear weapon facilities and was also the economic centre  for trade with the Europe. Majority of trade routes to the EU passed through Ukraine. Control of Ukraine has therefore become politically and ecomomically important for all stake holders. And hence will impact the politico-economic growth corridor of the Central European region. The demography of Ukraine divides the country into two parts, Ukrainian population in the West and Russian speaking population in the eastern parts of Donbask and Lohansk. There is thus a   geographical  divide with different political ideologies.  There is a case when Russain backed separtists may secede from Ukraine and delare independence. The situation is worse than what it appears on the face of it. Deployment of US troops in Poland with threats of economic sanctions have invited  Russia-China ties. Russia poses a direct threat to Ukraine from north and east with over 100,000 soldiers deployed. It is a reminder of the 2014 Russian offensive into Ukraine. The Russian forces have strengthened borders since 2020 and recent activities appear to cross the NATO and USA thresholds.

The Ukrainian President is relentless in his pursuit to defend and thwart offensive in relatively modern methods of warfare. The Russian President has invited the Argentinian President, Mr Alberto Fernandez, to Moscow for diplomatic talks. At the same time, the Ukrainian President, Mr Vlodymyr Zelensky, is in serious strategic meetings with Mr. Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey. The discussions between Ukraine and Turkey may become a precursor to the recent technology-based war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in September 2020. Armenia was defeated decisively by the drones, UAVs and unmanned weapon systems provided by Turkey to Azerbaijan.. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and Israeli kamikaze drones won the battle of Nogrno-Karabakh for Azerbaizanies and a humiliating defeat for Armenians. Can President Fernandez pull the same trigger on Russia duly supported by US and NATO? Will the current Russo-China pact permit that to fructify? If so, will the region not see a major war? Many more such questions will find answers with time unfurling the circumstances.

The US Concern

US-Ukraine relations have been cordial since the time Ukraine gained independence in 1991. The period of presidentship of Trump witnessed stability  in their relations, but Biden has reasserted the role of the US in supporting Ukraine. US concerns dates back to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Current Russian forces’ build up at Ukraine borders since April 2020 has invited an offensive response from the US. US has been attempting to extend NATO influence eastwards and ensure that Ukraine becomes a favourable buffer state with Russia.. US will then be able to dominate Ukraine region and counter any Russian offensive strategy. Atlantic Council’s brief on the Ukraine crisis brings out the importance of bringing peace in the region and commencing reforms to bring much-needed stability in the country. The Biden administration is considering imposing sanctions against Russia but that China has announced its support to Russia, the situation becomes complex. In January 2022, US Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen MA Milley, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, appreciated that the offensive might be days away. Their assessment reveals that Russia had deployed adequate forces to launch a full-fledged offensive against Ukraine and prevent US from entering its zone of strategic influence. The US interest appears to establish democracy, support political and economic stability in Ukraine and that led to  military aid worth US$ 1.5 Billion in the period post-Russian invasion from 2014-19 to Ukraine.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis comes at  the time when  Poland-Belarus border disputes erupted. It’s a design or default will be out in the open in due course. Belarus is a Russian ally and Poland is a NATO member. The extension of NATO membership to Belarus and Ukraine which is in the interest of NATO have been opposed by Russia. President Putin warned NATO against moving or supporting Ukraine and extending NATO membership. However, the US has not accepted any of this and warned Russia of severe consequences, including economic sanctions. NATO membership to Ukraine is awaiting approval of EU and US. If approved, it will own impact the US-Russia relations negatively.

The Russian Stance

Russian domination over Ukraine and Crimea since their separation in 1991 has been evident. Natural resources in eastern Ukraine and Crimea attracts Russia. President Putin has been conscious, cautious and contagious, with friends expressing support and adversaries expressing anguish. Post the US decision to deploy troops and conduct military exercises with Ukraine has led to the declaration of Chinese consent to Russia. President Xi has announced unambiguously about the cooperation between the two countries extending to any levels. The mutual strategic collaboration has surfaced when leading countries of the world have boycotted the Winter Olympics being organised by China. President Putin not only attended the inaugural function of the Winter Olympics but announced strategic pact with China in form a fifty page White Paper.  The strategic rivals have become the strategic partners.

The situation is flaring every day and both sides are not ready to give in. Russia-Ukraine situation is the biggest crisis since The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961-62. The two scenarios also seem similar when each superpower was planning the invasion of the smaller country.

The conflict needs to be seen from another perspective as well. US and China are engaged in economic and trade wars. Once an ally of the US, China has become a significant rival. The US has been at loggerheads with Russia too. On the other side, Russia and China were real-life opponents. The dynamic situation has reversed the strategic alliances where US has become enemy to both Russia and China. As a result Russia and China have joined hands. Chanakya’s theory, “The enemy of enemy is your friend” has been proved right. The US is up against both Russia and China, which makes Russia- the Ukraine conflict situation extraordinarily complex and uncertain. Russia wants to safeguard its strategic interests and is unlikely to permit NATO and US domination in Ukraine.

The world leaders involved in the conflict and others are strategic thinkers and would attempt to avoid war and loss of human life at all costs. Any reckless action by any stakeholder may jeopardies the entire peace process. The ultimate suffering is the region’s citizens and overall loss will be of humanity. Will there be a war or good sense will prevail? Anyone’s guess!

 

*The Author is an Indian Army veteran and writes on international relations and human behaviour. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the Author.

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