Explained: The Russia-Ukraine Crisis And What Putin Is Trying To Achieve With It
The concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border continues to grow with every passing day, matched by the hardening of the rhetoric from the Kremlin and the inflexibility of NATO led by western Europe and the US.
For months now, over a hundred thousand Russian troops, equipped with tanks, helicopters, self-propelled artillery and even short-range ballistic missiles, have remained deployed within striking range of Ukraine's borders. The concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border continues to grow with every passing day, matched by the hardening of the rhetoric from the Kremlin and the inflexibility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) led by western Europe and the US.
As talks last week between Russian officials and their US and European counterparts stalled, Moscow warned that the worsening situation on the issue of Ukraine could have "the most unpredictable and serious consequences for European security". The US has promised "severe consequences" and is looking at "overwhelming, immediate" options to inflict costs on the Russian economy if Russia invades Ukraine.
With the US distracted due to tensions with China and Europe's inability to take on Russian militarily, Putin may believe this is the best time to invade Ukraine and present NATO with a fait accompli. The White House last week said that the US Intelligence, based on the pattern of Russia's military and diplomatic activity, has predicted that Putin may launch a ground invasion of Ukraine within the next 30 days.
Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns has said that Putin was "putting the Russian military, the Russian security services in a place where they could act in a pretty sweeping way".
NATO's eastward expansion
Tensions over Ukraine have existed between the West and Russia since the early 2000s, when NATO's efforts to ween away Kyiv and other former Soviet states from Russian influence and control first started gathering pace. As it began to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago and the economic ruin that followed, Russia started looking at the eastward expansion of NATO with concern.
Putin, who succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President in May 2000, saw NATO's growing footprint in the former Soviet Republics as a threat to Moscow's influence over the post-Soviet states and an effort to contain Russia in the region.
In 2004, three former Soviet republics—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and three members of the former Warsaw Pact—Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia, joined the NATO in the largest wave of expansion (from 19 to 26 countries) since its formation, pressing the alliance's boundaries farther towards Russia's western boundary and into its sphere of influence.
A series of developments in Ukraine since then have alarmed Russia. The West-backed Orange Revolution of 2004-05 prevented Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych from becoming President. When pro-Western leader Viktor Yushchenko took control of the country after the protests of 2004-05, Ukraine moved closer to the West than ever before. At the NATO summit in Romania in April 2008, Putin told the then US President, George W Bush, that Ukraine is "not even a country."
Six months later, Russia invaded Georgia, it's neighbour in the Caucasus to the south, which at the time was developing closer ties with the West and pushing to become part of NATO along with Ukraine. Before its formal invasion, Russia had backed insurgencies in the two breakaway regions of Georgia. The conflict in Georgia remains largely frozen since, with Russia retaining the levers to turn on the heat as an when it wants. A similar episode has played out in Ukraine since 2014.
In 2010, Kremlin-backed Yanukovych was able to gain power in Kyiv, six years after the West-backed Orange Revolution. However, the West-backed uprising in Ukraine in 2014 led to his downfall. Russia saw it as a regime-change operation orchestrated by the US. Putin, who believed that the success in Ukraine would embolden NATO, responded with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, where over 60 per cent population identifies as Russian. The Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which now controls a large part of the country, followed soon after.
Putin has a justification for invasion
An essay published by Putin last year offers a view of how he looks at the issue and the thinking behind his actions in Ukraine. The 5,000-word essay, titled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", is seen as an ideological justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
In the essay, Putin blames Ukraine's ruling class for the rift between the two countries and accuses them of rewriting history.
"In essence, Ukraine's ruling circles decided to justify their country's independence through the denial of its past...They began to mythologise and rewrite history, edit out everything that united us, and refer to the period when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as an occupation," Putin writes in the essay.
The Russian President accuses the US and Europe of driving a wedge between Kyiv and Moscow and rejecting offers of dialogue.
"I recall that long ago, well before 2014, the US and EU countries systematically and consistently pushed Ukraine to curtail and limit economic cooperation with Russia. We...suggested discussing the emerging problems in the Ukraine-Russia-EU format. But every time we were told that Russia had nothing to do with it," he writes.
Putin says that NATO is trying to prepare Ukraine as a "springboard against Russia" and "a barrier between Europe and Russia".
"Inevitably, there came a time when the concept of "Ukraine is not Russia" was no longer an option. There was a need for the "anti-Russia" concept which we will never accept," he adds.
Putin argues that there was a "forced change of identity" in Ukraine and says that it would have the same consequences as the "use of weapons of mass destruction against us."
"We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that this way they will destroy their own country," the Russian President wrote in his essay last year in what appears to be a clear expression of his intentions.
It is no surprise that President Putin's article was made compulsory reading for soldiers by the Russian military.
Preparing for invasion
To dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine, the Biden administration has promised to impose crippling sanctions aimed at destabilising Russia's economy, including restricting Russian oil and gas export.
"I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now," US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said after the recent video conference between Biden and Putin.
However, the European Union, which buys around 40 per cent of its gas from Russia, may not be prepared for such a move. But Moscow, having been on the receiving end since 2014, is much better prepared.
Russia's central bank has expanded its foreign exchange reserves to more than $620 billion, and National Wealth Fund has over $190 billion in cash. At about 20 per cent of gross domestic product, its gross government debt remains low. Moreover, the foreign holdings of Russian sovereign bonds have decreased rapidly, falling to a fifth of the total in recent months, making it less vulnerable to external shocks.
Moreover, the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea will allow Kremlin to send supplies to Europe without depending on Ukraine. This means that the supply of energy to Europe could continue even during a future war in Ukraine, at least till the EU decides to buy it. Convincing the EU to stop the purchase of Russian oil and gas may add another challenge to the long list of US' troubles.
Best time for Russia to invade
Putin may be convinced that this is the best time to invade Ukraine for three reasons.
One, the US remains distracted due to the intensifying competition with China, which could quickly escalate into a military conflict if the Chinese Communist Party decides to take Taiwan by force. Russia and China coordinating their military actions in Ukraine and Taiwan can't be ruled out either. Biden has already ruled out military intervention in Ukraine. Having committed itself to defend Taiwan, Biden may find it difficult to aid Ukraine if the two conflicts break out at the same time.
Two, Europe's is reluctant to get involved in the conflict militarily. The UK's defence secretary Ben Wallace has ruled out a military intervention by NATO in Ukraine.
Wallace said that Ukraine "is not a member of NATO so it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to send troops into Ukraine to challenge Russia."
"We shouldn't kid people we would", he said, adding, "The Ukrainians are aware of that."
Three, the Ukrainian military is weak but improving rapidly with aid from NATO. With billions in aid and new equipment that is flowing in, Ukraine could significantly slow down the Russian advance in the event of war. Putin would want to destroy Ukraine's war-fighting machinery, including the new equipment it has received from the West before it becomes a significant threat to his plans.
Combined with Russia's capability to launch a swift campaign to occupy swaths of Ukrainian territory, these reasons could convince Putin that he can achieve his objectives at limited costs.
Putin has presented a set of demands to NATO to walk back from the brink. The first among these demands is an end to NATO's eastwards expansion. Kremlin has said that NATO must deny membership to former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia. It sees NATO's expansion to former Soviet countries in general and Ukraine in particular as a "red line" that must not be crossed — Kyiv's membership of NATO would bring the US-led military alliance within 300 miles of Moscow.
"We have run out of patience," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on the issue, adding, "The West has been driven by hubris and has exacerbated tensions in violation of its obligations and common sense."
Russia's primary goal is to ensure that the former Soviet countries along its borders, both in Europe and the Caucasus, remain outside the US-led military and economic bloc. The demand, which Putin links to Russian security interests, may not be met without a guarantee from Europe and the US.
The list of Russia's demands, handed over to the US in December last year, also includes the removal of troops or weapons deployed to countries that entered NATO after 1997. Such a move would affect much of eastern Europe, including Poland, the former Soviet countries of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Balkan countries. The Kremlin has also demanded the pull back of short- and medium-range missile systems in the region.
Many of Russia's demands have already been rejected by NATO, which sees the Kremlin's actions as efforts to shift the balance of continental power in its favour. The head of the alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, has ruled out an agreement denying Ukraine the right to enter NATO. The talks held between the two sides over the last few weeks have failed to find much common ground, and some fears that Europe may be "closer to war than it has been since the break up of former Yugoslavia."
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