The Ukraine war, one year on: Escalation, not stalemate
The shadow of nuclear war has darkened over the world, as never before since the collapse of the Soviet Union; what drove Russia to attack Ukraine?
One year on, the Ukraine war is set to escalate. The West is supplying Kyiv with ever more sophisticated weapons with which to continue fighting, and Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin deepen their conviction that they are fighting for the survival of Mother Russia. The shadow of nuclear war has darkened over the world, as never before since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While the disruption of oil, gas, grain and fertiliser supplies engendered by the war has dissipated to an extent, the strong inflationary pulse that rolled across the world, set off by sanctions against Russian gas, oil, grain, fertiliser and commodities, and the growth-killing rise in interest rates that followed, are yet to subside.
Popular disaffection triggered by steep rise in the prices of fuel and food, and the political upheavals it triggered, live on in different destabilising forms around the world. Depending on local conditions, this disaffection manifests variously as the rise of right-wing xenophobic politics, as across Europe, jihadist expansion, as in Africa and West Asia, left wing populism in parts of Latin America, and anti-government revolt in South Asia, where the bulk of the population lives in crowded proximity to the poverty line. We have seen changes of government in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The Federal Webinar | One year of Russia-Ukraine war spells more trouble for all of us
It is useful to recapitulate the core issues involved in the war. Western media generally paint the war as a wanton war of aggression on Russia’s part, violation of the principle of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is a little facile.
Stakes high for Russia
For Russia, the stakes in Ukraine are extremely high, even existential. If you look at a map of Russia, its access to the sea might seem abundant. In reality, it is not. To the north of Russia is the Arctic Ocean, whose navigability depends on the ice floes floating around at any point of time. Access to the sea outside the Arctic Circle lies either through the Baltic Sea, or in the far east of Siberia. The route to the North Sea through the Baltic Sea runs the gauntlet, in adverse times, of being obstructed by littoral powers such as Finland, Sweden and Norway to the North and Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany on the south of that route.
Russia can and does access the sea at the eastern end of Siberia, on the Pacific coast. But the bulk of Russian people, economic activity and output are in the west. The most convenient access to the larger world outside for Russia is through the Black Sea. After Catherine the Great annexed Crimea, defeating the Ottomans, Crimea has served as Russia’s passage to the Mediterranean and beyond, via the Black Sea. Sevastopol in Crimea is home to Russia’s (formerly the Soviet Union’s) warm-water navy.
In Soviet times, Stalin cleared Crimea of Tatars, and settled Russians there. Crimea could be accessed over land through Ukraine (the road M2 connected Moscow to Crimea through Ukraine). When Vladimir, the king of Kievan Rus (Kyiv was Russia’s capital before that honour went to Moscow in the 14th century), chose Christianity over Islam, and got himself baptised, commencing the conversion of Russians from polytheistic pagan religions to Christianity, it took place in Crimea.
The Yalta Conference of 1945, in which Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin shaped the political fortunes of the lands freed from German occupation, took place in Crimea. Crimea had been an integral part of Russia (an autonomous region of the Russian Federation within the Soviet Union) till Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Even afterwards, Crimea remained an integral part of Russian affairs. When a coup took place, triggering the final collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had been holidaying in a dacha on the Crimean coast.
Khrushchev probably expected his workers’ paradise to last forever. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Ukraine became an independent republic in 1992, and retained Crimea. Since Ukraine’s close ties with Russia did not come into question till the removal of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Russia’s access to its naval fleet was never at stake.
When a pro-West government took over in Kyiv, Putin lost no time in annexing Crimea and conducting a referendum to establish that its residents wished to be part of Russia rather than of Ukraine. Since the majority of Crimeans had been ethnic Russians since the Tatars were driven out, this was not unexpected. The Russians built a bridge across the Kerch Strait in the South to create a road and rail link to Crimea without going through Ukraine.
Russia’s launch facility for its increasingly strategic space activity is at Baikonur, Kazakhstan. What would happen if Kazakhstan were to elect a pro-West leadership would be interesting to watch.
Strategic significance of Crimea
The strategic importance of Crimea to Russia extends to the landmass of Ukraine that abuts it. If that country were to become a member of NATO, hosting NATO troops and missiles, control of Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base would become tenuous.
This is the centrality of the Russian demand for Ukrainian neutrality. Control of eastern Ukraine would give Russia land access to Crimea — the old M2 route from Moscow to Crimea passes through Kharkov and Zaporizhzhia, the city with the contentious nuclear plant.
National sovereignty is a fine principle and recognised in global treaties. However, power blocs are a reality, too. When Fidel Castro invited the Soviet Union to place Soviet missiles in Cuba, respect for the principle of Cuban sovereignty did not stop US President John F Kennedy from risking a nuclear war to get them removed. Khrushchev obliged, getting the US to agree to cancel the forward deployment of American missiles in Turkey.
India watching its interests
It is in India’s interest for Russia to remain a salient global power centre. For Russia to be defanged, losing its control of its warm water navy and without access to the wider world except through the roundabout route from Siberian ports, would hasten the emergence of bipolar hegemony of the world, with the US and China as the two poles. That would bring India under the US thumb, as India would crucially need its help to resist Chinese territorial claims on its lands. India’s refusal to condemn Russia is rooted in its national interest being served by a multipolar, rather than a bipolar, world in which a hostile northern neighbour is one of the poles.
Modern weapons are not like 20th century artillery. They are weapons systems that plug into information and control networks. When the US and its European allies supply sophisticated, modern weapons to Ukraine, it is not just brave Ukrainian soldiers who fight the Russians. The US and its allies are a direct part of the fight, through their intelligence and computer networks.
This raises the risk of a direct fight between NATO allies and Russia, and of Russia resorting to tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Further escalation to nuclear exchanges between the US and Russia is a risk that is no longer the exclusive domain of Hollywood.
Early end in world’s interest
It is in the interest of the entire world, particularly the less well-off parts of it where inflation and depressed growth cause the greatest damage, for the war to come to an early end. For that, instead of using Ukrainians as cannon fodder to subserve the Western goal of bleeding Russia dry, the West must stop plying Ukraine with weapons, and create conditions for peace talks.
For Russia, Ukrainian neutrality and Crimea’s Russian identity would be non-negotiable. For Ukraine, security guarantees from NATO and an invitation to join the European Union, and not return to its pre-2014 borders, should be core demands.
China has no great incentive to end the conflict early. It would prefer American attention to be divided, rather than focused solely on China. It suits it to gain additional leverage over Russia, by providing vital supplies sanctioned by the West.
India and other countries of the developing world, Brazil and South Africa, for example, must take the diplomatic lead to get the warring parties to the negotiating table.
(TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)