Overwhelmed by the Omicron scare, a blitzkrieg to project UP as heaven on earth — blurring all distinctions between advertisements vis-a-vis news — and the continuing fallout of the extinct farm laws, Indians have been largely oblivious to a developing diplomatic predicament abroad similar to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Last week, Russia and the US announced that they would step back from their flashpoint — over Ukraine this time — and hold talks on January 10 to listen to each other’s concerns about Eastern Europe. Hopefully, they will move towards a solution instead of another irreversible phase of the new Cold War.
The White House would have us believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin was scared by US President Joe Biden’s threats of ‘decisive economic and other measures against Moscow if the Kremlin escalated its threats to invade Ukraine. Such spin followed an over two-hour-long secure video call between Biden and Putin in the first week of December, their first serious dialogue in six months. The first in-person meeting between the US and Russian presidents since 2018 was in Geneva last June.
The spin from the Kremlin was that Putin told Biden unequivocally that Ukraine would not be allowed to join NATO, and that this Russian position was not negotiable. Video clips of the virtual summit have found the Russian claims more credible than US disinformation in circles worldwide that have long-standing expertise on Russia-US relations. These clips show Biden surrounded by his advisers and top aides. Some of these aides, according to leaks, often intervened during the 122-minute meeting, ostensibly whenever Biden was about to commit a gaffe, which he is prone to.
The most frequent interventionist was Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken. His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, however, was conspicuous by his absence. It is to the credit of the Kremlin’s diplomatic astuteness that he had prepared the world what to expect in the weeks prior to the summit by disseminating Russian positions. At a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe just before the summit, he accused NATO of refusing to ‘consider our proposals on de-escalation of tensions and prevention of dangerous incidents.’ He warned that a ‘nightmarish scenario of military confrontation is returning.’
In the face of such Russian plain talk, William Burns, Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, was forced to contradict the Biden administration’s propaganda that Putin was about to invade Ukraine and that Biden would be the white knight in Kiev protecting Ukraine from Russia’s appetite for a valiant, unbowed, democratic neighbor. Burns, a former US ambassador in Moscow, who knows Putin well, debunked a story in The Washington Post attributed to US intelligence that an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine would involve 1,75,000 troops. ‘We don’t know that Putin has made up his mind to use force,’ Burns said. ‘But what we do know is that he is putting the Russian military, the Russian security services in a place where they could act in a very sweeping way.’
Unlike Biden, Putin faced the Americans alone. Not a single aide by his side, even his interpreter sat in another room doing the simultaneous translation of US statements. Videos showed a relaxed Putin, repeatedly leaning back on his swivel chair, at times tapping fingers on the table to demonstrate his impatience with the White House. He dramatically raised the stakes by demanding written guarantees that Ukraine will not be invited to join NATO and that Kiev’s NATO membership would be a red line for Moscow. He also demanded that the US should not place offensive weapons in Ukraine which could erode strategic stability in Eastern Europe or threaten Russia’s domination of its sphere of influence, which includes Ukraine. This is a replay of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the US and Russian roles reversed.
America’s willingness last week to engage Russia in further talks and listen to Moscow’s concerns about NATO expansion is similar to then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s willingness to take into account the then US President John F Kennedy’s fears about Moscow’s missile deployment in Cuba. Khrushchev’s decision to take the missiles away from Fidel Castro’s hands and ship them back home ended a threat of nuclear war and consequent mutual destruction.
Will history be repeated after nearly six decades? Kennedy agreed to remove missiles placed in Turkey and in Italy’s south, which targeted Soviet territory, in exchange for a complete withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba. Putin has demanded that NATO members should remove their offensive weapons and personnel from Ukraine and cease military activities in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Like Kennedy in 1962, Putin has offered a way out of the quagmire. To facilitate the talks to be convened a week from today, the Russian President has ordered 10,000 of his troops, who have been conducting exercises near the Ukraine border, back to the barracks. In terms of atmospherics at least, it has been a face-saver for the White House. Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser, has said that talks with Russia ‘will take place in the context of de-escalation, not escalation.’
What if the January 10 talks end in a stalemate? The Europeans are the most concerned because they are tied to Russia in many ways, including energy supplies during the continuing winter. Will there be a war over Ukraine? Unlikely unless hawks in the US push Biden to a point where he leaves Putin with only a military option.
The most likely outcome, in that case, will be the integration of Ukraine’s Donbass region with Russia one way or another, as in Crimea. Eventually, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine will then be organically linked with Russia. At any rate, an already impoverished Ukraine will be the biggest loser from the current crisis, having been reduced to yet another pawn in a new Cold War.
Source: The Tribune