“Why have you massed so many troops at the border?” “In case of a provocation.” “But what if there is no provocation.”
“How can there not be a provocation with so many troops.”
The comical exchange between Hitler and Chamberlain was featured in the pages of Punch, just before Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Eighty years later, as Russia amasses troops on the Ukrainian border, this dialogue and the situation have a strange similarity. Russia has placed over 100,000 troops along the borders of Eastern Ukraine with additional battle groups conducting exercises and war games in the soil of their ally Belarus, from where they could enter from the north. They are now in a position to rapidly enter Ukraine in two prongs striking all the way to Kyiv. The seeds to the present Russo-Ukraine tensions go back to 2014, when Russia seized the Crimea, in support of Russian speaking separatists in the restive Donbas and Luhansk regions of East Ukraine. Over 18,000 have died in the fighting between Ukrainian troops and the separatists till a ceasefire in 2018. That ceasefire has dissipated now and instead the situation seems all set to erupt in all-out war. The present round lies in NATO’s decision to allow Ukraine to join the alliance—a move that will enable NATO to station troops and weaponry on its soil and bring the alliance right at Russia’s doorstep. From here, missiles can hit Moscow in 4-5 minutes and as Putin put it, “There is nowhere further to go. It is not a situation we can accept.” Although Ukraine is well within its rights to ask for NATO membership (and NATO to accept it), Putin has demanded that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and Georgia (which it invaded in 2007). It has also asked that NATO move back its troops and equipment from the Baltic States and Lithuania and not deploy any offensive weaponry in Eastern Europe. In short, it has demanded an absolute veto on NATO activities.
At the heart of it these demands are Putin’s hyper-nationalism, that seeks to reassert the erstwhile USSR, whose demise he lamented as, “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”. In seeking to take over its mantle, Russia hopes to re-establish its own pole position in Europe and its former areas of influence. Perhaps he does have a point there. The Warsaw Pact dissolved after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, but NATO continued and has since extended over 1,000 kilometers eastwards. Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have joined the alliance and hold troops and missiles on their soil. With Georgia and Ukraine also slipping away, Russia’s arc of influence in Europe has been increasingly confined to its own borders. These actions are Russia’s ways of asserting that it is taking on the role of the former USSR.
PRELUDE TO WAR? Talks between NATO and Russia, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and even a virtual summit between Biden and Putin have not produced any results, except for a vague promise to continue talking. Russia sticks to its demands—demands that are so outrageous that they seem designed to be refused. The threat of sanctions and unspecified US and European actions have not deterred Russia whose troops remain dangerously close to the border. The groundwork is being laid for a possible attack on Ukraine. A series of cyber-attacks has hit Ukraine and government and military websites have been defaced by a destructive malware with the warning messages “Be afraid and expect more.” Apparently, the code to release the malware came just hours after the failure of talks. Social media is already abuzz with a disinformation campaign that frames Ukraine—along with USA and NATO—as an aggressor. Activities of Russian backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine have also intensified—perhaps aided by Spetznas operatives. It could also be preparing for “false flag operations” to conduct strikes and acts of sabotage against its own troops which could be used as the provocation for attack. It is unlikely that Putin will launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine towards Kyiv. That would be expensive, with heavy casualties and could draw the US and other European states into the conflict directly. But he could intensify a campaign of sabotage and strikes on Ukrainian troops, by Russian aided separatists, in the Donetsk and Luhansk territories of the Donbas region—something that has already been going on for the past seven years. He could then force Ukraine to recognise them as independent states in much the same manner that was done with Abkhazia and South Ossetia when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Or it could get ambitious and seek to establish a land bridge all the way to Crimea (which it seized in 2014) by moving 300 km into Ukrainian territory. Perhaps there could be small incursions into border areas—tiny pinpricks that will test US and NATO response but still not set the stage for all out war. Even regime change is on the cards. If the present government is weakened sufficiently, it could enable the rise of the pro-Russian Nashi party, which would be better inclined towards Russia and accept its demands.
Joe Biden has promised a “swift, severe and united response” but what will the US and NATO response be? Ukraine has been shored up with $200 million of military aid; thousands of anti-tank launchers have also been shipped to beef up its forces. But will they actually intervene militarily? Ukraine is not yet a NATO ally, and there are no legal grounds for intervention. That is the gamble that Putin seems to be taking. What remains is the threat of sanctions. Russia could be excluded from the SWIFT system of western banking. There could also be an embargo on Russian gas and oil exports—but then Europe too is in need of Russian gas for its own energy. Both sides are engaged in a dangerous game of “I dare” and wait for the other to blink first. Putin too, does not want an all-out war, which will isolate Russia and cripple its floundering economy. But he does need to show Russian assertion and reclaim its old areas of influence. How far he is willing to push the envelope will determine whether Europe will go to war, or just maintain an uneasy peace.
THE IMPACT The US is caught in a bind. At a time when it wanted to focus on the China threat in the Indo-Pacific, it has to take its eyes off the ball and shift it towards Europe. Biden had hoped for a rapprochement with Russia. He even hoped to draw Russia into the Western camp for common cause against the main threat to the world—China. That has taken a back seat now. Instead, Russia will be drawn deeper into China’s sway and set the stage for a world-wide schism on the lines of Russia-China and US-Europe along with their respective allies. Should Russia invade and get away (irrespective of sanctions and other measures), it will embolden China to try its hand in Taiwan and elsewhere. Who knows, it could also make similar demands against alliances such as Quad and AUKUS. Even if there is no war, but Putin manages to get his claims (even face-saving ones such as the withholding of Ukraine’s membership into NATO, and a partial pull-back of US and NATO troops from the Baltics) it will still set the stage for Russia to take on the mantle of the former USSR—and perhaps a return to the Cold War. For India, the unfolding action is not good news. The US and European shift to the Indo-Pacific would have helped us to counter China’s actions here. The arena has shifted back to Europe. We also have close ties with Russia, the US and Europe, but an invasion, or even a breakdown of Russian ties with the US and Europe will complicate the relationship with all three. The US could take a harder stance for a waiver against CAATSA sanctions for the Indian purchase of S-400 air defence systems from Russia—which will put Indo-US ties to test. As Russia flexes its nationalistic muscle, China will be tempted to do the same, especially in Ladakh and Arunachal. It could well use Western distraction to push its own claims—following actions which could be quite similar to what Russia itself is doing. And Russian support—either diplomatic or through military hardware—may not be so forthcoming to India if it is beholden to China. This confrontation will test the balance of ties which India has juggled successfully among the US, Russia, Europe and China and it is in our interests that it blows off without eruption.
There is an eerie similarity in the play of events of 1938 and now. Then, a smarting Germany sought to avenge the humiliation of World War I by seeking lebensraum in Europe—buttressed by the actions of Japan in Asia. Now it is Russia and China which are similarly allied (with China as the larger partner and the greater threat) and the major arena will be Asia, not Europe. But the flow of events has a parallel. Let us hope that the parallels of history end there and do not precipitate into a global confrontation on the same scale which we had seen in the past century.
Writes Ajay Singh is the author of five books and over 200 articles. He has been awarded the Rabindranath Tagore International Prize for Art and Literature—2021. Article appeared on Sunday Guardian. https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/opinion/echoes-of-war