Ukraine, Again! 

Historical and broader context

Mr. J.K. Paasikivi, ex-President of Finland (after WWII) once stated: “Acknowledgement of the facts is the commencement of all political wisdom”. He was right and his statement is still 100% valid in today’s great power politics, which is a very complex, complicated, multifaceted and multidimensional wholeness and where “all depends on all”.

If we consider historical, national, governmental, cultural, linguistic or religious background of Crimea and East Ukraine, it is not possible to eschew the significant Russian heritage of the past. So self-evident it is, while the existence and national identity of present Ukraine is less clear-cut and well-defined. However, history is history and today’s rock-hard great power competition seems not to be concerned about the intellectual or spiritual values of nations, at least not the heritage of the past.

Not going back to years of 2012-2014, when the annexation/reunification of Crimea and Donbass regional conflict took place, the focus here is on the confrontative and escalating events and processes of the last few weeks.

Escalating tension in Ukraine conflict may be a kind of manifestation of numerous events or their combinations like those examples here below:

  • stalemate of Minsk Protocol, non-ability to carry out the obligations of the protocol is frustrating parties and creating more uncertainty in the conflict
  • fickle ceasefire in Ukrainian-Donbass border line, increasing number of killed Ukrainian soldiers in border skirmishes
  • Ukraine’s unstable political situation, thoroughly corrupted society and the state ready to file for bankruptcy, fragmentary national identity, strong external interference in domestic policy, influential new-Nazi movement
  • Ukraine’s President Zelensky’s Decree No. 117/2021 of March 24, 2021 to retake Crimea from Russia. This presidential decision is the official policy of the government of Ukraine and seems to be a factual war declaration, because Russia will never hand over Crimea to anywhere due to its present constitution, which makes impossible any land extraditions
  • Russia’s troop movements (up to 4000) during last few days in western Russia versus the coming NATO exercise “DefenderEurope 2021” (the largest deployment of US forces since the start of the 21st century with around 20.000 American troops participation, along with a 17.000-strong contingent from NATO member states and non-members like Ukraine)
  • NATO’s eastward enlargement ambitions versus Russia’s aspirations to restore “Soviet empire” or “Russian imperial realm”
  • increasing number of military incidents in the Black Sea region, where both Russian and NATO troops keep military drills frequently as well as multiple increase of US spy plane flights in the vicinity of Russian borders
  • problems in water supply in Crimea, partly due to Ukraine’s blocking measures, partly undeveloped infrastructure
  • parliament elections in autumn in Russia, which may increase tensions both inside and outside Russia
  • Biden’s “killer blurt”, indicating deep personal mistrust, disdain and even bitter hate to his Russian counterpart, whose reply to it was in kind
  • record low level of relations between Russia and the EU for various reasons, while Russia’s “pivot to Asia” has been a characteristic trend since 2012 (Putin’s Edicts)
  • escalating China-US competition, tightening sanctions and containment measures to China and Russia and reciprocal counter-measures, all these are indications of ever-increasing confrontation between great powers, which is reflecting in regional conflicts
  • during last twenty-five years the geo-economic and geopolitical locus and focus has shifted from Euro-Atlantic theater to Indo-Pacific theater causing fundamental tectonic changes in military-political dimension, which forms the frame of reference to all geopolitical and geo-economic processes in the world

Dozens of other practical reasons or causalities can be found but the present circumstance of deep mutual mistrust and antagonism between great powers seems to be an insurmountable roadblock towards détente and the indicated signs of future behavior of each party will not promise any good to be expected.

Back to now & here

The frozen conflict in Ukraine is “alive” and a new war is looming again in Russia-Ukraine relations. The situation is especially volatile in Donbass, where the ceasefire has broken down. Both sides accuse each other of provocations and regularly exchange fire, with the casualties mounting among both military personnel and civilians.

However, this time great uncertainties arise, as the international environment is complicated and a consensus involving Russia on one side and France, Germany, and the US on the other seems to be very challenging to reach. Russia’s relations with Europe are at record low level and similar characteristics are seen with the Biden administration, not to mention Russia-Ukraine relations. 

Domestic drivers

The meager progress in the Donbass settlement has bred disillusionment in Ukrainian society, further exacerbated by the country’s economic nightmare. Zelensky was forced to increase utility rates to meet IMF requirements, while the pandemic bled dry Ukraine’s small businesses. The inability of the Ukrainian authorities to secure enough coronavirus jabs to start vaccinating the population dealt a final blow to Zelensky’s popularity. There are still about three years left of Zelensky’s tenure but he was already in danger of being sidelined in the beginning of this year.

With the pandemic and IMF requirements leaving him with little room for maneuver on the economic front, Zelensky opted to bolster his legitimacy by mobilizing support in the West. In February he closed down several pro-Russian media outlets and slapped sanctions on the notorious oligarchs and organized high-profile arrests and new investigations, reaffirming his determination to carry out pro-Western reforms. He announced the formation of the “Crimean platform,” which is supposed to keep international attention on Crimea. The Ukrainian president also presented the country’s new security strategy, which reiterates the aspiration to join NATO, puts the main focus on countering Russian aggression and hardens its stance in the Donbass talks.

This barrage of orders and decrees has produced mixed results. Zelensky has boosted his patriotic credentials at home and his anti-Russian measures have brought Ukraine back to the West’s attention and ensured that Zelensky’s first phone call with new US President Joe Biden happened sooner rather than later. But it has also landed him with a massive Russian military buildup along the border. Western leaders’ support for Ukraine has been vocal but largely rhetorical.

External drivers

There is little doubt that Moscow anticipated Zelensky’s switch from peacemaking to confrontation. Moscow also expected that Biden’s arrival in the White House with his Russia containment agenda would result in a more assertive stance by Kiev. Accordingly, Russia was well prepared to up the military ante in response to Zelensky’s attempts to boost his domestic and international standing by playing the anti-Russian card. With Moscow massing its troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, Kiev has little chance of standing its ground if the standoff deteriorates into a military confrontation.

Coincidence or not, this Ukrainian risky trajectory also runs parallel with the Biden administration’s rhetoric toward Russia and continuing NATO deployments toward Russia’s western borders, especially the Black Sea. Moscow revealed that the number of NATO spy plane flights near Russia’s state borders grew by over 30% in the first three months of 2021 and that the US Navy, along with its NATO allies, has dramatically increased a maritime presence in the Black Sea. Interestingly, just ahead of the US naval deployment in the Black Sea, Biden warned Moscow that he would “act firmly” against Russian aggression in the region. Russia reacted to these Western exercises in early February, dispatching a Bastion missile defense system to Crimea and deploying the Admiral Makarov frigate in the Black Sea.

The problem with frozen conflicts that are geopolitical in character is that once they are heated up, they carry on a dynamic of their own. Biden administration official stance is that the US goal is to impose costs for actions not considered unacceptable, while seeking stability, predictability and turning down the temperature. US stated options include expedited assistance to Ukraine and more sanctions on Russia.” But here in the details, the devil lies.

Zelensky’s latest call for NATO deployments to Ukraine may have more than meets the eye. The busy phone calls from Washington to Kiev (Blinken, Austin and Biden himself) in the past few days vowing to defend Ukraine, convey a strong signal to Moscow, which has repeatedly described Ukraine’s membership of NATO and the deployment of troops there as a red line. Some analysts even see the situation has echoes of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which may be a premature judgement. All in all, Biden may not be in a hurry to press the “pause” button and revert Ukraine to a frozen conflict mode again. 

However, high level contacts have been kept around this affair, political and military top officials from Russia, Germany, France and the US are exchanging views and thoughts to cool down tension.

Range of motives

In spite of all fuss, it is unlikely that either side intends to unleash a hot war but the absence of rational motives for a war does not preclude the crisis spiraling out of control.

From Ukraine’s standpoint:  the Ukrainian leadership is escalating the situation, trying to attract the attention of Western partners and gain points for the future but does not intend to bring the matter to a direct clash. Most likely, the Kiev authorities initiated the current process of their own accord, being not the result of the Western conspiracy. An offensive in Donbass would likely give Russia a pretext to intervene in the region, since Russian officials have repeatedly stated the country’s readiness to protect the self-proclaimed republics. The ensuing losses would ruin Zelensky’s already limited public support.

From Russia’s standpoint: the benefits of going to war with Ukraine are also dubious. Public opinion polls show clearly that Russian society has grown tired of foreign policy adventurism and will not welcome a new military foray into Ukraine on the eve of the parliamentary elections scheduled for September. Furthermore, the idea of capturing a land bridge to connect Crimea with mainland Russia is outdated. Since 2014, Moscow has invested billions of dollars in various infrastructure projects to meet the peninsula’s needs without a land connection. Crimea still suffers from water shortages but that has been a problem for years and hardly warrants a war to solve it.

It’s highly implausible that the Russian leadership would risk the completion of its grand project, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, for the sake of a questionable popularity boost at home, let alone in the Donbass republics.

The leaders of the separatist republics would love to extend their borders. But they are too tightly controlled by Moscow to go rogue, while their concerns are too parochial to impact the Kremlin’s calculus.

The purpose of the current military buildup, therefore, is limited to demonstrating to Kiev and Washington that Russia is prepared to respond with force to any military attempts to change the status quo in Donbass. The ostentation with which the troops are being moved confirms that Russia is saber-rattling rather than contemplating a blitzkrieg.

Wise words for cooling down

I like to end this blog with the thoughtful and well-considered words of Lyle J. Goldstein (Ph.D.) who is research professor at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. His article “The Shadow of a New Cold War Hangs over Europe. The Ukraine question is at the crux of European security.” was published on March 30, 2021 in The National Interest. I recommend reading his article.

At the end of his aforementioned article, professor Goldstein asks: So, what is to be done ultimately, besides dusting off some history books? (referring to same historical facts, I mentioned in the start of this article)His answer is the following:

First, the United States should take overt and obvious steps to uproot the militarized rivalries now in full bloom from the Arctic to the Caucasus to see if such steps aimed at de-escalation might be reciprocated by the Kremlin.

Second, Washington should seek to re-energize the so-called “Normandy process” that brings Russia and Ukraine into a negotiating format with the leaders of Germany and France to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine. 

Finally, American diplomats should consider a “grand bargain” that accords full NATO membership to Ukraine in exchange for complete diplomatic recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea. While neutralization of Ukraine would be preferable for U.S. national security, such a step is probably necessary in order to get Kiev (not to mention Washington’s myriad hawks) to sign on to any larger compromise that could lead to a relaxation of tensions.

For Moscow, the extensive economic benefits would almost certainly outweigh the security concerns. This agreement to “meet halfway” may be the only way Europe can escape the ever-tightening grip of the new Cold War.

I have nothing to add to those thoughts of professor Goldstein.