Taking a risk here of being very wrong. But I don’t think there’s going to be a WAR over Ukraine despite all the developments to-date that led US President Joe Biden yesterday to declare that it was “the beginning of the Russian invasion”. His follow-on statement — “Let me be clear…We have no intention of fighting Russia. We want to send an unmistakable message though — that the United States, together with our allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO” explained just why.
It was not as if Kremlin was unaware that the US did not want to gut it out — engage in actual land war with Russia or, short of NATO countries being directly threatened, get tripped into one. But Ukraine is not formally a NATO member; the preparatory measures it has undertaken to gain entry into the Atlantic Alliance still leaves a big hatch that Biden has now used to escape his military dilemma. It left him free, on technicalities of Article 5 of the NATO Charter, to resile from a hard security commitment to Ukraine’s territoriality. Ukraine, after all cannot legally boast of even an “inch of NATO territory”. It was the setting for Putin to activate his plan for the long game.
What was the game plan?
Its larger aim was, of course, to prevent the enlargement of NATO. A militarily weak Russia was in no position since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992-1993 to halt former constitutent states of the erstwhile USSR — Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and of the Warsaw Pact — Albania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary from formally joining NATO, thereby denuding Russia of its tier of buffer states and its legitimate sphere of influence in Europe. Putin’s more specific aim was to ensure the independent-minded Ukraine — where are located some very important and advanced technology laboratories, R&D facilities and factories of former Communist Russia’s defence industry, is not the latest in the line of ex-“soviets” to fall into NATO’s lap. Ukraine is potentially an enormous value addition to NATO’s southern flank, because it offers, because of mild weather, direct maritime approaches the year round via the Mediterranean, the NATO member Turkey-controlled Dardenelles, and the Black Sea, to Russia’s underbelly.
The first part of the Putin solution was achieved in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, which still left the possibility of a long Black Sea coast centered on the great ex-Soviet naval bases at Sevastopol (where the Indian Navy’s Kashin-class missile destroyers were worked up by Indian crews trained there) and Odessa opening up for NATO use. It necessitated the second part of the plan to shrink Ukraine landward and, if possible, seaward, to preempt NATO’s moving in on Russia from the Black Sea.
The success of the Putin plan was predicated on two things. There were popular movements of Russian-speaking populations around Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine clamouring to rejoin mother-Russia. These secessionist movements had kept Kiev from establishing Ukrainian writ over this, the Donbas region. Putin’s formal recognition of these areas as independent states, perhaps, as prelude to their amalgamation in Russia was, therefore, a foregone event. With Ukrainian sovereignty never physically established here, Russian forces being welcomed into these parts does not, in the event, constitute a violation of Ukrainian territory or a casus belli (cause for war). This is the extent to which Russia will deign militarily to intrude into “Ukrainian” space.
The other predicate was of a frightened, beleagured and overwhelmed government in Kiev acquiescing in Donbas’ secession and making other concessions on the Black Sea, for instance. This, however, has not happened. In the main because the young, nerveless Ukrainian President, Volodomyr Zelensky, has refused to be intimidated by Russia’s show of force. All that Putin’s huffing and puffing has done is burnished Zelensky’s ultracool image — a bold and courageous leader of the Ukrainian nation abandoned by craven allies, who is seen every day visiting the frontline, talking soberly to the soldiery, and infecting the Ukrainian people at-large with his calm until now when, in the face of Russian guns, they carry on as if it is just another dreary and cold winter they have to negotiate. This sort of chutzpah is plainly not what Putin expected. He had banked on a hysterical mob compelling Zelensky, scared witless, giving in, agreeing to concessions and peace on Russian terms. Because this hasn’t occurred, it has forced Kremlin to recognize the independent “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk — possibly the first stage to their eventual absorption into Russia. This is all that Putin may have to settle for.
But how can Putin realize the cutting off of Black Sea access to NATO?
Russia, as per the 1997 partition agreement dividing the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, shares the Sevastopol naval base and its shore-based resources with the Ukrainian navy. That can prove icky for Putin in terms of an Ukrainian-NATO naval linkup. Some American analysts foresee Putin seizing Ukrainian territory up to the Dnepr River and an additional belt of land (to include Odessa) connecting Russian territory with the breakaway Transdniestria republic and thus separating Ukraine from the Black Sea and rendering what remains of Ukraine economically unviable. Or, avoiding military actions against the urban agglomerations of Kiev and Kharkive, Russia captures a belt of land between Russia and the Transdniestria republic (including the main cities of Mariupol, Kherson, and Odessa) to secure freshwater supplies for Crimea and block Ukraine’s reach to the sea. (Refer https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-possible-invasion-ukraine)
The fact is neither Ukraine singly or together with NATO will be able to thwart such Russian designs. But these actions are substantive military actions, which will trigger, at a minimum, some blocking moves by US military forces deployed to Poland (including lead elements of the famed 82nd Airborne) inviting Moscow, in effect, to escalate. This Putin will be unwilling to do. Because it will mean full-fledged war with the massed artillery — the Russian “God of War”, opening up on three fronts, reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble. Just the optics of such action — recalling for the world the death and massive destruction visited upon Ukraine and the rest of Russia by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, which was paid back in trumps by Marshal Zhukov’s avenging armies crushing everything in their victorious path to Berlin — will be too daunting even for the hardened KGB agent in Putin to stomach.
But even limited objectives achieved in Ukraine will fatally hurt America’s credibility with its allies and strategic partners especially in the Indo-Pacific, credibility which is already shaken. Thankfully, the dangers of counting on the US when the chips are down, has finally dawned on the Narendra Modi regime, whence Jaishankar’s moves of late to keep Moscow humoured.