Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put Moldova on high alert. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

The US-Russia talks in Geneva in the last two successive weeks could not produce a breakthrough. Fundamentally, there is a contradiction that cannot be resolved easily.

Russia sees in existential terms the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) advance into its immediate western neighborhood.

Russia cannot tolerate any longer such NATO presence on its western border. Ukraine’s induction into the Western alliance system would mean that US missiles could hit Moscow in five minutes, rendering Russian air defense systems ineffectual and obsolete. 

The NATO deployments in the Baltic and the Black Sea regions further deprive Russia of buffers in the West. Considering that all major decisions and most minor decisions in NATO are made in Washington, Moscow perceives all this as an American strategy to encircle it, eroding its strategic autonomy and independent foreign policies. 

The US, on the contrary, refuses to countenance any NATO rollback. It insists that Russia has no say in the alliance’s decisions. At best, Washington would discuss certain confidence-building measures, while NATO enlargement since 1997 – contrary to assurances given to Mikhail Gorbachev by Western leaders in 1990 during the reunification of Germany – is a fait accompli that Russia should live with. 

Basically, the US has gained the high ground through sustained efforts over the past three decades since the Bill Clinton administration put into effect a concerted strategy in anticipation of a resurgent Russia in a matter of time. Now that the US has gained the upper hand, it is loath to give it up. 

From Washington’s viewpoint, this is a key template of the geopolitical struggle unfolding over the new world order after China’s rise and the shift in power dynamic from the West to the East.

Cutting Russia down to size and being able to intimidate it is a prerequisite of the situation before the US tackles China comprehensively. Suffice to say, Ukraine has become a battleground where a titanic test of will is playing out. 

Ukraine is in all practical sense a US surrogate, and its transformation as an anti-Russian state that followed the regime change in Kiev in 2014 is already at an advanced stage. Although Ukraine is not yet a NATO member, the alliance has established a significant presence in the country militarily and politically. 

In the information war, the US portrays Russia as an aggressor against a weak neighbor. In reality, though, it is a situation of “Heads I win tails you lose.” If Russia doesn’t do anything, it might as well resign to the inevitability of Ukraine being inducted into NATO and Russia having to live with the enemy at the gates.

Of course, that would shift the global strategic balance for the first time in history in favor of the US.  

On the other hand, if Russia acts militarily to prevent NATO’s march in Ukraine, Washington will play rough. Washington is all set to pillory President Vladimir Putin personally and to impose “sanctions from hell” on Russia, with a vicious game plan to wound that country’s economy lethally and stifle its capacity to be a global player. 

In the US estimation, Putin personally will have to bear a heavy political cost if living conditions deteriorate within Russia between now and 2024 when the next Russian presidential election is due, and he may be compelled to relinquish power. From the American perspective, it would be just fine if a Boris Yeltsin II were to succeed Putin.

Make no mistake, part of what is going on is a demonization of Putin’s political personality to erode his towering popularity (65%), which forecloses the rise of a pro-Western politician in Russia for a foreseeable future.

All attempts by US intelligence to create a “liberal” platform in Russian politics have failed so far. The fact of the matter is that the majority of Russian people dread the return of the “liberal” order of the 1990s. 

The Washington Post, which is linked to the US security establishment, featured a scurrilous report on January 19 under the byline of a noted knave titled House Republicans aim sanctions at Putin, his family and his mistress.

It says: “The Biden administration’s carefully crafted mix of diplomacy and threats of additional sanctions doesn’t seem to be deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine and starting a war. Now, a large group of House Republicans is pushing President Biden to ramp up the pressure on Putin directly by going after him and his entourage for their long and well-established corruption.”

Evidently, Washington will go to any extent to create dissensions among Russia’s elite and undermine the country’s political stability. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a front line in Donbas on June 9, 2021. Zelensky has been incrementally rebuilding partnerships with NATO, leading to Russia’s current heavy forward deployments. Photo: AFP / Ukrainian Presidency / Anadolu Agency

What lies ahead? 

Without doubt, Russia is acutely conscious of its limitations. Moscow too made some serious miscalculations. It was betting that Ukraine was not going to join NATO and in due course, better sense would prevail in Kiev under a realistic and pragmatic leader who would give up on the “Ukrainization” agenda, repair ties with Russia (especially in the economic field) and importantly, accommodate the aspirations of the ethnic-Russian eastern regions.

But as it turned out, “Ukrainization” is only being galvanized with tacit American support. Moscow has sensed that time is no longer on its side. 

Moscow expects something concrete from the American side, as its vital security interests are in jeopardy. The Kremlin leadership, including Putin, has starkly outlined Russia’s “red lines.”

Washington, on the other hand, is simply kicking the can down the road. It estimates that time is on its side anyway. From the Russian viewpoint, this is not acceptable, since a point of no return is being reached as regards Ukraine’s NATO membership. 

Arguably, President Biden doesn’t want to move in the direction of accommodating Russia’s legitimate interests, given the pulls and pushes from the domestic scene in the US and the divergent opinions among European allies, but primarily because the encirclement of Russia with pro-Western states has been a strategic objective of Washington’s policies toward Russia under successive administrations since Bill Clinton. And now it happens to be expedient too, being a “cause” that enjoys rare bipartisan support in the Beltway at a juncture when American opinion is deeply divided.

In the present situation, wittingly or unwittingly, Washington has also tied its hands by committing that it won’t negotiate over Ukraine’s head. All factors taken into consideration, therefore, the probability is very high that Russia will intervene in eastern Ukraine with a view to creating new facts on the ground to secure its national security interests while aiming at a political settlement for the medium and long terms. 

What does it entail? 

Clearly, Russia is not seeking annexation of Ukrainian territory. Its preference will be to restrict its intervention in eastern Ukraine largely to the Russian-populated regions and to create a buffer zone. Some American analysts have estimated that, broadly, any Russian intervention will be restricted to the territory up to the Dnepr River flowing through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. This seems plausible. 

Of course, there are variables in any emergent military situation. Russia will firmly react to any form of Western intervention in Ukraine – although Washington has ruled it out. (In any case, the United States’ capability to fight a massive continental war at such short notice is questionable.)

The Russian military operations will be decisive, with huge firepower and advanced weaponry on multiple fronts, with the intention to realize the political objective in the shortest time possible. 

US journalists have written about “resistance,” but that is a load of rubbish. The Russian operation will be short and decisive. Ukrainian moral fiber currently is such that the demoralized forces and the disillusioned people will simply cave in.

In all this, what needs to be remembered is that despite the heavy dollops of US indoctrination, Ukrainian people have profound civilizational affinities with Russians that lie just below the surface.

Most importantly, the pervasive corruption in that country gives ample scope to buy off loyalties – in fact, there may not be much actual fighting at all in many sectors. It also needs to be factored in that the political situation in Kiev is highly unstable, as the latest sedition charges against former president Petro Poroshenko testify.

Volodymyr Zelensky won his mandate as president in 2019 on the basis of his promise to work for rapprochement with Russia. Now, he is a thoroughly discredited figure. People feel betrayed. A crushing military defeat would mean the end of the road for Zelensky.

Will there be a new dawn or disaster for Ukraine? Photo: WikiCommons

The ‘X’ factor

The ensuing political turmoil within Ukraine is the “X” factor in the Russian intervention. American analysts deliberately sidestep this. Simply put, Russians have a deep understanding of the eddies of Ukrainian politics and the country’s power brokers due to the shared history, culture, politics and societal links. 

The ultimate Russian objective will be a federated Ukraine through constitutional reform with the country’s sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity intact while the regions enjoy autonomy. Europe may welcome this as the best way to stabilize the situation and remove the potential for future conflict.

Indeed, Russia’s expectation will be that such a Ukraine can never become a part of NATO once constitutional underpinnings are put in place to ensure that all major policies pursued in Kiev would be based on national consensus. 

The bottom line is that as Russia sees it, the only way out of this crisis is that Ukraine regains its national sovereignty and stops looking at Washington for navigating its destiny.

That requires that the American operatives in Kiev who make the decisions for Ukraine go home and Ukrainians are once again the masters of their house, which ceased to be the case once US intelligence usurped power in February 2014, disregarding the pledge given by then (elected) president Viktor Yanukovich to hold fresh elections before deciding on Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.

Clearly, all this is not going to be as easy as it sounds, and the outcome may turn out to be no better than an attempt to unscramble an omelet. But the good part is that there are signs already that Europe is skeptical about blindly tagging along with the US any further on Ukraine.

The probability of discord in the trans-Atlantic relationship is rising. NATO itself has never really been the robust united alliance that was made out to be.

Polish President Andrzej Duda’s decision to attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing is a harbinger of things to come. (Incidentally, Putin will also be in Beijing at that time.) Germany opposes not only the removal of Russia from SWIFT but also the supply of weapons by NATO countries to Ukraine as well as Lithuania’s move (under US advice) to switch ties to Taiwan.

Strategic blunder

The US made a strategic blunder by encouraging a deeper NATO imprint in Ukraine. Making half-promises thereby to a non-NATO country is going to damage the United States’ credibility downstream of a Russian intervention. But it is impossible for Washington to backtrack now, as the loss of credibility would be even more.

What remains to be seen, equally, is how the European Union survives this moment. The ardent Atlanticists in the European Commission in Brussels led by Ursula von der Leyen and the Russia-hater Josep Borrell are unilaterally setting the EU agenda currently, ignoring the glaring divergences of opinion among the member states.

With Angela Merkel’s departure as German chancellor, a vacuum has appeared that these Eurocrats hope to fill in.

But this is clearly unsustainable. Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Europe to invest in its own collective security framework and called for a “frank” EU dialogue with Russia. By the way, neither the EU nor France was involved in the direct talks between the US and Russia in Geneva.

Much is being made of the threat of sanctions against Russia. But such threats won’t deter Moscow. For a start, even draconian sanctions have proved to be a weak coercive tool. Indeed, US sanctions had a poor coercive track record in North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Vietnam and elsewhere. 

Russia is a big power. It has huge reserves, which now stand at a record US$638.2 billion – the fourth-largest in the world. Russia’s credit position is good and it owns much of its debt. It has no critical need for US investors. Russia is in no desperate need to sell its currency. 

Having gone through four traumatic shocks previously in its 30-year post-Cold War history, Russia knows how to absorb shocks. Therefore, while Russia may take a big hit and there could be currency volatility causing an outflow of capital initially following the sanctions, its reserves provide a big cushion. 

At any rate, how far the Europeans will want to go on the sanctions path remains to be seen. Germany has voiced reservations about Washington’s famous “nuclear option,” namely the expulsion of Russia from the SWIFT payment system. To be sure, any disruption in Russian energy supplies will hurt the European economies.

A little-known fact is that Russia sells gas at very low prices to Europe, whereas any supplies of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US to make up for Russian supplies would mean exorbitant prices jacking up the cost of industrial production. Central European countries depend on Russia for 100% of their energy needs. Germany has a 40% dependency. 

One of Russia’s many gas pipelines, this one to Armenia. Photo: WikiCommons

Putin and Beijing

According to reports, a highlight of Putin’s forthcoming visit to Beijing will be the signing of the agreement of the mammoth Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline project to construct an additional route to send gas to China from Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, where Russia’s biggest gas reserves are, via Mongolia.

The capacity of the pipeline is expected to be 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually (which exceeds the capacity of Nord Stream 2).

Significantly, trade turnover between China and Russia reached a record $146.88 billion in 2021, up 35.8% from the previous year. Most certainly, the stand-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which could bring new sanctions against Moscow, is likely to tighten the Kremlin’s bond with Beijing even more.

The two countries have vowed to raise their trade turnover to $200 billion by 2024. Recent economic trends alone suggest they are likely to reach that goal.

The rising geopolitical tensions would add momentum to this effort by making stronger trade ties with China a necessity for the Kremlin. Moscow will need to increase sourcing capabilities elsewhere because of US sanctions, and China will be one major avenue.

The big picture is that on its part, China too cannot afford to see Russia going down under US pressure.

Evidently, the US hasn’t thought through the escalatory ladder. The Kremlin has threatened Washington with a complete break in relations if push comes to shove. Trust Moscow to hit back.

Russia conducted an anti-satellite test in May by taking out a satellite. Possibly, it was a signal that Russia has the capability to interfere with the GPS constellation in non-military fields, which could affect key sectors of the US economy. 

Above all, any “sanctions from hell” will inevitably turn into a morality play on the world stage. There will be increasing blowback in the world economy as countries get concerned about Washington’s weaponization of the dollar.

Some may even feel prompted to harden their economies. This could impact the international financial market. Washington backtracked previously when such situations arose. (The US chose not to impose sanctions against India under CAATSA for its purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia.) 

Paradoxically, thanks to wave after wave of Western sanctions since 2014, Russia has become much more autarchic. Now, it needs no inputs from the West for its defense industry to develop new weapon systems.

Pentagon officials have admitted that Russia has taken the lead in cutting-edge technology such as hypersonic missiles, and catching up may take three to five years – that is, assuming that the Russian defense industry is resting its oars. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.