Putin’s Moves Are Hardly ‘Chess Thumping’

Published in the Hindu on February 26, 2022

Diplomacy has retreated as the smouldering Ukraine crisis took a decisive turn this week.  On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched “special military operations” with the objective of “demilitarising Ukraine” but not “occupying” it. Just days prior to this, Russia had upped the ante by recognising the sovereignty of Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, two of Ukraine’s eastern-most provinces and deploying Russian peace-keeping forces in these territories. A meeting between United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stands cancelled and the prospects of a summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Mr. Putin evaporated into thin air.

The Russian actions have been strongly condemned and sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Japan. After 1945, this is the second time that national boundaries are being redrawn by force; the first was the 1999 NATO air strikes on Serbian forces that led to the creation of Kosovo. Russian and Chinese protests about NATO undertaking “out of area operations” without UN Security Council approval carried little weight.

A crisis in the making

In the post-Cold War world that promised a rule-based liberal international order, clearly the message from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars still held – “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

In 2022, Russia has fired the first shot but NATO is not blameless either. The Ukrainian crisis has been in the making for over a decade. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in end-1989, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was meeting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in February 1990 to help ease the way for German unification. He assured Gorbachev that NATO understood the “need for assurances to the countries in the East”, adding that even with Germany a part of NATO, “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction one inch to the east”.

By end-1991, USSR had broken up into 15 countries; Gorbachev faded into history and a change in the White House was under way. Rather than look for a new European security framework, the newly independent Baltic and central European states sought security in a U.S.-led NATO. The old caution that the cost of expansion goes up as it reaches closer to the Russian border was discarded and NATO adopted an ‘open door’ policy.

Beginning in 1999, NATO has added 14 new members in stages. At the NATO summit in 2008, at U.S. President George Bush’s urging, an in-principle opening for Ukraine and Georgia was announced though France and Germany, conscious of Russian concerns, successfully opposed defining a time frame. It was a bad compromise and the damage was done.

Later that year, Russia intervened in Georgia on the grounds of protecting the Russian minorities and took over the northern provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, following the Euromaidan protests against the pro-Russian President Yanukovich, Putin annexed Crimea. For Russia, Crimea is vital as the peninsula hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet providing it access to the Mediterranean and its bases at Latakia and Tartus in Syria. At the same time, pro-Russia separatists, assisted by Russian mercenaries, created autonomous regions in the Donbas region.

Despite no timeline for membership, Ukraine was made a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner in 2020. British and U.S. warships’ presence in the Black Sea began to increase. In 2019, U.K. entered into a cooperation agreement with Ukraine to develop two new naval ports, Ochakiv on the Black Sea and Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, a move that Russia saw as potentially threatening.

Clearly, Mr. Putin’s grievances – beginning with NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and colour revolutions to engineer regime changes, U.S.’ unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002 coupled with missile defence deployments in Poland and Romania that Russia perceived as offensive, were accumulating.

Faltering Euro-diplomacy

France and Germany initiated talks between Ukraine and Russia under the Normandy format leading to the Minsk agreements, in 2014 and 2015. The first was for a ceasefire between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists and the second was between Ukraine, Russia, the two separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Supportive declarations by France and Germany were intended to address Russian security concerns. Ukraine undertook to introduce certain constitutional amendments to provide a degree of autonomy to the two provinces and Russia was to assist in withdrawal of all foreign forces. However, neither side implemented and positions have only hardened since.

In the intense diplomacy during the last six weeks, particularly the back-to-back visits by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Schulz to Moscow and Kiev, there was talk of reviving the Normandy format. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not in a mood to oblige with over 150000 Russian troops poised on his border and Mr. Putin was looking for his own face saver. Mr. Macron has a difficult re-election coming up in April and Chancellor Schulz had already been criticised for being soft on Russia because of energy dependency.

Mr. Biden faces a critical mid-term election in November that could see the Senate shift to Republican control and had already faced considerable flak for the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. His aim was to ensure trans-Atlantic unity in NATO. Russian threatening moves made NATO members, especially the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and the central Europeans like Poland and Romania, especially nervous. Finally, NATO remained united but unable to provide an off-ramps solution.

Putin’s chess gambit

With a military force of 200000 and an equal number of reserves, prudence dictates that Mr. Putin would not want to take over Ukraine. However, the separatist groups that currently control only part of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk would want to extend their territory beyond the current Line of Contact dividing the separatists and the Ukrainian forces.

Along the Black Sea coast, Russia could seek to extend a coastal corridor to the Crimean Peninsula. This would cement its hold on the Sea of Azov, giving it control over Mariupol and Berdyansk and restrict Ukraine to Odessa in the west.

Ideally, President Putin would have liked to bring about a regime change in Kiev but that seems unlikely now. Domestic troubles in Belarus have made President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, dependent on Russian support. Both countries announced that the 35000 Russian soldiers, in Belarus for joint exercises that concluded on February 20, would stay on for ‘training cooperation and inspections’. Russian military presence in Belarus puts pressure on the 65-mile long Suwalki corridor that constitutes the boundary between Lithuania and Poland and more importantly, separates Belarus from Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea that hosts its Baltic fleet.

President Putin may claim victory in the near term but in the long term, he has overreached himself. NATO has been rejuvenated, the trans-Atlantic unity strengthened and Russia’s economic ties with Europe have been adversely impacted. Given Russia’s considerable foreign exchange reserves of nearly $640 billion, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU may not hurt immediately but eventually will begin to bite, both the oligarchs and the common people. Worse, Russia will become more dependent on China, for political support as well as a market for its energy exports. This will eventually weaken its hand in central Asia.

Russians have been the greatest chess players and President Putin knows that a move on the chess board will close certain options while opening up others. The challenge is to constrain the adversary’s options while increasing one’s own options and space for manoeuvre. His actions this week may yield tactical gains but hardly pass the test for strategic victory.


Putin is Forcing a Third Reordering of Europe

Published in Hindustan Times on February 9, 2022

2022 has begun on an ominous note with apprehensions of a war breaking out in the heart of Europe. The immediate provocation is the presence of at least 100,000 Russian soldiers engaged in ostensible winter exercises on the border of Ukraine and another 35,000 in Belarus. January witnessed frenetic diplomacy between the leaders of Russia, the United States (US), France, the United Kingdom (UK); meetings of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), European Union (EU) and the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); and yet, tensions run high.

What is at stake is not only Ukraine but also the redrawing of Europe’s security map. The first reordering in the 20th century was in 1945, the result of an enormously destructive World War II. The United Nations was created. Respecting territorial boundaries of sovereign states and non-interference in internal affairs became the bedrock for preventing wars in Europe.

However, it was a bipolar world with two hegemons, the US and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Europe was divided. The Soviet Union-led military alliance (Warsaw Pact) dominated Eastern Bloc while West Europe came under NATO and US’ extended nuclear umbrella. Germany was bifurcated into an FRG (West) and GDR (East) with NATO-Warsaw Pact dividing line passing through the heart of Berlin.

The second reordering of Europe was peaceful and triggered by the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the unification of Germany, East European and Baltic states coming out the Soviet shadow and finally, the break-up of USSR into Russia and 14 other independent countries in end-1991. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved. However, in Putin’s Russia, there is growing resentment that the second reordering exploited a weakened Russia. Convinced that the Western objective is to keep Russia down, President Putin is attempting a third reordering of Europe and Ukraine is the catalyst that has triggered the crisis. At its heart lies the question: Has the West reneged on its promise not to expand NATO?

In 1989, NATO consisted of 16 countries. After the Berlin Wall came down, US Secretary of State James Baker met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990, urging him to let East Germany go. Gorbachev declared that an eastward expansion of NATO was unacceptable. Baker suggested that in return for letting East Germany go, NATO’s military jurisdiction would not be expanded eastwards, an assurance reiterated by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl the following day.

Months later, on September 12, 1990, the two Germanys and the four occupying powers of Berlin – France, the UK, the USA and the USSR signed the 2+4 agreement that no foreign forces or nuclear weapons would be stationed in Berlin or East Germany. This agreement cleared the way for German unification on October 3 and Germany has adhered to it.

During following months, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in East Europe, and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the Baltics raised independent flags one after another. By December-1991, even Ukraine and Belarus had exited the Soviet embrace.

Russia became the successor state under President Boris Yeltsin and Gorbachev faded into history. Unable to forget the heavy yoke of the USSR, the newly independent states now wanted the West to guarantee their sovereignty against future Russian interventions.

During early 1990s, US remained conscious of the Baker-Gorbachev understanding. President Bill Clinton famously stated that the US would not draw a new line in Europe. He initiated a Partnership for Peace programme for all former Warsaw Pact countries. Even Russia joined and in 1997, a NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.

Two years later, flush with victory in the Balkans with NATO now undertaking “out of area operations”, Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic were admitted to NATO, followed by seven more erstwhile Soviet bloc members in 2004 during George Bush years and two each during Obama and Trump periods, taking NATO membership to 30. The cautionary principle that had guided President Bush and his Secretary of State Baker that “the cost of expansion goes up as NATO moves closer to Russia” was forgotten in the intoxicating hubris of the US’ unipolar moment.  

The first warning signs came over a decade ago. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, President Putin raised the issue of security guarantees from the US and NATO. However, the 2008 NATO Summit Declaration opened the doors for Georgia and Ukraine. Months later, citing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s actions in South Ossetia as a grave provocation, Russia intervened and took over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In 2013, protests against the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich led to the Russian annexation of Crimean Peninsula in 2014; here, Sevastopol hosts the Russian Black Sea naval fleet, providing it access to the Mediterranean Sea and Russian bases at Latakia and Tartus in Syria.

The fact is that Ukraine is not just any other East European nation; it has been part of Russia for over 600 years and last July, Mr. Putin authored an article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, drawing very clear red lines.

Neither the US nor Russia wants a conflict. Europe is struggling for economic recovery. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing domestic challenges, French President Emmanuel Macron has a difficult re-election in April and German Chancellor Olaf Schulz is yet to make his presence felt.  The frenetic diplomacy is proof that all key players are seeking a way out.

Putin has succeeded in focussing Western attention and laid down a set of demands for security guarantees from both the US and NATO. But he has also rejuvenated NATO. A reordering of the European security map is underway; the diplomatic challenge is to achieve it without a destructive war.


The Mind and the State of Russia’s President

Published in the Hindu on February 1, 2022

In early January, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity beginning with talks in Geneva between United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, shifting to Brussels for a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-Russia Council meeting on January 12, with the finale being the 57-member Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Vienna the following day. The immediate provocation was the presence of 1,00,000 Russian forces, backed by heavy artillery, tanks and armoured personnel carriers on the Russia-Ukraine border generating apprehensions about an imminent invasion. The diplomacy has continued with meetings and phone calls at the highest levels. In the absence of any forward movement, the situation in Ukraine remains tense as analysts try to read President Vladimir Putin’s mind about Russia’s next move.

Russian problems

In 2008, the Bucharest NATO summit declaration offered an open-ended timeframe for membership to Georgia and Ukraine. Russia was quick to pick up the gauntlet. Months later, citing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s actions in South Ossetia as a provocation, Russia intervened taking over the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

As protests mounted in 2013 against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych who was seen as pro-Russia, Russia annexed Crimea, legitimising it with an estimated 94% vote in a referendum in 2014. For the last seven years, the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk have seen a civil war with pro-Russian militias fighting the Ukrainian forces that has claimed over 10000 lives.

However, troubles come in multiples. Even as President Putin tries to dampen the Ukrainian tilt to the West, he has had to shore up Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko whose move to get a sixth term in office sparked widespread protests, creating new uncertainty on Russian borders.

In the South Caucasus, fighting had broken out between Azerbaijan and Russian treaty ally Armenia over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. In end-2020, Russia brokered a ceasefire that has proven to be tenuous. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has been expanding his regional role and provided vital military support to enable Azerbaijan to gain the upper hand. In Ukraine too, Turkey has sold drones and other military hardware to bolster President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ability to resist Russian advances. All this even as President Erdogan engages with Russia in the Astana process on Syria and is a client for the S-400 missile defence system.

In Central Asia in early January, protests against the fuel price increases in Kazakhstan led to violence, prompting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to issue shoot-at-sight orders to the security forces. Mr. Tokayev took over in 2019 from Nazarbayev who had ruled for 29 years but public protests forced him to resign. However, he remained influential, as Chair of the National Security Committee, controlling the defence, intelligence and police sectors through his loyalists. He has since quit and his right-hand man, former Prime Minister Karim Massimov was sacked as head of National Security Committee and arrested for treason. Mr. Tokayev also reached out to Mr. Putin and for the first time since it was set up in 2002, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) has sent a Russian led 4000 strong military contingent to restore law and order and protect key government facilities. CSTO was a Russian initiative and includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Notwithstanding the multiple eruptions in its borderlands, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov captured the Kremlin sentiment when he described the former Soviet territories not as “free, sovereign and liberated nation-states” but as “territories that lack ownership.”

Seeking lost glory

In a sense, Presidents Biden and Putin are both seeking to rewrite history. The U.S. would like a return to the 1990s, its unipolar moment when it set into motion the eastward expansion of both NATO and the European Union as the instrument for ensuring European security. It engaged Russia through NATO’s Partnership for Peace that grew into the NATO-Russia Council with over two dozen working groups covering arms control, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, logistics, peacekeeping, civil emergencies etc.

Mr. Putin thinks differently. He considers the break-up of the USSR the biggest tragedy of the 20th century and has called the eastward expansion of NATO that added 14 new Baltic and Central and East European member states (in stages) an existential threat. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Mr. Putin raised the issue of security guarantees for Russia for the first time. He has also described the protest movements (colour revolutions) in former Soviet republics as Western attempts at bringing about regime change. He seeks to push back NATO and restore Russian stature and influence to what USSR enjoyed during the bipolar era.

On December 17, Russia had presented two parallel drafts on security guarantees with the U.S. and NATO. These included a prohibition on any further NATO expansion, removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe and U.S. troops to be restricted to NATO territory prior to the expansion as in 1997. These would also have curtailed U.S. naval vessels from the Black Sea, Barents Sea in the north and the Okhotsk Sea in the east. These demands were dismissed by the U.S. as “non-starters”; in turn, it proposed talks on arms control, missile deployments, constraints on military exercises and confidence-building.

While declaring that “Russia had no intention to invade Ukraine”, Russian Deputy Minister Ryabkov reiterated that “Ukraine must never, never, never join NATO” and warned of “military and technical consequences that could put European security at risk.” Ms. Sherman maintained that “NATO’s open-door policy was non-negotiable” while Washington hinted at crippling economic and trade sanctions if Russia intervened in Ukraine. The talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna ended in a stalemate and brinkmanship continues.

Risks of over-reach

On January 14, over 70 Ukrainian government sites were subjected to a cyber-attack with a warning ‘Be Afraid, Prepare For The Worst’; Ukraine has attributed it to Russia. The same day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki disclosed intelligence that Russia had pre-positioned special forces and operatives to undertake false flag operations in eastern Ukraine, warning Russia against using it as a pretext for intervention. On January 27, Mr. Biden said he expects Mr. Putin to make a move in February.

In the recent past, former U.S. President Donald Trump was calling NATO a drain on the U.S. and French President Emmanuel Macron had called NATO “brain-dead”. While U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to rebuild alliances, the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan left NATO allies doubting long term U.S. commitments. Barely six months ago, France recalled its Ambassador from Washington, protesting against the creation of AUKUS (a trilateral security pact between Australi, the United Kingdom and the U.S.) that led Australia to cancel its multi-billion submarine deal with France. There were fewer and fewer NATO candidates ready to host U.S. nuclear weapons. The 2008 declaration about expanding NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine was seen as a rash promise that NATO was keen to forget. Even Russia’s takeover of Crimea had been overlooked. But Russian actions in Ukraine have revived NATO, giving it a new lease of life by restoring its original purpose.

On China

The U.S. focus on China and the Indo-Pacific was an opening that Russia sought to exploit but Mr. Biden cannot afford to ignore Europe or be accused of appeasing Russia. Mr. Putin is shrewd enough to know that shifting U.S. focus away from China can’t be in Russian interest; it makes Russia more dependent economically on China because Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline remains frozen and sanctions isolate it from European markets. Further, it gives China a free hand to expand its influence in Central Asia. An overtly antagonistic relationship with U.S. and Europe may also limit Russian options in West and South Asia.

Ultimately, a war in Ukraine is something that neither Russia nor the U.S. want. Both need a way out of the escalatory spiral. The recent talks have brought Russian concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion centre-stage. Now Mr. Putin has to decide which is a greater challenge – a liberally oriented Ukraine or confrontation with a rejuvenated NATO together with an unconstrained China. The choice is clear.