Ending the Ukraine War in an Imperfect World

Published in the Hindu on July 8, 2022

The war in Ukraine has been underway for over four months. What began as a European conflict has had global repercussions. Of course, Ukraine and its people have borne the maximum brunt. More than five million Ukrainians have left the country and over eight million are internally displaced. Rising casualties and large-scale destruction have set back the country by decades. Recent estimates for rebuilding the destroyed cities and infrastructure are as high as $750 billion.

During 2020-21, most economies that could afford to, provided generous financial support to its citizens in the form of direct payments and subsidised food to tide over the economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chains suffered disruptions, aggravated by politics. Economic recovery has generated demand creating inflationary pressures. Today, inflation rates are rising across the world and in the largest economies have reached levels not seen since the early 1980s. As these countries tighten money supply, fears of recession loom large. The war in Ukraine has aggravated the situation for the poorer countries by creating food and fertiliser shortages. The sharp surge in energy prices threatens the prospects of economic recovery. Prospects of collective global action to deal with these challenges appear remote, given growing tensions among major powers.  

And so, the war grinds on, with no end in sight.

The inevitable conflict

It is a fact that Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 in gross violation of the United Nations Charter and international law; it is equally true that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is not an innocent bystander. In 2022, Russia is the guilty one but NATO’s folly was to forget that the cost of its expansion goes up as it gets closer to the Russian border. Its strategic error was in concluding that Russia was in terminal decline and adopting an ‘open door’ policy.

By 2005, 11 former East European and Baltic states had joined NATO. Addressing the Munich Security Conference in 2007, President Vladimir Putin described NATO’s decision of moving eastwards and deploying forces closer to Russian borders, “a serious provocation”. The warning was ignored. At the NATO summit in early 2008, the U.S. pushed for opening membership for Ukraine and Georgia. France and Germany, sensitive to Russian concerns, successfully blocked a time-frame for implementation. As a compromise, it was the worst of both worlds. It convinced Russia of NATO’s hostility and dangled prospects for Georgia and Ukraine that NATO couldn’t fulfil.  

Later that year, Russia intervened in Georgia on the grounds of protecting the Russian minorities, taking over the neighbouring provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, following the Euromaidan protests in Kiev against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russia separatists, assisted by Russian mercenaries, created autonomous regions in eastern Ukraine. The fuse, lit in 2008, was now smouldering.  

Post-2014, NATO continued to strengthen its relationship with Ukraine by providing it training and equipment, formalising it in 2020 by making Ukraine a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner. 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. The die was cast.

Liberalism trumps realism

Neither side wanted war. NATO members insist that Ukraine would not be joining NATO but remains unable to walk back from its 2008 statement. This would be seen as ‘appeasement’. In diplomacy, appeasement had long been accepted as an honourable route to ensuring peace, practiced by the British since the mid-nineteenth century in its dealings with European powers and especially the U.S. as it sought to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Neville Chamberlain too used appeasement to negotiate “peace in our times” in 1938 but Winston Churchill employed it to pillory him and the term never regained respectability thereafter.

An equivalent term surfaced – sensitivity for each other’s core interests -practised during the Cold War to prevent the U.S. and USSR from getting into conflict. With the end of the Cold War, this became history. The liberal school, having vanquished the Marxist school of thought, was now convinced of the righteousness of its cause. If only the rest of the world could be made to see reason, democracy would flourish, free markets ensure prosperity and a Western led rule-based order prevail. The triumph of liberalism led the neo-con believers towards interventionism (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Colour Revolutions, Syria); others, attracted by the prospects of Chinese and Russian markets, deluded themselves that economic growth would lead to political openings.

The realist school of thought cautioned against military interventions backed by a one-size-fits-all democratic prescription and the risks of excessive economic dependence on China but these voices were dismissed. Many U.S. scholars and strategic thinkers cautioned against NATO enlargement, warning that Russia may be weak but it would be reckless to ignore its security interests; they were charged with ‘appeasement’. Liberalism was upholding ‘moral values’; amoral realism was easy to reject as immoral.

French President Emmanuel Macron talked in February of the Finlandisation model as an option for Ukraine. Austrian neutrality imposed by US, USSR, UK and France in 1955, enshrined in its constitution was mentioned. But these solutions had found acceptance in a war weary Europe when politics was frozen by the Cold War. Finland had accepted limited sovereignty and just two presidents guided it – Urho Kekkonen (1956-82) and Mauno Koivisto (1982-94) and both also served as prime-ministers before assuming the presidency. In 2022, such stability is impossible with power politics in flux, rivalries sharpening and populism on the upswing.

In early March, in an interview to Russian media, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that Ukraine was not pressing for NATO membership but wanted neutrality to be guaranteed; he even talked of autonomy for Donbas as a compromise and a period of ten years for talks on Crimea. But that interview was soon forgotten.

How wars end

Wars often develop their own momentum and the Ukraine war is no exception. Russia possibly anticipated a short, sharp conflict, a collapse of the Kiev regime (perhaps similar to what happened in Kabul last August), and lack of NATO cohesion. It has had to readjust its aims as it has settled down to a long and brutal war. The G-7, European Union (EU) and NATO have displayed unusual cohesion and Ukrainians have shown exemplary grit and motivation. Russia is in a bind. Even its limited war aims of controlling Donbas and the Black Sea coast have been a slog. Finland and Sweden joining NATO will squeeze it further in the Baltic Sea. Ukraine’s ability to fight depends on how long western funds and military hardware keep flowing.

In a moral world, there is a right and wrong and Russia should be held to account. But in the real world, other factors come into play. A blame game or establishing the root cause will not help end the crisis. Eventually, talks will need to take place, between Ukraine and Russia and with NATO and U.S. playing an outsize role behind the scenes. This means acknowledging Russia’s security interests in its neighbourhood.

The problem is that the war is now being cast in binaries – a battle between freedom and tyranny, between democracy and autocracy, a choice between rule-based order and brute force. This makes compromise difficult. And Russia cannot be defeated unless NATO wants to engage in a full-scale war.

The longer the war continues, the greater the suffering for the Ukrainians. The more territory Ukraine loses, the weaker will be its bargaining position at the table. And the longer the war continues, the greater the risk of an inadvertent escalation. History tells us that when faced with choices, major powers have a propensity to double down. The nuclear taboo has held since 1945; sane voices need to ensure that it is not breached. The sooner the war ceases, the better for Ukrainians, Russians and the world. It is an imperfect world but we don’t have another.

*****

‘Bharat Natyam’ in Indian Diplomacy

Published in the Hindu on March 16. 2022

The late Jyotindra Nath Dixit (Mani Dixit to his many friends and admirers) took over as Foreign Secretary on December 1, 1991. He retired 26 months later, on January 31, 1994 – 58 years was then the retirement age.

Republics and Moscow

Those were times of change. On December 25, 1991, Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the flag of USSR was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin and the following day, USSR was formally dissolved. In its place, 15 republics emerged. India accepted the challenge and set about opening new embassies to build new relationships with these countries in Central Asia, South Caucasus and Central Europe while maintaining its traditional ties with Moscow.

In January 1992, India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, announcing the opening of embassies and exchanging ambassadors for the first time, opening the door to a relationship that has blossomed into one of India’s most significant strategic partnerships in the last three decades.

Path to the nuclear deal

On January 31, 1992, Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao participated in the first ever meeting of the UN Security Council at summit level (India was a member in 1991-92), presided by British Prime Minister John Major. On the side-lines, Mr. Rao had a bilateral meeting with U.S. President George H. W. Bush where the two leaders decided that in the changing world, India and the U.S. needed to have frank exchanges on issues that had divided them during the Cold War; the issue identified was ‘nuclear proliferation and disarmament’; the first meeting took place during Mr. Dixit’s visit to Washington two months later, sowing the seeds of the dialogue that continued through ups and downs, leading to the path-breaking India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on January 28, 1992, Prime Minister Rao’s ‘Look East’ policy began to take shape as India and ASEAN embarked on a sectoral-dialogue partnership. By end-1995, this had matured into a full-dialogue partnership and in 1996, India joined the security dialogue platform – ASEAN Regional Forum. Since 2002, the relationship has strengthened further with the annual India-ASEAN summit.

On China and Taiwan

Following intense negotiations, during Mr. Rao’s visit to China in September 1993, the two sides initiated the first of the many confidence-building-measures, notably the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. It laid the foundation of the relationship for two decades.

Simultaneously, India and Taiwan negotiated to open Economic and Cultural Centres; Taiwan opened its office first in Mumbai in 1992 before shifting to Delhi while Indian established the India-Taipei Association office in 1995.

The above gives an idea of how India was responding to the changes taking place around us and in the wider world. As a junior colleague who had the privilege of working closely with Mr. Dixit during these years, I often heard him engage patiently with foreign diplomats and respond to questions from inquisitive journalists seeking to make sense of the about-turns in Indian foreign policy.

Relaxing as he puffed on his pipe, in a private aside to his friends, he would tell us, “In Indian diplomacy, sometimes, you need to do a bit of Bharat Natyam”. The point was simple – you may appear in different forms to others but after you have first secured your interests.

UN vote dynamics

In recent weeks, the debates and discussions in Indian media and TV talk-shows about India’s stand on the Ukraine conflict and India’s votes in the UN Security Council and General Assembly are an appropriate moment to reflect on the Dixit principle.

Evidently, the Indian government has chosen to ‘abstain’, based on an assessment of its core interests. However, there is a cardinal principle associated with Security Council votes on issues in such charged times. A ‘for’ or ‘against’ vote is intended to convey a blunt message of ‘support’ or ‘opposition’. It is a black or white choice, and once exercised, the messaging is clear.

On the other hand, ‘abstention’ takes us into a grey zone because it is the middle path. It can either be seen as fence-sitting (which is a sign of helplessness) or create space for diplomatic manoeuvre (which is a successful outcome). In the Ukraine instance – the West should feel satisfied that India ‘abstained’ because they perhaps expected us to oppose their draft proposals given our traditional ties with Russia while Russia should also feel satisfied at our ‘abstention’ because they perhaps expected us to give in to Western persuasion.

The second outcome is a positive one but to appear in different forms at the same time, we need to revive the kind of Bharat Natyam that Mr. Dixit used so effectively to navigate those turbulent times, even as he helped set the course for Indian foreign policy three decades ago.

*****

As Prospects of Arms Control Wane, The Rise of Nuclear Risks

Published in Hindustan Times on March 9, 2022

New uncertainties surround the outcome of war in Ukraine. Will President Vladimir Putin further tighten military pressure or accept assurances about Ukrainian neutrality? Will he settle for a corridor to the Crimean Peninsula or insist that Kiev falls?   

Whichever way the conflict ends, one outcome is clear – nuclear weapons are here to stay and any prospects for nuclear arms control and nuclear disarmament have receded further.  

In 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up into 15 independent sovereign republics, Russia became the successor state to the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). A key challenge was that in addition to Russia, three republics hosted Soviet nuclear weapons on their territory, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Ukraine had the largest nuclear infrastructure with missile factories and naval shipyards, with nearly 5000 warheads on its territory.

Semipalatinsk, the nuclear weapon testing site was in Kazakhstan. While the launch codes rested with the Russian leadership, there was significant nuclear expertise available among the local population.

The prospects of three new states claiming ownership of readymade nuclear arsenals and stockpiles of sizeable quantities of fissile material was a nightmare scenario for the both President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), concluded in the late 1960s, had originally been given a lifespan of 25 years and in 1995, a decision was due regarding its future.

The rub was that the NPT only recognised countries that had done a nuclear test before January 1, 1967 as nuclear weapon states, a definition that covered five countries – the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, China and Russia as the successor to the USSR) – that conveniently happened to be the permanent members of the UN Security Council, wielding veto power. Neither were these five willing to allow new countries in; nor did Russia and China like the idea of new nuclear neighbours.

A massive political and diplomatic effort was mounted, led by the US, with Russia and the Europeans adding their efforts, to get the three to voluntarily renounce nuclear ambitions, return the weapons to Russia and accede to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) audited the nuclear sites and facilities, closing down some and bringing others under permanent inspections, thereby certifying to their denuclearisation. While Belarus and Kazakhstan fell into line, in Ukraine the issue provoked an internal debate as it also produced the SS-24, a 3- stage solid fuel MIRVed ICBM with 10 warheads and a range of 10000 kms.

The combination of saam, daam, danda, bhed (by whatever means possible) eventually worked. At a conference in Budapest in December 1994, three identical Memorandum on Security Assurances were signed relating to the accession of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to the NPT and the three depositary states of the NPT, the US, the UK and Russia, provided security assurances in return. Similar assurances were also provided separately by France and China. These included respecting the independence and sovereignty, refraining from interference or any threat to use force and seeking UN Security Council action in case any of the three countries were subjected to any aggression.

In May 1995, the NPT was extended indefinitely and unconditionally.

In 2014, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the question of Russian violation of the Budapest Memorandum came up. Russia claimed that what had taken place in Crimea was a “revolution”; a referendum in Crimea had declared independence and voted to join Russia. Russia was not obliged to force people to stay in Ukraine against their will and further accused the US of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs by instigating the Euromaidan protests that led to the fall of the government. US legal experts pointed out that since it was a Memorandum and not a treaty, the obligations were declaratory in character.

Hardly surprising then that addressing the Munich Security Conference last month, Zelensky bemoaned the fact that Ukraine had given up its nuclear weapons in returns for security assurances that never materialised and wondered aloud if Ukraine should withdraw from the Budapest Memorandum.

Warning the NATO to stay out of the Ukraine conflict, Putin warned of “never encountered consequences” and days later, on February 27, announced that “the deterrence forces had been put into a special mode of combat service”. His spokesman explained that this was a reaction to deter any possible confrontation between NATO and Russian troops. Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling has been condemned in Europe and US called it “unacceptable escalation”.

Putin is hardly the first to engage in such theatrics. In 2017, US President Donald Trump warned North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and North Korea responded by calling Trump “a dotard” threatening to hit Guam “enveloping it in fire”. Later, Trump described Kim Jong-un as “the rocket man on a suicide mission for himself and his regime” while North Korea “vowed to tame the mentally deranged US dotard with Fire”.

Interestingly, on February 27, former Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe voiced the idea of Japan hosting US nuclear weapons, something that has been taboo in view of Japan’s three “Nos”: No development, No possession, and No introduction of nuclear weapons on its territory. The reason was a possible conflict of China over Taiwan. Though PM Fumio Kishida dismissed the idea, China reacted strongly blaming Japanese militarism and slamming such notions.

Growing nuclear rhetoric, together with new nuclear doctrines defining new roles for nuclear weapons are being explored by the major nuclear powers; however, other technologically capable countries are observing and will draw their own conclusions.

With receding prospects for arms control, nuclear risks in the 21st century are inexorably rising.

*****

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.

*****