March 2, 2022

Ukraine: Russia’s quest for status quo triggers avalanche

Written By: Sandhya Jain

As tanks rolled into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the discourse from the West depicted President Vladimir Putin as a prowling hegemon bent on reviving the Russian-Soviet Empire, and President Xi Jinping as a statesman anxious about international stability. In reality, Putin is a status quoist who sought the fulfilment of promises made after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Xi (following Deng Xiaoping et al) is dedicated to overturning the US-led post-1945 world order. That the Russian action may actually trigger fundamental changes is incidental; Beijing began the disruption with its smooth march through nations and waters across the globe.

Shortly after the Russian attack on February 24, 2022, Dima Adamsky (Reichman University, Herzliya) observed that Ukraine symbolises Putin’s angst with the post-Cold War order. “It was a unipolar world with one hegemonic power, the United States, whose victory…spawned an attempt to dictate America’s principles and way of life to the rest of the world.”[1] Tim Marshall (Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, 2016) explains that the strategic interests of nations are dictated by geography. Russia needs warm water ports for trade and commerce: Ukraine’s Black Sea coast connects with the Mediterranean; Sevastopol in Crimea hosts a Russian fleet.

Legal scholar Francis Boyle endorses Moscow’s claim that the 1990 agreement between Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev and US Secretary of State James A. Baker III and other European leaders promised that if USSR agreed to the reunification of Germany, NATO would not expand “one inch farther to the east.” Though not put into writing, all commitments made by high-level government officials are binding under international law.[2] American statesman Henry Kissinger and political scientist John Mearsheimer have strongly disapproved of America intruding on Russia’s natural sphere of influence.

Sergei A. Karaganov (Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Moscow) blames Moscow for “being weak and trusting our Western partners” and asserts that Russia needs a “return to the status quo ante of 1997 when the Russia-NATO Act was signed.”[3] He points out NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya.

Putins Perception

Putin first revealed his mind at the Munich Security Conference (2007) where he questioned NATO’s eastward movement. Between 1991 and 2007, it admitted the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and the former Soviet Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). Putin lambasted the US’s stationing anti-missile systems in Europe, and withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. In 2008, NATO put Ukraine and Georgia on its wait-list; Russia moved against Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, 2008) and Ukraine (Crimea, 2014) to retain a buffer against the West. As late as December 2021, Moscow gave Washington its “security proposals,” which included an end to further eastward expansion of NATO; and withdrawal of NATO troops in Eastern Europe.[4]

Russia waited patiently for seven years for implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2202 of February 17, 2015, which consolidated the Minsk Package of Measures of February 12, 2015, to settle the situation in Donbass. The current military action aims to restore Moscow’s status as an equal partner at the (new) Concert of Europe.

Addressing the Russian people on February 21, 2022[5], Putin asserted that Ukraine is a creation of Bolshevik Russia. After the 1917 revolution, Lenin severed historically Russian land, and after World War II (Great Patriotic War), Stalin gave Ukraine some lands that belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary; he compensated Poland with some traditionally German land. Then, in 1954, Khrushchev gifted the Crimea to Ukraine. Lenin also gave the new soviet republics (administrative and territorial entities) the right to secession.[6]

Under this flawed Bolshevik Constitution, Ukraine and other republics claimed independence when the USSR collapsed. Russia accepted the new situation stoically and helped the new republics, even paying USD 100 billion Soviet debt alone. In return, most of them gave Russia part of their Soviet foreign assets. But Kiev refused and demanded a share of the Diamond Treasury, gold reserves, and former USSR property and other assets abroad. Putin alleged that Kiev frequently blackmailed on energy transits and literally stole gas.

In a hard-hitting speech, Putin declared that foreign-backed NGOs promoted Russophobia and neo-Nazism in Ukraine. The country is ruled by oligarchic clans with billions of dollars in Western banks. He alleged that the Maidan protest and coup d’état in 2014 was funded by foreign states. The violence included the tragedy in Odessa, where peaceful protesters were brutally murdered and burned alive in the House of Trade Unions. The criminals behind that atrocity were never punished, “But we know their names and we will do everything to punish them, find them and bring them to justice.”

When Crimea opted to return to Russia, Kiev activated extremist cells, including radical Islamist groups, sent subversives to attack critical infrastructure facilities, and kidnapped Russian citizens. Ukraine’s March 2021 new Military Strategy focused on confrontation with Russia, including creating a terrorist underground movement in Russia’s Crimea and Donbass “with foreign military support in the geopolitical confrontation with the Russian Federation.”

International law, Putin asserted, stipulates the principle of equal and indivisible security, which means that a nation must not strengthen its own security at the expense of the security of other states. This was stated in the OSCE Charter for European Security (Istanbul, 1999) and the OSCE Astana Declaration (2010). Ukraine joining NATO is a direct threat to Russia’s security, he emphasised.

The Attack

The attack on Ukraine exposed NATO’s reluctance to face war. US President Donald Trump had berated European nations for using the American umbrella to curtail defence expenditures and build their own economies. However, the American arsenal also lags behind the Russian, and given the post-Covid impact on economies, upgrading defence capabilities may put undue strain on Europe.

Within hours of the Russian deployment, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told his nation that he had reached out to 27 European leaders, but was offered only lip sympathy.[7] Moscow meanwhile offered to negotiate if Kiev agreed to discuss neutrality. Putin had declared his aim to “demilitarise and de-nazify” Ukraine, an allusion to Stephan Banderas and the Maidan coup of 2014. Zelensky expressed willingness to discuss a “potential neutral status,” but insisted on third party guarantees.

This article does not presume to predict the course of this military action, or the fate of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. However, a few points are in order. Under public pressure, NATO countries are preparing to send arms to Kiev. The situation appears grim; citizens are fleeing to neighbouring countries in droves.

Fallout

Putin’s objective is clearly to cement Russia’s influence in Ukraine, as in Belarus and Kazakhstan. The era of NATO enlargement is de facto over, unless Europe wants a serious war. The initial abandonment of Ukraine has ended Washington’s primacy in Europe. Henceforth, the European Union / NATO will have to focus on the security of core members (Germany, France), leaving the rest to fend for themselves, barring Finland and Sweden. Worse, the victory of Donald Trump (or a Trumpian candidate) in the 2024 US presidential election could shatter the transatlantic relationship.

Moreover, the US-Europe cannot sustain a prolonged economic war with Russia. Eventually, sanctions will be tempered as Russia commands huge energy resources that Europe needs. Besides gas, Moscow controls several critical resources such as palladium, titanium etc.

India and China refused to join the chorus of condemnation of Moscow at the UN Security Council. In early February, Xi Jinping and Putin issued a statement wherein Beijing backed Moscow’s opposition to NATO expansion and its other security concerns in Europe. Once the invasion began, China called for restraint and a negotiated solution. The Chinese government blamed the United States for the crisis, by “hyping up tensions”. India has used its good offices with Russia and Ukraine to rescue its stranded students in that country, the only country in the world that is airlifting its nationals from a crisis-torn region.

Biolabs

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program has a huge presence in Ukraine, where several laboratories work on a number of “the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases.” The stated priorities are “to consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern and to continue to ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats.”[8]

Ukrainian and American scientists work together on Avian EDPs, potentially carried by migratory birds over Ukraine, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever virus and hantaviruses in Ukraine, African Swine Fever Virus (ASFV) in Domestic Pigs and Wild Boars in Ukraine, and ASF Bio-surveillance and Regional Risk Assessment. Russia disapproves of the presence of such sensitive laboratories on its doorstep.

Revolutionary China

A few words on China are in order. British geographer Halford J. Mackinder argued that, ‘who controls Eurasia, controls the world’, even though European colonialism was rooted in naval power. Currently, 90 per cent of global trade moves on the high seas. This was why US strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan mooted, “Control of the sea by maritime commerce and naval supremacy means predominant influence in the world; because, however great the wealth product of the land, nothing facilitates the necessary exchanges as does the sea”.[9]

China in the 21st century married both these concepts and emerged as the first non-Western power to project power in Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific. Sensing Washington’s decline, Beijing began challenging the US-dominated post-1945 Euro-Atlantic order by positioning itself on the oceans and land routes across Asia and between Asia and Europe, relying on diplomacy and economic strength.[10]

In barely a decade since their official unveiling, the New Silk Roads (September 2013) and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (October 2013) are spreading across different geographical regions, embracing over 70 nations. Unlike the US Marshall Plan that rehabilitated Western European nations with common religious, cultural and political (democracy) affinity, the Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI) offers to build infrastructure across nations of Africa and Asia, regardless of political or cultural affinity.

It is not widely known that post-World War II Western hegemony rests on the power to underwrite ocean-bound trade as the US and its Western allies control the marine service industry that supports the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs), which earns them huge revenues. They control the insurance and reinsurance of goods and ships that ply on SLOCs, and the freight rates. The institutions that declare parts of the sea dangerous or hostile are located in Western capitals, and Washington has the power to impose sanctions and stop ships from moving in or out of a particular harbour. This, as former naval officer Atul Bhardwaj notes, is contrary to the principal of multi-polarity in world affairs, and this is what Beijing is seeking to overturn.[11]

If the B&RI succeeds, it would make China the world’s leading power by 2049, the centenary of communist rule. All ports along the Maritime Silk Road are strategic: Melaka Gateway and Kuantan (Malaysia); Kyaukpyu (Myanmar); Jakarta and Batam Island (Indonesia); Colombo and Hambantota (Sri Lanka); Gwadar (Pakistan); Djibouti; Mombasa (Kenya); and Piraeus (Greece). China also has a major stake in a dry port in Khorgos in landlocked Kazakhstan, for a transport hub.[12] European nations that have joined the B&RI include Greece, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland, and Eastern European countries including Hungary and Poland.

Previously, as part of their Eurasian integration plans, Moscow and Beijing began augmenting their gold reserves to undermine the hegemony of the US dollar and evade US sanctions. In 2012, China Foreign Exchange Trade System (CFETS) set up a yuan-ruble payment system. In October 2015, Beijing created the China International Payments System (CIPS), which has an agreement with SWIFT, to help countries sanctioned by Washington.[13] It remains to be seen how effective these systems are in helping Moscow overcome the growing sanctions imposed on it for its action against Ukraine.

Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church is a powerful and often overlooked element in Putin’s political psychology. The Clinton administration’s unilateral assault on and break-up of Yugoslavia was also an attack on the Slavic Church. Putin moved to rescue President Bashar al-Assad because the Russian Orthodox Church has its roots in Damascus. This changed the politics of West Asia.

Addressing the Russian people on February 21, 2022, Putin asserted that even before the 17th century, people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.[14] He berated Kiev for acting against the Orthodox Church under Western patronage: “Kiev continues to prepare the destruction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.” Putin charged that new draft laws are directed against the clergy, and millions of parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate have been registered in the Verkhovna Rada (unicameral parliament of Ukraine).

At the time of writing (February 27, 2022), a Russian delegation headed by Vladimir Medinsky had arrived in Gomel, Belarus, for talks with Ukraine. Diplomat Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Ukrainian side had chosen Belarus as the venue for the talks, but Zelensky later changed his mind, citing “military action from Belarusian side.” Instead, he welcomed offers from Turkey and Azerbaijan to broker talks with Moscow. However, after Belarus President, Alexander Lukashenko, spoke with Zelensky, he agreed to send a delegation.

There can be no doubt that eventually Putin will insist on regime change in Ukraine. Russia had raced to seize the Chernobyl plant from the Belarus side partly to reach Kiev sooner, but mainly to squash possible attempts by Ukraine to rebuild a nuclear stockpile.

However, the lasting impact of the current crisis will be in the Asia-Pacific where China is expected to become more assertive. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has urged Washington to “ditch strategic ambiguity and make clear it will defend Taiwan”. Australia will also expect stronger guarantees for its security vis-à-vis Beijing. Europe, especially Germany, has understood the need to enhance its security. The US-led world order has been sundered; the new order has yet to take shape.

Author Brief Bio: Sandhya Jain is a political analyst, independent researcher, and author of multiple books. She is also editor of the platform Vijayvaani.

References:

[1] Haaretz: ‘Putin Has an Ultimate Goal, and It’s Not Ukraine’, Dima Adamsky, Feb. 25, 2022.

https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-putin-has-an-ultimate-goal-and-it-s-not-ukraine-1.10633936?v=1645803515874

[2] TRANSCRIPT: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/kpfa-flashpoints/id79896091?mt=2

[3] Russia in Global Affairs, It’s Not About Ukraine, Sergei A. Karaganov, February 7, 2022.

https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/it-is-not-about-ukraine/

[4] The Hill, Fifteen years after Munich, Putin is driven by the same fears, Wesley Culp, February 12, 2022.

https://thehill.com/opinion/international/593857-fifteen-years-after-munich-putin-is-driven-by-the-same-fears

[5] https://www.riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/modern-day-censorship/president-putins-full-text-of-february-21-2022-speech-to-the-nation/

[6] Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 21, 2022.

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67828?s=03

[7] RT, Ukraine ready to discuss neutrality, Zelensky says, February 25, 2022.

https://www.rt.com/russia/550546-zelensky-nato-ukraine-neutrality/

[8] U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, Biological Threat Reduction Program,

https://ua.usembassy.gov/embassy/kyiv/sections-offices/defense-threat-reduction-office/biological-threat-reduction-program/

[9] The Economist, “Who Rules the Waves?”, October 17, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/international/21674648-china-no-longer-accepts-america-should-be-asia-pacifics-dominant-navalpower-who-rules.

Unless otherwise stated, all URLs have been checked May 2020.

[10] Ratner, Ely and Samir Kumar, The United States Is Losing Asia to China, Foreign Policy, May 12, 2017.

http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/12/the-united-states-is-losing-asia-to-china/amp/

[11] Bhardwaj, Atul, Belt and Road Initiative: An Idea Whose Time Has Come, China International Studies, May-June 2017, pp. 100-02.

[12] New York Times, China’s Ambitious New ‘Port’: Landlocked Kazakhstan, Andrew Higgins, Jan. 1, 2018

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/01/world/asia/china-kazakhstan-silk-road.html?smid=tw-share

[13] The petro-yuan bombshell, Pepe Escobar, thesakeris, December 26, 2017. http://thesaker.is/the-petro-yuan-bombshell/

[14] Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 21, 2022.

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67828?s=03

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