The larger dimensions of the Russia–US standoff over Ukraine

New DelhiWritten By: Achal MalhotraUpdated: Jan 27, 2022, 08:17 PM IST

US President Joe Biden (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin Photograph:(WION Web Team)

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The origins of the current phase of the standoff between the West and Russia can be traced to the period immediately after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 when the West adopted a policy of ideological conquest of the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries in East Europe

Amidst mounting tensions between Russia and the US and its NATO allies over Ukraine, Russia’s President Putin and the US President Biden spoke over phone on Thursday, the 30th December for the second time in one month. ( the earlier virtual talk was held on 7th December) .

The talks between the two world leaders have been necessitated as the US and its European allies are concerned over the Russian military build-up around Ukraine, particularly over the past two months; they are also concerned over a  possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which in 2014 had annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine through military intervention.

Russia on its part is averse to the idea of Ukraine being admitted as a member of the NATO alliance. The US warnings of severe economic sanctions and threats to exclude Russia from the global financial system (if Russia chooses to attack Ukraine) do not seem to have deterred Russia which appears to have learnt to live with the regime of sanctions by the West.

Putin on its part appears adamant on his rather difficult demand for legally binding assurances that the West will not arm Ukraine, will not admit Ukraine into NATO  and will not deploy offensive weapons in Ukraine or other neighbouring countries.

The origins of the current phase of the standoff between the West and Russia can be traced to the period immediately after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, when the West adopted a policy of ideological conquest of the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries in East Europe through financial and technical assistance. Gradually, the NATO began to increase its footprints in the post-Soviet space.

Beginning from 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020) have been taken into the fold of NATO. 

Russia considers the post-Soviet space as its natural sphere of influence and describes the region as its “Near Abroad”. Russia under Putin has been  strongly  opposing  the eastwards expansion of NATO. From Russia’s perspective, the NATO presence in its backyard will have serious security implications for the country.

It may be recalled that at its Summit in Bucharest the NATO had announced on 3rd April, 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will be Members of NATO”, though no specific timeframe was revealed. A couple of months earlier, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence on 17th February, 2008 was promptly recognised by the USA and some European countries.

These were some of the important factors which led to Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 and recognition of independence of Georgia’s strategically located breakaway territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Black Sea area by Russia where Russia has since consolidated its position considerably. This was followed by Russia’s annexation in 2014 of another strategically located territory namely the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine along the Black Sea coast.

It appears from the media reports and statements following the second round of virtual talks between the two world leaders that no immediate tangible resolution of the standoff emerged from the talks. The two leaders are holding on to their respective positions. Biden is talking about diplomacy or serious consequences whereas Putin maintains that any fresh sanctions would only be counter-productive and “could lead to a complete breakdown of ties between the two countries”.

Russia denies any intention to invade its neighbour, it, however,  demands security guarantees from the West that include a ban on the expansion of the NATO with the eventual objective of encircling the  former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia. Russia is also demanding the withdrawal of NATO forces in Europe to positions they held in 1997. Observers feel these demands are non-starter.

The flip and positive side of the story is that the two sides have agreed on three sets of talks in January, 2022: US-Russia bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue ( Geneva, Jan 9-10) , Russia-NATO Council Session (Brussels , 12th January ) and an expanded meeting within the framework of OSCE (Vienna,13th January) with participation by the European countries. 

It would be interesting to watch the outcome of the forthcoming deliberations beginning from 9th January, 2022 and see whether these meetings succeed in de-escalation of tensions, even if   they cannot find a  permanent solution which in any case is not expected at this juncture.

Needless to add that prolonged strained relations between Russia and the USA+Europe would have an adverse impact on the overall security situation in Europe in particular and all over the world in general; the larger issues of global interest such as arms control, cyber security, climate change etc. can also be adversely impacted. In addition, the US-Russia cold war could lead to further geo-strategic polarisation the signs of which are already visible. Further, neutral countries such as India may feel compelled to do a tight rope walk, while safeguarding their national interests.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)