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Ukraine crisis is a child of Europe’s Cold War mentality

Ukraine soldiers (Photo: IANS)

The developing crisis over Ukraine and the uncertainties of conflict that lie ahead provide an occasion to reflect on the historical role of Europe in disturbing peace, engendering conflicts, violating human rights worldwide and building its prosperity on colonial and imperial excesses.

European rivalries triggered two devastating world wars in the 20th century. Even before that, European history is full of conflicts within Europe and those generated by colonial rivalries abroad. Terrible atrocities were committed by the Europeans against other races, including slave trade. Aboriginal populations were destroyed in many continents.

The process of burying European rivalries in structures of European unity exemplified by the European Union has been projected as an emblematic success in overcoming history and making Europe a haven of peace, with pooling of sovereignty and developing a new international vocation of promoting human rights and liberal values across the world as weapons of its soft power.

Ukraine, surrounded by Europe and Russia

But this embellished narrative ignores European military interventions outside its frontiers in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, with devastating effect on their societies, with suffering millions becoming refugees within and outside their countries. Peace at home has not prevented peace making abroad through use of force in the name of overthrowing dictators or responsibility to protect populations from their excesses.

This narrative also ignores Europe’s failure to usher in a new era of peace within its larger boundaries by definitively ending the Cold War after the collapse of the Soviet Union and building new political, economic and security structures that would include a weakened Russia within their fold. But the Cold War mindset has endured. Instead, the West has sought to take full advantage of a weakened Russia in political and economic disarray to relentlessly expand the frontiers of western Europe eastwards in the name of democracy, liberalism and security. It was a post Cold War version of bringing down an “iron curtain” of sorts in reverse by isolating Russia from Europe through an enlarged EU/NATO zone extending from the Baltic states to eastern Europe and the Balkans. The destruction of Yugoslavia was part of this strategic process.

Not being able to find a way to create new security and economic structures  in post Cold War Europe in a balanced and mutually accommodative manner has been Europe’s failure. Russia may still be too big after the Soviet collapse, it may be a difficult partner, its view of itself as a power greater than the reality warrants may have presented challenges for forging post Cold War ties with it, but the route taken to isolate Russia as much as possible from Europe has not met with political success.

To demand that only a recognisably democratic Russia according to European standards would be eligible for accommodation, and failing that would remain a threat to be contained with NATO and EU expansion is at the heart of this failed strategy. Europe could take this approach towards smaller non-western countries with all the political and economic coercive measures at its disposal, but treating Russia, as has been the case, as a mere “regional” power is to deny reality.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (Photo: Xinhua/Zheng Huansong/IANS)

Russia still has formidable military capacities; it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has impressive space and civilian nuclear technologies as well as massive natural resources. It has the ability today to counter the West’s regime change policies in geographies of interest to it. The politics of repeated expulsion of diplomats and economic sanctions by the US and Europe has  increasingly alienated Russia from the West, leading Moscow to highlight its Eurasian identity and forging deeper strategic ties with China. This has created new imbalances in global geopolitics affecting US and Europe itself as well as countries like India. 

Also Read: The Ukraine standoff: How should India respond?

This western policy contrasts with the much softer and accommodative approach toward a Communist Party dictatorship like China which flaunts its socialism, openly repudiates western values and democracy, tightly censors flow of information, allows no political dissent, offers its political and developmental model as more suited to the needs of the developing world and engages in egregious human rights violations in Tibet and Xinjiang. This has not deterred the US and Europe from having enormous trade, financial and investment ties with China, and this despite the fact that China challenges western global power in ways that Russia cannot.

The genesis of the present tensions around Ukraine is the Soviet Union’s collapse, western attempts to promote colour revolutions in Russia’s immediate periphery, drawing Ukraine economically into the EU fold and offering NATO membership to Ukraine despite sizeable internal opposition to this. Despite the failure of a similar policy in Georgia that cost the country in territorial terms, the pursuit of the same policy in Ukraine has resulted in Russia’s annexation of Crimea after the coup in Kiev that ousted the then supposedly pro-Russian president Yanukovych.

President Putin has witnessed four NATO expansions during his 21 years in power.  Today, US-Russia ties are in the worst shape since the end of the Cold War. The US is providing military training and weapons to Ukraine. Russia fears that even without NATO membership the US and UK could build military outposts in Ukraine, especially in the Sea of Azov. Putin has felt compelled to clearly enunciate Russia’s red lines. This is the first time he has raised the ante by making several demands: A written legal guarantee against Ukraine’s NATO membership and that of Georgia and Moldova, withdrawal of NATO’s offensive weapons from Russia’s borders, no placement of intermediate range missiles in Europe etc. To press his demands he has massed 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border, raising concerns in the US and Europe about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US, including at Biden’s level, has repeatedly warned Russia of unprecedented financial and technological sanctions if any invasion took place. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently met Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo: Xinhua/Guo Chunju/IANS)

To defuse matters, Putin and Biden have spoken to each other on December 30 in preparation for official level talks between the two countries at Geneva on January 10 on Russia’s written demands, followed during the week by Russia-NATO talks and talks within the still larger ambit of the OSCE. Not unexpectedly, the talks seem to have been unsuccessful, with no certainty about the next round. Russia has made it clear it wants quick decisions and not endless talks, while the US wants Russia to demobilise first to show its sincerity to find a negotiated solution.

 The US, especially after its Afghanistan debacle, cannot afford another geopolitical defeat of much more consequence in Europe, the core of its transatlantic power, by seemingly bending to Russian dictates. Reversing the declared open-ended policy of NATO expansion will be a crucial political defeat for the US and Europe, and will affect the credibility of NATO and create doubts about its future. For Russia, not standing up now would mean establishment of more faits accomplis that will become increasingly difficult to reverse later.

It is not clear why the door to NATO membership for Ukraine has to be kept open. If Sweden and Finland could remain outside NATO even during the Cold War when the Soviet threat was much more powerful without compromising their security, and are still not in NATO, why cannot Ukraine remain outside NATO as a result of some mutual understanding?

It is clear that the Biden-Putin talks at Geneva in June 2021 did not create any basic understandings about the course of Russia-US ties ahead, as otherwise the Ukraine crisis would not have taken this ominous shape. Russia is unlikely to invade Ukraine, as  that would have long lasting consequences of great cost to all sides. It is resorting to pressure tactics. It may want  to stop further US arms supplies to Ukraine, already amounting to $ 450 m in 2021, and make its anti-Russian leadership more amenable to a version of the Minsk Agreements. No doubt Putin must have considered all possible US/Europe response to Russia’s demands, and must have worked out a realistic and attainable plan. How the situation pans out is difficult to anticipate. Huge political stakes, including domestic, are at play on  all sides.

The Ukraine issue is erupting when the attention of the world should be on combating the pandemic which is still raging even in the US, Europe and Russia. The world economy has been hit badly by the pandemic. The focus should be on economic growth rather than new conflicts and more economic sanctions that affect other countries too. A conflict in Europe will draw attention way from the China threat. It hardly makes sense for the US, already politically polarised at home and needing to put its house in order, to be involved in actual or potential conflicts at both ends of the Eurasian landmass.

India is developing a close all-round partnership with the US and is successfully nurturing its ties with Russia despite US-Russia tensions. With Europe, new steps are being taken to strengthen political and economic ties. A conflict in Ukraine will impose diplomatic costs on India. The issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership is hardly important enough to disturb European peace, with all its extra-regional repercussions.

(Kanwal Sibal is India's former foreign secretary and former ambassador to Russia. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)