By Kumar David –
In two previous pieces I have inclined to the view that war in Europe (Ukraine-Russia-NATO) is unlikely. I continue to remain of that view but this article is about what may be the course of events if the entanglement goes the other way (“unlikely” is not the same as impossible). Let me once again summarise in three sentences why I am inclined to say why this European war is unlikely. Russia has suffered too much catastrophe, devastation and suffering during four wars (1708-09, 1812, 1914-17 and 1941-44) that its people will not accept another security threat; the West, NATO and Ukraine know this and will not push the NATO border to the point of Russian panic. Secondly, Biden and Boris (B&B) are playing an opportunist game for domestic consumption; their approval ratings at home have plummeted and they yearn for distraction, but nevertheless will not overstep, and thirdly Ukraine wants to get out of the trap of big-power pincers. If everyone keeps cool and is careful to step away from the precipice the crisis will be diffused.
The danger is that there is always a possible slip, an overreaction by this party or that. For example, to shore up his macho image Biden is sending up to 8000 troops to Western Europe and repositioning 2000 from Germany and Poland to Rumania, uncomfortably close to Russia. One misstep and some Russian General may panic and press the Rumania-target button. Boris went out on a clowning honk to Kiev; did he open his gigantic trap and promise more than he can safely deliver? Will Putin decide to move his strategic arsenal and bombers closer to the border? These are concerns at the military level; the bigger and far more important issues that may reshape the world are possible changes of a political nature.
Western leaders have tasted blood, at least a few drops. They have scored diplomatic victories and for sure would like to build on them. They for certain will harass Putin to push him into diplomatic concessions and domestic loosening up such as releasing locked up opposition leaders and containing his hell-bent mafia of assassins and thugs. At this time of writing Putin is internationally isolated except for China; the UN Security Council vote did not go well (only China provided firm backing). The anti-Russian European consensus is fraying but is still holding, and it does not appear that world opinion elsewhere appreciates the anxieties of the Russian people. Why not hammer the bugger on all sides for maximum gain, B&B may think. They have to calculate carefully; go too far and the injured bear will strike back. All one hears from the West is about how Putin should do this, not do that and so on, but not one word about what the West will do to alleviate Russia’s legitimate security concerns. Any NATO member can veto an application from a new applicant, but all NATO governments seem to opine that Putin is on the ropes and are in no mood to make concessions. Macron has engaged Putin in five days of ball-squeezing, all very friendly, but if instead he simply declared that France would impose a moratorium on new NATO membership for five or ten years, tension would instantly fizzle out.
[Article 10 of the NATO Treaty: The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area, to accede to this Treaty].
The best way for Putin to undermine the West is by resetting international balances. Sanctions against Russia will prompt him to reconsider what the devil he is doing by approving sanctions on Iran; or for that matter why he is in the pact at all. If Trump can walk out, why not Putin? Mind you he can go further than that. Iran has money, can afford the best Russian technology and would be happy to buy ‘Iron Dome’ protection for its nuclear facilities. What if Iran can make its nuclear sites Israel-style missile proof? There will be a huge shift in the Middle Eastern theatre if Iran has the bomb. And Russia has so far been only a shy supporter of the Syrian regime; if Russia is isolated by the West what is to stop Putin being less shy?
Then there is the China factor. The Taiwan Straits is a tinderbox. China, I think will extract its pound of flesh for the support it’s extending to Russia on Ukraine. Xi Jinping endorsed the Russian position that there should be no more NATO expansion when he met Putin on February 3 at the Winter Olympics opening. The meeting has been described as warm – the bear and the dragon in an intimate embrace! What if Russian support for Taiwan’s reunification were to become more explicit? It is wrong to think that the Russian bear can be cornered, pummelled and bloodied at no cost. It’s going to be more chaotic than that and confrontation will reshape strategic balances in the West and the East.
The Crimean population is 66% Russian, but Khrushchev presented it to Ukraine (then a USSR ‘province’) in February 1954 in a “fit of drunken generosity”. Even in a nightmare nobody imagined then that the Soviet Union would collapse and Ukraine would become an independent country. Even as dignified a critic of Soviet Communism as Alexander Solzhenitsyn says: “How much indignation and horror Russians experienced! Our limp diplomacy betrayed us”. It is relevant to bear this vodka lubricated antecedent in mind; as early as 1992 this illegality was officially denounced by the Supreme Council of Russia.
It is too sickening to speculate what it would be like if war breaks out in an even limited European theatre. The Russians will take Kiev and occupy most of eastern and southern Ukraine within days by moving directly from the east, the north through Belarus and the south from Crimea. The separatists will break out under Russian air-force protection from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Western sanctions will be brushed aside; some kind of military response by NATO will be called for and that could be disastrous! Germany will refuse to get involved but Poland and Rumania may allow the US to use their territory. Will Russia deploy missiles against these bases? Then what? Can anything turn back mounting escalation? “Russian bombers finally can do what American bombers long have been able to—strike targets on land with precision from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Well beyond the range of enemy air-defences” says Forbes online. Defence requires first-strike victory even on a limited scale; America and Britain are willing to play at a toy war, but real escalation! And what will it cost Russia in men and treasure to hold on to Ukraine?
The road to peace is crystal clear. My theory is that there will be no war because B&B don’t want it, all they want is sabre-rattling to shore up declining domestic popularity. But that cock will not fight for long in the face of mounting escalation. Why escalate even US Senators are asking: “Why on earth do we want Ukraine in NATO, what does it do for defence of” the “Free World”; Ukraine in NATO does bugger-all to strengthen European or Western defences. How does membership of faraway Ukraine reshape NATO defences? These are questions that the now jingoistic BBC will not even ask the reams of “expert” commentators it invites on its shows. Europe and America understand that Russia will not allow NATO to creep up to its border; the sabre-ratting is entirely for domestic consumption but things can go wrong. Why play with fire? By far the status quo is the best; let sleeping dogs lie; keep Ukraine out of NATO, but in other matters (economy etc) let it do as it wishes. It’s like keeping Sri Lanka out of all military pacts with the QUAD, China or India. Nonalignment is a policy that has served as well.
I have been asked by readers if there is a parallel between Ukraine-Russia and the national question in Sri Lanka. My reply is a firm NO. This island has been populated by forbearers of the modern Tamils and Sinhalese for over two millennia. But in Roman and pre-Roman times, the lands north of the Black and the Caspian Seas (modern Ukraine and the Russian Steppes) were the domain of Iron-Age cultures and war-like nomadic peoples (Scythians, Sarmatians and later the Huns). They left behind no irrigation systems, cities, monuments, edifices or civilisational accoutrements comparable to the Dry Zone, Anuradhapura, the megalithic remains in the Jaffna Peninsula or Tamil-Brahimi inscriptions. Simply put the civilisational story of the Ukraine and Russian Steppes is more recent and less integrated than Lanka’s.
Since Medieval times that region has been a combat zone of changing borders and annexations between Russian Muscovite rulers, Polish and Baltic Kingdoms, the Cossacks and even Sweden and Finland. It has been a chequer-board too complex to explain here. Eastern Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian Empire (Imperial Russia) in about 1780 during the reign of Catherine the Great. Thereafter “Kyiv was a primary Christian centre, attracting pilgrims, and the cradle of many of the Empire’s most important religious figures” – Wikipedia. The Jaffna Kingdom and Yaalpaanam played no such role in crystallisation of Sinhala ideology. However, from British times there has been a unified market and a moderately integrated via education and employment economy in Ceylon. My conclusion therefore is that both in the historical storyline and in the context of the current standoff there is little in common between the two cases.