A radar vehicle of the S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile system on the way to Belarus, Khabarovsk region, Russia, Jan 21, 2022
The US-Russia talks in Geneva in the last two successive weeks could not produce a breakthrough. Fundamentally, there is a contradiction that cannot be resolved easily.
Russia sees in existential terms the NATO’s advance into its immediate neighbourhood. For Washington, it’s geopolitics, stupid!
Russia cannot tolerate any longer such NATO presence on its western border. Ukraine is emblematic of this predicament, as that country’s induction into the Western alliance system would mean that the US missiles could hit Moscow in 5 minutes rendering Russian air defence system ineffectual.
The NATO has already deployed in the countries of the Baltic and the Black regions and Russia no longer has a buffer in the west. Considering that all major decisions and most minor decisions in the NATO are taken in Washington, Moscow perceives all this as a concerted American strategy to encircle it, erode its strategic autonomy and independent foreign policies.
The US, on the contrary, refuses to countenance any NATO rollback. It argues that Russia has no say in the alliance’s decisions. At best, Washington would be willing to discuss certain confidence-building measures, while NATO enlargement since 1997 — contrary to assurances given to Mikhail Gorbachev by western leaders in 1990 during the reunification of Germany — is a fait accompli that Russia should learn to live with.
Basically, the US surveys with satisfaction that it has gained the high ground through sustained efforts through the past three decades since the Bill Clinton administration put into effect a concerted strategy in anticipation of a resurgent Russia. Unsurprisingly, now that the US has gained the upper hand, it is loathe to give it up.
From Washington’s viewpoint, this is a key template of the geopolitical struggle unfolding over the new world order following China’s rise and the shift in power dynamic from the West to the East which began in the 1990s. Thus, Ukraine is a battleground where a titanic test of will is playing out.
Ukraine is in all practical sense a US surrogate and its transformation as an anti-Russian state that began following the regime change in Kiev in 2014 is already in an advanced stage. Although Ukraine is not yet a member of the NATO, the alliance has established a significant presence in the country militarily and politically and the process is accelerating lately.
The US narrative has a great advantage in the information war, as it portrays Russia as aggressor against a weak neighour. In reality, though, Washington sees it as a situation of ‘Heads I win tails you lose’. is daring Russia to attack Ukraine. Washington sees this as a “win-win” situation in the sense that if Russia does not do anything, it might as well resign to the inevitability of Ukraine being inducted into NATO and Russia having to live with the enemy at the gates. Of course, that would impact global strategic balance and translate as US’ global hegemony.
On the other hand, if Russia acts militarily to prevent the US-led project in Ukraine, Washington is all set to pillory the Russian leadership — Putin personally — and to impose “sanctions from hell”, with the intent to wound that country’s economy lethally and cripple its capacity to be a global player.
Not only that, in the US estimation, Putin personally will bear a heavy political cost if living conditions deteriorate within Russia as economic hardships mount, and between now and 2024 when the next Russian presidential election is due, he may be compelled to relinquish power.
From the American perspective, there’s nothing like it if a Boris Yeltsin II were to succeed Putin. Make no mistake, part of what is going on today is a virulent demonisation by the US of Putin’s political personality. Putin’s towering standing in the polls commanding around 65% support from the public virtually forecloses the rise of a pro-western politician in Russia for a foreseeable future. All attempts by the US intelligence to create a “liberal” platform in Russian politics have failed. The fact of the mater is that the majority of Russian people dread the return of the “liberal” order under Yeltsin which meant anarchy, crime, deprivation, corruption, and national humiliation.
The Washington Post, which is linked to the US security establishment, featured a scurrilous report last Wednesday under the byline of a well-known knave titled House Republicans aim sanctions at Putin, his family and his mistress. It says, “The Biden administration’s carefully crafted mix of diplomacy and threats of additional sanctions doesn’t seem to be deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine and starting a war. Now, a large group of House Republicans is pushing President Biden to ramp up the pressure on Putin directly by going after him and his entourage for their long and well-established corruption.”
Evidently, Washington hopes to create dissensions or cracks among Russia’s ruling elite and undermine the country’s political stability.
What lies ahead?
Without doubt, Russia is acutely conscious of its limitations. Moscow too made some serious miscalculations. It was betting that Ukraine was not going to join the Nato and in due course, better sense would prevail in Kiev under a sensible leadership who would give up on the “Ukrainisation” agenda, repair ties with Russia especially in the economic field and accommodate the aspirations of the ethnic Russian regions. But as it turned out,“Ukrainisation” is only being galvanised with tacit Western support. And Moscow began sensing that time was not on its side.
Moscow expects something concrete from the American side, as its vital security interests are in jeopardy. Washington, on the other hand, is simply kicking the can down the road. It cannot and will not take hard decisions. It estimates that time is on its side anyway. From the Russian viewpoint, this is not acceptable, as a point of no return is reaching as regards Ukraine’s Nato membership.
Arguably, President Biden is not in a position to move in the direction of accommodating Russia’s legitimate interests, given the pulls and pushes from domestic scene in the US, European allies’ divergent opinions, and simply because the encirclement of Russia with pro-Western states is a strategic objective of Washington’s policies toward Russia under successive administrations since Bill Clinton. Certainly, a dynamic like that between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to talk reasonably simply doesn’t exist between Biden and Putin.
In the present situation, wittingly or unwittingly, Washington has also, tied its hands by committing that it won’t negotiate over Ukraine’s head. It may be a contrived posturing but it restricts Biden’s ability to negotiate with Russia, given the ascendancy of ultra-nationalist elements (some with neo-Nazi affiliation) in the power structure in Kiev and a highly volatile atmosphere in that country’s domestic politics.
All factors taken into consideration, therefore, the probability is very high that Russia will intervene in eastern Ukraine to create new facts on the ground with a view to secure its national security interests for the medium and long term.
What does it entail?
Clearly, Russia is not looking for annexation of Ukrainian territory. Its preference will be to restrict its intervention in eastern Ukraine to the Russian populated regions and to create a buffer zone vis-a-vis the regions where the Western penetration is deep and extensive. American analysts estimate that, broadly, Russian intervention will be restricted to the territory upto the Dnepr river. This seems highly plausible.
Of course, there are variables in any emergent military situation. Russia may be left with no alternative but to react to any form of Western intervention in Ukraine — although Washington has ruled it out, British and American special forces are active in Europe. But the Russian forces can be expected to undertake decisive military operations with huge firepower and advanced weaponry on multiple fronts, with the intention to realise the political objective in the shortest period of time possible.
The US journalists have written about “resistance” but that is a load of rubbish. One, the Russian operation will be short and decisive; two, the Ukrainian national temper is such that the demoralised forces will simply pack up; and, three, most important, the pervasive corruption in that country gives ample scope for buying off loyalties (in fact, there may not be much actual fighting at all despite the western bravado.)
It also needs to be factored in that the political situation in Kiev is highly unstable, as the latest sedition charges against former president Petro Poroshenko testify. Zelensky won his mandate as president on the basis of his pledge to work for a rapprochement with Russia (which at least half that country’s population would still welcome despite the heavy dose of Russophobia injected by the US.) Today, he is a thoroughly discredited figure with abysmally low rating. People feel betrayed.
A crushing military defeat will mean the end of the road for Zelensky. The ensuing political turmoil within Ukraine is the “X” factor in the downstream of a Russian intervention. American analysts are deliberately sidestepping this minefield. Simply put, Russians have many options given their deep understanding of the eddies of Ukrainian politics and the country’s power brokers.
The ultimate Russian objective will be a federated Ukraine through constitutional reform with the country’s sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity intact and with the regions being granted autonomy. Europe may welcome this under a new leadership in Kiev. Russia’s expectation will be that such a Ukraine can never become a part of Nato provided constitutional underpinnings ensure that major policies would be based on national consensus.
Much is being made out of the threat of the US sanctions. But it is out of the question that such threats will deter Moscow. For a start, even draconian sanctions have proved to be a weak coercive tool, as experience shows with much smaller countries. Indeed, Western sanctions had a poor coercive track record in North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Vietnam, etc.
Russia is a big power. It has huge reserves, which currently stands at a record $638.2 billion — the fourth largest foreign reserve holding in the world. Russia’s credit position is good and it actually owns much of its debts. It has no critical need for US investors. Russia is in no desperate need to sell its currency, either.
Now, having gone through four traumatic shocks previously in its 30-year post-cold war history, Russian leadership knows how to absorb shocks. Therefore, while Russia may take a big hit and there could be currency volatility causing massive outflow of capital following the US sanctions, its reserves give big cushion.
At any rate, it remains to be seen how far the Europeans will want to go on the sanctions path. Due to German opposition, Washington’s much-touted “nuclear option” — expulsion of Russia from the Swift payment system — is being shelved.
As it is, disruption in Russian energy supplies will hurt the European economies. A little known fact is, Russia sells gas at low prices to Europe, whereas, any LNG supplies from the US will mean exorbitant prices. Some countries in Central Europe depend on Russia for 100 percent of their energy needs. Germany itself has a 40% dependency.
The US hasn’t thought through the escalatory ladder, either. The Kremlin has threatened Washington with a complete break in relations if push comes to shove. Trust Moscow to hit back. It might not have been accidental that Russia conducted an anti-satellite test in May by taking out a satellite. No doubt, Russia has the capability to interfere with the GSP constellation in non-military fields which can affect key sectors of the US economy.
Above all, any such US “sanctions from hell” will turn into a morality play on the world stage. There’ll be increasing blowback in the world economy and questioning of the dominant role of the US dollar, as countries get concerned about Washington’s weaponisation of the dollar. Some may even feel prompted to move out of dollar zone as a precautionary step, harden their economy, etc. This can impact the international financial market forcing Washington to backtrack as it did previously in the case of some sanctions against Russia.
Paradoxically, thanks to wave after wave of Western sanctions since 2014, Russia has become much more autarchic. Today, it needs no inputs from the West for its defence industry for developing new weapon systems. Even Pentagon officials admit that Russia has outstripped the US in cutting edge military technology such as hypersonic missiles and catching up may take three to five years, that is, assuming Russian defence industry is resting its oars.