Observations of an ex pat – Ukraine Week

We are entering Ukraine Week. A series of meetings across Europe and at the highest level will probably determine whether 100,000 Russian troops will cross the border into Eastern Ukraine and ignite Europe’s greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War.

It started Friday with a Zoom meeting of NATO foreign ministers. On Monday Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin go head to head in Geneva. Next Wednesday NATO heads of government hold a summit in Brussels, and the following day, in Vienna, the 57 members of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meet in Vienna. The last event includes Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky who will discover just how far other countries will go to defend his nation’s sovereignty.

Conspicuous by its absence from these talks is the EU. The reason is that the issues are primarily security and military and the EU has no defence forces. It will, however, be heavily affected by any Putin-Biden pact and its diplomats will be flapping around the edges of Ukraine Week trying to make its collective voice heard.

So far Putin has done all the running. He annexed Crimea in 2014 and moved his “Green Men” into Eastern Ukraine. He has disrupted shipping in the Sea of Azov and Black Sea; threatened gas supplies to Western Europe and now has 100,000 troops camped out on the Ukrainian-Russian border.

When the West objected he said his moves were necessary for protection from the Eastward expansion of NATO and tabled a series of proposals which basically prevented any other European states from joining the Western Alliance. He also demanded NATO forces pull back in countries such as Poland and the Baltic States. Implied with these demands is the threat of a Russian attack on Ukraine if the US and Europe do not give in.

Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden and Finland have all strongly objected to the Russian demands. They are all non-NATO members who want the option to join the Alliance and object to Moscow dictating their foreign policy.

Also, loud in their opposition to Putin’s demands are the former Soviet satellites who are now NATO members and relatively secure under the US nuclear umbrella. They fear that a reduction of NATO forces on their territory will increase the influence in their region of their former masters in the Kremlin.

The problem is lack of wholehearted US support and the inability of NATO to act without the US. The American public is currently suffering one of its periodic bouts of isolationism following disasters in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Washington is also annoyed that Europe has not beefed up its defence forces to protect itself against Russian aggression. And finally, the US is these days more focused on the Chinese threat.

The result is that US-led NATO has said it will not send military forces to Ukraine if it is invaded by Russia.

This would appear on the surface to give Putin the upper hand; possibly a green light, almost certainly an amber light. But things are not so simple. For a start, the 250,000-strong Ukrainian army is a force to be reckoned with. It would lose in a conventional war with the Russians, but in doing so would inflict serious losses on the Russian bear and could organise a long, expensive and politically damaging guerrilla war.

Next the US and NATO allies are unwilling to send troops but they have made it clear that any attack would be countered with heavy sanctions, including the likelihood of locking Russians out of the SWIFT system which manages international banking transactions.

Putin has said that any sanctions would result in Russian countermeasures which could take the form of blocking gas supplies to Western Europe, cyber-attacks or even a military attack elsewhere.

But the Russian President does not hold all the cards. His domestic approval ratings are dropping and the Russian economy is floundering. Sanctions plus the cost of invading Ukraine would prove a severe drain on the state coffers.

Moscow is also in danger of militarily over-extending itself. It has just sent troops to Kazakhstan to quench a rebellion there; is heavily involved in the Syrian civil war; has troops keeping the peace in Armenia/Azerbaijan and is maintaining a watchful eye over troubled Belarus.

The fact is that neither side is in an unassailable position. The most likely outcome will be a compromise of sorts. The problem is that any compromise would be seen as half a victory for Putin and half a defeat for Biden.

* Tom Arms is the Foreign Editor of Liberal Democratic Voice. His book “America Made in Britain” has recently been published by Amberley Books. He is also the author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War.”

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9 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 8th Jan '22 - 10:24am

    It is interesting to compare a map of the Russian Empire prior to World War 1 with a map of Russia now – the extent of Russian territorial loses over this period Is huge and has resulted in large numbers of Russian speakers finding themselves living in other countries. At the same time, it is worth comparing a map of NATO in the 1980s with a map of NATO now to understand how Russia views recent history as a time of both territorial retreat and simultaneously a time in which the principle military alliance organised against it has expanded its membership and advanced hundreds of miles towards Moscow. Putin is trying to stop any further advance by NATO and has decided that Ukraine – with its large Russian speaking population – is where Russia must make a stand.

    If Putin decides that an invasion is necessary, I think he would seek to take control of the south of Ukraine as far as the breakaway Moldovan entity known as Transnistra, and north and eastern Ukraine as far as the Dnister but just short of Kiev, leaving a much reduced Ukraine in the north west of its present borders. He may seek to form the newly acquired territory into an entity based on the historical Russian province of Novorossiya, either to seek to establish as an independent, pro-Russian country in its own right, or as a step towards eventual absorption into the Russian Federation. While this would be a huge undertaking, at great military and financial cost, he may decide that he may face similar costs even if an invasion were much more limited, and therefore conclude that it had to be done to protect Russia’s western border.

    Perhaps the best hope that a major war in Ukraine may be avoided comes from the recent developments in Kazakhstan which may provide an alternative opportunity for Putin to regain lost Russian territory with much less risk. Since most Russian speakers and most natural resources in Kazakhstan are in the north of the country near the current Russian border, adding this part of Kazakhstan’s almost one million square miles to the Russian Federation must be seriously tempting to any Russian leader with an expansionist mindset.

  • Steve Trevethan 8th Jan '22 - 3:04pm

    Thank you for the article and the comment.
    “The annexation of Crimea was not a Russian act of expansionist aggression or intervention. It was the defense of a red line against US expansionism that broke a foundational US and NATO promise and against an interventionist US supported coup.”
    ” The Eastern Ukraine-Russian border is the line over which the battle of US hegemony is being fought but the Western media won’t tell you that.”

  • This issue does seem to have a distinctly 19th century type spheres of influence strategy behind it. Russia—whether Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, or post-Soviet Russia—views the security of its frontiers as essential for the security of the homeland. In Moscow’s view, security can be ensured only if Russia maintains a reliable sphere of influence over bordering countries. Although Russia’s western frontier has been the most important bulwark against foreign aggression—real or perceived —the south and the east have also played an important role in assuring the security of the Russian state.

    Over the centuries, Russia’s sphere of influence has ebbed and flowed as geopolitical confrontation and diplomacy have either favored or disadvantaged Russia. Those countries that have been victims, finding themselves pawns in great power politics, have often sought the protection of Russia’s adversaries. Few have willingly and readily accepted Russian domination for they realized that security for Russia often meant insecurity for them.

    In the 1918 Teaty of Brest-Litvok, Russia ceded to Germany hegemony over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Russia also recognized the independence of Ukraine.
    The treaty was annulled by the Armistice of 11 November 1918, when Germany surrendered to the western Allies. However, in the meantime it did provide some relief to the Bolsheviks, already fighting the Russian Civil War (1917–1922) following the Russian Revolutions of 1917, by the renunciation of Russia’s claims on Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
    This state of affairs lasted until 1939, when after signing the secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Soviet Union was able to advance its borders westward by invading Poland in September 1939, by conquering parts of eastern Finland in the 1939-1940 Winter War, and by invading and occupying Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Romania (Bessarabia and northern Bukovina) in 1940. During World War II the Soviet leadership was thus able to overturn the majority of the territorial losses incurred at Brest-Litovsk, except for the larger part of Finland, western Congress Poland, and western Armenia.
    Following the collapse of the Soviet Union most of these territories were able to regain their independence and will quite naturally be loathe to compromise that hard won freedom.

  • As is becoming distressingly normal, the media are once again acting as mouthpieces for a US oligarchy that likes to throw its weight about but only manages to break things – Afghanistan being the most recent example.

    For a more informed appraisal of the situation see the article linked below.

    https://original.antiwar.com/ted_snider/2022/01/05/six-things-the-media-wont-tell-you-about-ukraine/

    I am becoming increasingly concerned by the evident lack of a free press in this country – i.e. one that reports fairly on the issues of the day, including especially those the government would perhaps prefer it either didn’t report at all or only in a very biased way.

    For instance, I just quickly checked what the BBC is telling us about energy costs and all I found was ‘media theatre’ around whether to help hard pressed consumers with VAT relief on energy bills or suspension of green tariffs. I found no current mention of WHY energy costs have spiked unnecessarily or discussion of the damage this will cause to the economy.

    The reason the BBC isn’t reporting this is, I strongly suspect, because the underlying reason is connected to the US’s obsession with Russia.

    A free press that accurately reports on the issues of the day is absolutely foundational to a liberal democracy. One that only gives the establishment’s party line is no use at all; it’s like conceding a permanent PPB on all channels.

    The party leadership needs to demand better – and harass the government and BBC until they deliver. Joining the chorus of the media theatre is no use at all.

  • Steve Trevethan 8th Jan '22 - 6:38pm

    Well said, Gordon!

  • John Marriott 8th Jan '22 - 8:20pm

    With his incursions into Ukraine, his close ties with Belarus and now his involvement in Kazakhstan, Putin appears to be attempting to recreate the Soviet Union, or at least some of it. I don’t think that he ever accepted its breakup. However, economically, it would appear that the only cards he has to play are oil and natural gas, something upon which certain EU countries have decided to depend. We’ve known this for years the danger of this dependency (remember the intro to ‘Have I Got News for You’ where the Russian turns off the pipeline and the lights in Western Europe start going out?). So, why did we allow this to happen? Looking further afield the same question could be asked about our allowing China to produce so many of the consumer goods we buy today. Is it always about the bottom line?

  • Matt Haines 9th Jan '22 - 8:16am

    This entire situation is the 1930s appeasement all over again.

    Georgia was the Rhine. We did nothing.
    East Ukraine was the Sudetenland. We did nothing.
    Crimea was Czechoslovakia whole. We did nothing.
    Now the whole of Ukraine is at risk and we’re all hoping Biden comes back from a conference waving a white piece of paper.

    It didn’t work last time, it won’t work this time.

    Putin is a quasi dictator who has authorised the assassination of people on our soil, has routinely interfered in our democractic processes, and has approved the hacking and sabotage of western infrastructure. On top of that he has invaded his neighbours seemingly at will.

    The reason why so many of the former Soviet nations scrambled into NATO was because they were once under a Russian dominated dictatorship, and they do not want to be under another one. The reason why Ukraine wants to join Ukraine is they know Putin wants to remove their freedom.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Jan '22 - 2:24pm

    The main issue here is Russia in the form of Putin not acknowedging its weakened position on the world stage. The West needs to help it to come to terms with real Politic by forging a treaty that gives Russia sufficient while forcing it to drop most of its unrealistic claims.

  • I don’t see any evidence Putin is attempting to recreate the Soviet Union. What I DO see is his firm resolve not to allow hostile forces to advance right up to Russia’s modern borders which is a very different thing. Think for comparison of the alarm in the US over the Cuban missile crisis despite the US having the luxury of wide oceans to buffer its borders unlike Russia. Moscow is just ~ 250 miles from Belarus and only slightly further from the Ukraine.

    As for gas, Putin has stated that Russia stands ready and willing to supply all Europe wants. The only condition is that it comes via the recently completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic in which Russia along with Germany has invested $11 billion. That’s a very reasonable ask but the reason it’s not happening is that the US is blocking it with threats of financial sanctions and goodness knows what else. So, we should blame Russia for that???

    By the same token the Western approach is not so much ‘appeasement’ as sponsoring insurrections, not least in Ukraine where it has led to it becoming a failed state by any reasonable yardstick and brought explicitly Nazi elements – long prominent in the war against the Donbass – into government. The UK government is apparently OK with all that and so therefore is the BBC. Should we be?

    Putin’s rise to power and early years were indeed distinctly murky but consider the context. By the early 1990s the USSR was very much a failed state. US economists had advised an immediate and radical privatisation which proved disastrous and lead to the emergence of the notorious oligarchs. Putin has gradually brought order to the ensuing chaos. The oligarchs now have to watch their Ps & Qs, agriculture and industry are being rapidly modernised and output is rising. Military pride and effectiveness have been restored to the point that some experts (including some in the US forces) now consider it is more than a match for the vastly bigger US military.

    Naturally, you will NOT read any of this in the MSM.

    So, the best way to think of Putin is to see him as a modern-day Czar. Yes, he is autocratic – but then Russia has no other tradition and lacks the institutions to support any other approach. The judgement of history will I think put him among the greatest of the Czars.

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