Testing Times for Biden and NATO Over Ukraine Crisis

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NATO’s role in the Cold War

NATO was formed in 1949 under the umbrella of the US military power to protect Western Europe from Soviet aggression. The USSR, made up of 15 Republics, formed the Warsaw Pact as a counterpoise whose membership increased to 23. The NATO membership till the fragmentation of the USSR in 1991 was 12 Western Europe members. Turkey, Spain, Greece and Portugal joined a little later. The 16-member NATO operated throughout the Cold War for the defence of Western Europe. It was the nuclear deterrence which kept the USSR at bay.  

NATO’s Eastward expansion

After the end of the Cold War in 1991 and fragmentation of the USSR and Warsaw Pact, NATO had no justification to exist and should have been liquidated. But it was decided to absorb former Warsaw Pact members into NATO beginning with Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic in 1991. it was used in Iraq in 1991, and for the breakup of Yugoslavia into six independent states of which Richard Holbrooke was the architect, and next to bomb Serbia in mid-1990s. NATO, helped by the CIA, kept expanding eastwards. Its membership has now swelled to 28 members which include the three Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Slovakia, located in the backyard of Russia.

The Russian Federation under Yeltsin had strongly protested against NATO expansion, but the headstrong USA, wanting to monopolize the world and to checkmate the resurgence of Russia, paid no heed to his protests. Once Vladimir Putin took over power in 2001, Russia began to reassert its authority at the regional/global levels.

Post 9/11 happenings

While the US and NATO got engaged in chasing the ghosts of 9/11 and got deeply involved in the self-imposed war on terror, proxy wars and regime changes in Afghanistan and in the Middle East, which drained the US economy specially during George Bush regime, as well as of Europe, Russia and China embarked upon reform programs to build their respective economies and technologies and made substantial progress.   

Regime change in Georgia

The pro-Moscow regime in Georgia was toppled through CIA sponsored color revolution in 2003. Putin took his time to react, and his first offensive act was in Georgia in 2008, where the Russian troops responded to the Georgian forces assault on rebellious South Ossetia, and succeeded in retaking control of the two important provinces of Abkhazia and Ossetia in a short, swift and fierce war. NATO refrained from mounting a counter offensive.

Ukraine crisis

Seeing that NATO’s appetite for expansion knew no bounds, Putin lost his cool when the coup orchestrated by the CIA in Ukraine ousted the democratically elected president Victor Yanukovych in early 2014. Ukraine had opted for independence in 1991 but it had a pro-Moscow regime. It prompted Russia to annex Crimea in March that year, a strategic port of Ukraine. Its seizure enabled Russia to solidify its naval presence in the Black Sea, which not only helped in keeping NATO’s Navy at bay, but the port also provides direct access to Syria, Russia’s lone toehold in the Middle East and dependent upon Russia’s oil and gas supplies as well as security.

Soon after the occupation of Crimea, rebellion broke out against the federal government in Kyiv in Ukraine’s two industrially advanced eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Neighboring Donbas province was already up in arms against the government. The separatist movements backed by Russia have caused 14000 fatalities. The separatists in Donbas are in sufficient numbers and are well trained and equipped to carry out deep assaults inside the country. One-third of the population of Ukraine is Russian speaking.

Matters worsened when Georgia and Ukraine expressed their keenness to join NATO. It was widely speculated that in case the two countries were made part of NATO, it would result in confrontation with the west.

The Ukraine crisis brewed up as a result of continued US-NATO jingoism and their efforts to expand the latter's outreach into the Eastern Hemisphere. The two dragons (USA-Russia) are currently at loggerheads over the issue of Ukraine.

Russia’s offensive posturing

Alarm bells sounded in Moscow when it was gathered that Ukraine was about to become the 29th member of NATO. Already miffed by the installation of Ballistic Missile Defence components in Poland and Romania, Putin decided to put an end to the western intrusions and has taken a firm stand on Ukraine. Putin and Xi Jinping met in Beijing on 4 February on the eve of Winter Olympics, and Xi pledged to fully support his strategic partner on the issue of Ukraine.

Putin has made it clear that he is not ready to make any compromises until and unless the US agrees to halt its eastward expansionist drive and meddlesome role, withdraw NATO troops from the states that have joined NATO, and commit not to enroll new members in NATO. Russia has demanded pulling out NATO combat units from Poland and Baltic Republics, and not to deploy nuclear missiles in Poland and Romania. It wants NATO to return to its pre-1997 borders. China has thrown its weight behind the Russian demands. More importantly, the two communist leaders have asserted that the US governed unilateral world order will thenceforth be challenged since it only serves the interests of the USA and its strategic partners.

Russia’s troop mobilization

Russia has mobilized a massive combat force on the border of Ukraine. Tanks, artillery, rockets and heavy weapons have been moved forward. It is estimated that 100,000 to 130, 000 troops have been marshalled which include ground, air, naval and paratroopers. The deployment is on three sides of Ukraine. The Russian Navy in the Black Sea has been bolstered and is carrying out the biggest naval drills. Russia’s ally Belarus in the north is conducting joint military drills from 10-20 Feb to face NATO’s possible confrontation. Russia has sent 8000 troops to take part in the exercises close to Ukraine.

Undeterred by almost daily threats hurled by the US and European leaders, Putin has warned Washington that he might send military assets to Latin America if the US doesn’t back off from its intrusions into Eastern Europe. He has given a loud message to all the inhabitants of Eastern Hemisphere that Russia is the dominant power and it calls all the shots and none else. 

Russia’s objective

The objective of Russia is not to destroy Ukraine, but to abolish NATO. It intends to achieve this goal by not employing direct force, but making use of indirect strategy to further debase the reputation of NATO by mounting psychological pressure and rattling the nerves of western forces. Putin has stoked hysteria in the west without beating drums of war and is achieving tangible results through troop deployments and posturing.

He has further ratcheted up tensions by stating on 15 Feb that he has no intentions to invade Ukraine and is pulling back some of the forces after the termination of exercises. This conciliatory gesture was timed with a resolution moved in the Russia’s Parliament to recognize the two breakaway regions as independent states. Reference to the Minsk agreements by the west is out of place when seen in context with repeated violation of the US promises not to expand eastwards.  

Western hysteria

Seeing the unflinching resolve of Putin and heavy deployment of Russian troops , the US and the EU fear that sooner than later, the Russian forces would invade and occupy eastern Ukraine if not the whole of it as they had done earlier in Georgia. It would be easier for the invaders to limit their intrusion into Eastern provinces which are demanding greater autonomy, and into the Russian speaking areas. About 3 million Ukrainians have been living in Russia since 2014 and a large segment among them is pro-Russia. Deprived of eastern part and Crimea, it will become extremely difficult for Zelensky regime to survive.

Importance of Ukraine

Ukraine is important to both Russia and the EU since it is the largest country in Europe and is located at the crossroads of East and West Europe. It is Europe’s breadbasket and a major exporter of grains. It provides direct access to Russia’s Gazprom gas field and oil pipeline to Europe. 35% of the gas and one-quarter of crude oil are supplied by Russia to Europe. Germany followed by Italy and Netherlands are the largest importers of Russian gas.

Hence Ukraine is the vital ground for Russia’s geo-economic interests. Imposition of sanctions on gas from Russia will oblige the EU to import it mainly from the US. Ukraine will lose Russian pipeline royalties.

China, which is the only country that has overcome Covid-19 crisis to a large extent and is on its way to become the leading economic power by 2028 owing to its gigantic BRI project, will not be much affected by a conflict in Ukraine. But being a strategic partner of Russia and the US being their common foe, it is extending assistance to Moscow generously to offset negative impact of Covid and western sanctions.

The two communist giants are collaborating to break the monopoly of the US dollar in international trading. The last straw on the camel’s back will break in case KSA decides to overturn the 1973 oil agreement and OPEC starts trading oil in other currencies. King Salman is however in no mood to cancel the agreement. 

Western military preparedness

The US and NATO after suffering military defeats in Afghanistan and the Middle East are not in a comfortable position to undertake another military venture and that too against resurging Russia aligned with emerging superpower China and nuclear North Korea. Unlike Russia which is contiguous to Ukraine and has short ground/air supply lines, the US is far away, while NATO is a house divided.

NATO has about 4000 ground troops, tanks, air defence units and intelligence/surveillance units in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Five air defence units were moved from Germany to Romania on 14 Feb. The US is planning to send 3000 additional US troops to Poland. NATO’s naval fleet in the Black Sea, Red Sea and the Pacific Ocean have been augmented. The Ukrainian military has been supplied with Javelin and stinger missiles, anti-tank missiles NLAW.

The UK and other NATO countries are also sending armaments to Ukraine and pledging their support, while Germany has declined to send arms since it has Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in mind. Both are old trading partners.

The US had long argued that the Nord pipeline project would threaten European energy security by increasing the continent’s reliance on Russian gas and allowing Russia to exert political pressure on vulnerable Eastern and Central European nations, particularly Ukraine.

Differing perceptions of NATO members

France, Germany and Turkey are pro diplomacy and are engaged in diplomatic efforts to find a way out of the impasse and to stave off confrontation. So far there is no breakthrough but Germany has an edge over others due to its old business links and might succeed in defusing the explosive situation.

Defying the dictates of the US, Hungary has inked a gas deal with Russia. Croatia and Bulgaria have let their intentions known that they will not deploy troops in support of NATO’s venture in Ukraine.

Canada has decided to pull out its troops from Ukraine and is relocating them elsewhere in Europe.

Other than Turkey, all other countries have advised their citizens living in Ukraine to leave the country ASP. The US, Canada and Australia have shifted their diplomatic staff from Kyiv to the southern city Lviv of Ukraine due to insecurity of the capital city.  

Turkey is maintaining excellent ties with Russia and its relations with the US dipped after it procured S-400 air defence system from Russia and the US reacted by canceling the F-35 jets deal. Ankara sees the Ukraine crisis deliberately fueled by the US-NATO to weaken Turkey by forcing its navy to fight in the Black Sea.

The two powerhouses of Europe – Germany and France want to free NATO of the perverse influence of the US.         

Britain, the traditional puddle of the US, is playing a double game. On one hand it is fueling war tensions by sending armaments and Special Forces to Ukraine as well as bolstering the defenses of Poland and the Baltic States, and on the other hand Johnson is hailing the virtues of diplomacy.  

President Volodymyr Zolensky has termed the decision to shift diplomats a mistake and an overreaction which would encourage Putin to go ahead with his offensive. He is urging Putin to take up the offer of a dialogue.

East Europe particularly Poland and Romania are bracing for refugee influx in case of full or limited war in Ukraine.

Fallout Effect of War in Ukraine

Conflict in Ukraine will lead to food insecurity and the world cannot afford further food shortages created as a result of prolonged Covid-19, its impact on the global supply chains and shrinking of the global economy. Europe will be worst affected since it is bearing the brunt of the virus as well as trade sanctions imposed by the US on Iran.

The crisis has surged up the Brent oil price by 5-7%. Price of the oil barrel is $ 95. In case Russia goes ahead with its invasion plan, the petrol price would spike to above $ 125 per barrel.

Western sanctions on Russia could also affect the Turk-Stream gas pipeline project, which runs from Russia, bypassing Ukraine, under the Black Sea to Turkey and then to Europe.

What is certain is that NATO will come out of the Ukraine crisis weaker and debased.  

Joe Biden in a quandary

Joe Biden is faced with an uphill task of shoring up support both at home and abroad ahead of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. NATO cannot however militarily support Ukraine until it becomes part of it. Putin will not let it happen at any cost. Article-5 has become hollow making NATO an empty cartridge.

The US aim is to keep its European and other allies away from trading with China and Russia.

In the wake of differing perceptions in Europe, it will be difficult for him to forge a united alliance of the West. Although he claims that there is “total unanimity” in the Western alliance’s approach to the crisis, signs of variances are visible.

French President Emmanuel Macron is skeptical about the positive outcome of the Biden-Putin talks. Croatia being a member of NATO, its President Zoran Milinkovic blamed the escalation of tensions on the Biden administration and the pressure from hawks from the Republicans and the Democrats.

Republican lawmakers are pushing the White House to preemptively levy sanctions against Moscow. The Democrats argue that it would undermine any chance of moving Russia to step back.

Ukrainian President Zelensky doesn’t foresee Russian invasion, but is feeling itchy. 

The messy end of the war in Afghanistan last year, the surge in COVID and now Omicron cases in the USA, overlapped by economic concerns of inflation and labor shortages and his issues with his legislative agenda, Biden is facing a weary American public who are seeing a number of unfulfilled promises. They expect from him to make the divided nation cohesive and to restore the prestige and image of the USA that was eroded during the disastrous spell of Trump. His public support is fast waning.

The situation in Ukraine presents another test of Biden’s proficiency. He has said repeatedly that he will not send U.S. troops to Ukraine, but he has ordered 8,500 to be on high alert for deployment to the Baltic Region. He is hurling warnings of “enormous consequences” and severe sanctions for Russia as well as Putin personally, if Russia takes military action against Ukraine. He is repeatedly raising alarm bells that the Russian troops are well poised to barge into Ukraine any day.

What Biden can do is to maximize economic pressure on Moscow through sanctions and trade cuts with the EU. The other is military coercion to deter Russia from undertaking an invasion. These options might work only if NATO and the EU remain firm and united, which they are not.

So far, both sides are resorting to shadow boxing.

In case Putin comes out of this crisis as a victor by resorting to a war or other tactics short of war, it will make Biden politically weak and his party will have slim chances to win the midterm elections in November 2022.

An active lobby in the USA is advocating avoiding war in Ukraine, peace with Russia, scaling down interventions in the Middle East, and focusing only on China and to contain its economic growth at all cost. For them, Taiwan and the South China Sea are more important than any other conflict point. The US military Industrial Complex however favors war in Ukraine and further interventions so as to keep the war industry running.

The saner elements are questioning as to why the situation has been brought to such an impasse when it could have been easily defused by Biden, announcing that Ukraine will not be allowed membership of NATO.   

The writer is Brig Gen, war veteran, defence analyst, international columnist, author of five books, sixth book under publication, Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre. asifharoonraja@gmail.com

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