March 27, 2022
The following was my summing-up of the Ukraine conflict seven years ago:
“News from Ukraine and Ukraine-related developments are not encouraging. The Minsk cease-fire remains fragile. Political and economic difficulties facing Ukraine show no sign of abating. The Government does not appear strong and determined enough. There has been no progress on the level of autonomy to be recognized to the separatist regions. The conflict between “federalization” and “decentralization” continues. Ukraine troops are now being trained by American officers. Russia’s naval deployments and air activity are becoming increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War. NATO is holding joint exercises in Poland, Lithuania, the US in Georgia. The Treaty on Alliance and Integration between Russia and South Ossetia has been submitted to the State Duma for ratification. The flow of immigrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine into EU countries is on the rise… The West continues to see Mr. Putin as an unpredictable leader determined not to allow Ukraine to chart its future. He says that he wants as close interaction as possible with the US, based on equal rights and mutual respect of interests and positions of each other. Both the West and Russia seemingly desire to put the Ukraine conflict behind and move forward but words and deeds do not match.” [i]
Seven years later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Was this a “miscalculation” by President Putin? Yes, because he overreached. By ordering the invasion of Ukraine he reversed a trend clearly in his favor. He had gone a long way in restoring Russia’s status as a global power. With the election of President Biden America’s “times of trouble” had not exactly come to an end. Europe was experiencing leadership problems. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and AUKUS were setbacks for transatlantic relations. Nord Stream 2 was only months away from becoming operational. Europe’s energy dependency on Russia was on the rise. Relations between Beijing and Moscow were on a steady course. Ukraine’s leadership faced a multitude of challenges extending from the implementation of the Minsk agreements to fighting corruption. Despite Western protests, the annexation of Crimea was a fait accompli.
Then, there are questions with no easy answers.
Could President Putin have prevented Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO through diplomacy and eventually the threat of Russian sanctions against the West on energy supplies? Was the future of Donbas such an important issue? If so, why not order a “minor incursion” to use President Biden’s words, instead of a full invasion? Were his demands regarding a new security architecture in Eurasia just preparatory work for the invasion? Is the restoration of the Russian imperium his ultimate aim as some experts on Russian history and President Putin’s rule suggest? When will he say, “mission accomplished” in Ukraine? Will the war once again turn into a frozen conflict but this time at greater cost to Russia and the people of Ukraine?
Only time would tell. What is clear is that the invasion of Ukraine has not proceeded according to plan, and President Putin’s regime change project appears to have failed.
The past few days witnessed some important developments.
On March 24, Western allies got together in Brussels for G7, NATO, and EU summit meetings. Statements issued after these meetings underlined the importance of sanctions and promised energy cooperation to ensure the security of supply and to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Moreover, they announced a commitment to increase global food security and provide direct food aid, where warranted. They also called upon China to abstain from supporting Russia’s war effort in any way and to refrain from any action that may help Russia circumvent sanctions.
The question is how reassuring are these statements on energy and food supplies. Because some of the sanctions come with a price tag. The Guardian reported last week that the European Council meeting was heavy with symbolism, but officials dampened talk of further sanctions. It said, “Germany, which gets 55% of its gas imports from Russia, however, has warned that an immediate ban would cause unemployment and stop drivers filling their cars. To stop using Russian energy ‘from one day to the next would mean plunging our country and all of Europe into recession‘, the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said on Wednesday. He was supported by Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, who said an oil embargo ‘would have a devastating effect on the European economy and I don’t think it’s necessary.’”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also warned about the price tag of Western sanctions on Russia. In an interview with CNN, “When it comes to energy, we need to be very careful so that whatever measures we take don’t end up hurting us more than they hurt Russia,” he said.
And President Erdogan made it clear that Turkey cannot renege on its cooperation with Russia. Turkey imports 45% of its natural gas from Russia.
As for food supplies, one cannot but remember the November 26, 2021, Guardian article by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in which he said, “Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us. We were forewarned – and yet here we are.”
In remarks to the press at the NATO Headquarters President Biden said his overwhelming objective was to have absolute unity on three key issues: supporting Ukraine with military and humanitarian assistance, crippling Putin’s economy, and punishing him through sanctions and fortifying the eastern flank of our NATO. He declared, “We accomplished all three of these.” In response to a question on China, referring to his recent videoconference with President Xi, he said, “And I made it clear to him — I made no threats, but I made it clear to him that — make sure he understood the consequences of him helping Russia, as had been reported and as what was expected.”
China and the EU will hold a virtual summit on April 1.
President Biden’s last stop was Warsaw where he delivered a speech capping his trip to Europe. He defined the challenge ahead as “The battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression.”
Throughout his visit, Mr. Biden basked in the spotlight.
The biggest news of the past week was the declaration by the Russian Ministry of Defense that the special military operation in Ukraine is unfolding according to the plan, and all main goals of the first stage of the operation are in general complete. [ii]
During a briefing, Russian General Staff deputy head Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy said that the significant reduction of the Ukrainian military potential will make it possible to concentrate the main effort on the main goal: the liberation of Donbas, while the operation itself will last until “total completion of goals, set by the commander-in-chief.” According to the TASS news agency, “The public, as well as certain experts, question what do we do around the blocked Ukrainian cities. We did not plan to storm these cities from the start, in order to prevent destruction and minimize losses among personnel and civilians,” added Rudskoy, noting that this option is not ruled out. Considering the endless denials of an invasion during the build-up on the Ukrainian border, such statements have to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.
It seems that President Putin will keep the world guessing. How many stages are there to this operation? Will he maintain pressure on Kyiv and other cities to dictate his peace terms? Will the Russian forces try to capture Odesa and lock Ukraine out of the Black Sea? Is establishing a land link between Crimea and Transnistria among the other goals of the invasion?
As for diplomatic initiatives to end the fighting, a day before the NATO summit President Macron, Chancellor Scholtz, and Prime Minister Bennett again had phone calls with President Putin. It appears that China and India are also engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Thus, the thriller continues.