Vladimir Putin plays Ukraine card well, but will the West bend and accept his demands?

The Ukraine crisis has divided the world into multiple lobbies. It commenced with the Russian takeover of Crimea and the declaration of inde...

The Ukraine crisis has divided the world into multiple lobbies. It commenced with the Russian takeover of Crimea and the declaration of independence of the two breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, all of which happened in 2014. For its annexation of Crimea, Russia was removed from the G8 and sanctions imposed. Hostilities between Ukraine and breakaway republics have since continued, with almost 14,000 killed, mostly civilians. For the past eight years Russia did not recognise these republics, though there were claims that it backed them. Russian troops, mainly from its private military company, the Wagner group, are reportedly participating in operations in the region. These are denied by the Kremlin.

Every day there were new developments, including increased threats, continued cyber-attacks, the rhetoric of war alongside calls for dialogue, all of which added to the confusion. Russia recognised the two breakaway republics and moved troops into them for so-called ‘peacekeeping’ roles. The area recognised by Russia as being part of the republics is far larger than held by them. Donetsk and Luhansk are dominated by ethnic Russians (40 per cent), who shifted there post World War II and were key to its development. The US cancelled all talks post this development.

In the latest developments, Putin launched a limited offensive to push Ukraine to accede to its new terms for peace. It has also pushed Western powers on the back foot. It appears his target is areas recognised as part of the two breakaway republics and not Kyiv.

The US and Europe have termed Russian military intervention into the breakaway republics as the commencement of an offensive while hoping for a diplomatic solution. Russia, which initially demanded rollback of NATO, assurance of its security concerns and its intent to dominate Central Europe has increased its demands, aware it is in the driver’s seat. It is now insisting that Ukraine recognise its annexation of Crimea, renounce its bid to join NATO and partially demilitarise, thereby implying it joins CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) controlled by Russia.

The US, EU and UK have imposed sanctions against Russia and criticised its actions. Major sanctions, promised by Biden, have yet to be announced, hoping that the aggression would end with the creation of a buffer zone. Within European nations, there are internal divisions mainly due to economic impact arising from skyrocketing oil and gas prices once Russian supplies shut down. Oil has already touched $100 a barrel and could rise further. Russian gas, 40 per cent of European gas imports, are the cheapest and will now come with a higher price tag. This will impact economies recovering from the slowdown due to COVID-19. Europe is hoping the crisis terminates early.

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Putin played his first cards by entering Donetsk and Luhansk, leaving it to the West to counter. Russia was careful, tested waters before it took its plunge into Ukraine. It is now expanding the conflict in eastern Ukraine and sending forth messages that its terms must be accepted by Ukraine, if not the US. It is aware that the West seeks an end to the crisis and any harder sanctions would cripple its struggling economy. Also, Putin also cannot back down as it would impact his image.

Asian powerhouses, India and China, are treading the middle path, seeking a diplomatic solution, but hesitating to criticise Russian actions. India’s close defence ties with both Russia and Ukraine and strategic alliance with the US have ensured it plays a difficult balancing game, hoping the crisis concludes. For China, with global emphasis shifting to Central Europe and war clouds looming large, it is away from close monitoring. In case tensions increase in Europe, it may exploit it to grab some of its claimed islands in the South China Sea.

To prevent China from exploiting the Ukraine crisis to push further along the LAC, Indian forces remain on high alert. China had exploited the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to push its offensive into India. In the last Putin-Xi summit China backed Russia on its security concerns in Europe. With the West not providing military support to Ukraine could mean a similar approach in case China takes an offensive route. As Boris Johnson stated, “People would draw the conclusion that aggression pays.”

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Russia had assessed that the West would not enter into a war over Ukraine. Hence, its annexation of these breakaway republics would be acceptable, though the West could push sanctions, which would not be severe. Its limited offensive, currently underway, would provide these breakaway republics additional security and ensure Ukraine is no longer a threat. Europe would be satisfied if Russia stalls its aggression and normalcy returns. Putin has done his salami slicing, created a buffer zone with NATO and would continue to push Ukraine to accept its terms, by engaging it in hybrid warfare. The launch of limited offensives in eastern Ukraine is to push Kyiv to accept its terms.

This would enable Putin to meet his goals without engaging the US in talks. It would be a Russian victory, without combat. Occupying Ukraine would never benefit Russia as it would face an insurgency fuelled by the West, as also crippling sanctions damaging its economy and putting Putin’s future at risk. Acceptance by Ukraine would be the legacy of Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday. AP

Ukraine, which had objected to the Russian takeover of its breakaway republics, will be forced to seek a solution through dialogue. It realises that it alone would battle Russia in case of a major military offensive and that the Kremlin would neither return Crimea nor withdraw from its occupied regions, irrespective of sanctions. It may be better in the long-term to partially accept Russian conditions in return for security guarantees, which could flow. Ukraine’s economy has been severely dented in this crisis and it would desire peace for reconstruction. Ukraine may accept the loss of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, but not demilitarisation and joining CSTO.

For the US, in case Russia stalls its offensive, it would imply partial victory. The US has anyway not accepted Ukraine’s admission into NATO, nor would it do so in any near timeframe. It may, behind closed doors, convince Ukraine to partially accept Russian terms, thus closing the chapter.

For Europe, ending the crisis would be a face-saver. This would reverse global oil and gas prices. For the rest of the world facing increased economic pressures due to the ongoing crisis, a quick solution is essential. India, which was following a middle path, would heave a sigh of relief. China would be back in the limelight.

Putin has played his second card, waiting for the world to act. The problem is that no one knows his desired end state. Will Ukraine bend and accept Putin’s demands or will it force Putin to expand the conflict. The world waits with bated breath.

The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.

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