The current confrontation between Russia and the US-led West regarding Ukraine is a development of seismic proportions with far-reaching consequences for the future of global politics. Shorn of diplomatic niceties, it is a tussle for power and influence between Russia and the West in the former’s neighbourhood.
Russia, under President Putin, has taken a firm stand that it will not allow Nato’s further eastward expansion, thus ruling out the possibility of Ukraine or Georgia joining the alliance. The US and other Western countries, on the other hand, are determined to keep open this possibility by supporting Ukraine’s sovereign right to take decisions about its future orientations.
It is worth recalling that a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, former US secretary of state James Baker assured Soviet leader Gorbachev that “there would be no extension of Nato’s jurisdiction … one inch to the east.” This solemn assurance, which was subsequently reiterated by other Western leaders, was violated by Nato after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Baltic States and seven of the eight former members of the Warsaw Pact became part of Nato.
At its summit in Bucharest in 2008, Nato declared that Ukraine and Georgia could also become its members, a commitment which was reiterated in December 2021. Moscow is firmly opposed to any further eastward expansion of Nato. Russia’s influence in Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region where separatists backed by Russia have been at war with the central government since 2014, is a source of strength to Moscow’s position on the issue. President Putin has also deployed about 130,000 Russian troops near the border with Ukraine to prevent it from joining Nato, thus setting the stage for a showdown with the US-led West.
After having strengthened his hand in this manner, Putin demanded ‘legal guarantees’ for Russia’s security on December 17, 2021, in the form of draft treaties with the US and Nato, which said that Nato would rule out its further expansion eastwards and required the alliance to forego military cooperation of any kind with Ukraine. The draft demanded that Nato would also have to refrain from the deployment of its troops or weapons on the soil of its members in eastern Europe. Such demands are likely to lead to the dismantling of the Nato forces stationed in Poland and the Baltic States after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The agreement with the US would entail the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Europe without any reciprocal constraint on Russia’s arsenal of comparable tactical nuclear weapons.
There have been diplomatic exchanges between Russia and the West on these demands. The US has offered to engage in talks on limiting missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures. The US and other Western countries have rejected Russia’s demands while expressing their willingness to find a diplomatic solution to the current impasse. Several sessions of talks between the two sides, notably talks between presidents Biden and Putin on February 12, and visits by several Western leaders including French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz, to Moscow have failed to achieve a breakthrough.
While ruling out Western military intervention in Ukraine, the US, the UK and other Western countries have warned Russia that it would be subjected to painful economic sanctions if it invades Ukraine in pursuit of its security goals in the region. Among other measures, the Nord Stream 2 agreement, the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, may be mothballed. On the other hand, China, after a recent meeting between Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing, has expressed its support for Russian demands relating to Ukraine and eastern Europe, strengthening Russia’s economic and political position in the face of the possible Western sanctions.
Given Europe’s heavy reliance on gas supplies from Russia which can divert its oil and gas exports to China to meet the insatiable demand of its rapidly growing market – Russia’s foreign exchange reserves exceeding $600 billion – and the prospect of rising international oil and gas prices, the West’s ability to impose crippling sanctions on Russia is extremely limited.
To underline the seriousness of the Ukrainian standoff, the US has asked its citizens to leave Ukraine. However, it appears improbable that Russia would launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine. Factors like the threats of Western economic sanctions, heavy human and material cost of an invasion, and risks of getting bogged down there militarily as well as politically may play a big role in preventing Russia from any kind of invasion.
Russia’s preference, therefore, would be to go for a diplomatic solution by keeping the doors open for negotiations with the West while maintaining military pressure on Ukraine. The ultimate diplomatic solution would probably fall short of Russia’s maximalist demands, but it may be acceptable to Moscow if at least it keeps Ukraine and Georgia out of Nato in the foreseeable future.
Russia’s showdown with the West is likely to push Russians closer to China strategically and deepen their military and economic cooperation. The two countries may work out mechanisms to minimise their vulnerabilities to potential Western economic and financial sanctions. The strategic partnership between China and Russia may also ultimately lead to the reduction of American presence and influence in Central Asia.
China and Russia may also pursue policies to weaken American influence in Latin America and Africa. These developments, in turn, will provide an impetus to the US policy of strengthening alliances in the Indo-Pacific region such as the Quad with India as a member and AUKUS with serious implications for Pakistan’s security.
Pakistan must carefully analyse the geopolitical fallout of the Ukrainian crisis to safeguard its security and economic interests. The confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine also drives home the point that powerful countries can resile – with impunity – from their solemn assurances when it suits them. It is also worth underscoring that major international security issues are decided primarily by realpolitik and power calculations rather than international law and morality. Pakistan’s policymakers need to pay attention to these factors as they come to grips with the challenges of a world in disorder.
The writer, a retired ambassador, is the author of 'Pakistan and a World in Disorder: A Grand strategy for the Twenty-First Century'. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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