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  • James Baldwin

From Russia with Love: Vladimir Putin Eyes Ukraine

As featured in Edition 39, available here.

BY JAMES BALDWIN (2nd year - Politics - Watford, Hertfordshire)

The fall of communism provided many with the hope that Russia would incorporate itself with the West. However, since Vladimir Putin’s tenure in 2000, he has presided over rising tensions between the two sides, and his next move could surmount that further.

Nearly 100,000 Russian troops, alongside tanks and artillery, have amassed at its border with Ukraine, facing the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. This is an unusually large-scale movement of battalions, which has prompted wide-ranging concerns in the West. Joe Biden has already held calls with Mr Putin to try and gauge his aims.

The situation has been tense since 2014, when Mr Putin launched an annexation of Crimea in response to the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. The southernmost point of Ukraine is now subjected to Russian rule as a republic, with the city of Sevastopol a federal city. This fast annexation was vastly condemned – leading to a deterioration of Western-Russian relations, and the latter’s suspension from the G8.

Ukraine’s east has been a host to violence. Separatists, backed by Moscow, began occupying territories in April 2014 in response to the increasingly apparent dichotomy between the pro-European West and pro-Russian East. Whilst they have essentially made the region ungovernable, the territory has nonetheless remained Ukrainian for the past seven years.

Mr Putin claims that his scaling-up efforts are largely in response to the “dangerous attempt” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to take over Ukrainian territory. Ukraine is not a part of NATO, but they have received help from them when it comes to supplying weapons and training troops.

An amassing of troops is not a rare occurrence.

In April, Russia earned a conference with Mr Biden after he began a separate move to the border. Russia subsequently backtracked. It is likely that Moscow is bluffing again, as an invasion has more costs than benefits. Russia could be subjected to American economic sanctions and the suspension of Nord Stream 2 – a new gas pipeline running directly to Germany. In any case, Mr Putin may recognise it to be wiser to hold off invading and look to the future installation of a Russian puppet in Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 would allow him to deprive the country of natural gas, as supply will no longer have to travel through Ukraine to reach Europe. Provoking unrest from within seems to give the Kremlin a safer bet.

But this does not rule out the potential of a part invasion. Luhansk and Donetsk are evidently favourable to the Kremlin and an invasion there would not be enough to warrant American deterrence.

Should Russia conquer all of Ukraine, strong economic sanctions will be inevitable. Although sanctions on banks and oligarchs, as well as bond markets, will effectively hurt the Russian economy, they would not be sufficient. There are two ways financially that the US and NATO could immobilise Russia further. The first would be the suspension of Nord Stream 2, making Europe somewhat less dependent on Russian natural gas. The second, the so-called ‘nuclear’ option, would be to cut Russia off from SWIFT – the dominant financial transfer system between worldwide banks. This has harmed Iran greatly and would do the same to Russia.

Direct military response is out of the question. Such action would almost undoubtedly lead to a worrying scaling-up of war. But the supplement of help to Ukraine will most likely be secured and the growth of NATO presence on the eastern flanks would be wise. This will deter Russia from any further action, which no one would be wise to rule out. An expansion of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence may mean they begin to size up the Baltic states. With that, NATO member states should also begin taking their contributions to NATO's budget more seriously.

Mr Biden should not concede too much in negotiations, certainly not in terms of any reduction in his or NATO’s support to Ukraine. Russia has much to lose from war and this may just be another bluff from Mr Putin. In fact, in provoking unrest in Ukraine when Nord Stream 2 gets up and running, Mr Putin may well be rewarded with the installation of a pro-Russian president anyway. Nonetheless, the West should certainly be concerned about the general movements of the Kremlin. If not, the annexation of the East is impending.

Preparations for that, and more, should begin: indirect support to Ukraine should continue, and a bumping up of NATO presence in eastern Europe should commence. If not, Russia will be sending their love from a lot closer.

Image 1: Flickr (Bryan Jones - Russian flag)

Image 2: Unsplash (Yehor Milohrodskyi - Ukrainian flag)



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