The czar of brinkmanship must seek peace

The czar of brinkmanship must seek peace: Russia and the other players in the Ukrainian crisis need to be prudent enough to resolve chronic tensions.

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The recent stand-off between Russia and Ukraine has again captured headlines in the international news media. This geopolitical situation appears to be complex due to the indirect involvement of its multiple stakeholders, including the United States, Turkey and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Increased tensions between Ukraine and Russia can be viewed as a continuation of the unresolved conflict of 2014. Since then, the ‘illegal annexation of Crimea’ has become a buzzword in international politics, and Russia has been constantly painted as an aggressor and a hostile power. In addition to this, the country has been criticised for its involvement in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting with Ukrainian troops.

From the beginning of April 2021, Moscow has allegedly deployed thousands of troops as well as tanks and artillery near Ukraine’s eastern border. It has also mobilised troops in the annexed Black Sea region of Crimea. This was enough to send a shock wave among the political elite in Ukraine, forcing them to appeal to the U.S. and NATO and ask for an intervention, if needed.

How dangerous can this become in the short term, and to which extent is the fear-mongering of the Ukrainian administration justified by the real situation on the ground?

The czar of brinkmanship must seek peace:

NATO, U.S. response

On April 13, 2021, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg invited Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to the NATO headquarters for a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on the security situation in Ukraine. Mr Stoltenberg said, ‘Russia’s considerable military build-up is unjustified, unexplained, and deeply concerning.’   He underlined that NATO would continue to provide significant political and practical support to Ukraine. In turn, Mr Kuleba made a strong statement that ‘the mistakes of 2014 must be avoided this time so that Russia cannot catch anyone by surprise. Besides powerful rhetoric from NATO, Ukraine seems to be desperate to receive more commitments and concrete actions. Dealing with Russia, a powerful and unpredictable neighbour forces Kiev to rely on NATO/U.S. military support if Russia is to continue with its provocations. The question though is how far the NATO alliance can go in its support, given that Ukraine has not yet obtained membership. In June 2020, NATO recognised Ukraine as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner, along with Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden. This partnership aims to maintain and deepen cooperation between countries that have made significant contributions to the NATO-led missions and operations.

The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also used the current tension as an opportunity to push for NATO membership, arguing that ‘this is the only way to end the war in Donbas’.

Notably, the U.S., under the new administration, has taken a more resolute stance towards this conflict, unlike the predecessors of the U.S. President, Joe Biden. Mr Biden seems to be less apprehensive about provoking Russia and is ready to support Ukraine militarily if the need arises. The recent visit of the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, to Kiev indicates the U.S.’s foreign policy priorities. The underlying rhetoric of this visit was to support the ‘independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine’.

Support from Turkey

On April 11, 2021, Mr Zelensky visited Istanbul to mark the 10th anniversary of Ukraine’s strategic partnership with Turkey. This was also an opportunity for him to be reassured by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo and, that Turkey stands by Ukraine amidst the current tensions with Russia. Both leaders discussed the security issues in the Black Sea region. During the bilateral meeting, Mr Zelensky emphasised that ‘the visions of both countries regarding geopolitical threats coincide with each other. In other words, the visit was a diplomatic success for Ukraine as it had obtained the necessary guarantees from Turkey should tension with Russia escalate.

It is worth recalling that Turkey has not acted in synchrony with Russia during several conflicts, e.g., in Syria, Libya, and, most recently, in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The czar of brinkmanship must seek peace:

Russia’s moves

So what is Russia’s end goal? Arguably, the cornerstone of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is insufficient communication, especially on the part of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to speculate on the overarching rationale behind Russia’s tactical decisions towards Ukraine. There are more questions than answers regarding the strategic calculus of the Russian administration. A deficit of explicit messages from Moscow creates room for misinterpretations and exaggerations on the part of Ukraine and its western supporters. This misunderstanding can be best illustrated by the Russian explanation of its recent ‘military build-up’ in western Russia. According to the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, it was just a ‘three-week drill’ meant to test combat readiness to respond to NATO’s threats.

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Russian President Vladmir Putin has been known for his geopolitical adventures, especially in West Asia. In the case of eastern Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that he would be willing to make further territorial gains this time around. He possesses enough diplomatic (and pragmatic) skills not to indulge in yet another geopolitical endeavour, that might entail serious repercussions from the international community. Mr Putin is aware of the ‘red line’   that should not be crossed. Hence, from the Russian perspective, the current ‘military build-up’ can be viewed as another round of muscle flexing and an attempt to perpetuate the narrative of a powerful and capable Russia.

For a peaceful resolution

All the stakeholders in the ongoing crisis should focus on establishing a constructive dialogue among themselves using clear and unambiguous language. The only way forward is to seek a peaceful resolution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict rather than exacerbating the reality and using quid pro quo tactics. Both countries do need support from the global community, but not in a military form. There is a need for a platform (similarly to the Minsk Agreements) that will facilitate negotiation, mutual consensus and possible compromises, as well as engagement with mediators.

The long-term solution should be sought out in order to break the vicious cycle of animosity and misunderstanding.