“He who doesn’t risk, never gets to drink champagne” – Russian proverb.
Ukraine Russia’s Historic Buffer State
Kiev was the birthplace of the first Russian state in the 9th Century and also the capital of the ancient State of Rus. It was ruled by the then Grand Prince Vladimir (the irony couldn’t be starker today). For Kremlin, Ukraine has historically provided a strategic depth that saved Mother Russia when an ambitious Napoleon invaded in 1812 and also staved off a Nazi invasion in 1941. When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union the former derived its name from the old Russian word, “Okraina,” which translates into periphery. Last July, Putin wrote an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, in which he argued that both nations are “one people” and that the West wanted to break this Slavic unity.
Ukraine’s present position is precarious, if Putin follows through his plans, we could be looking at a Berlin Wall redux physically and ideologically splitting Eastern and Western Ukraine. It’s ironical that Cold War 1.0 dismantled the Soviet Union, possibly Cold War 2.0 could provide the fillip for Russia to redeem its Soviet stature albeit in a much-truncated geography, but strategic geography nonetheless. A satellite state in the form of Belarus, Crimea already in the Russian kitty, now comes the turn of Eastern Ukraine. A strategic buffer is being carved out to stop NATO’s westward expansion on the Russian periphery, Okraina.
Weapons and Troops Amassed by Russia
In all likelihood it seems that the die has been cast for a border showdown and all pieces are in position awaiting the tiniest of sparks to ignite a conflict. February is the month that could see the trigger of war being pressed. Ideally, Russia would go for a crippling nation-wide cyber-attack targeting utilities, banking, communication networks both civilian and military. Russia’s heavy tanks and mechanized infantry would then unleash intense volley of blinding strikes opening the gates to the first military thrust into Eastern Ukraine. The T-72B3 tanks which have a new thermal optics system for night fighting as well as guided missiles are stationed near Ukrainian border. The end of winter is nearing, by late March when spring will set in, it will turn the solidified by snow terrain in to a marsh which will bog down movement of heavy weapons platforms, it’s all about timing now. So, mid-February or early March, would be the ideal calculation for Putin to seize the opportunity to punch hard and punch quick. The US and NATO have dispatched their weapons to Ukraine and troops too have been kept on standby. The Baltic States, Britain, The Netherlands, Finland and others have staunchly backed Ukraine with diplomacy and supply of defensive weapons like Stinger and Javelin anti-tank missiles. NATO is sending more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine.
A look at the firepower arrayed around the three sides of Ukraine; motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russian region of Rostov, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian Su-35 fighter jets, artillery forces, In addition, Panstir missile system and paratroopers have already arrived in Belarus for Allied Resolve 2022 joint military drills. The biggest package is the S-400 surface to air missile system, two battalions of it are stationed near the Ukraine-Belarus border. In the far North, Russian warships from the Northern Fleet are patrolling the Barents Sea to practice protecting a major shipping lane in the Arctic. Russia has also deployed a large number of Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) systems in areas bordering Ukraine (it can be equipped with tactical nuclear warheads as well). Russia had test-fired a dozen Zircon hypersonic missiles, ten from a frigate and two from a Yasen class nuclear submarine last month. It hasn’t been inducted yet, but it adds to the menacing posture adopted. Russia also test-fired its Kalibr cruise missile from a submarine of its Pacific Fleet which struck a coastal target over 1,000 kms away this month. Russia’s cyber and anti-satellite weapons prowess plugs the remaining gaps. An estimated 127,000 Russian troops are stand ready to strike along the Ukrainian border. Such a comprehensive military build-up can’t be a mere bluff or can it be?
Europe’s Divided Response
Two European giants are guarded in their commitments to Ukraine. Especially, Germany, which won’t send weapons to Ukraine’s aid but will be dispatching 5,000 helmets for the country in the eye of storm. The Mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko (also a former world champion Heavyweight Boxer), dismissed the offer as a joke that left him speechless. “What kind of support will Germany send next? Pillows.” Germany has its own compulsions, as the fate of the undersea Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline (running from Western Siberia to Eastern Germany through the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine thereby depriving it of precious 2 billion USD transit fee) hangs in balance based on actions Russia decides to undertake in the coming weeks. France began its six-month EU Presidency this January and has gone ahead and proposed direct talks between the EU and Russia, stating EU needs a new collective security pact to deal with NATO and Russia. The French proposal intends to “create together a European power of the future an independent Europe that has given itself the means to decide its own future and not rely on the decisions of other major powers.”
Energy Supplies a Geopolitical Lever
The EU is heavily dependent on Russian supply of natural gas, almost over 40% of it and for Germany it’s over 50%. The EU has invested over 350 billion USD till 2019 in Russia. Last year gas prices in Europe shot by up to 600%. Europe is facing its worst energy crisis since the 1970s. US is finalizing plans to divert energy supplies to Europe if Kremlin decides to turn off the gas tap (Qatar & Australia are being approached to fill the gap if the need arises) in case a border showdown happens, at least the mighty Russian Bear is casting a long shadow of war over Ukraine, it will be touch and go.
Global markets are worried that an escalation in Ukraine could disrupt the flow of energy supplies to Europe. Oil prices could quickly rocket to $100 per barrel in that case. Oil is currently trading around $90 per barrel globally, near its highest level in seven years. Natural gas prices would be heavily exposed as well. This sharp uptick in oil prices wouldn’t bode well for global economy, especially for the post pandemic recovery, India included.
Sanctions as a Deterrent
If Russia invades Ukraine, the United States said last week, it would face faster and more severe economic consequences than it did when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, including “novel export controls” to hobble the Russian economy.
Targeted sanctions on critical Russian industries and influential officials are the options on the table, with President Biden going on to indicate, personal sanctions on Putin could also be a possibility. President Vladimir Putin may not be the Grand Prince Vladimir of erstwhile Rus, but he certainly is a Grandmaster making shrewd moves on the geopolitical chessboard that has stupefied the West and has evidently divided NATO.