The Asian Age

War clouds hover over Ukraine

The Ukraine cri­sis is the pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity of Euro­peans, in par­tic­u­lar Ger­many as the the most in­flu­en­tial power. But the US still pro­vides most of the sinews of Nato power and must give its as­sent to how it is used.

- S. Ni­hal Singh

While Rus­sia and Europe are on colli -sion course over Ukraine, there is play­act­ing on all sides. This is a pre­lude to the most se­ri­ous East-West cri­sis since the end of the Cold War. But beyond the tough pos­tures be­ing adopted by both sides lies the fu­ture of Rus­sia as a power of sub­stance in Europe and the world.

On the ground, Rus­sian sol­diers in cam­ou­flage and Moscow- sup­plied heavy mil­i­tary equip­ment have helped tip the scales against Kiev troops by open­ing up a new front in the east. Th­ese ac­tions have been de­scribed by some Euro­pean lead­ers as an in­va­sion, but col­lec­tively the Euro­pean Union ( EU) has given Moscow a week to with­draw its forces and support to the Ukrainian rebels be­fore stricter eco­nomic sanc­tions are im­posed on it.

There is a deep split in the Euro­pean Union be­tween the for­mer Com­mu­nist coun­tries, Rus­sia’s im­me­di­ate neigh­bours and the rest. Among the hawks is Poland, whose Prime Min­is­ter Don­ald Tusk has just be­ing elected as pres­i­dent of the EU Coun­cil fore­shad­ow­ing a tougher stance to­wards Moscow. But the EU’s heavy­weight, Ger­many’s Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, takes a more mea­sured stance while warn­ing Rus­sia of se­ri­ous con­se­quences.

Ex­pect­edly, Ukraine’s Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko, in­vited to Brussels, took a max­i­mal­ist alarm­ing po­si­tion in sug­gest­ing that his coun­try was only one step away from war. Even more alarm­ingly, his Prime Min­is­ter said he would seek mem­ber­ship of the North At­lantic Treaty Or­gan­i­sa­tion ( Nato), a red rag to the Rus­sian bull.

No EU leader is talk­ing of the real prob­lems un­der­ly­ing the present con­fronta­tion be­tween Rus­sia and the West. The tussle over Ukraine is, in essence, a bat­tle be­tween what Moscow sees as its sta­tus in Europe and the world and a Euro­pean Union de­ter­mined to rub its nose in the dirt by de­priv­ing it of any­thing but a bit part in de­ter­min­ing Europe’s fu­ture.

Pri­vately, it is un­der­stood by Euro­pean lead­ers that Ukraine’s Nato mem­ber­ship is a no- go area. In­deed, Moscow has joined bat­tle with the West diplo­mat­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily to en­sure that the great land­mass of Ukraine on its bor­der does not join Nato while seek­ing closer ties with the EU. But Rus­sia is seek­ing wide re­gional au­ton­omy for Rus­sianspeak­ing east­ern Ukraine re­gion.

Per­haps, Western lead­ers mis­read Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to safe­guard his coun­try’s in­ter­ests be­cause a weak­ened Rus­sia after the Soviet Union’s breakup, headed by an ec­cen­tric leader in the form of Boris Yeltsin, ac­qui­esced in the ex­pan­sion of Nato tak­ing in the Baltic states ( once part of the Soviet Union) and for­mer Com­mu­nist states.

Th­ese states in par­tic­u­lar fear Moscow’s as­sertive­ness and are now de­mand­ing that Nato troops be sta­tioned in their coun­tries, ab­ro­gat­ing an agree­ment with Moscow. What has been promised by Nato thus far is hav­ing a ro­ta­tion of troops in th­ese coun­tries while re­in­forc­ing air and other surveil­lance of Rus­sia.

Th­ese de­ci­sions will take for­mal shape at a sched­uled Nato sum­mit meet­ing in Wales this week, but the way out of a bal- loon­ing cri­sis is not to up the ante, but to recog­nise le­git­i­mate Rus­sian in­ter­ests in its im­me­di­ate neigh­bour­hood while en­sur­ing the ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity of Ukraine. It is, of course, a given that the ear­lier Rus­sian an­nex­a­tion of the Crimean penin­sula has been im­plic­itly ac­cepted by Europe and the world.

The forth­com­ing week will be cru­cial in de­ter­min­ing whether the war clouds hov­er­ing over Ukraine will in­deed burst over a Europe still wrestling to sur­mount its eco­nomic cri­sis. With much of West Asia in flames, it would re­quire the support of all ma­jor pow­ers, in­clud­ing Rus­sia, to pull the world away from the brink of a catas­tro­phe.

US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, loath to use mil­i­tary force after the re­cent Amer­i­can mis­ad­ven­tures in Iraq and Afghanista­n, has had to autho­rise mil­i­tary airstrikes to res­cue what re­mains of Iraq from the ISIS mor­phed into the Is­lamic State. He is now mulling over the need for airstrikes on the ISIS in Syria be­cause the for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tant or­gan­i­sa­tion has in prac­tice erased in­ter- state bor­ders and uses Syria as its base to strike at Iraq.

The world has sel­dom seen the jux­ta­po­si­tion of hot crises oc­cur­ring simultaneo­usly in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and else­where. Mr Obama’s lead­er­ship in cop­ing with th­ese crises has come for much crit­i­cism at home. It is sug­gested, for in­stance, that had he in­ter­vened though US airstrikes on Syria when it crossed the red line by us­ing chem­i­cal weapons against its own peo­ple, things would not have come to the present pass in the three- year- old civil war.

Mr Obama is also be­ing blamed for not try­ing harder to re­tain some 10,000 US troops in Iraq while with­draw­ing from the coun­try in 2011, thereby giv­ing Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al- Ma­liki am­ple scope to pro­mote Shia dom­i­nance at the cost of Sun­nis and Kurds. It is no se­cret that the spec­tac­u­lar ad­vance of the ISIS in Iraq has been greatly helped by dis­af­fected Sun­nis, in par­tic­u­lar the tribal heads and trained ex- sol­diers of dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein.

The Ukraine cri­sis is the pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity of Euro­peans, in par­tic­u­lar Ger­many as the strong­est EU econ­omy and the most in­fluen- tial power. But the US still pro­vides most of the sinews of Nato power and must give its as­sent to how it is used.

The breast- beat­ing over Mr Obama in the US does not take us very far. In­deed, the pub­lic moan­ing has now taken the form of sug­gest­ing that there is dearth of lead­er­ship in re­solv­ing crises in the world. The truth is that op­tions be­fore lead­ers are limited in Ukraine or West Asia.

While crises in West Asia will take long to re­solve, the con­flict over Ukraine is eas­ier to tackle. It must be based on two pil­lars.

One, Rus­sia’s le­git­i­mate in­ter­ests must be re­spected. Two, Ukraine’s ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity out­side of Crimea should be con­sid­ered in­vi­o­lable as long as a more fed­eral Con­sti­tu­tion safe­guards the pri­mary Rus­sian- speak­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Ukraine’s pros­per­ity and fu­ture can only lie in be­ing friendly to both the EU and Rus­sia. Pres­i­dent Putin has upped the ante by sug­gest­ing a sep­a­rate state­hood for east­ern Ukraine as a bar­gain­ing ploy. Ukraine’s pos­si­ble mem­ber­ship of Nato can only in­vite per­pet­ual con­flict.

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