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Report of Monday Morning Webinar on “The Ukraine Crisis”

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  • February 28, 2022
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Dr. Swasti Rao, Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia CentreMP-IDSA spoke on the topic “The Ukraine Crisis” at the Monday Morning Webinar held on 28 February 2022. The webinar was moderated by Col. Deepak Kumar, Research Fellow, Centre Coordinator, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA. 

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.) Deputy Director General MP-IDSA, the panellists, scholars and members of the Institute participated in the webinar.

    Executive Summary

    The recent crisis unfolding in Ukraine has shaken the international arena, with Russian military might being displayed across the border with Ukraine. There has been strong and quick reactions from the West and Europe against Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO). Though the conflict continues, the Russian incursion into Kyiv and the Western responses through sanctions and military aid will have major impact on the global world order. The debates regarding the Russian game plan and the Ukrainian resistance to preserve their national sovereignty have been reverberating across the globe. The discussion of a probable peace plan does provide hope for a solution to the conflict.

    Detailed Report

    The Monday morning Webinar began with Col. Deepak Kumar, the moderator referring to troops’ amassment by Russia across the Ukrainian border since 2021. After months of military build-up, Russia invaded its Soviet neighbor from various fronts. The military operation signifies the failure of diplomatic efforts like the Normandy Format and has trigged the greatest security crisis in Europe since the Cold War. It has led to a dangerous escalation between NATO and Russia. Various questions were highlighted by the moderator ranging from sanctions on Russia, regime change to deliberating upon the Chinese game plan and the delicate balancing act of India.

    Dr. Swasti Rao, the speaker, began her presentation with a detailed description of the two heads of states involved in the crisis. The speaker provided the background information of the conflict, including amassment of troops and Russia’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions just before the Special Military Operation (SMO) was announced by Russia on 24 February 2022. She provided an update on the current crisis including the situation in Kharkov and Kyiv. Peace talks proposed by Vladimir Putin were supposed to be held in Minsk but were rejected by Volodymyr Zelensky. However, an agreement was reached by both heads of states to have peace talks on the Belarus border.

    She highlighted that Putin stated that the objectives of the SMO are Demilitarization and Denazification of Ukraine. This might also include a regime change and establishing a pro-Russian leader in power similar to Belarusian leadership. She suggested that there could be a division of Ukraine into two parts separating the East and the West along the River Dnieper. According to the speaker, the objective of Russia tightening the noose around Kyiv is not to capture the city but to pressurize Zelensky to either flee or surrender or to give in to Russian demands.

    Putin’s plan for Ukraine could be summarised as the three ‘D’s-Division, Demilitarisation and Denazification. While division of Ukraine may or may not be on the cards, but Putin definitely wants to demilitarise Ukraine as the West has been pumping defence aid and weaponry into the country since 2014. The speaker explained that Putin uses Denazification, both as a euphemism for any Pro-West forces within Ukraine and to designate an array of neo- Nazi groups in Ukraine that have been at the forefront of receiving military training from the West after the Annexation of Crimea in 2014 and have also been instrumental in fighting the Russian backed separatists in the Donbass region.

    The speaker then highlighted the apparent loopholes in Putin's plan. Even in the initial days of the SMO, there seems to be a sense of frustration concerning Russia’s military advancement in Ukraine, mainly due to the rapid rise in costs owing to delays caused by strong Ukrainian resistance. There also seems to be a failure on the part of the Russians to gain air dominance. The pro-Russian sentiment seems to be misjudged by Putin because present-day Ukraine seems different from the Ukraine of 2014.

    The delays are providing leverage to the West and Ukraine. New weaponry is coming from the West through Poland. The United States has approved an extra $350 million in aid and the European Union has announced funding the Ukraine military including purchases and delivery of weapons worth 500 million euros. Germany has made a historic change in its post-war weapons policy. The West, in a coordinated manner, has imposed hard-hitting sanctions on Russia including cutting targeted Russian banks off the SWIFT transaction system.

    Putin, on the other hand seems to be upping the ante of tough posturing against NATO and its allies. He recently gave directions to Russia’s Defence Minister to keep Russia’s nuclear weapons on alert. Belarus, a key Russian ally, has revoked its non-nuclear status and has allowed Russia to keep nuclear weapons within Belarusian territory.

    The speaker then highlighted that Putin does not regard Ukraine as a separate sovereign country. He sees Kyiv as the cradle of Russian civilization and asserts the close cultural proximity that the two countries share.  Putin has time and again stated that the breakup of USSR was an unfortunate accident of history. His recent speeches have invoked the past glory of the Russian Empire. He dismisses the post-war and cold war map of Europe. He does not believe in the sovereignty of most of the East European states, particularly the erstwhile Soviet states and specially Ukraine. While Putin’s official stand remains seeking guarantees for Ukraine’s neutrality and against NATO’s eastward expansion, his misgivings about Ukraine’s sovereignty hinges from a different narrative of the glory of the Russian empire.  However, Putin’s rationale for launching the SMO is a pushback against NATO’s eastward expansion that he saw threatening to Russian security.

    The speaker then focused on NATO’s eastward expansion that started in the 1990s.  She stated that the problem began from Czech Republic (an erstwhile Warsaw Pact member) joining NATO in 1999. This was followed by other erstwhile members of the Warsaw pact like Hungary and Poland joining the NATO.  The major jolt came in 2004 when the three Baltic States (that were erstwhile Soviet states) joined NATO. This eastward expansion continued until 2020 with North Macedonia in the Balkans being the last country in East Europe to join the NATO.

    The speaker then discussed the inconsistencies within the argument that Russia’s SMO is a reaction against NATO's further Eastward Expansion with Ukraine becoming a likely member. Ukraine had applied to join NATO in 2008 in the backdrop of Russia’s operations in Georgia. However, its request was rejected by the NATO then. Ukraine would not have been able to join the NATO after 2014 as the NATO does not accept members with disputed borders.

    In the 1990s, NATO- Russia relations seemed to be in the positive space and Russia had joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme. In 1997, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.  In 1991, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council was set up. In 2002, the NATO- Russia Council was set up which held its last meeting just a few days before the SMO was launched on 24 February 2022.

    The speaker mentioned the Visegrad group formed in the 1990s comprising Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungry which pushed for greater cooperation with Europe and later, after the division within Czechoslovakia, both Czechia and Slovakia became part of the Visegrad group that pushed for NATO’s membership, eventually joining the NATO in 1997.

    The speaker also deconstructed the big jolt that came with the Baltic States joining NATO in 2004. She highlighted that Russia and Lithuania had an unstable border in 1998 which was settled with Russian assistance. Russia formed the Commonwealth of Independent States in order to lure the East European countries to remain under the Russian influence, which the Baltic States refused to join. She also mentioned the GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova) group which was formed by smaller East European countries to have more bargaining power against Russia. The bottom line, according to the speaker, is that it is the East European countries themselves which have been trying to join the NATO worried for their security concerns at the hands of Russia and not the other way round as Russia would like to project it.

    The speaker then elaborated on sanctions especially the unprecedented SWIFT sanctions imposed on Russia’s Central Bank that is likely to offset the safety valve effect of Russia’s large foreign reserves.  Russia has the fourth largest foreign reserves in the world but cutting off the Central bank from Swift transaction system would mean Russia will not be able to access almost half of the foreign reserves that are held overseas.  As a result, the Central Bank of Russia would not be able to intervene with required capital and financial controls to stabilise the devaluation of ruble and control inflation. The sanctions are not likely to deter Putin but are aimed at bleeding the Russian economy in the long run.

    The speaker also highlighted the limitation of China’s ability to support Russia. While China will buy more gas from Russia but even that will come with riders. The current pipelines from Siberia that are taking gas into China are already working at their optimum capacity and sending more gas to China would mean readying more pipelines that will at take at least three years. The Chinese are also known to demand cheaper prices from Russia which would not be to Russia’s advantage. Two major Chinese banks have also put restrictions on Russian transactions for the fear of secondary sanctions by the West. What this means is that while China would like to help Russia against the West but at the same time China is not willing to jeopardize its own embedded supply chains in the world and specially its large trade with the US and the EU.

    The speaker concluded by highlighting the responses from Europe. She described that the Russian SMO against Ukraine has made non- NATO European states worry for their safety. Kosovo has requested a permanent US military base and a NATO membership. Germany is not only supporting sanctions and has halted the certification of the Nord Steam-2 but it also announced a special defence budget and it has been stated that its defence budget will be raised by 2 percent every year. Sweden and Finland are worried and arming their islands in the Baltic Sea and the public opinion in these two is swinging in the favour of joining NATO for the first time after the end of the Cold War.

    Questions and Comments

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA commended the speaker for a detailed presentation. He stated that the resistance from the Ukrainian forces is not unexpected. Minsk II Agreement also failed partly because there was no consensus on the two breakaway provinces and the role of the parties involved. Regarding Zelensky’s decision to not flee, he drew parallels with Ashraf Ghani fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. He said that Regime changes do not work and that they are doomed to failure. Changes have to be organic and a generic product from the contending forces. He further said that neutrality is a fig leaf and hypocritical in the context of Sweden and Finland.  In Germany’s case, one has to take note of the increased defence budget and flip over in providing some hard core defence hardware. Sanctions do not work beyond a point as evident in the case of Iran. He concluded his remarks by stating that the Chinese would try to seek advantages from both parties.

    Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA said that this is one of the most significant events of the century so far. We are moving through a rapidly changing geostrategic landscape. There is an emergence of EU powers moving away from the US and United Kingdom’s way of thinking. There is a re-emergence of World War II allies (AUKUS) and the US and UK are always apprehensive of seeing any other power dominating Europe. The continued relevance of hard power emerges as a key element of state power. The importance of nuclear deterrence emerges and deterrence of conventional forces has also come up.

    The question, he said, is about India's stand. Can we sustain this position which we have taken by abstaining from the vote and not condemning Russia, if the war continues and civilian causalities mount including Indian civilians?

    Dr. Swasti Rao, the speaker, gave detailed and insightful replies in response to comments and questions received from the panellists and participants.

    Report prepared by Mr. Jason Wahlang, Research Analyst, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA.