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Explained | Can a Russia-Ukraine conflict be averted?

Why does President Putin consider NATO admitting more members as a threat? What role are the U.S. and other countries playing to de-escalate the situation?

January 30, 2022 12:52 am | Updated 12:58 pm IST

A Ukrainian service member holds a next generation light anti-tank weapon supplied by Britain, during drills at Ukraine's International Peacekeeping Security Centre near Yavoriv, in the Lviv region, Ukraine

A Ukrainian service member holds a next generation light anti-tank weapon supplied by Britain, during drills at Ukraine's International Peacekeeping Security Centre near Yavoriv, in the Lviv region, Ukraine

The story so far: Russia has mobilised some 1,00,000 troops on its border with Ukraine. Russia says the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastward expansion (which the alliance calls “enlargement”) threatens its interests and has sought written security guarantees from the West. The crisis has unleashed a flurry of diplomatic moves with the U.S., NATO and the European Union holding talks with Russian officials.

What are Russia’s demands?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded a ban on further expansion of NATO to include Ukraine, Georgia or other countries in Russia’s neighbourhood. Since the German unification in 1990, NATO has added new members five times. If the alliance had 12 founding members in 1949, it now has 30 members, including the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — all sharing borders with Russia — and Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, all members of the former Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

 

Mr. Putin has also asked NATO to roll back its military deployments to the 1990s level and ban the deployment of intermediate range missiles in areas that would allow NATO to reach Russia. Further, Moscow has asked NATO to curb its military cooperation with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. In other words, Mr. Putin wants not just a halt to NATO’s future expansion but also its roll-back from Russia’s rim land.

What is the U.S. response?

The U.S. has given a written response to the Kremlin, which hasn’t been released. But public remarks made by President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top officials suggest that the U.S. has taken a mixed approach of diplomacy and economic deterrence. The U.S. has ruled out changing NATO’s “open door policy” — which means, at least in theory, NATO could induct more members. The U.S. also says it would continue to offer training and weapons to Ukraine. But Washington is open to discussing missile deployment in Eastern Europe and a mutual reduction in military exercises. Also, it is highly unlikely that Ukraine and Georgia, both fighting separatist conflicts, would be taken into NATO in the foreseeable future. The U.S. has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine or taking other direct military measures against Russia in the event of an invasion. But Washington has threatened to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia if it makes any military move.

What are Putin’s options?

Russia says it won’t attack Ukraine. But the situation on the ground remains tense. Russia has already annexed Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that was part of Ukraine, through a referendum. Russia is also backing separatists in the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk republics (Donbas) in eastern Ukraine. Besides, Moscow has mobilised troops on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia and northern border with Belarus, southern border with Crimea and south-western border with Transnistria (Moldova). It’s not clear what Mr. Putin will do next. If he goes for a full-throttle invasion, Russian troops could make swift moves into Ukraine from three sides. Another theory is that Russia could annex Donbas and launch limited incursions, capturing more territories along the Sea of Azov, establishing a land bridge from its border to Crimea. Or, Russia could provide further military assistance to the rebels in Donbas to push the frontline further into Ukraine without triggering a major international response. The other option is to de-escalate, claiming a diplomatic victory which would be based on guarantees from the West or a revival of the Minsk process that seeks constitutional amendments in Ukraine, giving more autonomy to the Russia-backed rebels.

What is India’s position?

India broke its silence on Friday, calling for “a peaceful resolution of the situation through sustained diplomatic efforts for long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond”. This was the standard position India had taken during the Crimean crisis as well. But the decisions it took after the annexation of Crimea offer insights into the thinking of policy-makers in New Delhi on Ukraine. Immediately after the annexation, India abstained from a vote in the UN General Assembly on a resolution that sought to condemn Russia. In March 2014, Mr. Putin praised India’s “restraint and objectivity”. In December that year, Sergey Aksyonov, the head of the Crimean Republic, visited India as part of Mr. Putin’s delegation, which had triggered an unusual criticism of India by the then Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. In November 2020, India voted against a Ukraine-sponsored resolution in the UN General Assembly that sought to condemn alleged human rights violations in Crimea. So while India’s position is largely rooted in neutrality, New Delhi has adapted itself to the post-2014 status quo on Ukraine.

Is war imminent?

Russia says the U.S.’s written response doesn’t address its core concerns, but sees room for more dialogue. Top Russian and American diplomats would meet again in two weeks. French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Mr. Putin to revive the Minsk process, which would be followed up with more talks in the coming weeks. The continuing diplomatic activities suggest that a military conflict is not imminent. But it’s too early to say whether de-escalation is in the offing.

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