Russia’s NATO problem: On the Ukraine war

Putin seems unwilling to engage diplomatically to address Russian security concerns

February 25, 2022 01:05 am | Updated 11:05 am IST

Russia’s unjustifiable incursion into Ukraine following weeks of military troop build-up on their shared border has drastically raised tensions in the region with broader ripple effects across the world, particularly for NATO countries and others with strategic connections to the two nations. Reports said that several Ukrainian cities, including capital Kyiv came under attack on Thursday morning, even as the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to stop the invasion. U.S. President Joe Biden and the NATO and European Commission leadership vowed to impose “severe sanctions” on Russia. This round of sanctions will overlay prior economic penalties imposed on Russian entities and individuals close to the political leadership, and they are expected to include cutting off top Russian banks from the financial system, halting technology exports, and directly targeting the Russian President. Moscow can hardly be surprised at this backlash, for it has shown little sympathy toward the idea of engaging diplomatically on the Ukraine question to address Russian security concerns. Ever since Russia began amassing troops on the Ukrainian border, the U.S., NATO, and Europe have sought to press for diplomatic solutions. This includes direct U.S.-Russia negotiations, and French President Macron’s meeting with Mr. Putin.

While the sense of frustration in western capitals over Mr. Putin’s intractability and aggression are palpable, and the use of severe sanctions stemming from that is a strategic inevitability, it is unlikely that the prospect of escalating violence and a devastating toll on human life and property in Ukraine can be ruled out until Mr. Putin’s broader questions on NATO are answered. At the heart of his fears is the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and NATO troops potentially stationed at the border with Russia. NATO’s historical record, of its penchant for expansionism, has likely fuelled such insecurities. After the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the Eastern European military alliance, NATO, and Russia in 1997 signed the “Founding Act” on mutual relations, cooperation, and security. Disregarding the spirit of this agreement, NATO quietly underwent five rounds of enlargement during the 1990s, pulling former Soviet Union countries into its orbit. Cooperative exchanges, communications hotlines, and Cold War fail-safes such as arms control verification have fallen by the wayside, even more since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. It may be the case that owing to Mr. Putin’s failure to develop Russia into an economic powerhouse that naturally attracted neighbouring countries and international capital to itself partly explains Moscow’s deflection of attention to strategic questions relating to NATO and Russia’s territorial integrity. But unless western nations give assurances to Mr. Putin that NATO will not seek to relentlessly expand its footprint eastwards, Moscow will have little incentive to return to the negotiating table. But Russia and Mr. Putin must realise that war is not the means to peace and security.

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