Ukraine-Russia war: Vladimir Putin’s big gamble

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By Harsh V Pant

As Russian aggression against Ukraine drags on, there is a palpable sense that the world has entered a more dangerous phase. Russian president Vladimir Putin has unleashed mayhem not only in Ukraine but has also transformed the landscape of European security that will have reverberations far and wide. What started as a smart game of diplomatic manoeuvring by Putin has turned into an urban siege where whatever the Russian leader may or may not achieve on the battlefield will result in him losing significantly over the long term. Tactical, and even operational, success is likely to yield little strategic gain for Russia as nations around the world assess the impact of one of the most profound shifts in global security in decades.

After holding back in the initial few days and facing fierce resistance from Ukraine, Russia is likely to go all out in decimating Ukraine. It wants to wreck the country to such an extent that it doesn’t even think of joining the Western camp and eventually install a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. Russia has the military wherewithal to do it and Putin has every intention of doing it in the name of “demilitarisation” and “de-Nazification.” The fact that Russian military has not performed as well in the initial days as many had anticipated has only made it more likely that Putin would want Russian military to demonstrate its prowess in full force.

It was this that led Putin to even resort to the insanity of issuing a nuclear threat at such an early stage in escalation. First, he merely warned that “no matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” And then 24 hours after announcing the invasion, he declared that Russia’s nuclear forces have been put on high alert.

Yet, for all the machismo of Putin, it is the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy who has ended up winning hearts and minds. Not only has he emerged as a charismatic leader at a time of national crisis for the Ukrainians, he has also galvanised a large part of the world in his support. With his speeches and social media posts challenging Russia, he has ignited a renewed sense of nationalism amongst Ukrainians that will make any attempt by Russia to forcefully occupy or place a pliant government in Kyiv that much more difficult. Zelenskyy, in his address to the European Parliament, underscored Ukraine’s fight to be recognised as an “equal member of Europe” even as he stressed that the country is now “fighting for survival” in the war with Russia. Russian invasion and Ukraine’s resistance has united Europe against Putin like never before and has drowned out voices that, till a few days back, were talking about recognising legitimate security grievances of Russia.

The European Union, in a show of defiance, has decided to move with the membership negotiations with Ukraine after the Ukrainian president formally sent an application to Brussels. And Europe has now moved ahead with one of most remarkable shifts in its foreign and security policy posture that would have been unthinkable just a few days back. Russia has been relying on European disunity and unwillingness to take concerted action. But, faced with one of the most significant challenges since the end of the Cold War, the EU has come together to impose strong sanctions targeting the Russian financial sector as well as banning Russian state media and moving ahead with shipments of weaponry to Ukraine. Even Switzerland, the forever neutral state, has decided to freeze assets belonging to Russia’s president Putin, prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov as well as key Russian oligarchs.

The most striking development, however, has happened in Germany, with the European economic powerhouse now deciding to significantly increase its defence spending, recognising the unsustainability of its posture where its economic power has been a function of American security guarantees. Germany will now be boosting its military spending above 2% of GDP and committing 100 billion euros to a fund for its armed services. In a major shift from its post World War II policy, it has removed some restrictions on German-made weapons being sent to conflict zones, thereby enabling more third-party countries to send weapons to Ukraine as well. This is happening despite Germany’s heavy reliance on Russian gas, and the message is unmistakable that history is truly back in Europe.

The trans-Atlantic relationship has been re-energised. Rather contrary to the effect Putin would have wanted from his threats, Finland and Sweden are now seriously considering joining NATO. In his State of the Union address this week, US president Joe Biden announced that the US was joining European allies in closing its airspace to Russian planes. Signalling steps to weaken Russia’s military in the future despite the presumptive Russian gains on the Ukrainian battlefield, Biden underlines that the West is “choking off Russia’s access to technology that will sap its economic strength and weaken its military for years to come.” The economic sanctions imposed on Russia have been serious and major companies such as Apple, Google, Ford and Exxon Mobil have moved against Russia, leaving Russia’s currency, the rouble, plunging to a value of less than a penny. Russian oligarchy has been the target of a lot of sanctions, and as their fortunes come undone, their relationship with Putin can also get strained.

For Putin, this crisis is more about his domestic political standing. If his resolute stand against the Chechen rebels made his a national star and if his 2014 Crimea campaign led to a soaring of his popularity ratings, he would be hoping that the Ukraine invasion would give him another lease of life. In standing up to NATO, he is also rallying his domestic support base. After all, the growing reach of NATO and the EU in Russian periphery is more a threat to Putin’s political future. He has framed it as a threat to Russia by arguing that NATO itself is not the real problem but that “in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape” and “Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist while facing a permanent threat from the territory of today’s Ukraine.”

So Putin has shaken the world indeed and his own political prospects at home with the Ukraine invasion. But if the Cold War did not end in 1990, this war will also not end with the wreckage of Ukraine. It has already laid the foundation of a new global order that is unlikely to be of Putin’s liking. After all, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. India, much like the rest of the world, should not be swayed by the immediate battlefield realities but should carefully assess the long term costs and opportunities this crisis is generating.

The author is Director of research, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and professor of international studies, department of defence studies, King’s College, London