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Towards a sustainable peace in eastern Europe

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Satish Tandon
Satish Tandon
Professor at a reputed university, teaching English and economics, in Japan.

The continuing amassing of Russian troops to the North and East of Ukraine for several months has finally ended in the invasion of Ukraine as most of the world feared. Until the last moment, the Russians continued to deny American assertions that a Russian attack on Ukraine was imminent. Only a few kilometers away from the border, the Russian troops had been too close for comfort, and needed to maintain some “social distancing”.

Despite Russian denials, it was becoming increasingly obvious what Russia really wanted as its troops surged because Russia had invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized its territory. Now, eight years later, Russia may be looking to consolidate its earlier gains.

On Day 2 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations Security Council passed a US-sponsored resolution condemning Russia for unprovoked aggression and demanding an immediate withdrawal of its forces. India, China and the UAE abstained from the vote.

Why did Russia want to invade Ukraine? One reason is that some parts of eastern Ukraine which border Russia, have already been in the hands of pro-Russian rebels who have been waging a war against Ukrainian troops that have resulted in the loss of over 14,000 lives over the last six years. When Ukrainians deposed their pro-Russian president in early 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea and backed separatists who captured large swathes of territory in eastern Ukraine. Now, Putin would like to crush Ukraine’s sovereignty and take Russia back to its past Soviet glory.

Ukraine serves as a buffer state between the EU and Russia and shares borders with both. But as a former Soviet republic, it has deep social and cultural ties with Russia, and Russian is widely spoken there.

Secondly, Russia is extremely sensitive to the eastward expansion of NATO and would like to obtain security guarantees that NATO would end its military activity in eastern Europe. Actually, it would like to see NATO retreat to the pre-1997 borders. Looking at it from another perspective, the Russian stand represents the application of the venerated ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in reverse, sixty years after it was first applied in 1963 by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, against the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union, as the predecessor of Russia, enjoyed superpower status along with the United States. All countries in eastern Europe were considered to be within its sphere of influence. That changed in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell and disintegrated under the weight of its own contradictions. Most of the Soviet satellite states that achieved independence in 1991 look to the West and hope for membership in the European Union. Some have been able to fulfill that dream while others, including Ukraine, have been hoping for that to become true. It is not hard to fathom that as the reincarnated successor state of the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia would like to keep America away and at the same time regain some of its own past glory.

Thirdly, in an age when strong leaders are becoming the ‘New Normal’ even in established democracies, is it any wonder that Putin, the undisputed and unchallenged leader of his country, wants to occupy centre-stage in European politics? He has been at the helm for more than two decades and may continue to dominate European politics for many more years to come. This has also been made easier by Donald Trump who, by ignoring allies and heaping praise on dictators like Putin and Kim Jong Un, effectively took America out of its geopolitical role and back into ‘isolationism’.

Finally, no matter how serious and alarming the situation appears now, it also presents an opportunity for European powers and the United States to hone their time-tested skills in engaging diplomacy to arrive at a mutually advantageous and sustainable peace. The extremely harsh and adverse world public opinion would make it difficult for Putin to sustain his expansionist policies for very long. Besides, public opinion in Russia itself might cripple him politically. Politics is the art of the possible, and I believe we have not run out of possibilities yet.

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Satish Tandon
Satish Tandon
Professor at a reputed university, teaching English and economics, in Japan.
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