Russia risks all-out war to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin (front), and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Vladimir Zelensky) attend a Normandy Four Summit in the Murat Lounge in the Elysee Palace; Talks in the so-called Normandy Four format involve representatives of Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia discussing the solution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Mikhail Metzel | BAGS | Getty Images

Russia’s relations – or, more accurately, its clashes – with the West have centered on one country that has been a particular focal point for clashes in recent years: Ukraine.

It’s back in the picture this week with a series of high-stakes meetings taking place between Russian and Western officials aimed at trying to disperse heightened tensions between Russia and its neighbor.

A particular issue at the moment is whether Ukraine – something of a border country between Russia and the rest of Europe, and a country aspiring to join the EU – can one day join the Western military alliance NATO.

This is an opportunity that Russia fiercely opposes.

As the Russia Council prepares to meet with NATO officials in Brussels on Wednesday, CNBC has a guide to why Russia cares so much about Ukraine and how far it could go to prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance.

Why is Ukraine important?

Relations between Europe’s neighbors hit rock bottom in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and it has supported a pro-Russian insurgency in the east of the country, which has seen low-level fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces ever since. have continued.

Tensions have escalated further in recent months, however, amid multiple reports of Russian troops gathering on the border with Ukraine, sparking widespread speculation that Russia was preparing to invade the country.

Russia has denied that it plans to do so repeatedly and the US, EU and NATO have warned Russia that, as President Joe Biden told President Vladimir Putin on December 30 during a telephone call, “it will respond decisively if Russia takes over Ukraine.” invades further.”

How far the West would go to defend Ukraine, however, is a big question.

What does Russia want?

Last month, in a draft security pact, Russia made a number of important demands on the West when it comes to Ukraine, among other security issues.

Within this framework, it demanded that the US prevent further easterly expansion of NATO and not allow former Soviet states to join the alliance.

In the draft pact, Russia also demanded that the US “will not establish military bases” on the territory of former Soviet states that are not yet members of NATO, or “use their infrastructure for military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them”. .”

Although not mentioned by name in the draft pact, Ukraine is a clear target for the Russians; Ukraine is a former Soviet republic, as are Russia ally Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Armenia, among others. The former Soviet states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are already NATO members.

Russia has already, and often has, expressed its distaste for US missile defense complexes in Poland and Romania in Eastern Europe and the reinforcement of NATO’s presence, in terms of “battle-ready battlegroups”, as NATO describes them, in the Baltic States and Poland. .

For their part, the US and NATO have already said that demanding that Ukraine not be admitted to NATO, or that it roll back NATO deployment in Eastern Europe, are “non-starters”, in the words of US Undersecretary Wendy. Sherman, who led the US. delegation in talks with Russian officials in Geneva on Monday.

While noting that the US had withdrawn from Russia’s security proposals, her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov said the talks, which lasted about seven hours, were “difficult” and indicated Moscow’s demands had not changed, telling reporters. that it is absolutely obligatory to ensure that Ukraine never – never ever – joins NATO.”

As no clear progress was made in Monday’s talks, hopes are pinned on further talks between Russian and NATO officials in Brussels on Wednesday, and more talks on Thursday at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna.

Why is Russia doing this?

Putin has no qualms about thinking the breakup of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for Russia, describing it as the “greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the 20e century.

Ukraine is of particular importance to Russia given its location – it stands as a stronghold between Russia and the eastern EU states – and also of symbolic and historical importance to Russia, often seen as a “jewel in the crown” of the former Soviet Union Empire.

Putin has praised Ukraine’s cultural, linguistic and economic ties with Russia, and last year described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people”. He even wrote an essay on the subject entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

Sentiment is not reciprocated everywhere in Ukraine, where the country’s government under President Volodymyr Zelensky is looking west for economic aid and geopolitical strength, especially in the years following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Ukraine has repeatedly expressed a desire to join the EU and NATO, which is a geopolitical kick in the teeth for a resurgent Russia vying to maintain power and influence in the region.

Many strategists and close supporters of Russian politics believe that Putin, who has alternated between prime minister and president since late 1999, harbors a strong desire to invade Ukraine.

Maximilian Hess, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC on Tuesday that “Russia is not only trying to ban Ukraine from joining the alliance — something it has been trying to do since Ukraine’s 2008 NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) — application – but also to remove Ukraine from the Western sphere of influence to which it has moved since the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.”

“NATO membership is highly symbolic, but Russia would not accept a situation where the West would also significantly increase military support to Ukraine.”

How far is Russia willing to go?

One of the biggest questions Western officials face is how far Russia is willing to go to stop Ukraine’s drift into Europe and the West and strengthen and expand its presence and influence in the current country.

During Monday’s talks, the Russian delegation insisted there were no plans to invade Ukraine, but analysts are not so sure.

Angela Stent, director emeritus of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies, told CNBC on Tuesday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could still take place. “Let’s say, 50-50 right now,” she said, adding that it could be a “more limited invasion” rather than a massive one.

“That danger is still there,” she said.

Maximilian Hess agreed, noting: “I do think Russia is willing to go to war, but I don’t think the Kremlin would want a war far beyond the current fronts. They went beyond the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.” , he said.

However, Russia needs a “credible invasion threat” to stay, especially as it played the key role in getting the US to the table, Hess added.

“The risk of a renewed or expanded Russian invasion – Ukraine, of course, is already facing an ongoing Russian invasion of Crimea and proxy occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk – has never completely disappeared in the past 8 years and is unlikely to continue after these talks. more, because it retains the ability to limit Ukraine’s potential success is still seen as key to the Kremlin’s long-term self-preservation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, told CNBC on Tuesday that both Russia and the US want to avoid a military confrontation and that Moscow just wants what it sees as its interests “accommodated”.

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