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We won’t go to war for Ukraine, and Putin knows it


THE United States and its European allies, sparring with Vladimir Putin over the future of Nato and Ukraine, have sounded bellicose in their latest round of talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna.

‘The drum beat of war is sounding loud,’ US ambassador Richard Carpenter said after a meeting of the 57-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. ‘It seems the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years,’ Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau said.

It’s safe to say that these are empty words. Unless Carpenter and Rau are referring to a limited Russo-Ukraine conflict, not impossible but unlikely, it is a certainty that the West will not go to war for Ukraine, and Putin and the Ukrainians know it.

The stakes in the dispute are high on all sides: for the West, Nato’s credibility; for Ukraine, a former Soviet satellite keen to westernise, the extent of its freedom of action as an independent country; for Putin, the threat to Russia’s security from Nato’s advance on its borders since 1997.

Putin wants Nato forward forces out of Poland and the Baltic states – all part of the post WW2 Soviet buffer zone. He is demanding guarantees that Ukraine will not be admitted to the alliance or host a deployment of Western missiles.

To get the West’s attention, he has massed 100,000 troops on the border with eastern Ukraine, which has a large ethnic Russian minority that he is suspected of arming. Although he has never publicly threatened to invade Ukraine, his troop build-up implied the possibility, reinforced by memories of his unpunished seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

In fact Joe Biden’s dilemma now – a lack of obvious options and a plethora of potential dangers – is exactly the same as that faced by President Obama in the aftermath of Putin’s Crimean move. Putin has won the first round by forcing Biden to discuss Nato’s status in eastern Europe.

Preliminary talks between Washington and Moscow were held in Geneva on January 10 between Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov and US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, who helped negotiate Obama’s failed nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. Nato and the OSCE held discussions of their own later in the week.

In Geneva, Ryabkov denied any intention to invade but told the media: ‘For us it’s absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never, never ever become a member of Nato. We do not trust the other side.’ He added: ‘We need iron-clad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees . . . It’s a matter of Russia’s national security.’

Sherman said the US would not ‘allow anyone to slam closed Nato’s open-door policy’. She allowed, however, that the US might talk about missile deployments by both sides and a reduction in Nato war games in central and eastern Europe.

The alliance currently rotates a forward presence of four battalion-sized battlegroups – composed mainly of forces from the US, the UK, Germany and Canada – in Poland and the Baltic states. They are there to underline Nato’s commitment to aid any member state under attack. Giving in to Putin’s demands would cripple the basic justification for Nato’s continued existence by putting the eastern countries off-limits.

Obama hesitated in 2014 because a conflict involving Russia as an adversary might lead not just to the threat of escalation with a nuclear foe but pose a challenge to the worth of the intervention guarantee. Without the US there is no credible European defence structure and many Europeans doubt whether the US would honour its promises unless its own national security interest were in play. Confidence has not been strengthened by Biden’s panicked abandonment of Afghanistan last September.

The US has legitimate doubts of its own about the reliability of its European allies if sanctions were proposed against Russia as an alternative to military action in Ukraine. Western European countries, including Germany, cannot risk Putin cutting off natural gas supplies, on which their economies depend, in retaliation.

Some in the United States, including foreign relations expert Professor John Mearsheimer, believe Washington should accommodate Russia’s historic security fears – see Ryabkov’s reference to distrust – and cultivate it as an ally against the much greater threat from China which wants to supersede the US. He has compared Putin’s opposition to Nato encroachment with the US Monroe Doctrine which bars any outside intervention in the western hemisphere.

In that respect, the West’s position on Ukraine 2022 looks like an unlearned lesson from Ukraine 2014, which is that Putin will not allow Nato to sit on Russia’s doorstep but could have common interests with the West if that problem were removed.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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