Despite the death of more than 2500 civilians since April and displacement of nearly a million people in Ukraine, sanity does not seem to be prevailing among the parties to the dispute raising fears of further death and destruction. The expressed intention by Ukrainian leadership to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military alliance, according to many experts, has pushed the world into a new cold war.
The crisis in Ukraine started after a popular public protest forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Moscow earlier this year. The reason for protests was the failure of the president to reform and modernize the country’s economy.
In particular, Yanukovich reneging on promises to sign a trade deal with the European Union at the behest of Russia was instrumental in his ouster. The Ukrainian parliament then appointed a new president to run the state. However, Russian government true to its history of dominating its neighbours in February this year occupied the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, a Ukrainian territory with sizable Russian population on the pretext of protecting Russians.
The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is currently subject to a territorial dispute between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, which administers the territory as one of its federal districts. Moreover, Russia has also helped organise an armed rebellion in Ukrainian southeastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk on the border with Russia.
The rebels are holding many areas in these regions as Ukrainian forces are fighting on resulting in large-scale devastation. The incident of downing of a Malaysian Airline commercial aircraft MH 17 over the war zone in Ukraine on July 17 that killed 295 passengers and crew members on board brought the conflict in Ukraine to the world’s attention. The Ukrainian government blamed pro-Russian rebels for shooting down the Malaysian commercial airline flight.
It would be a misperception to consider the ongoing conflict in Ukraine merely a local or regional issue because it has international contours. Had it been a local conflict, we in Pakistan would not have been writing about it. However, a deeper look into the conflict reveals that the conflict in Ukraine is a mere indicator of dangerous strategic competition, if not rivalry, between the United States-led NATO and the Russian Federation.
For the last many years, the US and its European NATO allies have been trying to extend the NATO military alliance towards Eastern Europe by including more and more states into its folds. With the coming into saddle of a pro-US-EU President Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine this April, Russia believed, what it feared for long, that Washington and its European allies were about to make Ukraine a member of the NATO. It also feared that once Ukraine would enter the ambit of the NATO military alliance the latter would set up a military base in Crimea on the Black Sea, under the belly of Russia.
Thus the underlying aim of Russia supporting the rebels in Southeast of Ukraine is to prevent Kiev from entering the NATO fold. Insofar as the apprehensions of Moscow regarding Kiev’s joining the NATO are concerned they are genuine. Because the very reason for the NATO’s formation in 1949 was solely the containment of Communism, spearheaded by the erstwhile Soviet Russia, and protecting the capitalist west from the military muscle of Russia-led Warsaw Pact military alliance.
As neither Soviet Union is now there nor the Warsaw Pact is any longer intact, Russia is more or less on its own. Whereas, the NATO is not only intact but has included several erstwhile neutral and many former Soviet bloc countries into its fold. In this context, the threats to Russian security are very much there.
It is irrespective of the fact that the US and its European alliance have made it evident that the eastward expansion of the NATO is not aimed at Russia. Presence of US-NATO forces in such close proximity of its borders is intolerable for Russia and it could always be a potential flashpoint for a war.
In 1962, presence of Soviet strategic forces in Cuba under the nose of the US had brought the world to a brink of a nuclear war, known in history as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis was avoided at a great peril.
Even today if Russia is able to somehow deploy its strategic assets in say any of the neighbours of the US like Mexico or Canada, which although has a distant possibility, it would be an extreme threat to Washington.
So it is very clear that Ukraine is being used as a pawn by both the US and its western allies and Russia in their mutual rivalry. Both sides are equally responsible for the conflict. Surprisingly leading US experts have held US and its European allies responsible for the crisis in Ukraine. Writing in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, John J. Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at University of Chicago, said: “… the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West. At the same time, the EU’s expansion eastward and the West’s backing of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine — beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004 — were critical elements, too.”
There could be various outcomes of the crisis in Ukraine. Most probably it could further the new cold war between Russia and the US camps. According to Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, the Ukrainian crisis could have at least three different outcomes. “In the first, the civil war escalates and widens, drawing in Russian and possibly NATO military forces. This would be the worst outcome: a kind of latter-day Cuban missile crisis. In the second outcome, today’s de facto partitioning of Ukraine becomes institutionalised in the form of two Ukrainian states — one allied with the West, the other with Russia — co-existing between Cold War and cold peace. This would not be the best outcome, but neither would it be the worst. The third outcome, as well as the best one, would be the preservation of a united Ukraine. This will require good-faith negotiations between representatives of all of Ukraine’s regions, including leaders of the rebellious southeast, probably under the auspices of Washington, Moscow and the European Union, as Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have proposed for months.”