President Vladimir Putin has taken a huge gamble by announcing military operations in Ukraine. The dice has rolled and consequences of war will be momentous. Either the US and the West will now pay heed to Russia’s concern and work out an agreement with Moscow, or the risk could sweep Putin into the dustbin of history. No one yet knows what will happen. The question is will Putin’s gamble pay-off?
Putin realises the mistakes Mikhail Gorbachev and other Russian leaders made by relying on US and European assurances. Three decades have passed since the break-up of the former Soviet Union, and the US has not paid heed to Moscow’s concerns. Putin believes that Moscow cannot afford to be weak. So military action is called for to halt the expansion of NATO into Ukraine. Putin has warned the West that any attempt to interfere with Russia’s military action would lead to "consequences they have never seen."
Moscow set the ball rolling Monday by recognising the two Russian-speaking Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. This was met by the US and its allies announcing more crippling sanctions against Russia. By declaring war, Putin has shown that Russia will do what it can to protect its interests, irrespective of what the West thinks.
Putin has also announced that Russia does not wish to occupy Ukraine but wants to merely "demilitarise" it. A neutral Ukraine is Moscow’s demand, simply put NATO forces and Western missiles should not be in a country which is next-door to Russia. During the negotiations and talks since the Soviet Union broke up, Moscow had wanted Western assurance that the trans-Atlantic military alliance should not be installed in the former Eastern bloc countries. Of course, no one in the West was ready to concede Moscow’s demand though verbal assurances were given that this would not happen.
NATO had expanded and how. In 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became NATO members. In 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the military alliance. In 2009 it was Albania and Croatia, and finally Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020. So, NATO has tied up most countries from the former Soviet Union and is now aiming to get Ukraine into the western military fold.
The current crisis can be quickly diffused if the US and its allies are willing to give a written assurance that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. However, few in the West want to do so, saying that democratic nations have the choice of joining whichever alliance they wish.
While the US will send arms, funds and advisers to Ukraine, it is unlikely that American boots would be on the ground in Ukraine. After 20 long years of war in Afghanistan, Washington is in no mood to send troops into another foreign war. It is unlikely that any major European powers will want to send their troops to defend Ukraine. Nothing is clear as of now. But the war has come at an unfortunate time. The pandemic is not quite over, economies around the world were hoping to rebuild after over two years of dire economic stress since crippling shut downs enforced by the pandemic. Oil and gas prices will hit the roof.
Neither the world nor Russia can take the consequences of a war in East Europe.