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Why Ukraine was the last straw for Putin

The exception in case of Ukraine may be its geostrategic position, grains, minerals, and hydrocarbons. Ukraine used to produce around 25 per cent of all the agri-output of USSR; a fifth of its current food exports still go to Russia while 17 per cent lands up in EU nations. Capture of this country can boost the food security of Russia. Most of these foodgrains used to leave the country through Crimean ports, and Crimea was captured by Russia in 2014.

ABHIROOP CHOWDHURY/ARMIN ROSENCRANZ | New Delhi |

Amidst the ongoing invasion and meltdown of governmental structures in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, we need to look at the reasons behind this crisis. Russia’s imperialism seems to be at war with democracy in Ukraine. But this battle has waged for long. With the conclusion of World War II, a new geopolitical order was established in Europe and the world.

The United Nations was created to resolve conflicts between sovereign states through use of soft power. But post-World War II, the world was divided into two ideological camps. The USA championed rising democracies while the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) supported several left-wing dictatorships.

To counter the threat of communism and the USSR’s influence, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) was created in 1949. The USSR continued with its arms and space race, technology and manufacturing race with its socialist ideals pitched against the west, but eventually, the economy gave in and Michael Gorbachev decided during the late 1980s to open up the socialist regime with his policies of ‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’. But three republics revolted and signed their exit from the USSR at a famous meeting in a forest lodge in the last of Europe’s pristine forests, in Belarus. These three were the republics of Russia led at that time by President Boris Yeltsin, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Others followed and the USSR imploded very quickly, with the resignation of Michael Gorbachev on 25 December 1991, the last President and leader of the USSR. With the end of what is called the ‘cold war’, the presence and utility of Nato immediately came into question. Instead of being dismantled, it continued to bring former USSR allies and republics into its fold.

At present NATO has 30 members, out of which 11 nations are ex-members of the Soviet sphere or the former USSR (Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). The United States is the largest investor and indirect guarantor of security of all Nato members. It comes with an enormous economic price. All members need to contribute a certain percentage of their GDP to run Nato, of which the largest share is supposed to be contributed by the US.

A 2020 estimate indicates that US spent 3.7 per cent of its GDP on defence while other Nato members only contributed an average of 1.77 per cent of their GDP. But how much of this was spent on Nato? Hence, the Trump administration was resolute on withdrawal of US from Nato, referring to other Nato members as ‘freeloaders’ and the organization as an ‘obsolete’ one. Russia as the largest economy amongst the former Soviet republics saw rapid privatisation post the collapse of USSR, giving rise to a coterie of ultra-rich Russian oligarchs, many of whom invested in oil and gas.

Russia’s economic boom followed with the large exploitation of its gas and oil reserves. Russia supplies around 65 per cent of Germany’s gas and about 40 per cent of the needs of the European Union. Much of this comes from the North Sea through Russia’s Nord Sea pipeline into Germany, but Ukraine is also very rich in fossil fuels and precious minerals.

Ukraine contributed over a third of the USSR’s GDP while the union was alive. It continues to be a prize catch, rich in precious minerals required not only for nuclear power but also for batteries or energy storage. Had Nato had been disbanded in 2018, the crisis at Ukraine could have been averted. Possible Nato expansion into Ukraine has been the final trigger for this war, but Nato allies dithered. Trump’s resolve to disband Nato jinxed this project, but even after Trump, the new Democratic regime in the US appears to have dithered in deciding to admit Ukraine. Other former USSR republics have already joined Nato without any threat of Russian invasion.

The exception in case of Ukraine may be its geostrategic position, grains, minerals, and hydrocarbons. Ukraine used to produce around 25 per cent of all the agri-output of USSR; a fifth of its current food exports still go to Russia while 17 per cent lands up in EU nations. Capture of this country can boost the food security of Russia. Most of these foodgrains used to leave the country through Crimean ports, and Crimea was captured by Russia in 2014.

Ukraine also possesses 1.09 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves and perhaps more, as exploration shifted focus to Siberia while the USSR was still alive. Ukraine possesses 220,700 tonnes of uranium, a strategic mineral required for running nuclear power plants as well as for arming thermonuclear military capabilities. After dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan possessed Soviet-made nuclear devices.

At the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances signed on 5 December 1994, these independent nations give up their nuclear warheads in lieu of security guarantees by Russia, US and UK. One of the guarantors, Russia, is the aggressor in the current crisis while the other two are reluctant to use any hard power to help the democracy under attack.

The recent estrangement of Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence and its preparation to join Nato has gotten Russia’s attention. This would have brought Nato, an anti-Soviet military alliance, to the doorstep of the Russian hydrocarbon heartland in the Caspian and Volga basin. When push comes to shove, former KGB boss Putin has always responded with brutality.

On 5 February 2000, the human rights violations of Russian police at Novye Aldi near the city of Grozny, followed by rape, murder of Muslim minority Chechens, was testament to his brutality. He used the same tactics of bombing civilian targets in the Chechen-dominated Grozny that he is adopting in Ukraine.

The conflict has changed the world order, bringing war to the doorstep of Europe for the first time since 1945. International agreements, customary laws and institutions such as the U.N. Security Council have proven incapable of handling the situation. If nothing is done soon, this could trigger armed conflict once again on a massive scale.

(The writers are, respectively, Associate Professor and Dean at Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.)