No country in the Nato alliance really wants to fight Russia, but Western military aid for Kyiv is no red herring, says Alex Titov
There are signs of an imminent war in Europe. The US has been sounding the alarm over a build-up of Russian military forces around Ukraine’s borders. It is convinced that Moscow is set on attacking within weeks.
Russia has responded by producing a list of demands. At the core is an ultimatum to stop further enlargement of Nato, above all to Ukraine and Georgia.
A hastily arranged round of talks between Russia, the US and Nato produced no breakthrough.
Ukraine and the West insist a sovereign country has the right to choose alliances. Russia vows to respond with “military means” if its demands are not met.
What’s caused it?
Ukraine, Europe’s second largest country and home to 40m people, is sandwiched between a resurgent Russia and the West. Russo-Ukrainian relations have some parallels with Anglo-Irish relations or English links with Scotland. Both countries share ethnic origins, close languages and a joint experience of building and running an empire from the 17th to the 20th century.
Yet, Ukraine has always retained an identity and a tradition of seeking independence every time Russia’s power waned.
The end of the Soviet Union left contentious, from the Russian point of view, territories between them, above all Crimea — the only region in Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority and a key naval base in Sevastopol.
Moscow annexed Crimea after the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. It also fostered an insurgency against the new government in Kyiv in the eastern region of Donbas, which has a large Russian population.
The peace agreement signed in Minsk in 2015 to end fighting in Donbas remains in limbo, as both sides accuse each other of reneging on the deal.
The West imposed economic sanctions on Russia while supporting Kyiv both financially and, increasingly, militarily.
To draw some imaginary parallels with Anglo-Irish history, it is as if Ireland left the empire as a whole island in 1922, but Britain kept leasing its main naval base in Belfast and fostered links with a pro-British majority in Ulster. Then, at a moment of domestic turmoil in Dublin, it ceased the province while inciting a rebellion in another part of Ireland with a pro-British constituency. Ireland responded by seeking an alliance with Germany and adopting discriminatory policies against remaining British communities, as well as prosecuting pro-British Irish politicians.
That’s broadly what has happened since 2014 in Crimea and the Donbas.
Why should we be concerned?
We have a hostile Ukraine allied to and armed by the US and Nato, which Russia frets is undercutting its national security. The dilemma for the West is how far to push its support for Ukraine.
A permanent neutral status for the country and guarantees of cultural and language rights for its Russian-speaking minority would probably satisfy Russia for now. But Ukraine’s and the West’s response is that a sovereign country has the right to implement its own policies.
Ironically, there is little issue with the key Russian demand of permanently refusing Ukraine’s Nato membership. There is no desire in Nato countries to fight Russia. The UK Defence Secretary, one of the louder pro-Ukraine voices in Nato, said so recently. But Western military and financial support for Kyiv is no red herring. Britain has been of the key Nato countries providing military support for Ukraine, including a £1.7bn naval contract. It also sent HMS Defender through Crimean territorial waters claimed by Russia, sparking an angry response.
This week, the UK expedited a shipment of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. The US recently announced another $200m of military aid. Turkey-supplied military drones have also been used by Kyiv against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
For the West, there is a moral and strategic case for supporting Ukraine. A Ukraine hostile to Russia is a valuable asset. Hence the rub: the Kremlin could have probably let Kyiv stew in its own juice and wait for it ‘to come to its senses’. Moscow believes Ukrainian statehood is deeply flawed and its ties to Russia too strong to ignore, and it’s not willing to take a long-term view anymore. But the West, specifically the US and Britain, feels the need to boost military support for Ukraine to deter Russia.
There’s a spiral towards a crisis. The US, Britain and the EU vowed to impose economic sanctions should Russia move against Ukraine. President Putin retorted this would mean the rupture of all relations with the West.
Russia can retaliate economically and militarily, of course. It’s the largest natural gas supplier to Europe and the world’s second biggest producer of oil.
A conflict would likely mean a humiliating military defeat of Ukraine and a major economic crisis in Europe, as well as economic disaster for Russia.
There is still a chance to avoid the worst, with US State Secretary Blinken is meeting Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to a round of final talks on Friday.
However, the room for a compromise is diminishingly small, which should worry us all.
Alexander Titov is a lecturer in modern European history at QUB