What's in the way of a solution to the Russia-Ukraine issue?

Putin has repeated that he has no intention of provoking a military conflict over Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds talks with US President Joe Biden via a video link in Sochi, Russia December 7. Reuters
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In the two decades since Russian President Vladimir Putin first came to power, arguably the most telling comment he has made, in terms of Moscow’s relations with the outside world, was his observation that the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

The young Mr Putin, as a senior KGB officer stationed in East Germany, had personal experience of the enormous power Moscow enjoyed as a result of the control it exercised over the vast Soviet empire. And like millions of Russians, he experienced first-hand the profound impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, second right, Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk, second left, Belarus' leader Stanislav Shushkevich, third left, Russia's State Secretary Gennady Burbulis, right, Belarus' Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, third right, and Ukraine's Prime Minister Vitold Fokin, left, sign an agreement terminating the Soviet Union, on December  8, 1991. The agreement by the republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus dealt the final, deadly blow to the USSR.  AP Photo

Mr Putin has since risen to become the dominant figure in post-Soviet Russian politics, having held the office of president on numerous occasions since 1999.

The US is ready to engage in diplomacy in January

Yet Mr Putin’s formative period of the early 1990s remain relevant today as they provide a fascinating insight into the Russian leader’s views on former key Soviet states, such as neighbouring Ukraine.

A man walks on Vasilyevsky Spusk (The Basil's Downhill) at the Kremlin during a frosty day, with temperature lows at around -21 ° Celsius, in Moscow, on December 22. AFP

While Mr Putin deeply regrets the Soviet Union’s demise, he also appears to deeply resent the fact that so many former Soviet states have subsequently allied themselves with the west.

In his view, Russia lost far too much power and influence when the Soviet Union collapsed, a loss that has been compounded by the fact that key western institutions, such as the EU and Nato, have expanded eastwards, enabling former Soviet-controlled states in eastern Europe to forge close ties with the west at the expense of their historical ties with Moscow.

And it is to prevent Ukraine, once one of the Soviet Union’s most important member states, from pursuing a similar agenda that has caused Mr Putin to confront the west over what the Kremlin sees as Nato’s unwelcome courtship of Kiev.

Ukrainians walk past inflatable tanks near a metro station in Kiev, Ukraine, December 16. EPA
A military drill by the Ukrainian Armed Forces at a shooting range in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on December 20. Handout via Reuters

While Mr Putin has repeatedly insisted that he has no intention of provoking a military conflict over Ukraine, tensions between Moscow and Nato have risen dramatically in recent weeks after Russia deployed an estimated 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.

Relations between Moscow and Kiev have been strained since Russia launched its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, territory formerly controlled by Ukraine, as well as providing support for pro-Russian rebels in the east of the country.

Russia launched its intervention after Ukraine elected a pro-western government that declared its desire to forge closer ties with the EU and Nato.

Mr Putin, who regards Ukraine as historically falling under Russia’s sphere of influence, is bitterly opposed to such a move. The presence of a significant Russian battlegroup camped on the Ukrainian border is seen as an attempt by Russia to pressing the west into ending any attempt by Kiev to forge closer ties with the west.

To this end, Mr Putin Russia has issued a number of draft security pacts, which demand that Nato denies membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries, as well as rolling back the deployment of troops and weapons in central and eastern Europe.

The documents, which were published by the Kremlin last week, also call for a ban on sending US and Russian warships and aircraft to areas from where they can attack each other’s territory as well as a halt to Nato military drills near Russia’s borders.

The proposals, which have been submitted to the US and its allies, have already been ruled out, as they would effectively provide Moscow with a veto over the possibility of Ukraine’s future membership of Nato.

The Russian proposals have also been dismissed by Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who insists that any security talks with Moscow would need to take into account the alliance’s concerns and involve Ukraine and other partners.

The White House similarly said it is discussing the proposals with US allies and partners, but noted that all countries have the right to determine their future without outside interference.

US President Joe Biden talks to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens with other officials in a secure video call from the White House in Washington, December 7. Reuters

But the Kremlin’s initiative has not been dismissed completely, not least because there are some Nato members who openly question whether it is in the organisation’s interests to grant Ukraine, which currently enjoys Nato partner status, full membership. Ukraine was first offered full Nato membership at the 2008 Nato summit in Bucharest, and Ukraine argues that the west has a moral obligation to fulfil this pledge.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, the Biden administration is now promising to hold talks with Russia and other interested parties in January.

But while the prospect of talks on Ukraine’s Nato future is welcome, Washington remains wary of Moscow’s ultimate intentions, with US officials warning that Russia is continuing to escalate its troop build-up on the border with Ukraine, prompting the US to renew its warnings against any “aggression” by Moscow.

A US State Department official confirmed that Washington and its allies were “closely” monitoring the situation, and repeated warnings that “any further aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and would carry a severe price."

Washington also insists that it is looking for a diplomatic solution to resolve the crisis. “Our goal is de-escalation through diplomacy; the US is ready to engage in diplomacy in January through multiple channels,” the official said.

Nevertheless, given Russia’s recent history of military involvement in Ukrainian territory, so long as Russia continues to maintain such a sizeable force so close to Ukraine’s border, concerns will remain that Moscow may be tempted to resort to a military option to resolve the dispute if a diplomatic solution is not soon forthcoming.

Published: December 23, 2021, 2:30 PM
Updated: December 28, 2021, 3:24 PM