It's a proxy war between Russia and the West but who gets to decide when the firing must stop?

Ukraine is just the battleground. Will the West allow the war to stop and when, asks Ashis Ray in this report from London

It's a proxy war between Russia and the West but who gets to decide when the firing must stop?

Ashis Ray/ London

Five Eyes”, the intelligence gathering structure of US and the UK along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand got it right. Who exactly spotted it, the American naval submarine commander I spoke to did not disclose; but one of them intercepted and deciphered secret Russian messages to accurately predict the imminent military intervention in Ukraine. But analysts believed Moscow, having recognised the two rebel regions in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk and after dispatching ‘peace-keeping forces’ there on February 21, would ease off. The 'special operations' by Putin, which commenced on February 24, were unexpected.

In 2014, Russia had annexed predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea to reverse a Soviet era reorganisation, which had allotted the peninsula to Ukraine. It was a bloodless take-over. The Ukrainian troops did not resist.

Strategically, it made a significant difference, as it restored Russian navy’s unhindered presence in the Black Sea. Putin has from the beginning construed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or NATO’s enlargement into eastern Europe to be a security threat. This expansion allowed NATO entry into Romania and Bulgaria, which occupy a long coastline along the Black Sea.

Several months of sabre rattling by Moscow and amassing of Russian ground forces encircling Ukraine provided Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, ample time to erect a defence with enormous assistance from his Western backers. Putin made a mistake in assuming that the Ukrainian military would cave in without a fight.

Putin also misread public opinion in Ukraine, which has had separatist tendencies from Russia for centuries, notwithstanding the similarity between their languages. The Russian President also misjudged the determination of a section of Ukrainian civilians to stand up to the Russians with guns and Molotov cocktails.

Abbas Gallyamov, Putin’s former speech writer told the BBC that the most stunning thing about Putin ‘was his absolute rationality. There were no emotions at all, he was very rational.’ He believes his former boss has changed; 'he is not logical anymore’.

‘He thought Russian troops would cross the border, Ukrainians will surrender and Zelensky will fly away to the US. For decades he didn’t hear criticism, he got used to hear that he is always right,’ Gallyamov maintained.

At the peace talks on February 28 and March 3, Russian news agency TASS quoted Ukrainian media outlet Glavkom as saying that Russia demanded Ukraine commit to paper its off-bloc (no membership of NATO) status and organise a referendum on the issue. Russia also demanded that Ukraine recognise the ‘Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ as independent states and ‘drop its demand that Crimea be returned to Ukraine’.

In the first week’s fighting, nearly 500 Russians soldiers were killed and more than 1,500 injured, the defence ministry in Moscow has admitted. In that same period, almost 2,900 Ukrainian troops were killed, TASS claimed.

These are unverified figures; but even if remotely accurate, reflect heavy casualties in a relatively short span of time. Even Slavic people, with greater readiness to sacrifice compared to the West since the Vietnam War, might find this to be unacceptable. Therefore, a rapprochement between Kremlin and Kyiv is not an unlikely proposition.

However, hostilities between Russia and Ukraine are a proxy war between Russia and the West. Ukraine is only the battleground. If the West’s ambition is to debilitate Putin irreparably, can Zelensky stop the fight?

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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