Next week will determine if the flashpoint in Ukraine will be averted as Moscow draws a red line

As the West hem and haws, Putin draws a line and demands some serious answers

Russian troop build up on Ukraine border
Russian troop build up on Ukraine border

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

Not much attention is being paid but the fact is that the world this week is closest to a nuclear showdown since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Russia’s ultimatum to the West has a background. Russia for years has faced broken promises and NATO creeping towards its border. When Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany and induction of a united Germany into NATO, he was given what he thought was a gentleman’s promise. The promise was that NATO would not move beyond the eastern border of united Germany.

While western analysts have tried to discredit this, two very important people have confirmed this promise. They also confirm that the promise was made in bad faith and the West was never going to keep it. Ex-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is on record admitting that the then Clinton administration already made its mind in 1993 to accept the “wishes” of Central and East European countries to join NATO. Right on cue, it proceeded to admit Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in 1998.

US diplomat and Cold War strategist George F. Kennan said on record in 1998 that Russia would eventually react adversely to this development and the West would accuse the Russians of adventurism. However, Russia under Yeltsin was weak and while it lodged some diplomatic protests, militarily it could not do much.

However, last fortnight the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov met US Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried and presented her in person two draft treaties that Russia wants to be signed. Russia then published the draft online. It calls for two separatetreaties, one between Russia and the US and the second between Russia and the European NATO member states.

The draft demands a halt to NATO expansion towards Russia, and a legally binding guarantee that any system that can hit Moscow will not be placed in countries Russia shares its borders with; creating a buffer zone where NATO can neither conduct exercises nor keep its ships, planes or nuclear missiles in Europe. On the face of it, it does appear to be a maximalist position. But the Russians clearly believe that since concessions would have to be made in subsequent discussions, this is a fair gambit.

What are the possible scenarios? In the first scenario, the Biden Administration would take the threat seriously and offer a deal allowing both sides to climb down, save face and pull the world from the brink of a nuclear exchange. This scenario will require the US to keep the carrot of NATO membership dangling in front of Georgia and Ukraine but ensure they never get it. One way of doing it, it is suggested, is to pressurise Kyiv to implement the Minsk Accord and give constitutional autonomy to its renegade eastern provinces. Kyiv is dependent on Western largesse for its survival. If DC, Berlin and Paris send concerted messages that the rug shall be pulled from under his feet, Zelensky would come running faster than most sprinters. There would be enough sane US officials in DC who will see merit in accepting a mutually-agreeable deal.

In the second scenario, the US rejects the deal and provokes Moscow further. What are the options with President Putin then? Quite a few. Russia will militarily dominate the entire NATO including the US as far as the European Theatre is concerned.

Do remember that while the West spins the Cuban Missile Crisis as some sort of a victory for the West, it actually delivered what the Soviets wanted; i.e removal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Russians know how to engage in brinkmanship and for starters, it can decide to deploy Hypersonic Missiles in not only Russian enclaves sandwiched inside Europe but also inside Belarus, the Arctic and the mid-Atlantic. This would mean that any city in mainland US would be within range of the Russian missiles and roughly between 4 to 9 minutes from getting hit in a nuclear exchange. Russians currently face similar threats because of NATO’s threat to deploy offensive weapons in Ukraine and the Baltics. Security officials in DC would certainly like to avoid this, all the hubris and public posturing notwithstanding.

Moscow will in all likelihood leave it to the US to make the war nuclear. Russia has the capability today of wiping off entire NATO systems and intelligence outposts deployed in Ukraine with conven-tional weapons in a standoff. It would then wait for NATO to react.

The West can either mount a military action or go for economic warfare. If it goes for the latter and cuts Russia off from the SWIFT payment system apart from other sanctions, Russia would then proceed to stop the supply of gas to Europe during the punishingly cold months of January or February.

If NATO goes for kinetic military action, Russia can then start with taking out the neighbouring capital cities, but again with the conventional standoff systems. It will then force the US to fight a conventional war with Russia in the European Theatre, which might go either way on paper. Whichever side loses will be then tempted to turn the war nuclear.

This is where the world stands. Luckily, two rounds of talks have already taken place. Another round is slated for next week sometime. After years of hemming and hawing, the West shall have to give some clear answers. Moscow was pushed around a little too much and the Americans seem to have realised it a tad too late.

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

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