Ukraine Crisis – A Backgrounder

anil chopra, JP Joshi, Ukraine, Airpowerasia,

German Naval Chief’s Delhi Visit

The German naval chief Vice Admiral Schonbach’s visit to New Delhi in January 2022 coincided with the last docking of the German naval frigate Bayern at Mumbai, after having departed Germany in August 2021 and having sailed through the Indo-Pacific region. Schonbach alluded to the fact that the ship’s route was proof that Germany walked the talk, which was unveiled in Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy of September 2020. Germany recognised the significant shift in the world’s political and economic centre of gravity towards the Indo-Pacific. During his visit, Schonbach said that “India is a key player in the region and our strategic partner and long-standing friend,” He also re-iterated, “The message we want to promote is that of free navigation, maintenance of a rules-based international order and peaceful seas for a flourishing trade.” All this was happening during a period when the Ukraine crisis was reaching a crescendo, with hectic diplomatic activity in Europe, seeking de-escalation of the Russian forces deployed with an aim to invade Ukraine, as per intelligence reports. The trip may have been considered significant to have been undertaken, even during this period of intense activity in Europe. The focus of the trip was high-level consultations with senior Indian officials with regard to the Indo-Pacific. This fateful trip led to his subsequent resignation.

German Naval Chief’s Resignation

Schonbach resigned on 22 Jan 2022 after his remarks at the talk given by him at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi became a cause for political embarrassment for the German government, the EU and NATO; his comment that Crimea would “never come back” to Ukraine, was not the official German position. He had also said; “Is Russia really interested in … a small, tiny strip of Ukraine’s soil? No, this is nonsense.” Referring to Putin, he said, “What he really wants is respect. And my God, giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost … so if I was asked, it is easy to even give him the respect he really demands, and probably also deserves,”; and he stated, “Russia is an old country. Russia is an important country. Even we, India, Germany, we need Russia, because we need Russia against China.” He later clarified that the talk reflected his personal opinion “at that moment”, and that “they correspond in no way with the official position of the ministry of defence.” His resignation was accepted.

The Dilemma

The Admiral’s soldierly instinct, and personal opinion, reflect the dilemma that the world faces at this juncture; is the world safer with Russia against China, or Russia with China? Has the collective west given Putin’s Russia a feeling of isolation from Europe and pushed Russia too hard, on every count? Have they mishandled the present Ukraine crisis that has plagued Europe since the NATO summit of April 2008? What are the issues involved in the present Ukraine crisis?

Statements by World Leaders

As on date, there are divergent statements, from different leaders. The US is warning about the possibility of a “real” Russian invasion and has lent credibility to its pronouncement by relocating its embassy operations from Kyiv to Lviv, in western Ukraine, as also warning its citizens of the same. The Indian embassy too has warned Indian citizens of the “uncertainties”, and has advised Indian citizens, whose presence is not required, to leave. The Russian President is insistent that Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine. He has stated, in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, on 15 Feb 2022, “we want to resolve this issue now, right now or in the near future, through negotiations, peaceful means”. Meanwhile, the German Chancellor emphasised that the crisis should be resolved peacefully, and without military conflict. He also reminded the Russians about the, oft-repeated, consequences that Russia would have to face in case of a military conflict, which are painful economic sanctions that the US and its allies have threatened to impose on Russia. The US secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister are in touch, and have agreed to “stay in touch”. Besides the actors listed above, a lot of diplomatic activity has taken place and is still taking place, in Europe, even at the highest levels, to find a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Considering the political/ diplomatic effort that has gone in, it is pretty evident that no country in the region wants war. However, it is a fact that Russia has the amassed military capability in place, surrounding Ukraine; the intentions are not known to the others and are thus open to subjective interpretation. How did this situation escalate to a crisis?

Russian Combat Troop Deployments

Russia had begun moving troops and military equipment near the border with Ukraine, commencing in the spring of 2021, which were withdrawn beginning May. However, a study carried out by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has stated that “even before Moscow initiated the movement of equipment and troops to the western border in spring, there were almost 87,000 Russian troops stationed there already. This was the direct result of Russian decisions made in 2014-16 to create a permanent military infrastructure near the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea.” Could the spring mobilisation have been a dry run, and testing of waters, for what Russia planned for later in the year? The fresh build commenced in Oct 2021. By December 2021, “armour, missiles and other heavy weaponry” was seen amassed/ moving towards Ukraine, without any official communication about the same, as required vide the protocol. By December, Russia had amassed nearly 100,000 combat troops on the eastern border of Ukraine, as also in Crimea. All this led US intelligence to surmise that Russia may be planning an invasion of Ukraine in the early part of 2022. Subsequently, another 30,000 troops, aircraft and missiles, including S-400s, were moved to the North of Ukraine, into Belarus. Russia claims that all these troop deployments were only for exercise purposes, and categorically rules out the possibility of invasion. As per Russians, some of these troops have already started returning after the completion of their exercises, but the US is seeking verifiable proof of the same. The Ukrainians too are wary of the Russian claim and have warned of the upcoming naval drills in which Russian ships exercising in the Black sea could block sea lanes with a view to hurt the economy of Ukraine. The primary reason why Russia massed troops on the Ukrainian border can be gauged from the statements given out by the Russian leadership, besides many other ongoing concerns; Russian stated demands may hold a clue.

Russian Demands

In mid-December 2021, Russia issued a set of demands to withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border. These demands include a permanent ban on Ukraine’s entry to NATO, reduction of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and a pullback of the missile systems and military deployments from near Russia’s borders. In effect, the demand is to redraw the security landscape of Europe, especially in areas that were once considered as part of the Soviet ‘sphere of influence’. As expected, these were rejected by the US and its NATO allies, and Russia was warned of retaliation by the US and allies if Ukraine was invaded, as well as, in Biden’s own words, “severe consequences — economic consequences like none he’s ever seen or ever have been seen,” leading to the present crisis. The demands all relate to the expansion of NATO into the “near abroad” – erstwhile Russian sphere of influence, leading to a sense of insecurity.

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)

NATO is a political and military alliance of countries in Europe and North America, with the core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. It was formed with 12 member countries, in 1949, which was expanded to 16 during the period, 1952 to 1982. The breakaway of the three Baltic countries in 1990, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 lay open the field for the alliance to expand eastwards, with many of the East European states and former Soviet Republics joining the alliance, from 1999 onwards, taking the NATO member state strength to the present 30. At the Bucharest NATO summit in  April 2008, the alliance considered, but decided not to give the membership action plan (MAP) to Ukraine and Georgia, due to opposition to the move by France and Germany, owing to concerns expressed by Russia over the alliance’s eastward expansion. However, the NATO secretary-general told the press that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually become members of NATO.

Annexation of Ukraine by Russia

Political turmoil in Ukraine; the deposition of the pro-Russian President in early 2014 led to Russia annexing the southern peninsula of Crimea. Russia has since then been backing separatists who occupy large swathes of eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region. These rebels have fought the Ukrainian military ever since, leading to the loss of more than 14000 lives. This annexation of Crimea has not been given due recognition by the G-7 as well as most other countries, although Russia and its military are in occupation of the same, since March 2014. These acts by Russia have thus hastened the Ukrainian desire to integrate westwards for their security and economic needs. To this end, Ukrainian President Poroshenko signed a constitutional amendment in early 2019, which commits the country to become a member of the EU and NATO. His successor, President Zelenskiy, who assumed office in May 2020, has stated that he would continue Kyiv’s “strategic course to achieve full-fledged membership in the EU and NATO.”

Ukraine’s Membership of NATO?

Ukraine’s membership of the NATO can lead to a destabilising situation, which is best described in the question posed by Russian President Putin; “Let’s imagine Ukraine is a NATO member and starts these military operations. Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone given that any thought?” Also, there is no provision in the NATO charter to come to Ukraine’s rescue during the MAP phase; the phase before being granted full membership. In addition, there is some truth in the fact that NATO’s expansion eastwards has added to Russia’s growing insecurity; Georgia and Ukraine are both Russia bordering countries. Talking of security concerns, US Secretary of State Blinken has shown willingness to “bilaterally and together with Allies and partners, to continue a substantive exchange with Russia on mutual security concerns.” However, State Department spokesman Ned Price clarified that Blinken was also equally resolute in affirming, “the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the right of all countries to determine their own foreign policy and alliances.” The stated reasons for Russia’s growing insecurity are on account of NATO, but there are a number of other ongoing concerns, which have a bearing on the present crisis.

Natural Gas Supply from Russia to Europe

80% of Russia’s natural gas exported to Europe, before 2011, transited through Ukraine. With the commissioning of the Nord Stream 1 undersea pipelines through the Baltic sea in 2011, a large part of the natural gas was being pumped directly from Russia to Germany, such that in 2019 only about 45% of the gas exports to Europe transited through Ukraine. Immediately thereafter, the evaluation of the expansion project (later named as Nord Stream 2) of the undersea pipelines in the Baltic started, which would lead to doubling of the annual capacity of gas being transported, to 110 billion cubic metres. The project was put on hold in 2015, following EU sanctions on Russia on account of its annexation of Crimea. After many hitches, the construction work started in May 2018. Subsequently, the US threatened sanctions against the participating companies, which disrupted/ delayed the work. The German and Polish authorities too had issues with the Nord Stream 2; not meeting their respective anti-competition rules. The US and many countries in Europe, like Britain, Ukraine and Poland strongly oppose the Nord Stream 2 project. In March 2016, eight EU governments signed a joint letter to the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker objecting to the Nord Stream 2 project. The signatories were the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania and the president of Lithuania. The letter spoke of “potentially destabilising geopolitical consequences” of the project, and also that this project “can pose certain risks for energy security in the region of central and eastern Europe”. Ukrainian President Zelensky has called Nord Stream 2 “a dangerous political weapon”.

Russian Gas Supplies and Geo-Politics

There is a history of Russia cutting off gas supplies to the recipients, in case of a dispute. A pricing dispute, and debt clearance issues, between the natural gas companies of Russia and Ukraine at the end of 2008 led to Russia cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine on 01 Jan 2009, leading to acute energy shortages during the thick of winter. This further escalated into a crisis when all gas supplies through Ukraine, mostly to South-eastern Europe and to some other European countries too were stopped for a period of 13 days. The European Union too got involved, but with no success. Gas flows were restarted only on 20 Jan 2009, and fully restored on 22 Jan, after the involvement of the Prime Ministers of Russia and Ukraine; a commercial dispute with geopolitical implications, as well as economic costs to all, affected. Also, there are thus fears that Russia could do the same in the future too, based on political, or other reasons.

Transit Revenues – Natural Gas

The overland gas pipelines traverse across Ukraine & Poland, besides other countries. These countries receive transit revenue for this service. In 2020, Ukraine received US$ 2.2 billion in transit revenue. With the commissioning of Nord Stream 2, both Ukraine and Poland would stand to lose a large part of this revenue, and thus their natural opposition to Nord Stream 2. Angela Merkel of Germany has tried to push through the Baltic project, in view of Germany’s desire to switch to green energy, from the traditional nuclear/ coal sources. Incidentally, Germany is the largest user of Russian natural gas, as well as the largest trading partner of Russia, in Europe. The US has opposed the pipeline since its inception. US government views the pipeline as an asset that would make “European nations more reliant on Russia”, increasing its international power and stature, which is politically unacceptable to the US. It has thus through various sanctions tried to stall/ sanction the construction of the pipelines. The Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (PEESA) of 2019, as amended in 2020 establishes sanctions on foreign persons connected with providing undersea pipeline laying, upgrading or installation services, as also providing underwriting services or insurance. Sanctions do not apply to non-business entities of the EU, member states, or a few other non-EU governments.

Germany’s Energy Security Interest

A meeting between Angela Merkel and Biden led to softening of the US position and the promulgation of the joint statement on energy security on 21 July 2021. The statement was criticised by the Ukrainian and Polish governments. The statement is in line with reality and aims at “mitigating the potential negative impacts of an operational pipeline.” The statement also includes a German pledge to counter attempts to “use energy as a weapon,” as also to offset the impact on countries adversely impacted by the Nord Stream 2 project.

Nord Stream 2 Project

Nord Stream pipeline took five years to build, is 1225 km long, and has cost $11 billion, of which the Russians have spent about half the total sum. Together, Nord Stream 1 and 2 can deliver 110 BCM of gas to Europe every year. The two pipelines that are a part of the project were ready in June and September respectively, but have not started operating yet. German regulators suspended its approval, as it does comply with German law. This led to a 17% rise in European natural gas prices. In Dec 2021, the Polish PM has called upon the new German Chancellor to oppose the start-up of Nord Stream 2. He also urged the Chancellor to not let Nord Stream 2 be used as an instrument of blackmail against Ukraine, Poland, and the EU. In addition, it is a fact that reduced commercial interdependence between Ukraine and Russia would increase Ukraine’s strategic vulnerability to Russia.

Ukraine’s Insecurity and Balancing Act

Ukraine has remained wary of Russia since the 2014 invasion, and subsequent annexation, of Crimea by Russia. It has thus tried to recalibrate its relationships with Russia and Europe. Nord Stream 2 has the potential to increase its strategic vulnerability. The US and Germany have tried to reassure Ukraine through their joint statement, which states that the “United States and Germany are united in their determination to hold Russia to account for its aggression and malign activities by imposing costs via sanctions and other tools. We commit to working together via the newly established U.S.-EU High-Level Dialogue on Russia, and via bilateral channels, to ensure the United States and the EU remain prepared, including with appropriate tools and mechanisms, to respond together to Russian aggression and malign activities, including Russian efforts to use energy as a weapon. Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, Germany will take action at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector, including gas, and/or in other economically relevant sectors. This commitment is designed to ensure that Russia will not misuse any pipeline, including Nord Stream 2, to achieve aggressive political ends by using energy as a weapon.”

German and US Perspectives

As the crisis escalated through this year, while addressing a joint press conference along with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Washington on 07 Feb 2022, the US President warned Russia stating, “If Russia invades… again, then there will be longer Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” On subsequent questioning, he categorically stated, “I promise you, we’ll be able to do it.” The German Chancellor however has not been so forthcoming on the subject, as Nord Stream 2 would be critical to meeting Germany’s green energy requirements. His response was, “We will be united. We will act together. And we will take all the necessary steps.” Understandably so, as even before the pipeline is commissioned into use, Germany uses Russian gas for 50% of its needs. It cannot afford to cancel the now nearly completed Nord Stream 2 project. However, all leaders involved, including Putin, Biden and Scholz, prefer diplomacy as a solution to the Ukraine conflict. Russia is keen on supplying its abundant natural gas to Europe, increasing its linkages and influence in Europe, while acting as a responsible commercial natural gas supplier to Europe. It has already spent over $ 5 billion on the Nord Stream 2 project.

Putin With Xi?

As the Russia/ West relationship hit a new low on account of differing geopolitical and security calculations over Ukraine, it opened the doors for the Xi-Putin summit at the opening of the winter Olympics in Beijing on 04 Feb 2022. Russia and China mutual trade was at $146 billion in 2021, up from $103 billion in 2020, and is likely to go up further, in the light of these new developments as spelt out in the Russo-China joint statement. These developments talk of a “shared future”, “centuries-old traditions of friendship and trust”, as also the deal to increase Russian natural gas supply to China, from 38 BCM to 48 BCM annually. As expected, the exhaustive joint statement by the two countries stated that they “oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches, to respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries, the diversity of their civilizational, cultural and historical backgrounds, and to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards the peaceful development of other States. The sides stand against the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region.” The statement further goes on to “reaffirm that the new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. The friendship between the two States has no limits; there are no forbidden areas of cooperation,” The statement also describes “Russia and China as world powers,”

Unanswered Questions

It seems that the Admiral’s personal opinion that we needed Russia against China was quite prescient in keeping with the long term stability in the Indo-Pacific region, a region that was at the centre stage until a few months ago? With the coming together of Russia and China, have the chances of instability in Europe, as well as in the Indo-Pacific region reduced or increased? What will be the status of NATO, AUKUS, ASEAN, and the QUAD in the coming days? How should India respond to the changing strategic dynamics? These are some of the questions that only time will help answer.

Author: Wing Commander JP Joshi (Retd) was a fighter pilot in Indian Air Force, and has done Command and Staff College in the USA. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Header Image Source: Fox News

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

14 thoughts on “Ukraine Crisis – A Backgrounder

  1. Hello. The way I see it Russia can’t afford to have another 2009 so Ukraine already grabbed by NATO (US) has to be pacified. Stream 2 is blocked by US for this reason: NATO in Ukraine and plug on Stream 2 means their gass instead of Russia’s gets the glory. China needs Russian resources and back up against the US not just in the Pacific but also in Europe. It’s their market as well. Germany having lost one of the greatest that ever lead that country and the only one on this planet respected by Mr. Putin should emerge as peacemaker. This of course is only possible if US is at least a bit shunned of it’s doorstep. The Admiral was on point yet weak largely lacking any firm strategic guidelines government forced him to resign. Germany is in very difficult position yet this was the case even before this crisis. Which BTW started after Kuchma left it’s position of influence. Looking at the pipeline map Mr. Putin has no choice but to react.

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      1. The question is watching all this carnage was she just a buffer? I support Mr. Putin’s attempt to restore order yet isn’t all this about Ukraninan gass deposits?

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  2. I believe it is less about Ukrainian resources, but more about geopolitics in Europe and strategic compulsions of Russia with regards to its national security. Imagine all NATO offensive assets deployed in Ukraine and Georgia.

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    1. Shock’n’awe. Oh the world was astonished. Mighty US Army surgicaly removing big bad evil Mr. Sadam and his Mr. henchmen. Why were they evil? For enslaving their citizens? Well yes but they did so for decades yet the might of US goodness only decided to react after they dared to touch their oil in Kuwait. Only then suffering of Iraqi people became important enough to lounch an adequate reaction. And even then it went only so far. Once the oil was secured Iraqi people suddenly stopped being so important.
      Which part of this text is propaganda?
      I’m not a Russian satellite. It is just that this boy can not be hypocritical enough to disregard these facts. Wars are never lead by any of those big superpowers determining what’s right or wrong in this world, to free people. They are always lead to create bigger profits or to protect the current ones of those initiating military bloodbaths. So why is Russia being treated differently? Why if they are only trying to protect their own economic future? Innocent people caught in the crossfire? Potentially huge infrastructural damage to civilian population in Ukraine?
      There were those in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam and Korea and many other venues whenever hosting that freedom fight as well. There were and always will be those in any war. This is why wars should be left only as a last resort solution. Huge damages to civilians they cause should be seen as critical deterrent. Yet whenever US was involved they were justified as an unfortunate collateral damage and regrets were offered as an adequate response to those that were harmed. It was expected that was enough. US is a superpower after all; a giant guarding the free world and their mistakes in that fight have to be accepted as just an unfortunate part of that process.
      Vigilanty style of disagreeing with those requests was and still is considered as terrorism. A disagreement US proclaimed to be fully justifying existence of Guantanamo and other correction facilities invented to deal with such disagreements. Which part of this is propaganda? I am not defending terrorism. I am simply pointing out the real causes of it.
      This is Russian Kuwait. Their shock’n’awe moment.
      What they lack is Hollywood to make it look nicer.
      Never bet against the US? Nobody is even considering such a serious lack of good judgement.
      All we are saying is cut the crapp. Tell it like it is.
      Everybody loves Ukraninan gass deposits.

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    1. What remains to be seen is real situation on the ground. Can Ukraine withstand more decisive attack in the making?
      If some of those analysts are correct when pointing out that economic closure of Russia to the West would actually be beneficial for it’s rulling structure they will attack to secure those deposits and pipelines. They have to destroy militias as an effective influence force. It would seem to be the most prudent thing to do and negotiating is just buying time. Attempting to distract Ukraine and West until they reach their objectives.
      If West is in there eager to prevent it then these might also be East to West negotiating opportunity. Most likely this is the case. Renegotiating roles in Europe and possibly wider.
      Be as it may I don’t see how Russia would really back down from destroying militants first then sincerely starting negotiations. It just doesn’t have sense.
      I don’t see why West would not allow this to happen unless those groups are created and maintained by the West in which case it is clear why I’m on the Russian side on this one.

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      1. Being on the Russian side does not mean being against Ukrainian people. Or the US.
        It means being against US in the Eastern Europe. It means being against their move on Russian turf in Europe.
        It means not falling under relentless pressure of the West to blindly obey. It means seeing the real cause of these sufferings.

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