Brazen Putin’s Bold Ukraine Gamble

News that blood supplies have arrived at troops stations along the Ukrainian border, where some 100,000 soldiers, tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy artillery have been building up for months, has heightened fears of a full-scale invasion of the eastern European nation of 44 million people. 

Besieged Ukrainians speak of just getting on with life and hoping war won’t erupt, while Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s president, has hit out at the West and its presumption of an invasion, along with the US, UK and other nations advising citizens to leave leave Ukraine, because it’s stoking panic and harming the faltering economy. The local currency, the hryvnia, has been plunging against the US dollar since Russia began its troop build-up, so far shedding 8.4% in value, and Ukraine desperately needs foreign economic aid, of around $5 billion, after getting a similar figure from the International Monetary Fund in 2020. 

Downplaying the threat of an all-out Russian attack, the Ukrainian leader said at a press conference on Friday that such advisories were “a mistake, wrong, overreacting steps that do not help us. It is not the Titanic here.”

His hubris could soon sink, however, because Russian aggression against Ukraine is not new. Moscow annexed Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine, in 2014, ostensibly for the good of the people as the region is also populated with Russians — a belief Vladimir Putin also holds with the entire Ukrainian territory: we are all one and it’s therefore our right to be together. The land-grab got Russia booted out of the G8 group of the world’s most powerful nations (now the G7).  

The question on everyone’s minds is whether the Russian president’s massing of troops along Ukraine is mere posturing and sabre-rattling or something far more sinister. Putin, who denies he’s planning to invade, fervently doesn’t want Ukraine joining NATO, but foreign powers have rightly said it’s up to the nation sovereign to decide for itself. 

Only slightly overstating the Kremlin’s position, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov insisted at a press conference earlier this month that it’s “absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never, never, ever becomes a member of NATO. We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees. Not assurances, not safeguards, but guarantees” — an absurd, hysterical demand that was roundly rebuffed by world leaders and further infuriated Moscow. 

One of the main reasons Russian doesn’t want Kiev signing up to NATO is because of the 30-nation-strong military alliance’s Article 5 — what it calls “collective defence” — that states an attack on one member is considered an attack on all, and so it would be compelled to repel aggressors. 

US President Joe Biden seems convinced Putin will launch an invasion, possibly in February, saying at a White House briefing last week, “My guess is he will move in; he has to do something,” adding that it would be “a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine. Our allies and partners are ready to impose a severe cost on Russia and the Russian economy”. 

For now, talks with Russian officials are ongoing, and the West is threatening sanctions that would surpass those imposed after the Crimea annexation (much Russian personal wealth is holed up in London property and other British assets), as well as sending their own troops to the region, to protect Ukraine in the event of an invasion. But it’s not stopping Russia from carrying out military exercises with ally Belarus, which borders Ukraine, to the northwest, and whose contentious president, Alexander Lukashenko, supports Putin. 

“NATO is the foundation for peace and stability in this part of the world, and NATO will continue to work hard to engage in dialogue with Russia and find a political solution to the current tensions,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a videoconference this week. 

British leader Boris Johnson, surely glad of the threat-of-war diversion amid a rolling Partygate scandal and an imminent report into alleged covid rule-breaking at No. 10 that could see him kicked out of office, is due to visit the region this week and have a phone call with Putin. 

“This winter, we have witnessed a spectacle that we hoped had been banished from our continent: a large and powerful country massing troops and tanks on the border of a neighbour, with the obvious threat of invading,” Johnson said in a statement in the British parliament this week, alluding to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 that triggered World War II. 

“If the worst happens and the destructive firepower of the Russian army were to engulf Ukraine’s towns and cities, I shudder to contemplate the tragedy that would ensue,” said Johnson, after the US donated $200 in military aid to Ukraine and Britain gave the country anti-tank weapons. 

For once, swashbuckling Putin may have over-hedged his bets. 

  • Title image, showing Russian troops near the Ukraine border, is from the Russian Defence Ministry.

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