Why Ukraine is Testbed for Big Power Contestation?


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declares 16 February 2022 as ‘Day of Unity’ apprehending Russian invasion based on US assessment, after talking to US President about Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s borders, with both committing to pursue “diplomacy and deterrence”. It comes after inconclusive talks between President Putin and Joe Biden suggesting ‘Swift and severe costs’ in case of invasion, as well as Normandy format between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. USA continues to hype the threat, following it with the evacuation of troops and citizens, whereas Russia maintains that it has no intention to invade Ukraine, but draws a redline for Ukraine not to join NATO.

Ukraine stands encircled from three directions by Russian troops with the largest military posturing since World War II. Mass concentration of troops in Eastern borders, posturing and joint exercises with Belarus and Russian Black Sea Fleet combat-ready with bases at Crimea. Ukraine too, fully aware of its military capacity limitations, is getting combat-ready to protect its sovereignty. While the flashpoint maybe Ukraine but contestation is of big powers involved directly or indirectly. The outcome of this faceoff has global implications not only in Europe but globally including countries who are outside the region. Diplomacy is trying its best, but failing so far. The geo-strategic location of Ukraine is such that, in the midst of continuing geopolitical manoeuvrings, it can’t help but be the testbed for this Russia-NATO competition.

Main Stake Holders and their Stance  

Russia: In his meeting with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, former US Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion was one of a cascade of guarantees about Soviet security provided by Western leaders, but no agreement was signed. Post-USSR disintegration in 1991, NATO adopted an open-door policy allowing erstwhile USSR countries to join NATO, if agreed by all existing members, which was viewed as an eastward expansion of NATO and resented by successive leaders, but NATO prevailed. When such eastward expansion, after adding 14 countries, reached at consideration of Georgia and Ukraine, Putin drew a redline, failing which Russia would have to face a direct land border with NATO at strategically sensitive area and perhaps deployment of NATO arsenal threatening Russia. It would have also made Russian Black Sea fleet redundant, thus compromising security of Russia. Russia thus reacted with annexation of Georgia, Crimea and posturing Ukraine, after it renewed its effort to join NATO, and is firm that it will not allow Ukraine’s entry into NATO at any cost.  

Image source: Getty

Ukraine: Ukraine is tensed, but getting ready for confrontation knowing fully well that the recent threat is asymmetric in favour of Russia, if conflict is not prevented by diplomacy. Ukraine has a reason to feel betrayed because in 1994, ‘The Memorandum of Security Assurance’ was signed at Budapest, in which Russia, the US and the UK assured that its sovereignty will not be compromised, which was a major factor in Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal (Third largest nuclear arsenal in the world at that time) and signed NPT. Now, Russia appears to be threatening its sovereignty, and the United States and the United Kingdom are unwilling to send boots on the ground to protect it. Ukraine is not yet a member of NATO, so NATO and the US are not obligated to defend it. Instead, they are opting for the easy option of assisting Ukraine in building its capacity to fight Russians, with the threat of crippling sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine, which haven’t been effective in the past. Strategically and geographically, Ukraine finds itself as a testbed to gauge Russian resolve against NATO having lost Crimea already, with the threat of proxy war from the Eastern region, even if it shelves/postpones the decision of joining NATO. Ukraine continues with its demand to join NATO as its sovereign decision, although there are many NATO members, who don’t want to include it. 

Ukrainians attend a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, during a protest against the potential escalation of the tension between Russia and Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden are to hold a high-stakes telephone call on Saturday as tensions over a possibility imminent invasion of Ukraine escalated sharply and the U.S. announced plans to evacuate its embassy in the Ukrainian capital. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The United States: Struggling with loss of face post annexation of Georgia, Crimea and recently botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, losing footprints in most of West Asia, US wants to checkmate Russian aggressive stance by taking up sovereignty issue of Ukraine in terms of freedom to join NATO or otherwise. It, however, has no appetite to put boots on the ground in Ukraine, but is worried that a westward expansion of Russia can make some of the existing NATO allies vulnerable and is doing symbolic strengthening of its allies, with hardware support to Ukraine. US is also concerned that if the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project succeeds many more NATO allies will be dependent on Russia, which will strategically weaken the declining NATO. It is also a test case for the US-Taiwan relationship, which has an almost similar equation with slight variation. If it blinks here, it loses psychological edge against China too. The US hype about full-scale invasion could also be influenced by lobby of arms dealers to promote sales.

EU: EU members who are NATO allies are trying to put up a joint brave front, but the cracks are visible. EU’s 40 percent dependency on Russia is crucial to preserve its energy interest. It may be easy for Joe Biden to say that the Russian offensive will be the end of Nord Stream 2, but it may not be easy for Germany to second it. The best option for them is diplomacy, which they are trying hard with an inconclusive visit of President Macron and ongoing visit of the German Chancellor to Ukraine and Russia with no worthwhile success so far.   

Image source: Nato

Other Global Players

China: It’s the happiest situation for China, as the faceoff has diverted the attention of the US from China to Europe, to some extent. It can derive pleasure out of an awkward position of the US, cementing ties with Moscow as never before, at the same time test the appetite of Joe Biden, in case it decides to invade Taiwan. It bears no obligation and can watch from the sidelines playing neutral with no cost to bear.      

India: India has good relations with all affected parties and can remain neutral. No country including Ukraine can criticize India for a neutral stance, as most stakeholders held a similar position when China violated all CBMs to enter areas, where it was not supposed to and the Ladakh standoff continues. Indian concerns will include its diaspora, trade (edible oils, pharmaceutical exports etc) with Ukraine and the impact of sanctions on Russia if announced by Washington. 

NATO allies and partners in Indo-Pacific like Taiwan, Japan, Australia and South Korea are also watching NATO responses keenly as the situation could replicate itself, should Xi Jinping decide to reunify China or assert further in the South/East China Sea or Indo-Pacific.

Possible Scenarios

Full-Scale Invasion: Strategically the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t suggest a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, because NATO, which was already reluctant in admitting Ukraine into NATO has been shaken up adequately not to do so. Having achieved its major aim, annexation will be cost-prohibitive in terms of casualties and economic sanctions, forcing NATO to respond directly or indirectly to avoid loss of face, without achieving anything substantial. It will unnecessarily join direct land borders with NATO, which is worse than having Ukraine as a buffer in between.

Limited Objective: Russia integrates the Donetsk People Republic and Luhansk people Republic, who already treat themselves as republics, to teach Ukraine a lesson and tests NATO reaction. The cost paid by Russia will be lower than full-scale invasion, but sanctions, economic cost will be almost the same. It will strengthen Ukraine’s case for induction in NATO, with sharp criticism of Russia. 

Proxy War and De-escalate: There will be no additional gains for Russia. It can be a loss of face for Putin with no change in the probability of Ukraine’s inclusion into NATO.

NATO declares non-acceptance of Ukraine as a member or Ukraine gives up demand for inclusion in NATO. In this case, Putin will come out stronger and it will be a loss of face for Joe Biden, loss of credibility of NATO and confidence of its allies in Indo-pacific.

Standoff continues: It may be too costly for Russia and Ukraine in terms of finances. Unlikely beyond a point.

Diplomacy Prevails: Both sides provide a face-saver to each other to de-escalate. Best option in the global interest.

In all scenarios, China benefits immensely from the situation and the US doesn’t seem to gain much, except some additional arms scale in case of full or limited invasion. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Maj. Gen. Shashi Asthana

Major General Shashi Asthana is a globally acknowledged Strategic and Security Analyst who has authored more than 400 publications. With 45 years of experience as a veteran infantry general, he has held numerous key positions in the Indian Army and the United Nations, including the Former Director General Infantry in the Indian Army. Major General Asthana is also the Director of Courses at USI of India, the oldest think tank in India, and is a frequent commentator on television and speaker at various strategic and military forums, UN organizations, think tanks, and universities. He has been interviewed by various national and international news channels, newspapers, and organizations on strategic, military, and UN-related subjects. Currently, Major General Asthana serves on the Governing/Security Council of the Confederation of Education Excellence (CEE), the International Organization of Education Development (IOED), and other UN organizations. He is on the Advisory Board of Global Advisors Consultants Corporation, IOED representative at the UN Headquarters in Vienna, Austria, a Distinguished Expert at the Bharat Centre of Canada, and an advisor to Amity University, Bharat Media LLC, USA. Major General Asthana is a former member of the Expert Group Challenges Forum in Sweden. He has received numerous awards, including twice from the President of India, twice from the UN, and the CEE Excellence Award for Nation Building from the Governor of Haryana. He has also been awarded twice for "International Diplomacy and Global Conflict Resolutions" by the IOED, a consultative body for ECOSOC, and the International Police Commission (IPC) India, by the former Prime Minister of Moldova.

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