The conflict between Russia and Ukraine risks spiralling out of control and the possibility of a Russian invasion – either a full-scale one or a limited one, both of which would have severe consequences for Europe – is very real. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Europe is facing its worst security crisis for decades.

Russia’s core concern is the possible inclusion of Ukraine into NATO. Moscow has demanded a guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the alliance, together with other security demands such as limiting NATO activity in Eastern Europe.

This situation, however, did not just appear out of nowhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin has never been comfortable with Ukraine moving out of the Russian orbit and has repeatedly claimed  that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”. 

Ukraine went through two revolutions in 2005 and 2014, both times rejecting Russia’s dominance and moving towards closer ties with the European Union and NATO. In 2014, Putin sent troops (in unmarked uniforms) into Crimea (which was part of Ukraine even though its ethnic makeup was 65 per cent Russian) and Moscow later annexed the territory. The land grab was the largest in Europe since World War II and led to US and EU sanctions against Moscow. 

Russia then supported separatists in the Ukraine’s south-eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk  (the Donbas region), which has an ethnic makeup of about 40 per cent Russian. The conflict there has killed more than 14,000 people and at least two million fled their homes before fragile peace deals were brokered.

About two  months ago, Russia began its massive military deployment along the Ukrainian border. Experts say Russia has amassed more than 100,000 Russian soldiers, together with huge deployments of tanks, artillery, armoured vehicles and loading vehicles for short-range ballistic missiles.

So, why has Putin decided to act now and does Russia have legitimate security concerns?

It is difficult to answer the first question as Putin is a master strategist who always keeps his cards close to his chest. However, it is certainly true that Putin’s domestic approval ratings have gone down and playing the nationalist card is one way of rallying support.

It is also true that a democratic, European and prosperous Ukraine based on the rule of law is a direct threat to Putin’s hold on power in Russia (as is a democratic Belarus). If Ukraine had to become a success story, might this not encourage Russians to demand the same for their country?

There is no realistic prospect of Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future- Anthony Manduca

Having said that, one cannot simply dismiss Russia’s security concerns. Russia has seen numerous former allies – indeed, also former Soviet republics such as the Baltic states – join NATO and the alliance has moved closer to its borders. It is also true that the Soviet Union suffered tremendously in the Word War II, losing 27 million civilians and soldiers, and this has obviously left its impact on the psyche of Russian society.

Can things be resolved diplomatically? I believe there is scope for compromise by both sides. To start with, there is no realistic prospect of Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future and it is important that Russia gets this message. And NATO does not want, nor should it want, to go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia.

The challenge for both sides is to identify areas of common ground which could possibly lead to a new security pact in Europe. These could include new controls on the deployment of troops and exercises in frontline countries and a new accord to replace the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which collapsed in 2018.

The idea of a new EU collective security pact was in fact proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron during the launch of the French EU presidency in Strasbourg recently, and is certainly welcome. “We need to build a new security framework between us Europeans, share it with our allies in NATO and propose it for negotiation to Russia,” he said.

Of course, one possible solution would be for Ukraine to declare that it will pursue a policy of neutrality, just like Finland, which has a long border with Russia, has done so far. However, for this to happen, Russia must negotiate directly with Ukraine, stop treating it as a puppet of the West and give it guarantees that it will always respect its independence, sovereignty and its right to join the EU. The whole point of Ukraine wanting to join NATO is precisely because it fears Russia.

In the event of a Russian invasion, both the US and the EU have made it clear that “severe” economic sanctions would follow. Germany has also signalled that it could halt Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline from Russia that bypasses Ukraine, and US President Joe Biden has stressed there is unity between Europe and the US over how to respond to an incursion by Moscow.

Besides facing sanctions, there would be other problems for Moscow in the event of it taking military action. While Russia has overwhelming military superiority, Ukraine is much better armed than it was in 2014 and if a war had to drag on Russian casualties would mount, negatively affecting domestic public opinion.

A prolonged conflict would also drain the Russian economy, increase the country’s isolation, give NATO a renewed sense of purpose and boost Ukrainian nationalism. Is this worth it?

The recent talks in Geneva between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did offer a slight glimmer of hope that all diplomatic efforts have not been exhausted. And Washington on Wednesday put its formal position to some of Russia’s demands in writing while NATO also delivered its own written response.

Blinken said the US reply was unequivocal about several principles including the right of nations to choose their own alliances, but he also noted  two countries “may be able to find common ground”, including arms control, nuclear treaties and transparency measures.

Also on Wednesday, senior officials from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France met in Paris and plan to meet again in two weeks’ time.

Let us hope cooler heads will prevail.

There is a lot at stake.

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