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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 10, February 28, 2015

Ukraine: Russia Won’t Blink

Sunday 1 March 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

The Russian-American history is replete with instances where Washington walked away triumphalist at the end of a standoff while Moscow retired hanging its head low. Let us dip into the past for a minute. Remember the incident at Pristina airport in June 1999 when Russian forces took over the area ahead of a NATO deployment, leading to a tense stand-off and had to vacate eventually?

Or, remember the hushed-up incident in Afghanistan when Moscow landed 12 huge Ilyushin-76 aircraft with military personnel in Bagram airport in November 2001 and the US warned Russia to vacate (which it did)—but only to create space for the unannounced landing of American troops within days? (Moscow had taken the then Afghan interim government’s permission for the deployment, but the US didn’t even care to do that.)

Or, remember the painful Georgian transition in 2003 where Moscow thought it was playing a key mediatory role in tandem with Washington to persuade Eduard Shevardnadze to quit power, while the US was in reality hoodwinking its Russian ‘partner’ by working on the ‘colour revolution’ in Tbilisi to install a new regime that could be depended upon to be hostile toward Russia?

Conceivably, however, Moscow is not blinking this time around—in eastern Ukraine. Russia has ignored American warnings that the Ukrainian separatist forces surrounding the garrison in Debaltseve in the eastern region should back off.

President Vladimir Putin has not only not put pressure on the Ukrainian separatist forces to forthwith withdraw from the town of Debaltseve, where fighting is raging despite the ceasefire from Sunday (February 15) but instead called on them to allow the besieged Ukrainian troops safe passage and also urged Kiev to allow its troops to surrender.

Debaltseve is the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ of World War II. It is a highly strategic transportation hub, the control of which would be of critical impor-tance if a war breaks out in Ukraine (which cannot be ruled out in future.) The situation around Debaltseve is extremely embarrassing for Washington because in the first instance it only goaded Kiev to press ahead with a military offensive against the separatists. The reports say some 8000 Ukrainian troops have been encircled by the separatists and over 80 per cent of the town of Debaltseve is under the control of the separatists.

Washington and Kiev are now facing a grim choice. The ground situation in Debaltseve is desperate and it is impossible to stem the tide against the separatists. The troops are running out of ammunition and supplies and the separatists are in fully cry, sensing victory.

On the other hand, a stunning defeat and surrender in Debaltseve will deal a huge blow to the prestige of the pro-US set-up in Kiev (which even refuses to admit the ground situation in Debaltseve)? Can the government in Kiev survive such a heavy blow? A coup by the military or by the Right-wing neo-Nazi Ukrainian ultra-nationalists cannot be ruled out.

That leaves the US in an unenviable position, because once the façade of ‘democracy’ is ripped off, Washington will be hard-pressed to openly identify with the grotesque face of Ukrainian nationalism and its gory neo-Nazi past. Besides, after all the triumphalist rhetoric of the past year following the coup in Kiev one year ago last February, Washington knows fully well that Moscow has turned the tables on it. (See my blog Russia’s Putin wins in Ukraine Conflict.)

What is the alternative? Arming Kiev? For one thing, it will take months to set the ball rolling to regroup the demoralised Ukrainian military and train it to use the sophisticated weapons; American military advisors in their hundreds will also have to be deployed in Ukraine. Clearly, Russia will retaliate and neutralise the US military help to Kiev.

Not only that, such a dangerous decision by the Obama Administration is still not going to salvage the situation in Debaltseve where the prospect of traumatic defeat is imminent—a matter of a week at the most. For the thousands of Ukrainian forces trapped in the town, the show is over. And it is anybody’s guess whether the Ukrainian military can hold its act together following such a colossal defeat.

It seems improbable that Putin will move his little finger to save the day for the Obama Administration—as he once did over Syria in 2011. So much of bad blood has been created by the Americans and they pushed the envelope needlessly by staging a coup last year in February and installed an out-and-out puppet regime in Kiev—remember the scandalous phone conversa-tion by Victoria Nuland?—when all that Moscow was demanding at that point was a neutral Ukraine that neither had to align with Russia nor should be forced to align with the West against Russia (against Ukraine’s own national will as well).

The buck stops at the Oval Office, finally, which is a pity, because although Obama is no ‘Russia hand’ himself, he is still an erudite mind and there was no conceivable reason why he should not have anticipated that the neocons surrounding him were pushing him into breaching Russia’s core interests in Ukraine, and Moscow would hold its ground no matter what it takes. That is precisely what is happening today in front of our eyes.

Obama should have asserted that the US’ interests were never directly threatened in Ukraine and he wouldn’t get involved. Which is a core principle he has been ad nauseam repeating in his foreign-policy pronouncements. He’d have been politically correct, too, since the American public opinion has much stronger concerns over the Islamic State than regarding Russia or Ukraine. Obama still can work out an exit strategy in Ukraine.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.