The crisis in the Ukraine – Putin holds all the cards
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | February, 2022
|Photo: Kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0|
The great power competition
The tension in the Ukrainian crisis has increased dramatically and it seems that the international arena faces the most severe crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia, which enjoys an unprecedented support from China, tries to undermine the foundations of the world order and to create new security arrangements in Europe and especially in its backyard.
The implications of the great power competition could be the formation of two axis – Russia and China on the one hand and the US and its allies in Europe and Asia on the other. Such a development would have a broad impact among other things on the world order, the security alliances, international organizations and deteriorate the economic situation.
The intense talks held in recent weeks between Russia and the United States and European countries have not reduced the tensions between the parties, with each side digging to its heels, and continuing to move forward, facing each other, on a collision course.
From Moscow's point of view, the written and verbal responses it has received to its security demands have not adequately addressed the core issues of NATO's expansion and the deployment of weapons near its borders. The United States, for its part, has reiterated that it will continue to adhere to its "open door" policy, whereby every country could decide for itself whether or not to become a member of any alliance.
Military readiness against deterrence messages
Although Russia declared that it has started to withdraw forces, according to American officials it continues to complete its military preparations along the Ukrainian borders, leaving the Ukraine surrounded by Russian forces amounting to over one hundred and thirty thousand troops, enabling Russia to select from a wide range of operative options.
All the while, Russia has been making great efforts over the last few weeks to promote a comprehensive campaign over hearts and minds across government-affiliated media outlets as well as social media. The main goal is an attempt to justify the massive buildup of forces, presenting it as a need to defend national security and protect the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine ("Genocide" according to president Putin declarations), while claiming to be the victim of western aggression.
In a last minute efforts to prevent Russia's invasion, it seems that President Biden has succeeded to unite the ranks between Western countries at the same time, the U.S. administration's rhetoric against Russia has become harsher, underscoring the heavy economic price that Moscow stands to pay should it decide to invade the Ukraine in the form of painful, paralyzing sanctions against the top Russia echelon, banking system, and strategic Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline expected to supply gas from Russia directly to Germany. The key question is whether the economic sanctions will be painful enough to deter Russia. taking into consideration its foreign exchange reserves (more than $600Bln), expanding economic ties with China and Europe's reliance on gas supplies from it.
The waiting game – Putin's turn to play
Now that the United States' and NATO's responses have been given, the ball is in Putin's court. He could decide to reach a settlement that would provide at least some of his security demands in Ukraine and Eastern Europe or to start a military operation in Eastern Ukraine or even to try to replace the regime in Kiev.
It should be mentioned that Putin himself attributes great importance to tightening Russia's partnership with China in an attempt to ensure strategic economic support for a possible escalation in the conflict with the United States. In this context, the Russian President has paid an unusual visit to China for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games. The joint statement issued by the two countries' leaders reflected shared interests against the United States and expressed mutual support against what they perceive as Washington's growing interference in their "backyard".
Be that as it may, and since a gun that appears in the first act must be fired in the third, it seems that, in the absence of a substantial change in either party's position, Russian use of force in the Ukraine is a matter of time. Putin, who views himself as the follower of the great Russian czars will not be able to afford ending the crisis without some tangible accomplishment or commitment that the Ukraine would not be joining NATO in the foreseeable future, for a combination of strategic, security and personal considerations. On the strategic security level, NATO's continued eastward expansion is "a matter of life and death" for Russia, as Russian spokespersons have often explained, for the Ukraine forms the last line of defense. On the personal level, having reiterated time and again that the Ukraine is a "red line", Putin's personal prestige is now being put to the test, and he certainly remembers well the damage caused to President Obama's public image after he avoided war in Syria despite having stated that the use of chemical weapons was where he drew the line.
Implications for Israel
The Russian military maneuver, and severe economic sanctions subsequently imposed by the United States, would have far-reaching implications for the balance of power in the great powers' game of chess. Such developments could drag Europe into a security and economic whirlwind of instability that would be manifest in a rise in energy prices, and an additional leap in already-soaring inflation. It could also influence the stability in the Middle-East.
The crisis in the Ukraine and the axis between Russia and China would probably demonstrate to the US the importance of the Middle-East for various reasons (geo-strategic location, energy, cruise routes and more). On the other hand, an escalation in the crisis could project on the U.S image of weakness vis-à-vis Putin's forceful attitude in such a manner as to impact the conduct of various actors in the region. This could add to Iran's self-confidence, leading it to adopt a more stringent position during the nuclear talks, and challenge American interests in the region, under the assumption that the United States would prefer to avoid opening up another front, and escalating its relations with Tehran at this time, as they are explosive as it is.
Russia is likely to try to take advantage of the new opportunities to deepen its security ties with countries in the region, particularly Iran, while expressing its willingness to sell advanced weapon systems. Such a development could accelerate a regional arms race that would undermine Israel's qualitative military edge (QME).
This explosive state of affairs requires Israel to adopt a cautious policy and tread carefully in order to avoid chipping its strategic relationship with the United States, while maintaining its crucial coordination with Russia on its core issues in the region (Syria, Iran). At the same time, opportunities for deepening collaborations with the Sunni states in the region should also be explored.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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