As Biden warns Moscow of ‘devastating sanctions’ over Ukraine crisis, will Putin be the ‘ultimate winner’?

No less than three high-level talks between the United States (U.S.) and Russia over the past week have seemingly failed to resolve the standoff over Ukraine, a standoff in which Russia appears to hold all the strengths.

It is said that never after the 1990s when Europe was marked by the Balkan wars has the continent seen so many serious security talks as it has in recent days.

On January 10, Russian and American diplomats met in Geneva. Two days later, on January 12, the NATO-Russia Council (a mechanism for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision-making and joint action) met in Brussels.

And on January 13, Russian, American and European diplomats met in Vienna under the banner of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a group of 57 countries. Incidentally, all of this confabulation was preceded by a one-on-one meeting between Biden and Putin on December 7.

US warns Russia with more sanctions

The American president threatens his Russian counterpart with “devastating” sanctions if he invades Ukraine. But, in the absence of unity among Western allies on their implementation and given the possible negative impact of sanctions on already soured relations with China, US threats are unlikely to work, according to the analysts.

Biden and Putin in Geneva

On the other hand, with some 100,000 Russian troops reportedly massed near the Ukrainian border, there are differences within the West over whether Ukraine should be a member of NATO, the idea that Moscow is fiercely opposed and ready for armed intervention in its eastern neighbor. to thwart it. This makes the outbreak of a war implausible at the moment, contrary to what the Americans apprehend.

In fact, major European countries are upset that while Ukraine’s ruling elites are keen for the country to join NATO and receive their economic aid, Kiev is reluctant to take the necessary steps to free up the economy. of the country from government control and liberalizing it in the true spirit of Western values.

But what the European powers agree with their American ally is that NATO members cannot accept the Russian veto on Ukraine’s admission. They point out that their military alliance has had an open-door policy for Ukraine to join them, as the goal of joining NATO is part of the Ukrainian constitution.

Russia-NATO showdown

The Russians are right when they say that the NATO powers did not give them the respect they deserve as a great power and that they went back on their promises when the then Soviet Union led to the reunification of Germany in 1990 to end the Cold War. The assurance was that NATO would not expand eastward.

American diplomats like Jack Matlock (the last American ambassador to the former Soviet Union), former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the late veteran Geroge Kenan (the father of the “policy of containment” that the United States initiated to resist the Soviet expansion of the time, marking the beginning of the Cold War after the end of the Second World War) admitted that such insurance, accepted by allies such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, had indeed been given in Moscow.

NATO-Russia Council
The NATO-Russia Council meeting on January 12, 2022. (via Twitter)

Kennan wrote in 1997 that “NATO expansion would be the most fatal mistake of American policy during the Cold War era. We can expect such a decision to push Russian foreign policy in directions we do not like.

Washington’s political misstep

Obviously, this assurance in Moscow was not kept. In 1999, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary – all members of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact – were allowed to join NATO, despite the fact that around 50 military, political and academic leaders, including Paul Nitze and Jack Matlock, wrote at the time. President Bill Clinton that it would be “a political mistake of historic proportions”.

Clinton’s successor, George Bush, then in 2004 allowed seven other states – including the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were part of the former Soviet Union – to join as well. President Bush was ready to bring in Georgia and Ukraine, two former constituents of the USSR, in 2008. But the plan fell through when Russia invaded Georgia.

Russia MiG-29
File Image: Russia MiG-29

In other words, Ukraine’s (as well as Georgia’s) NATO membership has remained a bone of contention between Washington and Moscow for the past 13 years. Russia under Putin has made it clear that under no circumstances will he allow this to happen.

Altogether, these are countries that have not only been under the Russian sphere of influence for centuries, but have also shared a common language and culture. From 1922 until the end of the Cold War, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and Ukraine got its name from the old Russian word “Okraina”, which means outskirts.

Russia indifferent to US warning

And Biden, for his part, says that if Putin invades Ukraine, as he did in Georgia in 2008, he would impose “devastating” economic sanctions on Russia, on which, by the way, he himself or one of its officials, did not specify. The Americans are believed to be talking about the possibility of cutting Russia off from the Brussels company for global interbank financial telecommunications (SWIFT), but that would require European support.

As it stands, Russia is already under US sanctions after forcibly retaking Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. But that hasn’t shaken Russian might. Washington, of course, is discussing with its European allies new sanctions to stop another Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He asks Germany to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline (which carries gas from Russia to Germany), but does not get a positive response. Bonn appears to be reluctant to restrict gas supplies as Europe faces a looming energy crisis. In fact, the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is for dialogue with Moscow.

Mixed signals from Europe

Meanwhile, France is also backing Germany in its resistance to a European Union effort to spell out what sanctions it would impose if Putin did in fact invade Ukraine. After all, any restrictions on Russian exports to Europe will also be costly for Europe itself.

If America’s European allies, especially the major ones, are sending mixed messages about their willingness to impose anything beyond a financial slap on Russia’s wrists, there seems to be another reason. .

And it is their dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s lack of progress in liberalizing its political system and economy despite the enormous economic aid they have received. They think Ukrainian elites are only interested in being free from former Moscow control, but not sincere in absorbing Western values ​​of transparency, free economy and rule of law.

Henrik Larsen, a former political adviser to the EU delegation to Ukraine, says that while Kyiv has benefited from increased trade with the EU, it does not care about strengthening the rule of law to boost investment.

Ukrainian elites remain unwilling or unable to break vested interests. They are not responsible for their governance, sticking to their self-serving and entangled business interests. They have not carried out the “indispensable” reforms of the banking and gas sectors.

They have not led to the privatization of public enterprises, which perpetuate market monopolization. There is blatant corruption and a lack of faith in a fair and independent judiciary in the country. In short, Ukraine remains incapable of reforming its politico-economic system which would benefit all of its population.

As if European ambivalence weren’t enough for President Biden to put real pressure on Putin, there is also the China factor whose acquiescence is required for any harsh sanction to work against Moscow.

China, which is Russia’s biggest trading partner, is unlikely to stop dealing with the big Russian companies that the US chooses to blacklist. This strengthens the financial power of the United States compared to that of China. Even if not, Russia and China are working together to establish alternative payment mechanisms.

File Image: Vladimir Putin and XiJinping

So if China, the world’s second largest economy, rejects US sanctions against Russia, Putin won’t really be weakened, says Chris Miller, who teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.

  • Veteran author and journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board of EurAsian Times and has been commentating on politics, foreign policy and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and a recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Fellowship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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Christi C. Elwood