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'Putin is playing Russian roulette'

February 25, 2022 11:02 IST
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'There is a cost to war.'
'The West knows that and so does Putin.'
'The point is, how much of the cost are both sides willing to pay?'

IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, February 23, 2022. Photograph: Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via Reuters

As Russia sends its troops into Ukraine, one is puzzled over why Russian President Vladmir Putin has chosen the path of conflict.

Putin has taken on the Western powers unmindful of economic sanctions that he knows will surely follow and which will hit the Russian economy badly in the coming days.

So why is Ukraine so important in Putin's worldview to disregard the pushback from the West?

In a two-part interview with Syed Firdaus Ashraf/, Professor Ummu Salma Bava, Jean Monnet Chair, Jawaharlal Nehru University, explains the issues involved.


Why would Vladmir Putin take such an extreme step by sending troops into Ukraine just because Kyiv wanted to join NATO? Why does he fear this prospect?

This issue has been going on for more than a year and has intensified now. You can see that different parties were trying to get some diplomatic solution, but Russia decided to front-end the conflict.

From a Russian perspective, they see that their sphere of influence got curtailed especially after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1992. Ukraine was a Soviet territory then under the influence of Russia and so were other Eastern and Central European countries. Today, most of these countries have become members of the European Union and NATO.

Ever since Putin came to power, the perception in Russia is that the West is expanding further and further into the east and entering into countries which are under Russian influence.

Russia considers Belarus and Ukraine as shared neighbourhood and Putin does not want them to join NATO.

If they join NATO, that means NATO forces are at the Russian borders. This is a red line which Putin has pushed forward. You can see the build-up to when he annexed Ukraine's territory Crimea in 2014. He wants NATO to pull back troops from Central and Eastern Europe which were under Soviet influence earlier.

He is also very clear that NATO must not give Ukraine NATO membership.

In reality, is the military threat to Russia from NATO such a major one as to risk conflict?

On the military level, Putin thinks that way, but another important point is that he feels if countries like Ukraine become more democratic like the West, then it will be a threat to his own autocratic rule in Russia.

He also sees Russia's economic influence reducing in future in Ukraine so there is a far more complex mosaic of problems.

But Putin never did anything when like Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia joined NATO. Why has he woken up now?

You have to go back in history and see that when the Soviet Union disintegrated, Boris Yeltsin came to power and he was pro-reforms and pro-West. The process of these countries joining NATO and European Union began when Yeltsin was ruling Russia.

Putin came to power in Russia at the start of the millennium after which there was a big shift in perception. Russia had come out of the Yeltsin phase which was seen as a weak point (for the country).

Moscow also felt that it was not treated well and one has to keep in mind that all the residual powers of the Soviet Union went to Russia. It got the permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and also got the nuclear weapons. So, it is not a small country on the European chessboard or on the global chessboard.

And in the post-Yeltsin period, Russia started feeling it got sidelined by not getting the kind of respect and dignity that they should have got. Therefore, Putin decided that he is not going to follow the rules but instead threw the rulebook out.

And what happens when one of the players decides to cross the rulebook and other players decide not to cross the rulebook?

Not crossing the borders of Ukraine was in the rulebook and it violates the charter of the United Nations, to which the Russians said, 'We don't care about the rulebook.' What will they do?

In other words, Putin is pushing the West and forcing their hand, and the first sign came on Tuesday when the USA and the European Union applied the first round of sanctions on Russia. Germany also decided to scrap the pipeline, Nord Stream 2.

Is Putin not bothered about the fate of the Russian economy as sanctions can destabilise it and even lead to internal revolt in his country?

Putin is taking a calculated risk on Ukraine as it is not a part of any established Western institutions like NATO and EU.

The obligation to protect Ukraine for the West will be according to international law and (they can at best) say they will not let Russia get away with whatever they want. Why should the West make Ukraine's war their war?

Putin is playing Russian roulette here to see how much is the West going to come out and help Ukraine.

The USA has moved weapons to Poland, but will NATO forces enter Ukraine? That is an altogether a very different issue. If they do that, then NATO will make somebody else's war their war.

Putin knows that it will have an impact on the Russian economy, but he also knows that Russian gas pipelines supply gas to Europe. Winter is still not over. If Russia stops the supply of gas, Europe will be crippled as it will stop their everyday life because heating is required in winter for which you need gas from Russia.

Can't Europe do without Russian gas? Former Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted, 'Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay Euro 2.000 for 1.000 cubic metres of natural gas'. This tweet came after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ordered to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

If they do that, then supply of gas will stop and that will lead to huge demand for gas in Europe. Demand is not going to sink and it will remain consistent.

Already, there was one storm in Great Britain last week. If you have another storm, then the demand for gas is going to increase dramatically. It will push the prices of gas in Europe and impact everybody as they will have to pay more.

And you cannot immediately offset the gas pipeline from Russia as you do not have another pipeline from where the gas will come. Therefore, (Putin knows) without gas supply from Russia, there will be domestic problems in Europe.

What is the percentage of Russian gas sent to Europe?

Right now, Nord Stream 1 is supplying gas from Russia to Germany and it is about 1/3rd of the gas supply to Germany's total gas demand. Sanctions from the West means Russia will have to pay a price and they are going to scale up the price for gas (to Germany).

But one has to understand that everything is inter-connected as Russia too cannot buy from Europe and vice versa and goods have to keep on moving in any trade. This will affect everyone.

Now, they are talking about keeping Russia out of (SWIFT) payment systems and target high profile Russian individuals like Great Britain is doing now.

Can Europe do without Russian gas?

There is gas flowing now from Russia and they are expanding. Germany is planning to phase out all this (with clean energy). Though diversification of gas supply is being talked about, it is not that they are talking of dilution of gas supply because the new pipeline (Nord Stream 2) has been laid (and completed just now). Now, Germany is saying no to that, and this is imposing a cost on Russia which is getting plentiful of natural gas in its region.

And this is what is driving Russia's foreign policy. Higher the price of oil and gas, more the earnings for Russia. But not selling their own oil and gas in the long term does not make sense for Russia too because there is no point if in the long term your resources don't make money.

There is only a four-month window for Russia because if they do not sell oil and gas, then it will have consequences for the Russian economy too. It is like a tightrope situation for everyone.

The West knows that Ukraine will not be offered NATO membership. Nobody from the West will says this openly though.

The Ukrainian parliament passed a resolution to join NATO in 2019, but Putin did not take any action then. Why?

It is an independent country and they can do what they want. It is like my neighbour telling me that I cannot join a particular club because you stay next to me. How can your neighbour decide?

For Russia, though, Ukraine is not a neighbour. It is part of a politically and culturally inherent historical connection. We may not see it that way, but for Russians it is joint history and shared memory.

During the days of the Soviet Union a large number of Russians were repopulated in Ukraine and other states of the Soviet Union. The breakaway region of Ukraine has a Russian-speaking population (in a majority). The Russian rebels are making claim on the entire region now.

Putin wrote an open letter last year stating that the people of Ukraine are Russians technically and they have the same Eastern Slav origin.

There is a commonality historically of Russian origins in Ukraine. One has to keep in mind that in 1917, when the USSR came into existence, Ukraine did not exist the way it exists today.

Putin is in office for the last 20 years. He has got a very different vision and he is not going to back down.

For Putin, the breakup of the Soviet Union was the biggest loss. Now that he is getting older (he will turn 70 on October 7, 2022) and he wants to keep his legacy. He wants to prove that he is more powerful and make the West acknowledge (his power).

Putin has put everybody on the chessboard on the defensive and now they are responding accordingly.

There is a cost to war. The West knows that and so does Putin. The point now is, how much of the cost are both sides willing to pay?

Russia is on two sides of Ukraine. On top of Ukraine is Belarus which too is pro-Russia. Putin wants Ukraine to be pro-Russia, like Belarus. That's it.

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