Towards a Sustainable Peace in Eastern Europe

The continuing amassing of Russian troops to the North and East of Ukraine appears to be a dangerous gambit that could lead to conflict. Only a few kilometers away from the border, the Russian troops are too close for comfort, and need to maintain some “social distancing”. The US says Russia has all the forces it needs to launch military action any day, but Russia has repeatedly denied it has any such plans. As many as 130,000 Russian troops are positioned within reach of Ukraine’s border with Russia.

Russia is adamant it has no plans to attack Ukraine and a Russian government spokesperson has condemned "dangerous lies" being spread by the US and Western Europe. But the threat is being taken seriously because Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized its territory. Now, eight years later, Russia may be looking to consolidate its earlier gains.

Why would Russia want to invade Ukraine? One reason is that some parts of eastern Ukraine which border Russia, are already in the hands of pro-Russian rebels who have been waging a war against Ukrainian troops that have resulted in the loss of over 14,000 lives. When Ukrainians deposed their pro-Russian president in early 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea and backed separatists who captured large swathes of territory in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine serves as a buffer state between the EU and Russia and shares borders with both. But as a former Soviet republic, it has deep social and cultural ties with Russia, and Russian is widely spoken there.

Secondly, Russia is extremely sensitive to the eastward expansion of NATO and would like to obtain security guarantees that NATO would end its military activity in eastern Europe. Actually, it would like to see NATO retreat to the pre-1997 borders. Looking at from another perspective, the Russian stand represents the application of the venerated ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in reverse, sixty years after it was first applied in 1963 by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, against the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union, as the predecessor of Russia, enjoyed superpower status along with the United States. All countries in eastern Europe were considered to be within its sphere of influence. That changed in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell and disintegrated under the weight of its own contradictions. It is not hard to fathom that as the reincarnated successor state of the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia would like to regain some of that past glory.

Thirdly, in an age when strong leaders are becoming the ‘New Normal’ even in established democracies, is it any wonder that Putin, the undisputed and unchallenged leader of his country, wants to occupy centre-stage in European politics? He has been at the helm for more than two decades and may continue to dominate European politics for many more years to come. This has also been made easier by Donald Trump who, by ignoring allies and heaping praise on dictators like Putin and Kim Jong Un, effectively took America out of its geopolitical role and back into ‘isolationism’.

Finally, no matter how serious and alarming the situation appears now, it also presents an opportunity for European powers (and to a smaller extent the United States) to hone their time-tested skills in engaging diplomacy to arrive at a mutually advantageous and sustainable peace. Politics is the art of the possible, and I believe we have not run out of possibilities yet.

Russian President Vladimir Putin