Russia’s long-standing quest for hot water, writes RK Raghavan and Ajay Goyal

As of this writing, a Russian offer to surrender to surrounded Ukrainian troops in Mariupol has expired without a massive capitulation. Russia says the city has been cleared of resistance and a few thousand Ukrainian army soldiers and ultra-nationalists are now surrounded in a sprawling Azov steelworks. Ukrainian President Zelensky admitted that the situation in Mariupol is difficult, but warned that his country would withdraw from all peace negotiations if Ukrainians holed up in the city were killed by the Russian army.

Almost eight weeks after the start of the Russian invasion, the battle is now set to turn bloody across Donbass. Questions are now being asked even in Moscow about the consistency of the initial Russian strategy and whether Russia is reducing its political goals due to Ukrainian resistance and the bite of sanctions. Despite the dramatic media images and coverage of this war, life in Ukraine is still largely calm with almost no military operations in 80% of the country. Many large cities are spared from the war. The Russians did not shut down or disrupt Ukrainian TV and radio channels. Mobile networks work as well as civil transport. Ukrainians travel freely to and from Europe, and not a day goes by without a European leader visiting Kyiv.

Obviously, the Russians are waging a very targeted war which they call a “special military operation”. They attacked and destroyed all strategic military targets in Ukraine. In recent weeks, fuel depots and refineries have been taken, which has made a massive redeployment of the movement of Ukrainian troops impossible. Despite several seemingly botched and floundering operations, the Russians have nevertheless made several important strategic gains that they are now ready to capitalize on. They have already captured the port city of Kherson. It was this city that the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great conquered 250 years ago. Then as now, Europe was on edge when its army left the Russian imperial capital and the important Baltic seaport of Saint Petersburg to conquer the exact same cities on the Black Sea that are currently at war.

Russian leaders have always viewed access to the warm waters of the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus Canal to the Mediterranean and Suez as essential to the survival and very existence of the Russian state. After taking control of Kherson, the Russian army halted before attacking the important city of Odessa. Then the Kremlin ordered the abandonment of all positions near kyiv on March 30 and the redeployment of forces in Donbass. Nearly 50,000 Ukrainian soldiers are entrenched in and around towns and villages in the regional centers of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. The region is the famous battlefield of Poltava which shaped the Russian state as we know it. King Charles XII of Sweden led his army from Sweden into central Ukraine and Donbass, precisely in this region in 1709, to fight Peter the Great and lost to a vastly superior Russian force at Poltava. Hitler’s Nazi Germany and German, Romanian, Italian and Hungarian forces also lost the first and most important battle of World War II in the region during the withdrawal from Stalingrad. For four hundred years, Imperial Russia on one side and Turkey and its European allies on the other have waged a series of wars in this region, all aimed at cutting Russia off from the Black Sea and from Europe.

There’s so much history here for Russia that it’s no wonder Russian President Vladimir Putin and his strategic advisers came to the conclusion that Ukraine was becoming a NATO country, hosting nuclear weapons of the United States and the United Kingdom would forever weaken the Russian state and cut off the Black Sea. In their minds, history is repeating itself – Western powers are using Ukraine to harbor anti-Russian forces and feeding Russia hating neo-fascist militias in an effort to weaken and dominate Russia. The bulk of the Ukrainian military force has been deployed in the Donbass where it now faces a massive attack. The Russians moved towards the Ukrainian entrenched positions with massive armour, artillery and air power. Sooner or later, the steel and the flesh of Europe’s two greatest armies will collide here. The Russian army has endless resources and many supply lines to the Russian hinterland. The Europeans and NATO countries also supply arms and ammunition to Ukrainian forces, but their supply lines are thin and at the mercy of the Russian air force and cruise missiles.

In other words, the Russians can win the war simply by attrition if they decide to fight long enough. No military expert expects an outcome other than what all previous European invaders have experienced here – a catastrophic loss for the Western-backed Ukrainian forces. It is also clear from the heavy losses suffered by the Russians why they wanted to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. For almost two months, the Russians are fighting a well-trained and equipped Ukrainian force which has the full support of NATO countries, but it is not the same as fighting the NATO alliance itself. . Under Article 5 of the NATO alliance, the 30 countries will automatically be at war if any of the member states are attacked. If Ukraine had been a member of NATO, in a frontal war with Ukraine, Russia would have been outgunned, outspent and outnumbered in every way by the combined forces of NATO and the Russian leadership seems having recognized this weakness, thus deciding to anticipate any such scenario.

The Russians no longer have allies or friends in Europe. Turkey, a NATO member state, now playing the role of mediator, is certainly no friend of Russia. His shifting positions such as arming Ukraine while talking peace to Russia, confronting the Russians in Syria and Libya, and potentially smothering the Bosphorus through which every Russian ship must pass are as much a strategic concern for the Russians as the Ukraine. The Russian-Ukrainian negotiations organized by Turkey quickly reached an impasse because the Russians do not believe that the Ukrainians have permission from Washington to conclude a peace agreement with Moscow and that Erdogan overestimates his influence on kyiv. To set the record straight, Erdogan has never been neutral or a Russian ally, and his vapid diplomacy ostensibly for peace while keeping more than 40,000 Turkish invasion and occupation forces in Cyprus himself. , does not cut well neither in Moscow nor in the western capitals.

The human toll and suffering of war will only increase now. There does not seem to be a wavering in Russia’s resolve to bring the war to an end as public opinion coalesces around President Putin and the military, hardened by the idea that without this war, Russia will would be found vulnerable, and 400 years back in the 17th century without access to the Black Sea. It remains to be seen what these Russian objectives are. How Russia intends to shape the future of post-war Ukraine is the question on everyone’s mind.

For everyone in the world, the goal is to walk away from this war to protect their own interests as the war begins to cause soaring inflation, grain and fertilizer shortages and a significant increase oil and gas prices for every household in the world. We can only hope that India’s true neutrality and calls for peace will be heard in Kyiv and Moscow and that a peaceful solution will soon be found to end the war without further bloodshed. History does not have to repeat itself and this war can be ended with mature diplomacy and political acumen of the kind that India has practiced.

(RKRaghavan is a former High Commissioner of India to Cyprus. He tweets at @rkrshanti. Ajay Goyal is a security strategy expert based in Europe. He tweets at @Ajay_Zen_It)

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Published on: Friday, April 22, 2022, 07:00 IST

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