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Jostling For Status Through Ukraine

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Arshad Khan

Almost forever, the element of surprise has been a key to victory in human warfare.  Therefore, for Putin to declare his troops on the borders of Ukraine indicates not war but a ploy.

What does Putin want?  Well, he wants status for Russia.  He wants it to be recognized as a great power.  Militarily it is, but clearly not economically.  What he wants is Russia to be involved in dialogue with the EU; his ultimate aim being membership.

The EU might be able to digest small eastern European states but Russia, a country with half its population and a per capita income around $10,000 about a sixth of the EU as a whole, could pose a problem.  Moreover, the US would prefer to keep Russia at bay fearing its influence.

Russia’s biggest trade partner, China (bilateral trade was $146.88 billion in 2021) is supporting the Russian position on Ukraine.  While its support in the Security Council was nuanced, refraining from any strong criticism of the US, it noted that megaphone diplomacy was not helpful in solving such problems.  The story is different in China’s domestic media where NATO led by the US is the bully that does not respect the sovereign right of countries like Russia and China to defend themselves and their land — an echo of the South China Sea dispute.

Mr. Putin is now in China for the Winter Olympics.  While there he has had talks with Mr. Xi Jinping.  Together they called for an end to NATO expansion.  With a shared mistrust of the West, they are anxious to carve a larger role for themselves in international politics.

In the unlikely event of escalation and conflict in Ukraine resulting in sanctions against Russia, the People’s Republic can be expected to come to the aid of its oldest ally.  It did so in 2014 during the Crimean incident when Russia marched in and suffered the West’s wrath.  China came forward with economic support when Russia was isolated.

China has become an important player in the world economy — on a purchasing power parity basis, it is the world’s largest.  It can offer loans, purchase Russian oil and provide a buffer easing trade with third parties.

Over Ukraine meanwhile, US officials are pre-empting a possible Russian move by claiming that Russian security services might stage and film a fake Ukrainian attack either on Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in south-eastern Ukraine or even on Russia itself.  Remember the doubtful Second Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and its aftermath easing US involvement that led to the Vietnam war.  Is the US public wiser?

But then a war among Russians and some of their earlier republics is too distant, just too far, and too internal, particularly when American TVs will be tuned in to the Winter Olympics, its skiing and ski jumping thrills, the grace and beauty of figure skating and, of course, the smiling and welcoming face of Xi Jinping.