Give diplomacy another chance in Ukraine

The standoff is keeping Europe and the world on edge

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Published: Tue 25 Jan 2022, 10:50 PM

The Ukraine crisis is US President Joe Biden’s biggest foreign policy test after the harrowing exit from Afghanistan last year in which he clearly failed and the administration was reduced to a laughing stock. He has now run into a worthy adversary in Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the US president would need all the advice he can get, and some tact to avoid another conflict away from America’s shores.

The Ukraine standoff is keeping Europe and the world on edge when the continent has bigger issues to be concerned about — like the pandemic. It could get serious if a Russian invasion indeed happens. And Putin is playing his cards close to his chest. The Russian leader is a master of deception and has kept his foes guessing.

For Biden, it’s about strategic patience after diplomacy yielded little results following Russia’s aggressive moves in December when it reportedly deployed 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine. Biden has stood his ground thus far, so has Putin, which makes the standoff complex and confusing. The question now being posed is: who will blink first, or will there be a face-saver of a deal after Monday’s reports indicate that Russia has moved 60 combat-ready divisions to the border.

The US claims it is prepared with 8,500 emergency troops, which is not enough to prevent an invasion — if that indeed happens, but Nato troops can be activated if the bloc so desires with 40,000 drawn from member countries of the bloc. But Biden’s dilemma is that Ukraine is not a member of the military bloc which views an attack on one member as against itself. Europe appears divided, with France and Germany appearing to break ranks in the diplomatic defence of Ukraine. Kyiv, however, is keen to join the alliance which Putin considers Nato’s bid at expansion into Eastern Europe which the erstwhile USSR once controlled ideologically and militarily after World War 2.

Europe’s rifts could be because Russia supplies 40 per cent of the continent’s natural gas. Putin sees this as leverage and is playing to his strengths. A winter without Russian gas could sap Europe. Paris and Berlin realise this and want to be seen as neutral which puts Nato at risk. The trans-Atlantic partnership faces its moment of truth, with no one wanting a war that will leave only losers in its wake. Besides, there’s always a risk of an invasion.

A swift Russian offensive, as some predict, could leave Moscow with a bloody nose if the casualties are high. Putin may be weighing his options here. Clearly, the West is in no mood for a fight but that isn’t enough to predict Putin’s mood. Moscow clearly wants Ukraine in its sphere of influence. The Ukrainians see a future with Europe and the West but the Russian bear is too big to ignore. Diplomacy despite the saber-rattling is the only way out of this impasse. Biden knows this, Putin too. Perhaps they must start from scratch and involve all parties.

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