Cornering Russia: The ‘On-Off’ Russo-Ukrainian War

While it might look like Russia has been cornered by the Western alliance’s recent actions, the EU and the US could face extreme conditions if the situation escalates in the east; gas prices and turmoil in Ukraine are the main factors.

After much noise in the western mainstream media that war was imminent, it seems that it just may have been postponed (again, as it was in April, this year). On the one hand, in a concerted drumbeat of accusations, US and European leaders say that Russia is building its forces along the border with Ukraine (which is being a tad economical with truth, since those tanks are 200 kms away), and Russia loudly insists in riposte, that they have no intent to invade the Ukraine — unless Kiev starts the conflict by deploying into the eastern provinces, in order to overrun the Donbass. Nonetheless, the situation of Ukraine is now one of systemic instability, and war, at some stage, may be inevitable.

Pulled back for now?  It seems so. No doubt the Russian’s unmistakably plain message to Washington that neither NATO’s heavy-handed ‘shows of force’ on Russia’s doorstep, nor its threats to move its nuclear weapons closer to that doorstep, would deter Russia from sending in its military – in lightening blitzkrieg – should Kiev overstep the mark.

This likely was conveyed in the starkest terms to Bill Burns (the CIA head) when he made an unexpected, quick visit to Moscow this month. (The notion that Russia has been frightened by NATO’s aggressive manoeuvrings, has been gaining unwarranted currency in some western circles – and Moscow no doubt is anxious to knock that hypothesis on the head).

So why might ‘the war’ be off?  After all this concerted and hyped talk of imminent Russian action? Well, if it has – it is probably for one banal, yet pressing, reason.  Biden and his Team are spooked by the surging inflation in the US which they see as threatening to act as a final nail in the coffin of their hopes to save at least something from the 2022 Congressional midterms.

Biden has notably failed to persuade Saudi Arabia and OPEC to bring down the price of oil. America is home to big gas-guzzling cars, and gasoline prices at the pump have soared. The voters are hurting, and are angry.  His Administration sought to stem the energy price spike by releasing oil from the US strategic reserve, but the amount disbursed was so derisory, that prices not only failed to fall — they accelerated their rise instead. Team Biden, of course, will realise that any war with Russia will result in panic in the commodity markets, which will only further seal the Democrats’ fate in 2022.

There may be contrarian voices around the beltway suggesting that an Ukraine war would finally achieve America’s long-standing objective to disrupt, and sever, the energy corridor linking Russia to a dependent EU.  But political realities at the apex of power are short-term, and heavily focussed on managing daily media narratives: Biden watches the TV and sees that gas prices are badly hurting his fragile poll ratings. He wants prices down now.  The ‘long war’ to pressure Europe to switch to (expensive) American liquified natural gas, and away from (cheap) piped Russian natural gas, can be put on the ‘long finger’.

These hawkish Beltway voices may be wrong – as of now – but that does not mean for always. If Biden’s ratings tumble further to ‘Code Red’, then playing the role of Wartime Commander-in-Chief may hold irresistible appeal – especially if the latent economic crisis (that is coming down the path anyway), can then be blamed on Putin, and not held to the account of a failure of Administration policies.

So why is the conflict very likely already ‘baked-in’? It is because Kiev cannot ‘do’ Minsk. This was the agreement reached by the Normandy Four Powers that the only solution to the ‘breakaway’, culturally Russophile, eastern provinces of Ukraine was to be found between the authorities in Kiev, together with the political leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Kiev can’t, and won’t implement the Minsk Agreement. Certainly, Zelensky doesn’t have the political support to implement it. In fact, Kiev is in the legislative process of bailing out from the Minsk framework. Yet, the Minsk framework is no bilateral affair. It was put to the UN Security Council by Russia, and was approved. It is international law. Germany and France repeatedly say that they are committed to it.

Except, they aren’t. And Ukraine teeters on the brink of implosion — full spectrum implosion (maybe even as early as this winter). It seems that the ruling party is split and that Zelensky has lost parliament, and risks being ousted.  He has been assuaging the hard-nationalists, but that is unlikely to save him. The economy is in freefall, and will shortly (when the Gazprom contract runs out in 2024) lose the $3 billion in gas-transit fees – and worse, has no obvious replacement for Ukraine’s energy needs now, and after 2024.

The EU faces an impasse. It is on the one hand, fully committed to Ukraine in a way that is nigh irreversible (in the wake of the EU reaction to the Crimea referendum to join Russia), but the means to resolve the issue politically are at an impasse. All routes out of the crisis presently are blocked: Kiev will not implement Minsk; Russia insists on it. There is no other known framework on anyone’s ‘table’.

The West’s answer: Pressure Putin to bypass Minsk; to bypass, and cut the feet from under the Donetsk and Lugansk leaders; and for Russia to ‘give way’ on the latter’s existential interests in order ‘to save Ukraine’. That is to say, save a rabidly anti-Russian political élite (desperate to join NATO as its only way to survive) from its own dysfunctional mess, and then supply this hostile entity with Russian gas and coal, and pay it hefty gas transition fees.

Well, Putin won’t do it: He declines to participate in a summit with Zelensky – a summit that expressly would bypass the legal internal framework to Minsk, and transform it into an international bilateral treaty between Putin and Zelensky alone. Putin wants no part of it.

The impasse is unsustainable in the medium term. Kiev in the interim may implode politically; go broke; or its hardliners will risk it all, in a feint, through claiming that Russia plans intend imminently to seize all or part of Ukraine.  Whereas it is, all along, elements in Kiev who plan to mobilise (against Donbass), precisely because they wish to trigger a Russian intervention — they need a Russian ‘invasion’.  Ultimately, they believe, it may save them.

They may calculate that Europe initially might try to stand aloof from the military conflict; after all, Europe has its own energy crisis brewing for this winter, which can only be resolved by an increased supply of Russian gas.

The calculus probably is that the EU, under pressure from Team Biden, ultimately would throw their hand in with Kiev. They would probably be right.

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