Gambit (?æm·b?t): noun; a clever action in a game or other situation that is intended to achieve an advantage and usually involves taking a risk.
For the past several weeks, in particular, the Ukrainians, the EU, the USA among others have been speculating and commenting on the Russian troop build-up on the eastern border of the Ukraine. More recently, Russian troops have been building up on the Belarussian border to Ukraine’s north.
The assorted commentators speculate that Russia is planning to invade the Ukraine while Moscow has insisted it has no such intention and has simultaneously accused Ukraine and its allies of making up the claim to cover for their own aggression.
The origins of this issue go back years Ukraine was part of the Russian empire for centuries before becoming a Soviet republic and winning independence when the USSR broke up in 1991. The country subsequently shed its Imperial Russian legacy and looked to forge closer ties with the West. In 2014, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow sparking large public protests and his ousting. Russia responded by annexing the Crimea and unofficially supporting a separatist insurgency in the Donbas region of Ukraine’s east.
More recently, Moscow has accused Ukraine of failing to honour the 2015 peace deal and criticized the West for failing to encourage Ukrainian compliance. Moscow has also strongly complained about the U.S. and NATO providing Ukraine with lethal weapons saying that encourages Ukrainian hawks to try to regain the rebel-held areas by force.
But most of all and for several years, Russian President Putin has repeatedly condemned Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO saying that their inclusion into NATO would represent a ‘red line’ for Moscow. Russia will not tolerate having NATO on its western border and at present, only Ukraine, Belarus and (comparatively) Finland offer a bulwark. Putin also expressed serious concern about plans by some NATO members to set up military training centres in Ukraine giving NATO a military foothold without Ukraine actually joining NATO.
Putin is seeking “reliable and long-term security guarantees” from the U.S. and its allies “that would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.” Further, he agreed to substantive talks adding that Moscow would need not just verbal assurances, but “legal guarantees.”
So, the most recent troop build-up and menacing of Ukraine may be a gambit to convince NATO that the security of Russia’s border will not be compromised by Ukraine’s desire to philosophically shift to the West.
Indeed, only a few days ago Putin noted with satisfaction that Moscow’s warnings were finally gaining ‘traction’ and causing concern in the West. He added: “It’s necessary to keep them in that condition for as long as possible so that it doesn’t occur to them to stage some conflict on our western borders that we don’t need.”
This issue will be resolved if the Ukraine provides a legal guarantee they will not join NATO and NATO exercises in the Ukraine will be prohibited. In return Russia will legally guarantee that Ukraine’s borders will be respected and the separatists in Donbas will be actively discouraged and no support will be forthcoming from Moscow. International observers will verify.
The Crimea could be officially ‘retuned’ to Russian territory by the Ukraine in return for, say, free Russian gas to the Ukraine for the next 20 years.
Whilst those terms may seem fanciful, the truth is that there is no upside for Moscow in an invasion of the Ukraine – the lost lives of Russian soldiers and lost treasure (through resulting global sanctions) will be very significant. Russian troops will overwhelm the Ukrainian forces but it is certain to be hard fought. And for what? To carve the Ukraine in half along the Dnieper River? Not to mention that the NATO forces are suddenly a lot closer.
For the Ukraine, a legal agreement will secure all of its borders, including the re-claiming of the Donbas region, and although the Crimea is permanently lost, it could be argued it is already permanently lost and the free gas to the rest of the nation is fair compensation. (Russia will never return the Crimea to Ukrainian control if for no other reason than the Russian Navy needs the warm water port of Sevastopol). We may be witnessing one of the greatest geopolitical gambits in recent history. Or, we may wake up one morning in the coming days/weeks to news that Russia has invaded. Interesting times.