For weeks, Russia has amassed over one hundred thousand troops at its border with Ukraine. This has sent security, political and economic jitters throughout Europe and further afield. However, in a sign of possible de-escalation, Russian president, Vladimir Putin announced at the beginning of the week that he was withdrawing some troops from the border following drills around Ukraine.
Nonetheless, talk of troop withdrawals has been met with caution by some in the West. The European Union’s (EU) top diplomat, Josep Borrell said in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on February 16, that those withdrawal announcements need to be checked. “Russia is playing hot and cold,” Borrell mentioned to French radio station France Inter on Wednesday. According to Borrell, “There are encouraging signs maybe, but we need to verify them.”
Borrell’s remarks reflect the distrust that exists at the moment between Russia and the West. The EU’s top diplomat also said that the current geopolitical standoff between Russia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Ukraine is the “worst crisis” Europe has lived through “since the end of the Cold War.”
Open conflict or even heightened tensions arising from the Russia-Ukraine standoff would not be confined between those two Parties, but the repercussions are likely to be felt around the world. Robert Burns, writing for the Associated Press, reminds us that war, by its very nature is unpredictable, and the stakes are enormous. For Burns, at risk is the European security order established after World War II and then altered peacefully with the reunification of Germany, the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO.
The United States (US) and other NATO Members have said that they will not fight Russia in Ukraine, thereby avoiding an automatic war between Russia and NATO. However, Burns argues that should a Russian offensive go beyond Ukraine’s borders onto NATO territory, the US could get drawn into it because of the bloc’s collective defense obligations.
A war in Europe would undoubtedly set the world back economically, especially at a time of fragile economic recovery from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The world is facing strong economic headwinds, including record inflation in several countries, supply chain disruptions and high energy prices. In the event of war, these problems will magnify and impact every country, some more profoundly than others.
It is impossible to predict how this standoff will ultimately unfold. Perhaps Russia is bluffing and there will be no invasion of Ukraine. Equally, perhaps Russia is not bluffing, and an all-out war will take place. Come what may, given the complex and interdependent nature of the world, insecurity, war and disruptions are also our collective burdens to bear.
Russia’s announcement that it is withdrawing some troops from the Ukrainian border certainly offers hope of de-escalation. However, what is also required are confidence building measures between the West and Russia. Open lines of communication, diplomacy and clear rules of engagement are necessary. It has been three decades since the end of the Cold War. At this stage, a hot war is certainly in no one’s interest.
Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.