A mid-winter game of geopolitical chess with Ukraine’s fate hanging in the balance

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

Russian tanks and mechanized infantry are churning dangerously close to Ukraine’s borders.

Politicians are in overdrive trying to find new adjectives and soundbites to describe the combustible situation.  Diplomats throughout Europe and the USA are trying to stop the clock on what’s presumed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most recent military gamble to dismember a neighboring European country.

Mars, the god of war, is smiling as the world looks to the near cyclical crisis in Ukraine with the trepidation of “what’s next?”

Hardly a small or forgotten piece of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine is the size of France and with a population of 43 million forms the geopolitical nexus connecting Western Europe with the Russian heartland.

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea on Jan. 18. / AP

Traditionally, the coveted “caught in the middle” borderland territory, Ukraine is historically viewed by Moscow as a “little brother” who must be brought back to Mother Russia by whatever means.

Ukrainians largely scoff at this suggestion and cherish their post-Soviet independence and sovereignty since 1991. Still, Moscow has always been able to play upon the ethnic divisions in the society; the “fault lines” that could tear this huge land asunder.

In 2014, Putin made the first military move, supporting pro-Russian “separatists” in eastern Ukraine bordering Russia. The so-called Donbas region remains under Moscow’s de  facto occupation. Then came the bigger prize, seizing the Crimean Peninsula historically home to the Black Sea fleet and territorially significant in Russia’s long history.

During the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the U.S. Obama Administration huffed and puffed politically and rhetorically, threatened but did nothing substantive to stop Putin.

This was duly noted.

Longtime bi-partisan calls in Washington to bring Ukraine into the NATO alliance have fallen on fallow ground given Ukraine’s own democratic but weak governmental institutions and massive corruption.

Sentiments to integrate Ukraine into the Atlantic Alliance (such as Poland in 1999 and the Baltic States in 2004) are viewed by the Kremlin as a political red line, and a casus belli for attack.

Despite having considerable political sympathy in the United States, Canada and Europe, Ukraine is not a NATO member nor part of the European Union.  This point is key as it underscores neither any legal treaty nor defense commitment to safeguard Ukraine’s borders and sovereignty.

Fast forward to the present.  In the aftermath of America’s appalling Afghan debacle, global dictators gloated from Minsk to Moscow and Beijing.

The blood was in the water.

President Joe Biden’s chaotic and weaving press conference swerved into a snowbank when asked about possible invasion of Ukraine.  Biden asserted, “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do.” Invasion versus Incursion?

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky nervously countered, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations!”

A week of frantic diplomacy in Moscow, Berlin and Geneva set the table but failed to bring substantive results. Sanctions and symbolic posturing will do little to deter Moscow. Russia demands written guarantees that Ukraine not be brought into the NATO military alliance.

But are Russian forces numbering approximately 125,000 really sufficient to invade and occupy such a large country holding the defensive advantage and in the midst of Winter?

The Europeans talk tough but remain dangerously dependent on Russian natural gas for heating and industry, especially Germany.

While Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s whirlwind visit to Berlin “proved the worth of Transatlantic relations,” noted a leading figure in the Opposition, “There’s not enough U.S. diplomatic coordination with the Europeans,” he added.

Indeed, Germany’s new Social-Democrat government coalition is divided over the newly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline (which Biden’s blessed by the way), with Russia to face shutdown even before it comes on line. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, of the Green Party, to her credit opposes this new natural gas pipeline making Germany even more dependent on Russian energy.

Why not bring it to the UN Security Council?  Many significant meetings concerning Ukraine in recent years saw feathers fly. We know Russia will use its sledgehammer veto to any substantive resolution but let’s get them on record defending their actions.  Put Putin on the diplomatic defensive.

Is Mars still smiling or smirking; Will the West, lacking any legal obligation, militarily confront Moscow? Or will Washington possibly blunder into a conflict on Putin’s home turf?  Sane observers hope neither.

So, this comes down to the icy tough and mercurial Vladimir Putin playing Russia’s standoff with the West over Ukraine. It’s a game of geopolitical chess.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]