A Sandbox Called Ukraine: Chess, Not Checkers

For months now, Russia has been amassing over 100,000 troops along its borders with Ukraine. Men and machines have been steadily piling up on the Russian side of the border, including self-propelled artillery, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, attack helicopters and even short-range ballistic missiles. The exact moment when Russia chooses to strike is anyone’s guess, but certainly not to one man – Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president has proved to be a master at chess, having dealt with numerous sanctions whilst keeping pace with the United States when it comes to hard power. Such tact, however, is to be expected of a man who was a foreign intelligence officer at the KGB (the Soviet Union’s premier security agency) for 16 years. In fact, he went on to briefly serve as the director of the FSB (the KGB’s successor in modern-day Russia).

Regardless of Putin’s intentions, what is transpiring on the Russo-Ukrainian border is nothing new. Let us go back some 60 odd years when the cold war nearly went ‘hot’. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it came to be known, was the then-Soviet Union’s response to America’s designs – or rather, their missile systems – in Europe.

The presence of American Jupiter ballistic missile systems in Italy and Turkey was a matter of grave concern for the Soviet Union. It gave the United States the capability to strike Moscow if it chose to. The Soviets had no answer. Therefore, stationing their own missiles in Cuba; in America’s backyard, was an excellent deterrent.

Long story short, the Americans objected and the world waited with bated breath as the two superpowers came close to blows. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and both countries backed down and deescalated the situation. Six decades have passed since then but ironically, American missile systems are still present in Europe. The only difference is; these systems are now pointed at Russia.

To top it off, Ukraine has expressed a desire to join NATO and shed it former Soviet Union tag. This would put the US and NATO on Russia’s border, not to mention more missile systems. Additionally, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet would have to contend with US and NATO ships traversing the Black Sea, a region over which Russia has wielded influence for a long time.

Moscow has been very vocal about the US and NATO’s growing support for Kyiv – in terms of military hardware, training and personnel – something it perceives as a huge security threat. Putin has made it clear that he wants legal agreements that prevent NATO’s eastward expansion. In order words, he wants assurances that Ukraine will be denied entry into NATO and the withdrawal of NATO forces from much of Eastern Europe.

While the demands may seem far-fetched to some, one should remember that these are the words of a country that finds itself increasingly surrounded on all fronts. However, for a country that defends its actions in the Crimean Peninsula as a recognition of the inhabitant’s right to self-determination, the two Chechen wars tell a different story.

Incidentally, the Second Chechen War which ended in a Russian victory and the elimination of the Chechen separatist movement, was largely overseen by Vladimir Putin himself. Moscow cannot choose to recognize or brush away such movements according to its whim and fancy.

There is no right side when conflict arises. There are two sides to a coin. Both perspectives need to be analyzed and a compromise reached. A military conflict in Ukraine will benefit neither parties. The need of the hour is a peaceful resolution to the conflict which will have global repercussions if it goes hot.

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