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Explained: Why Russia may not annex Ukraine's Donbas region

Asianet Newsable speaks to Dr Swasti Rao, Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar-IDSA's Europe and Eurasia Centre. 

Explained Russia Ukraine tiff over Donbas; EU, NATO, US sanction threat to Nord Stream 2
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New Delhi, First Published Jan 13, 2022, 11:06 AM IST
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With Russia amassing over one lakh troops along its border with Ukraine, the United States, the European Union and other global platforms are apprehensive that Moscow might invade and capture the Ukrainian territory in the days to come as it did with Crimea in 2014. That was the first time since World War II that any European country had annexed the territory of any other country. 

Prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine was the second largest and powerful Soviet republic after Russia. After the split, Russia and the West have always tried to influence the country to keep the balance of power in the region in their favour. Russia and the United States recently held seven-hour-long talks on the Ukraine issue in Geneva wherein Moscow assured Washington that it has no intention or plan to attack Ukraine and that whatever military activity is being carried out is well inside its own territory. 

The United States has repeatedly urged Russia to de-escalate the situation and remove its soldiers from Ukraine's border. However, Russia did not pay any heed to it and instead asked for NATO to step back from eastern Europe.

To understand the unfolding situation, Asianet Newsable reached out to Dr Swasti Rao, Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar-IDSA's Europe and Eurasia Centre.

Watch the video or read further

Russia-Ukraine situation: What is the current status?

Russia has deployed a huge number of troops along its border with Ukraine (which is the eastern side of Ukraine) and the region is called Donbas. It has 38-39 per cent of ethnic Russians which make up the biggest minority and Russia has been fanning separatism in that region for decades now. 

Why are NATO, Ukraine and European Union worried? 

It is because in 2014 we saw Russia annexing Crimea unilaterally, regardless of all the sanctions that were put in place by the West, the UN, the EU, etc. Because of that, there is a fear in the western side of the world, especially the United States, NATO and the European Union that Russia could again intervene and invade Ukraine and change the status quo. And if that happens that is going to be taken very seriously. 

Russia has been deploying several techniques and strategies to isolate Ukraine and that really needs to be kept in mind. So what is Russia doing? It is deploying different types of tactics to strategically and economically isolate Ukraine. On the strategic front, Russia is fanning separatism in the particular border area of Ukraine, where there is a Russian population. The same thing had happened in Crimea in 2014. On the economic front, Russia is politicising a very economic project that is called Nord Stream 2 which is basically a gas pipeline. 

What is the importance of the gas pipeline?

Nord Stream 2 is a very expensive pipeline project, which will begin from Russia and come directly to Germany, bypassing other States. We say bypassing because there already exists a kind of network of gas pipelines that are coming from Russia and bringing gas into Europe. Till now what was happening was that these pipelines were passing through Ukraine, Poland and other countries and they were paid certain transit fees. For Ukraine, the transit fees had been extremely important for the economy. It was about three per cent of Ukraine’s GDP. 

Russia wants to bypass Ukraine and directly go into Germany. Now, Ukraine alleges that this is a tactic that Russia does intentionally to economically isolate and weaken them. The heart of the strategies is that Russia wants to annexe the part of Donbas. 

In the hands of the West, the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline is their biggest weapon against Russia. It is a very expensive project. Ukraine and others have argued that instead of building a new pipeline, why could not Russia repair the existing ones? And Russia could have repaired the old ones at a cheaper price. Bu Moscow wanted to isolate Ukraine. 

Does the West want to send a strong message to Russia?

Right now, what is happening is that the work is completed at Nord Stream 2. The line is totally ready but the gas is not flowing because the German Gas Regulator has put up some restrictions. It has put up some stoppages and until these things are not cleared from the German side the gas will not flow. This is just happening superficially. What is really happening deep down is that the West is also trying to set a strong message to Russia that if they mess, invade or unilaterally change the status quo with Ukraine, Russia will be slapped with major economic sanctions. This would also include the major Russian venture, in which 50 per cent of shares are held by the Russian energy firm called Gazprom, and the other 50 per cent is divided among some other European companies. The Russian company could lose the profits that Nord Stream 2 would make if sanctions are imposed. This is what the West is trying to do. 

Is Russia apprehensive about Ukraine joining NATO?

Just close to Ukraine, there are states like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that are actually the NATO frontline against Russia. So, Russia is also understanding how sensitive these regions are. The more Russia fans separatism carries out its hybrid warfare, isolates Ukraine strategically and economically, the more Kiev will fall into the lap of the US-led military coalition which Russia does not want. It has really become a low-grade conflict zone out there about which not just Ukraine, but the West, EU and all the actors are very apprehensive.

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