Omer Onhon

War in Ukraine is Getting Sharper and More Complicated

President Joe Biden continues to announce military aid packages. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have visited Kyiv and reiterated their country’s resolve to stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggression.

Among all political declarations, Secretary of Defense Austin’s statement was the most memorable one. He stated that “the US wants to see Russia weakened to the degree that it cannot do the kind of things that it has done in invading Ukraine”.

Upon the initiative of the US, 43 countries from NATO, the EU and others, which included Japan, Qatar, Jordan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Morocco Tunisia, Kenya, Israel came together in Ramstein. This air base is the headquarters to the US Air Forces in Europe and Africa and the NATO Allied Air Command.

The extent to which these countries will contribute to supporting Ukraine will vary. Germany’s announcement that it would provide anti aircraft systems to Ukraine was most striking. This follows their previous decision to supply anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles to Ukraine.

Russia warned that arming Ukraine threatens Europe’s security. Lavrov accused NATO of carrying out a proxy war against Russia and pointed to “a real danger of a third world war”.

Putin said that any country trying to intervene in the Ukraine war will face a "lightning-fast" response. He said that Russia has all the tools and is ready to use them if necessary.

Russia also responded by weaponizing its energy resources, once again. In the past, Russia had cut gas deliveries to Ukraine and Georgia. Now, implementing its threat of stopping gas exports to unfriendly countries, Gasprom is no longer sending gas to Poland and Bulgaria. Poland gets 55 percent of its gas from Russia. In case of Bulgaria, it is 90 percent.

Gazprom’s sales to Europe in 2021 were around 150 bcm. The EU imports around 45 percent of its natural gas and 25 percent of its oil from Russia. That is an import of almost 1 billion dollars worth of energy per day from Putin’s land. In fact, this picture demonstrates that Russia and the EU are mutually dependent on each other.

The EU is looking for ways of reducing its dependency on Russian gas as well as diversification both in terms of type of energy and suppliers. But it is not an easy and quick fix.

Billions of dollars have been invested in the existing gas delivery network. Then, even though Russia does not have a monopoly on either natural gas or means of delivery, it will take time to switch to other suppliers such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iran, Norway, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

What is available and what is not, contractual obligations and geo-strategic and political issues related to alternative countries are also matters which can not be overlooked.

On the other side, it may be easier for Russia to find alternative buyers for its natural gas, at least in the short run.

What role the United Nations has?

At the outset of the war, UN Secretary General Guterres called Russia’s invasion a clear violation of the United Nations Charter and of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Then, until recently, the UN top diplomat was mostly absent.

This week, Guterres went first to Moscow and then to Kyiv. In Moscow, he emphasized that Russian forces are in Ukraine and not the other way round. He expressed deep concern about reported war crimes (by Russia).

What is clear is that they did not agree on the political aspects of the crisis. Guterres said that “Russia till has a different position on what is happening in Ukraine”.

In Kyiv, Guterres made a tour of destroyed cities, expressed his sorrow for what he saw and met with the Ukrainian president.

The UN is quite efficient in humanitarian assistance and related activities. But when it comes to matters such as conflict prevention, the UN is no more than a talk and debate forum. The Organization is squeezed in the palm of permanent members which hold veto power.

Turkish president Erdogan talked to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is trying to be more than a venue provider and trying to facilitate or even mediate a ceasefire and a peace agreement.

Israel is another country which can talk to both sides but is very careful not to irritate Russia.

China may have a leverage on Russia but prefers to watch from a distance.

Now that elections in France are over, President Emmanuel Macron will probably make a move to get back into the stage on Ukraine. Macron sees an opportunity in the Ukraine war. He cautioned that if Europe does not take responsibility and act to solve a European issue, outsiders such as “China and Turkey” may.

Despite all that is going on, Ukrainian and Russian negotiators have not stopped negotiating. There is a draft, maybe more than one. Russia has accused Ukraine of stalling. They say that Ukraine is not serious about negotiations.

The UN Secretary General described the situation as complex and pointed to different interpretations.

I was very cautiously optimistic after the meeting in Istanbul but at present, a breakthrough seems quite distant.