What does Russia really want? Is Russia really interested in having a small, tiny strip of Ukraine soil, to integrate into their country?… I think Putin is putting pressure because he knows he can do it, he knows he can split the European Union. But what he really wants is respect… And my god, giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost.
(We) need Russia against China….Having (such a) big country which is not a democracy, a partner on our side…keeps Russia away from China… We also have to address what’s happening in Ukraine. The Crimea peninsula is gone, it’s never coming back. This is a fact.”
So said Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach, former German naval chief, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) on 21 January.
Between US President Joe Biden’s faux pas on a possible “minor incursion” into Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and Schonbach’s comments at the Delhi-based think-tank last week, the Western coalition’s goose on Russia seems well and truly cooked.
Schonbach was forced to quit his high-profile job Sunday because of his recklessness, while Biden has since backtracked on his indiscretion – Russia will pay a heavy price if any of its troops cross the border into Ukraine, he has now said.
But even before their talks in Geneva Friday on the matter of Ukraine, both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov knew that this was hardly a Cold War-type, eye-to-eye confrontation – definitely not like the Bay of Pigs situation in 1962 – and that the US was not going to defend Ukraine if Russia invaded.
Over the next few weeks, both sides will make suitable noises and a settlement will likely be cobbled together. Certainly, after the Afghanistan debacle, the US doesn’t have the stomach to fight someone else’s war, not even Ukraine’s. No wonder the Taliban leadership is in talks with half of Europe’s representatives in Oslo (Norway), even as this article goes to the press.
In fact, Blinken has promised in Geneva that the US will soon respond to Russian questions on Ukraine and NATO expansion “in writing” – just as the President Putin has demanded.
So the question is, why has Germany’s former naval chief been sacked for saying in Delhi what every leader around the world is privately thinking?
Schonbach shows the mirror
Certainly, the Western coalition will hope that Schonbach’s forced resignation will mollify Ukraine – after all, he has clearly stated that Russia isn’t giving Crimea back. So the question is, if Western leaders are more or less agreed that Ukraine should remain part of Russia’s informal sphere of influence, then why guillotine Schonbach? In fact, it is worth hearing his IDSA speech in full, precisely because it is so clear and doesn’t hide behind the rhetoric that most politicians employ as a matter of course.
Here are 3 main points that Schonbach makes in his IDSA speech:
First, Putin wants the respect of the world and he should be given it. Let’s, for a moment, look at the background. Soon after Putin became president in 2000, Russia asked to join NATO. Russia was still emerging from its Chechnya war and quite economically weak; Putin’s argument was that since the Soviet Union was dead, former enemies could well become friends. But there was no response from NATO.
How things have changed. Russia’s international presence, from Afghanistan to Libya to Kazakhstan, is much greater today – just this month, Putin sent Russian troops to control the riots in Almaty, caused by a disaffected population striking over the price of fuel.
This brings us to Schonbach’s second point, which is that Putin’s Crimea grab in 2014 was about reasserting Moscow’s supremacy in Ukraine, which, like the Baltic republics, the US has sought to make a frontline state to Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992. (Remember that the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea includes nuclear-capable cruisers and submarines, although the warheads are stored elsewhere in Russia.)
“The Crimea peninsula is gone, it’s never coming back. This is a fact. We have to learn that political issues are factual questions, not emotions,” Schonbach said in his IDSA speech.
According to Schonbach, Putin’s hard-nosed position on Ukraine is not really about a “tiny strip of Ukraine soil,” but the implied demand to be treated as an equal. Schonbach indicates this should be easy to do, not only because “giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost,” but because the alternative is far worse: The West will be pushing Russia into China’s embrace.
This third point lies at the heart of Schonbach’s speech: That it’s high time the free world begins to understand that China is the greater enemy, not Russia. He agrees that Russia is hardly a democracy, but says that the West must nevertheless continue to see it as a partner because doing so “keeps Russia away from China.”
“China needs the resources of Russia” — no doubt to make itself more powerful — and is getting them because “sometimes, our sanctions are going the wrong way,” Schonbach says.
Certainly, Schonbach was showing the mirror to folks back home. He was pointing out that in this rough world, democratic nations should concentrate their attention on collectively fighting China’s “hegemonic power.” He admits that former Chancellor Angela Merkel was unwilling to do so, because her priority was to keep Germany’s GDP up and that the huge Chinese market persuaded her to follow that path. The new government in Germany, he indicates, will likely follow a more human rights-friendly path.
What this means for India
Should India have a view on the Ukraine crisis, considering it has little skin in the game? Certainly, India has close relations with both the US and Russia, the two key protagonists in this quarrel. Moreover, as India expands its ambitions and seeks to influence the world stage, it will increasingly be called upon to pick and choose and state its position.
So in November 2020, India voted against a UN resolution sponsored by Ukraine on human rights violations in the Crimea – meaning, it backed the Russian position against the US. Back in 2014 during the Manmohan Singh government, then National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon had said that Russia had “legitimate interests” in the Crimea.
That’s why, in response to Schonbach’s surprisingly frank comments at the IDSA Friday, director-general Sujan Chinoy responded by saying, “We cannot agree with you more as India has a strong, strategic partnership with Russia and Russia is among our closest friends.”
Perhaps the Russian sale of sophisticated S-400 missiles to India has something to do with it. Or the supply of Russian equipment to Indian troops holding the LAC firm against China. Perhaps, Schonbach is right on this score as well: that Putin wants to wean himself away from Xi Jinping’s embrace and is hoping leaders elsewhere, like Narendra Modi and Joe Biden, will throw him a lifeline.
Still, Schonbach, like a fiery cracker, will soon retire into the night, having momentarily illuminated the Ukraine crisis. Perhaps, he may have spoken too much – but the fact remains that the rest of us are all the more richer for it.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)