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Warm water, NATO at the heart of Russia-Ukraine conflict

A woman walks past Ukrainian soldiers guarding a road that leads to a government block, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 24, 2022. [Reuters]

Crude oil, metals and machinery account for the bulk of Russia's exports. And herein lies one of the biggest challenges that Russia has to confront.

In winter, many of its ports freeze, meaning that ships cannot dock to bring goods or leave with exports.

One of the few viable options open to it is to use the warm water port of Sevastopol.

Russia needs access to this port to guarantee access of its ships to the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

The only problem is that Sevastopol is in Ukraine and that leaves Russia with only two options; either use force to ensure that the port remains within its control, or cajole the Ukrainian government to ensure the port remains available for Russia's use throughout the year.

But Russia considers itself the mother of Ukraine, a country that came to be when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) disintegrated in 1991 under the watch of Mikhail Gorbachev - the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union.

Russia is also better armed. In fact, it has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons - enough to destroy nine planets the size of the Earth.

Given all these, it makes more sense for Russia to use fire and force to ensure that the Sevastopol port is available for its use at any given moment.

As such, "Military Diplomacy" is the more appealing option for Russia's leadership, which is well known for its bare-knuckled approach to dealing with its critics and enemies.

 For Vladimir Putin, the use of military force is preferable to talking nicely to Ukraine's leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who, since his election in 2019, has been leaning ever closer to the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member States.

Ukraine shares a border with Russia. In June 2020, Ukraine entered into some form of partnership with NATO – known as the Membership Action Plan. Although it is not a full member of NATO, this has made Russia both uncomfortable and vulnerable from a military point of view.

NATO serves one basic purpose: To protect the freedoms its member States enjoy. And this it guarantees through both political and military means.

Again, this places Ukraine squarely in Russia's cross-hairs, first because Russia is not a member of NATO and secondly because, if Ukraine becomes part of NATO, Russia will never sleep easy.

It will always worry that NATO's military might can be deployed from Ukraine, which is nothing more than a small, inconvenient prodigal child, at least in Russia's eyes.

In their book, Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall and Emily Hawkins argue that this is at the heart of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

 It means, in times of war, NATO forces can use a land route from Europe to attack Russia's infantry or launch land-to-air missiles from close range.

It also means that Russia would not be able to import or export goods, supplies and weapons through the Port of Sevastopol, basically meaning it cannot even use the port to import food or station its navy in warm waters during winter or access the Atlantic Ocean in the event of a war.

This is not a position that Russia would like to find itself in.

First, it has antagonised too many investors from Europe and America, countries that form the bulk of NATO's members.

Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces stand next to a tripod-mounted missile system outside Kharkiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. [Reuters]

When Russia started to embrace capitalism towards the end of Boris Yeltsin's tenure in the late 1990s, many European investors moved to Moscow to cash in on the liberalisation of the economy.

They bought heavily into Russia's telecommunications, oil and gas companies, which were being privatised and whose shares were being sold at a small fraction of their true value.

One of those investors was Bill Browder, whose tribulations with the Russian government and its leadership under Putin is graphically retold in his book, Red Notice.

Secondly, Russia does not always see eye-to-eye with its European and American counterparts on the international stage.

In recent years, it has been increasingly isolated with Putin's closest aides being slapped with sanctions curtailing their ability to travel and do business in Europe and America.

 The only exception was the then US President Donald Trump, and his relationship with Russia was part of the campaign issues that led to his ouster by Joe Biden, who has taken a tough stance against Putin, signing a new raft of sanctions only this week.

There is, therefore, no way that Russia's leadership will turn a blind eye to Ukraine's dalliance with NATO. There is just too much at stake economically and militarily.

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