Russia vs. Ukraine: The Moment of Reckoning
A threatened Ukraine is looking warily over its eastern borders, as alerts of Russian troops advancing closer threaten the post-Soviet state’s security. In recent weeks, prolonged buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border has rattled Western leaders, making them fearful of an incursion similar to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
As Russia continues to mobilize troops, observers believe that Ukraine’s separation from the USSR was not well accepted by current Russian leaders. Supporting the ongoing venture, Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly stated his willingness to use “retaliatory measures'' as tensions with the United States over Ukrainian independence rise. An open critic of Russia’s military build-up, US President Joe Biden has further threatened the use of harsh economic sanctions, in an attempt to defuse the situation and counter Russian military actions. Diplomatic conferences between American and Russian officials in early December 2021 had seemed to settle tensions, although recent Russian ultimatums indicate a potential abandonment of diplomatic efforts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has tirelessly stressed on the idea of Russians and Ukrainians being “one people”, which his 5000-word essay on the ‘Historical unity of Russians and Ukranians’ reiterated. In this essay, he blames Ukraine’s separation from Russia on the West, alleging a divide and rule strategy that is “nothing new”. Vocalizing the unity of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, he dated it back to when each one was a descendant of the Ancient Rus, the historically largest state in Europe. He claimed that “the history of the eastern European states largely determines their affinity”. President Putin voiced that “common faith and shared cultural traditions” are the core of a single Soviet state. While urging for the incorporation of all west Russian lands, he continued to blame western forces for having “attacked the Soviets’ spiritual unity”.
As seen in President Putin’s consecutive speech annotating Crimea’s annexation in 2014, he justified the invasion by saying “Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride”. In March of 2014, the incursion in Crimea labeled as its “liberation”, was achieved with stealth. Russian soldiers, local militias and civilian volunteers from Moscow formed a legion, and executed their advance with tacit aggression. Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, a major port on the Black Sea and “a fortress that serves as the birthplace of the Black Sea Fleet”, was a significant territorial asset to the Russian navy. To facilitate the annexation politically, the Russian-backed Crimean Parliament and the Sevastopol City Council announced a referendum on the issue of joining Russia. The envisaged process was designed to allow Russia to reject allegations of annexations and rather claim that “Ukraine exercised its sovereign powers in seeking a merge with Russia”.
Enter the Russo-Ukrainian war, the ongoing and protracted conflict that centered around the status of Crimea, remains disputed internationally. Russia with some Asian and African states among others such as Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Belarus and North Korea continue to recognize the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea. Ukraine, among the majority of the western states, consider both the autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol as subdivisions of Ukraine, under Ukraine territory and subject to Ukrainian law. This debate caused a political divide between Ukrainian citizens, rooting a belief in the Donbass region of being abandoned by the Ukrainian government. However, the conflict against Russia allowed Ukraine’s entry into the western bloc. US and Ukrainian relations have been flourishing in recent weeks as U.S president Joe Biden expressed his support for Ukrainian sovereignty amid the ongoing rivalry.
A video call between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin may have delayed the rising concerns of a looming invasion in Ukraine, but the urge for invasion does not seem to have disappeared. In Putin's eyes, not only is Ukraine the key to Russia’s goals of resurrecting the Soviet Union, or enlarging its territory, it also presents an opportunity to increase Russia’s geopolitical relevance. Russia sees Ukraine’s major port cities as an opportunity to increase its maritime presence. Additionally, major industrial cities such as Luhansk, contain power plants, a key asset to Russian industrialization, all while distancing Ukraine from organizations such as NATO and the European Union.
The most depraved scenario for Putin, is the case of a formal NATO membership for Ukraine, which Russia is adamant to prevent. This is since NATO’s membership has doubled since its birth and is increasing its eastern sphere of influence, threatening Russia’s proclaimed clout in the region. NATO allies now include former Warsaw pact members, who were once loyal to the Russian military endeavors. In mid-November, Putin stated that “Western states do not respect Russian interests and ultimatums, and the only way to get them to do so is by keeping tensions high and threatening force”. Russia is committed to stopping NATO’s military expansion to the east including Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania, which in essence is to return NATO to its pre-1997 borders.
With increasing relations between NATO and Ukraine, there is a fear of NATO establishing bases in Ukraine which directly threaten Russia and it’s deterrence capabilities. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, has made it clear that NATO’s western military alliance is solely defensive, and any military support to Ukraine is purely along these lines. “It is up to Ukraine and the 30 NATO allies to decide when Ukraine is ready to join the alliance”, Mr. Stoltenberg has said, following which he mentions that “Russia has no veto and no right to interfere in that process”. The Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) was introduced to Ukraine in 2016, designed to support Ukraine’s ability to provide its own security, consisting of trust funds and capacity-building programmes. Further, NATO has also increased its presence in the Black Sea, with regular consultations at the succeeding NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC), in view of the direct threats faced by Ukraine to its political independence and security. Relations between NATO and Ukraine date back to the early 1990s, and have since matured into one of the most significant of NATO’s partnerships, in the wake of the critical Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
President Biden met with Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, at the White House in early September of last year, reaffirming the US government’s support for the post-Soviet state, dating back to 1991. The meeting covered a wide agenda centering around increased military aid and a NATO membership for Ukraine. In a joint statement following their meeting, the two leaders laid out shared goals on a number of issues, including democracy, human rights, climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic but pressingly, Russian aggression. The western state has been pledging more than $2.5 billion in military aid since the 2014 incursion in Ukraine. As Biden mentioned, “The US has shown continued support for Ukraine's sovereignty, security and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression”.
On the other hand, a video conference held between President Biden and his Russian counterpart was a conversation on setting ultimatums at each other’s advances. President Biden made it clear that the “US would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation”. President Putin was not conciliatory, demanding legal guarantees that NATO would not further expand eastward towards Russia’s borders, or deploy offensive weapon systems in Ukraine.
Alas, in recent weeks diplomatic pressure is increasing, wherein Russian diplomats have said that talks with the West are approaching a “dead end”. Russian officials have been firm on receiving written responses to its demands from Washington D.C and NATO, keeping military aggression a potential reality.
Not only is the Russo-Ukrainian tension causing a security dilemma on both sides, civilian settlements around the border seem to be having varying experiences. A west-Ukrainian village, Dibrova, is surrounded by Russia on three sides, to which there were no borders to cross, and civilians were allowed to enter freely. A fenced border has now been constructed, creating a commute barrier for civilians that had close and often personal ties in the Russian area. However, civilian interviews conducted by DW news show oblivion within the community, with civilians claiming no sightings of the Russian military.
Contrastingly, Ukrainians in Donbas, the country’s eastern conflict zone, are in a deepening humanitarian crisis with growing Russian intervention and Ukrainian government policies. Many complain that their country has forgotten about their plight, with a growing state of abandonment from Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. As hostilities continue, citizens in the eastern border region are food-insecure and unemployed as many face poverty. Civilians urge governments to carry out the security provisions they committed to in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements, centering around the “pull-out of all heavy weapons by both sides to equal distance”. Human Rights Watch reported at least 3077 civilians have been killed, while more than 7000 have been injured since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war, as it monitored the uptick in hostilities since the early weeks of April 2021. .
This civilian divide has caused the emergence of two radically different regions within the country, with an ethnic western Ukraine, and a Russia-oriented eastern region. Not only is this a growing ethnic divide, it is also becoming a political one, splitting the country into pro-Russia and pro-Europe factions. The 2014 Euromaidan protests in Kyiv compared to the upheaval in the east Donbass region illustrate this divide. While in the former, Ukrainians took to the streets to demand closer relations with the EU, the later protests demanded union with Russia. Both conflicts caused displacement, civilian loss of life, destruction of infrastructure, and a humanitarian crisis in the divided territory of Ukraine.
The Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015 serve as a template for diplomats to come to a resolution, and diffuse the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict. Written by Ukraine, the Russian Federation and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the protocol remains pertinent in meeting demands of all parties. The agreements particularly centered around an “immediate ceasefire”, “exchange of hostages” and “distribution of humanitarian aid”. Unfortunately as reported by Ukrainian news agency UNIAN in 2018, not a single provision of the agreements had been implemented. While in 2015, the agreement reduced intensified hostilities, minor skirmishes continued.
Ukraine faces overwhelming odds in its fight for its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, although it needs to take a pause to consider the conflict’s impact on the state’s alienated citizens. With tensions rising at the Russo-Ukrainian border, previous protocols need to be revised, particularly the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015. Officials from both parties have accepted that the two sides are engaged in a standoff with no clear resolution. Diplomatic conferences have shown to be a catalyst to downplay threats from both parties, as NATO promised that they will make every effort to find “a political way forward”. Transforming these promises into legal guarantees and treaties have been key in the past, and are still imperative in today’s conflict. Taking civilian unrest into consideration, with almost one million reports of displacement, the UN calls for “immediate de-escalation” of forces. The UN continued to urge for “earnest attempts” to peacefully resolve years of simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Edited by Veda Rodewald and Eshal Zahur
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