The country of Ukraine finds itself in an all but too familiar situation – a struggle for autonomy. Throughout its history, it has been under the rule of one major power or another, which most often tends to be its neighbour to the East, Russia. A mere 30 years ago, amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union, the independent nation of Ukraine came into existence for the first time in more than six decades. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe by landmass and the eighth largest by population. While the majority of these people, more than ¾ identify as Ukrainian, nearly ⅕ are ethnically Russian. This association with its Eastern neighbour, along with its long shared history, is at the root of the crisis that we are witnessing today. Once again, Ukraine will have to fight for its life and attempt to break free once and for all from Russia.
When Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union it did not do so with any strong sense of antagonism towards the now-defunct Soviet state. After all, the two countries had more in common than their differences. They were clear, however, that they wanted Russia to stay out of its affairs and peacefully co-exist. Russia agreed but in exchange it wanted Ukraine to surrender the remainder of the military equipment which included nuclear warheads that were left behind from the Soviet era. In 1994, an agreement was signed in Budapest. The political struggle in the country over the next decade or so would be between two opposing ideologies. On the one side is the group that is pro-Western, wants to join the EU, and opposes Russian influence over Ukraine. The other is sceptical of the EU and the West and fights for stronger ties with Russia.
In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was elected the president of Ukraine. Yankukovych was previously a member of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Following the dissolution, he focused more on local Ukrainian politics and rose to the position of Prime Minister in the mid-2000s before becoming the president. Yanukovych is among the Ukrainians who identifies more closely with Russia. During his presidency, the EU was in discussions with Ukraine regarding a deal that would bring about closer integration of Ukraine into the EU. Simulatansouly, Russia lead by Putin were offering an alternative deal that would require Ukraine to ignore the EU and instead focus on closer ties with the Russians. There would be an immediate economic package worth $15 billion up for grabs if Yanukovych signed with Putin instead. This is what he eventually ended up doing and it served as the catalyst for the ongoing crisis. Amidst massive protests, Yanukovych was forced to step down and flee to Russia, while Putin decided to annex Crimea. Crimea is a region with a majority Russian population and has within it separatist rebel groups who really do want to be a part of Russia. Putin supported these troops financially and militarily before sending in his own troops to annex the region. It is now officially a federal subject of Russia and while the international community still considers Crimea to be a part of Ukraine, various polls have shown that the Crimeans themselves are in favour of the annexation.
More rebel groups emerged in the eastern-most regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and Putin sees this as an opportunity for further Russian presence in Ukraine. Just as he did in Crimea, he began to support the groups in these two regions. Both regions have proclaimed independent statuses for themselves but Ukraine identifies the regions as being ‘temporarily occupied territories’. The rebel groups that control these regions have been designated as terrorist organisations with whom Ukraine is in a state of conflict.
Since 2014, Russia has been slowly building up its military presence on the border where is has stayed in order to fight against any potential Ukrainian action. The crisis we see today was ignited by Ukraine’s talks with NATO. As Ukraine knows it wont be able to successfully go to war with the Russians by itself, it has sought the help of the larger international community. Putin is extremely vary of the threat that a NATO presence so close to the Russian border would have against his position and as such his decision to invade Ukraine is essentially an effort to keep NATO at arms length. As of right now, NATO has no written agreement which requires it to come to the defence of Ukraine but whether it will do so is of huge consequence to geopolitical developments elsewhere.
While the stated reasoning for why Russia is invading Ukraine revolved around Putin’s belief that Ukraine is a part of Russia and their shared history and culture mean that the two countries should be unified, there are also strategic reasons. As mentioned earlier, Putin wants to fend off NATO from arriving at the Russian border and does not want a NATO ally so close to the Russian mainland. There are also gas pipelines which run through Ukraine that supply gas to the rest of Europe. In 2018, Russia decided to stop using these pipelines as the Ukrainian government was charging a high transit fee. Germany and Russia agreed to build an underwater pipeline called Nord Stream 2 which would bypass Ukraine but that project has now been put on hold as a sanctionary reaction to Russia’s aggression.
While these reasons do exist and they are of legitimacy, to truly understand why Russia is doing what it is doing we must try to understand Putin and his country (of which he is not necessarily the most accurate representation). We know that Putin believes in restoring Russia’s former glory which existed under the Soviet Union. To be one of the two main global powers, if not the only one. He was, after all, a KGB agent himself. His view of himself and that of Russia is that they are a strong and powerful nation who unlike the West are not spoiled by liberalism. When former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was still in office, she would engage with Putin more than any other world leader. Germany and Russia are closely associated when it comes to trade, but their associations go far back in history as well. The Second World War is the most recent of those historical associations. Putin once allowed a dog to enter a meeting between himself and his German counterpart knowing fully well that dogs make Merkel uncomfortable. He did so merely to make Merkel scared and to make a statement – that he is a strong man. Merkel remarked on the event that, “He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
Putin’s popularity within his own country is diminishing especially with the rise of Alexei Navalny who Putin poisoned and imprisoned. Corrupt leaders have a habit of deflecting attention from themselves by entering into conflict with other countries. Putin has always positioned himself as the defender of Russia but in this case, there is no need for a defence as there is no threat. It is unlikely that the Russian youth will be swayed by Putin’s actions. In fact, it will probably only serve to further their dissent towards their president.
China will be monitoring the crisis closely as the US’ involvement or lack thereof will inform its own decision making regarding Taiwan. The US currently has a kind of vague agreement to come to the aid of Taiwan should it face any aggression from China. In reality, it also has a similar agreement with Ukraine which was formed during the Budapest summit back in 1994. Therefore it can theoretically make the claim that is has the right to interfere. If it does, China will believe that the US will also interfere in Taiwan but if it doesn’t, then the Chinese may take a similar course of action against Taiwan, with the belief that there will be no US involvement.
The price of oil is already rising because of the current events and the price of gas in Europe will increase too as Putin will retaliate to the sanctions against Russia by subduing the supply of gas. NATO will probably increase its security presence in Eastern Europe and other countries in the region will surely restrategise their own security and alliances. There will be consequences to Russians too, whose standard of living has been falling continuously for the past seven years. The sanctions imposed on them will only make their economic lives even harder.
Typical of a nation that is holding on to the past, Russia’s show of aggression today has more to do with its own sense of insecurity than anything else. Ukraine has not showed any aggression towards its neighbour nor does Russia face any realistic threat. The distrusting attitudes of the Soviet Union remain in Russia and this inability to enter into peaceful partnerships with other countries will likely cost Russia dearly in the future. It has already been sanctioned heavily by the EU and by the US. While it may stand to gain a lot by successfully invading Ukraine, it could also lose a lot by failing. This would set back diplomatic relations between Russia and the rest of the world many years. There would be no trust left in the Russian government and the perception of Putin would firmly be that of an aggressive dictator. Apart from maybe the Crimeans and the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk, there are hardly any supporters of Russia’s current actions. This will go down as an unjustified war that will leave many unnecessarily dead.