Russia and Ukraine share a long history of interconnectedness. The establishment of a Union between Moscow and Kyiv in the 17th-century came in the shape of the Russian Empire. Moscow considers Kyiv the cradle of its faith and civilisation. Ukraine was a significant member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) until the bloc’s disintegration in 1991. Moscow viewed Ukraine’s independence as an emotional and strategic blow. According to the state statistics committee of Ukraine, 17.3% population of Ukraine are ethnically Russian, and nearly one-third of the population speaks Russian as a first language. Despite these ties, the recent developments turned many Ukrainian against Moscow. Moreover, many Ukrainians held Russia responsible for the death of 14,000 soldiers and civilians in a war in the east of Ukraine since 2014. The people of Ukraine are also outrageous towards Russia as they annexed the Crimean Peninsula and are still inflicting a threat to their stability in the region.
The current war in Ukraine is deeply connected to the series of events in 2013 when former President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a deal with the European Union (EU), a step taken under the influence of Russia, and opted for a bailout package of $15 billion. Russia also blessed Ukraine to provide discounts on natural gas. The decision came with massive opposition from the western Ukrainians, who were against the notion of tilting towards Russia and wanted to join the EU. In contrast, people in eastern Ukraine always wanted to be with Russia. It triggered the mass protest in Ukraine that resulted in the resignation of Yanukovych. Russia accused the West of sponsoring those demonstrations and responded furiously to those crises by annexing Crimea in 2014, which came with a considerable backlash from the West, removed Russia from the G8, and garnered economic sanctions.
The following factors explain the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Geopolitical and strategic factors
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, NATO has been expanding its membership in countries that were once part of the USSR. For instance, the Baltic states that remained significant members of the Soviet Union were brought to NATO in 2004, and Russia felt threatened by NATO’s enlargement agenda. Russia is losing its traditional sphere of influence over its former Soviet Union members, and several waves of NATO’s expansion eastward are unacceptable to Russia. Over the years, NATO is attempting to incorporate Ukraine into its military alliance, an idea that Russia strongly opposes. Therefore, the Russian assault on Ukraine can be considered a way of sending messages to the western bloc to avoid imposing direct military threats by deploying NATO troops in member states that fall near the Russian border.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Russia, the country has faced economic stagnation, and many Russians have resisted vaccinations. At the same time, Putin’s popularity has diminished in the recent past. Therefore, Putin’s administration may succeed in deviating the Russians’ attention away from domestic issues and boosting his popularity as no external threat could be more significant than the threat of war.
Clouds of nuclear war are looming over Eastern Europe, and the promises made earlier by the United States (US) and its NATO-led allies to protect the integrity of Ukraine is nowhere to be seen. The US and other NATO members are reluctant to send their troops to Ukraine. Last week Mr Putin recognised the Donbas region as two independent territories, i.e. “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic,” after which the Russian troops entered the separatist region. The post World War-II arena encountered some significant changes, and the establishment of the United Nations (UN) was among them. It is believed that the predominant objective of the UN is to maintain peace among nations and prevent the threat of war. The role of the UN is nearly irrelevant in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the contrary, the Russian invasion of Ukraine defines the notion of “might is right”, and Russia is the mightiest in Europe right now.
Russian assault on Ukraine can be considered a way of sending messages to the western bloc to avoid imposing direct military threats by deploying NATO troops in member states that fall near the Russian border.
Both sides are indeed equally responsible for the crisis. Russia has no right to attack a sovereign territory. At the same time, the western bloc failed to avoid the invasion, and their diplomatic approach towards the de-escalation of the crisis did not work. Some intellectuals believe that after the Cold War, the US assured Moscow that NATO would not expand eastward but did not abide by their promises that ultimately pushed Russia to act aggressively. The continuation of this Cold War mentality must be abolished. NATO is still struggling to refine its relevance in the 21st century as experts questioned NATO’s existence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its expansion in the former components of the Soviet Union is unbearable for Moscow, and this expansion gives an impression of besetting Russia from all fronts.
Biden’s coalition with European states is also shattering. In the meantime, there is a clear division among western allies, which can be inferred from an earlier AUKUS pact signed in September 2021 among Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the US. Earlier, Australia made the same deal with France. Even though many European countries condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, few seemed reluctant to openly express their view as countries from eastern Europe and Germany in the West are heavily dependent on Russian gas, which gives Russia political leverage.
The Russian military assault has come with an actual price. The western allies imposed a SWIFT ban, a secure messaging system used for trillions of dollars transactions. Now Russia would be unable to conduct most of its financial transactions worldwide. This financial bomb would further cripple the Russian economy, and the $630 billion forex reserves in the Russian Central bank would also be affected. Mr Putin responded to the decision by commanding his defence minister to alert the Russian nuclear forces. It will be worth witnessing whether it will amplify Putin’s aggression as he warned that any intervention from the western states would be met with severe ramifications or will pave a path to de-escalation.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians must be feeling deceived by Russia and Western allies. Ukraine is one of the earliest countries in history that sacrificed its nuclear arsenal in 1994 under the Budapest deal, which includes Russia, the UK, and the US. One of the prominent features of that treaty is that its signatories would “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “refrain from the threat or use of force” against its borders. Therefore, declaring an unjustified and unprovoked war on Ukraine violates international norms.
A well-known scholar John Mearsheimer from the realist school of thought, held US-led NATO responsible for the Ukraine crisis by saying, “Great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory”.
The strategic significance of Ukraine has pushed the country into a tug of war between western allies and Russia. Russia is trying to restore its traditional sphere of influence. In contrast, the West is making every possible effort to keep the status quo in Kyiv. The endgame of Mr Putin is still ambiguous. Whether he will halt the war once Kyiv gives assurance of not joining NATO, or will he encircle Ukraine’s capital by installing a puppet government there? If Russia successfully invades Ukraine, it will impose severe challenges to pan-European security. Thus, to drive the point home, the western allies must stop the unstoppable Putin.