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War in Eastern Europe? Understanding the Tensions Between Russia and Ukraine

Putin wants to take control of Ukraine for a combination of reasons and the US is not going to just let that happen.

Published
World
7 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a map of Eastern Europe highlighting Ukraine and Russia.&nbsp;</p></div>
i

A war is looming over Eastern Europe.

On one side, there is Russia under Vladimir Putin, a country that is showing every sign of returning to its glory days of the Tsarist Empire.

On the other side is a defiant Ukraine, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, refusing to be bullied by its gigantic neighbour.

US intelligence has warned that the Kremlin is intending to launch a multi-front offensive as early as 2022 that could involve around 1,75,000 soldiers, The Washington Post reported on 3 December, based on the documents it obtained and the officials it interviewed.

So, what exactly does Russia want, and how is Ukraine fighting back? How did the current crisis start in 2014? And what are the chances of war breaking out?

War in Eastern Europe? Understanding the Tensions Between Russia and Ukraine

  1. 1. Recap: The Annexation of Crimea

    Russia's decision to invade and annex Crimea in March 2014 started a protracted conflict known as the Russo-Ukrainian War.

    There were a series of events that led to the annexation, two of the most important being the Revolution of Dignity and the Crimean Status Referendum.

    After Viktor Yanukovych, the then Ukrainian president, refused to sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement and a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, thereby signalling a tightening of ties with Russia and its allies like Belarus, large-scale protests (known as the Euromaidan) broke out in Ukraine in November 2013, demanding the impeachment of the president.

    The protests escalated into violent clashes between the protestors and the state security forces in the capital city of Kyiv, which culminated in the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime in February 2014.

    The interim government that was established after the revolution signed the Association Agreement, and even held snap elections in May.

    These developments greatly worried Putin, who later revealed for a Russian documentary film that the secret order for Russia's annexation of Crimea was actually given right after a late night meeting that discussed at length the deposition of President Yanukovych.

    "We ended at about seven in the morning" and "when we were parting, I said to my colleagues: we must start working on returning Crimea to Russia," AFP reported.

    On the day that meeting ended (23 February 2014), pro-Russian demonstrations began in Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea.

    War in Eastern Europe? Understanding the Tensions Between Russia and Ukraine

    (Photo: iStock)

    Protesters demanded that the Crimean Parliament refuse to recognise the Ukrainian interim government, and that a "Russian city should have a Russian mayor."

    The parliament, however, refused to give in to these demands, and clearly stated that Crimea will not be separated from Ukraine, and would follow the laws passed by the Ukrainian Parliament.

    By 27 February, in an act that Putin described as necessary to protect Russians outside of Russia, special forces of the Russian Federation took control over the building that housed the Supreme Council of Crimea (SSC).

    Under immense pressure, the SSC voted to hold a referendum about the sovereign status of Crimea.

    The referendum, held on 16 March 2014, which resulted in a 97 percent vote in favour of into the Russian Federation, was criticised internationally as being unfair and rigged.

    Following the results, the SCC declared Crimea to be independent of Ukraine, in what came to be known as the Republic of Crimea, which is a de facto federal subject of the Russian Federation.

    Internationally, however, Crimea is still recognised to be a part of Ukraine.

    Expand
  2. 2. Why Does Putin Care So Much About Ukraine?

    Not only Crimea, Putin also effectively took away the Donbas region from Ukraine, which consists of the administrative divisions of Donetsk and Luhansk (refer to the map above).

    Unrest created by pro-Russia separatists has led to the creation of quasi republics, known as the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, both of which now function completely under Putin's influence.

    If he keeps encroaching Ukrainian territory, what does he really want?

    The answer lies in a combination of motives – ideological, electoral, and geopolitical, all of which having a strong element of truth.

    Ideology

    To understand Putin's ideological motive, all one needs to do is read his 5,000-word article titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, in which he outlines why Russians and Ukrainians are "one people."

    Putin did not hesitate to question the Ukrainian borders that we see on the map today and basically went on to claim that Russia has been robbed of its historical land.

    Ukraine's incumbent president, Volodymyr Zelensky, subtly trolled Putin for the essay, saying that he is "envious that the president of such a great power can permit himself to spend so much time [writing] such a volume of detailed work", as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US media organisation focusing on Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

    The essay has also been criticised by historians for being devoid of facts, and has been described as one that talks more about the future than about history.

    It does, however, clarify Putin's perspective on Ukrainian territory.

    Domestic Influence

    Putin has been blamed for severely botching up Russia's COVID-19 response, and he knows this.

    He also recognises that success in foreign policy, especially concerning a touchy issue like Ukraine, will tighten his authoritarian grasp over the country.

    Putin came to power at a time when Russia was making huge profits from oil and gas, but as The Economist argued in 2015 while talking about post-2014 Russia, "a stagnant economy, endemic corruption, crumbling infrastructure and disillusion from the elite to the grassroots are insoluble problems for the Russian leader."

    Add COVID-19 to that list. Therefore, he sees an aggressive approach towards Ukraine as a way of bolstering his domestic reputation.

    NATO

    Ukraine under Zelensky has been inching closer and closer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with respect to both weapons procurement and its accession into the alliance that is supposed to keep a check on Russian expansionism in Europe.

    Putin has been long demanding a guarantee from the US that Ukraine will not join NATO and has also asked Washington to "rule out any further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of weapons systems posing a threat to us in close proximity to Russia’s territory", The New York Times reported.

    The US, however, has categorically refused to provide such a guarantee, and has thrown its support behind Ukraine. The White House Press Secretary made that very clear last week when she said, "NATO member countries decide who is a member of NATO, not Russia. That is how the process has always worked and how it will proceed. I think it’s important to remember where the provocative action is coming from. It’s not the United States. It’s not Ukraine", the report added.

    A Ukraine allied to NATO is therefore agreed upon as a security threat to Russia in the foreign policy department of the latter, with policymakers believing that NATO troops in Ukraine will alter the military balance against Russia.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Odds of War

    What are the chances of war between Russian and Ukraine that will inevitably suck in the US and the EU in support of the latter, while countries like Belarus support the former?

    The truth is that we don't know.

    Anthony Blinken, the United States Secretary of State, admitted that he doesn't "know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade."

    "We do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so decide," The Washington Post reported.

    The signs of an invasion are definitely there, considering the build up of the Russian military, and the unleashing of anti-Ukraine propaganda in Russia.

    Firstly, an estimated 1,00,000 Russian troops have (already) reportedly assembled within striking distance of the Ukraine's borders.

    That number could go up to 1,75,000, according to US intelligence.

    "The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 ... involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armour, artillery and equipment," an anonymous US administration official told The Washington Post.

    Then there's the propaganda.

    Putin has long used Ukraine as a propaganda tool, depicting it to be a means to an end for Russia’s enemies. That propaganda has now been strengthened.

    The above-mentioned anonymous official also told The Washington Post that the current "information indicates Russian influence proxies and media outlets have started to increase content denigrating Ukraine and NATO, in part to pin the blame for a potential Russian military escalation on Ukraine."

    The basic idea is portray a picture to the Russian people of the Western world having a deep sense of hatred and contempt for them.

    Therefore, a military build-up and a propaganda campaign, two strategies that indicate potential aggression in the future, have caused anxiety among the leaders in Ukraine, the EU, and in the US.

    If Russia does end up invading Ukraine, the US isn't going to just sit around.

    The Biden administration has already announced that it would send troops to aid NATO's forces stationed in the East and would additionally impose severe economic sanctions on Moscow, something that was also done after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

    President Biden and President Putin are expected to have a video call on 7 December, with Ukraine being the major topic of discussion.

    The outcome of that call is as unpredictable as the events of the coming weeks.

    Putin's motives are unpredictable too. We don't really know what the driving force is behind his aggression. Does he want to humiliate Western Europe and the US, is he actually afraid of NATO, or is he finally starting to fear the wrath of his own people?

    What is predictable, however, is that the Ukrainians will continue to live with Russian tanks pointed at their homes for now.

    (With inputs from The Washington Post, The Guardian, Reuters, The Economist, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, AFP, and The New York Times.)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Recap: The Annexation of Crimea

Russia's decision to invade and annex Crimea in March 2014 started a protracted conflict known as the Russo-Ukrainian War.

There were a series of events that led to the annexation, two of the most important being the Revolution of Dignity and the Crimean Status Referendum.

After Viktor Yanukovych, the then Ukrainian president, refused to sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement and a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, thereby signalling a tightening of ties with Russia and its allies like Belarus, large-scale protests (known as the Euromaidan) broke out in Ukraine in November 2013, demanding the impeachment of the president.

The protests escalated into violent clashes between the protestors and the state security forces in the capital city of Kyiv, which culminated in the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime in February 2014.

The interim government that was established after the revolution signed the Association Agreement, and even held snap elections in May.

These developments greatly worried Putin, who later revealed for a Russian documentary film that the secret order for Russia's annexation of Crimea was actually given right after a late night meeting that discussed at length the deposition of President Yanukovych.

"We ended at about seven in the morning" and "when we were parting, I said to my colleagues: we must start working on returning Crimea to Russia," AFP reported.

On the day that meeting ended (23 February 2014), pro-Russian demonstrations began in Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea.

War in Eastern Europe? Understanding the Tensions Between Russia and Ukraine

(Photo: iStock)

Protesters demanded that the Crimean Parliament refuse to recognise the Ukrainian interim government, and that a "Russian city should have a Russian mayor."

The parliament, however, refused to give in to these demands, and clearly stated that Crimea will not be separated from Ukraine, and would follow the laws passed by the Ukrainian Parliament.

By 27 February, in an act that Putin described as necessary to protect Russians outside of Russia, special forces of the Russian Federation took control over the building that housed the Supreme Council of Crimea (SSC).

Under immense pressure, the SSC voted to hold a referendum about the sovereign status of Crimea.

The referendum, held on 16 March 2014, which resulted in a 97 percent vote in favour of into the Russian Federation, was criticised internationally as being unfair and rigged.

Following the results, the SCC declared Crimea to be independent of Ukraine, in what came to be known as the Republic of Crimea, which is a de facto federal subject of the Russian Federation.

Internationally, however, Crimea is still recognised to be a part of Ukraine.

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Why Does Putin Care So Much About Ukraine?

Not only Crimea, Putin also effectively took away the Donbas region from Ukraine, which consists of the administrative divisions of Donetsk and Luhansk (refer to the map above).

Unrest created by pro-Russia separatists has led to the creation of quasi republics, known as the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, both of which now function completely under Putin's influence.

If he keeps encroaching Ukrainian territory, what does he really want?

The answer lies in a combination of motives – ideological, electoral, and geopolitical, all of which having a strong element of truth.

Ideology

To understand Putin's ideological motive, all one needs to do is read his 5,000-word article titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, in which he outlines why Russians and Ukrainians are "one people."

Putin did not hesitate to question the Ukrainian borders that we see on the map today and basically went on to claim that Russia has been robbed of its historical land.

Ukraine's incumbent president, Volodymyr Zelensky, subtly trolled Putin for the essay, saying that he is "envious that the president of such a great power can permit himself to spend so much time [writing] such a volume of detailed work", as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US media organisation focusing on Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The essay has also been criticised by historians for being devoid of facts, and has been described as one that talks more about the future than about history.

It does, however, clarify Putin's perspective on Ukrainian territory.

Domestic Influence

Putin has been blamed for severely botching up Russia's COVID-19 response, and he knows this.

He also recognises that success in foreign policy, especially concerning a touchy issue like Ukraine, will tighten his authoritarian grasp over the country.

Putin came to power at a time when Russia was making huge profits from oil and gas, but as The Economist argued in 2015 while talking about post-2014 Russia, "a stagnant economy, endemic corruption, crumbling infrastructure and disillusion from the elite to the grassroots are insoluble problems for the Russian leader."

Add COVID-19 to that list. Therefore, he sees an aggressive approach towards Ukraine as a way of bolstering his domestic reputation.

NATO

Ukraine under Zelensky has been inching closer and closer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with respect to both weapons procurement and its accession into the alliance that is supposed to keep a check on Russian expansionism in Europe.

Putin has been long demanding a guarantee from the US that Ukraine will not join NATO and has also asked Washington to "rule out any further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of weapons systems posing a threat to us in close proximity to Russia’s territory", The New York Times reported.

The US, however, has categorically refused to provide such a guarantee, and has thrown its support behind Ukraine. The White House Press Secretary made that very clear last week when she said, "NATO member countries decide who is a member of NATO, not Russia. That is how the process has always worked and how it will proceed. I think it’s important to remember where the provocative action is coming from. It’s not the United States. It’s not Ukraine", the report added.

A Ukraine allied to NATO is therefore agreed upon as a security threat to Russia in the foreign policy department of the latter, with policymakers believing that NATO troops in Ukraine will alter the military balance against Russia.

The Odds of War

What are the chances of war between Russian and Ukraine that will inevitably suck in the US and the EU in support of the latter, while countries like Belarus support the former?

The truth is that we don't know.

Anthony Blinken, the United States Secretary of State, admitted that he doesn't "know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade."

"We do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so decide," The Washington Post reported.

The signs of an invasion are definitely there, considering the build up of the Russian military, and the unleashing of anti-Ukraine propaganda in Russia.

Firstly, an estimated 1,00,000 Russian troops have (already) reportedly assembled within striking distance of the Ukraine's borders.

That number could go up to 1,75,000, according to US intelligence.

"The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 ... involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armour, artillery and equipment," an anonymous US administration official told The Washington Post.

Then there's the propaganda.

Putin has long used Ukraine as a propaganda tool, depicting it to be a means to an end for Russia’s enemies. That propaganda has now been strengthened.

The above-mentioned anonymous official also told The Washington Post that the current "information indicates Russian influence proxies and media outlets have started to increase content denigrating Ukraine and NATO, in part to pin the blame for a potential Russian military escalation on Ukraine."

The basic idea is portray a picture to the Russian people of the Western world having a deep sense of hatred and contempt for them.

Therefore, a military build-up and a propaganda campaign, two strategies that indicate potential aggression in the future, have caused anxiety among the leaders in Ukraine, the EU, and in the US.

If Russia does end up invading Ukraine, the US isn't going to just sit around.

The Biden administration has already announced that it would send troops to aid NATO's forces stationed in the East and would additionally impose severe economic sanctions on Moscow, something that was also done after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

President Biden and President Putin are expected to have a video call on 7 December, with Ukraine being the major topic of discussion.

The outcome of that call is as unpredictable as the events of the coming weeks.

Putin's motives are unpredictable too. We don't really know what the driving force is behind his aggression. Does he want to humiliate Western Europe and the US, is he actually afraid of NATO, or is he finally starting to fear the wrath of his own people?

What is predictable, however, is that the Ukrainians will continue to live with Russian tanks pointed at their homes for now.

(With inputs from The Washington Post, The Guardian, Reuters, The Economist, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, AFP, and The New York Times.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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