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Ukraine Crisis: Why Russia's Real Concern Is NATO Troops

The Russian response is similar to that of the US when USSR sought to deploy missiles in neighbouring Cuba in 1962.

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With Russia mobilising troops and heavy weapons along its border with Ukraine, its spiritual motherland, the threat of war looms over the two unequal neighbours.

Since time immemorial, war and darkness have perpetually reigned over the blood-drenched soil of Ukraine. For a thousand years, marauding tribes trampled over their land, burning villages and butchering people. Enslaved by Vikings, devastated by Mongols, hunted by Tartars, caged by Ottomans, dominated by Poland, colonised by Russia, hammered by Bolsheviks, almost exterminated by Stalin, demolished by Nazis, pick-pocketed by their own leaders after independence – Ukraine is a country brutalised by successive waves of political turmoil. And I forgot to mention the Jewish pogroms – a million or so killed. If that is not bad enough, the country was hit by the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. For over two thousand years, the tears of Ukrainian parents have not dried, their bruised hearts not healed.

Two Easters ago, I was strolling around Kyiv’s most iconic landmark, the towering Rodina Mat, the Nation’s Mother. The 25-acre complex is the Great Patriotic War Museum. Its Alley of Hero Cities honours 13 Soviet cities – of which four are in Ukraine – for their heroism and sacrifice in defeating the fascist forces during World War II. Bronze reliefs depict muscular Soviet soldiers courageously defending their motherland against the German invasion. There is still adequate space left in the sprawling complex to accommodate more memorials for Ukraine’s present and future wars.

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How Russia Fanned the Fire

Currently, Ukraine is engaged in an armed conflict with Russia on its eastern border. About 13,000 Ukrainians have been killed in this war, 25,000 wounded and 2 million made to flee their homes. In 2014, with the people of Ukraine demanding that the government distance itself from Russia and align with the European Union, Russia, taking advantage of the political turmoil in Ukraine, manipulated the breakaway of the Crimea Peninsula. It reasoned that Crimea originally belonged to Russia, and Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, had engineered its transfer in 1954 to Ukraine, then a republic of the Soviet Union, to facilitate the economic recovery of the peninsula that depended on the Ukrainian mainland for supplies. The inexperienced and ill-armed Ukrainian army meekly withdrew from Crimea.

Soon thereafter, continuing its policy of destabilising Ukraine, Russia fanned the fires of rebellion in Ukraine’s coal-rich Donbas region that bordered its southwestern part. Ethnic Russians comprise almost half the population of this region. After Ukraine’s independence, they felt culturally threatened and were more comfortable tying themselves to Russia’s apron string than going the EU way. The vote-bank politics of Ukrainian leaders further accentuated differences between the eastern and western parts of the country, widening the divide. A separatist movement took shape. Taking advantage of the situation, Russia trained and armed insurgents who, by May 2014, had taken control of most of the cities and proclaimed the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic.

The Ukrainian army marched in to confront the rebels. A swell of nationalism flooded the hearts of Ukrainian youth. Thousands volunteered to collect donations and deliver food and supplies to the fighting units. America chipped in by providing weapons to Ukraine. Western countries placed sanctions on Russia.

By July, the Ukrainian forces were advancing, taking back lost territories. Russia responded by sending in its regular troops and pumping in more arms, including anti-aircraft missiles – one of which was shot down, by mistake, the Malaysian Airline Boeing 777, killing 298 passengers.

'They Want Us to Fight and Die for Them'

“Every day, we hear news of some fighting here and there, someone dying,” said Yulia, my guide. “Our army desperately needs soldiers to fight. Sadly, some of our soldiers have also moved to the Russian side and have obtained Russian passports. This is not right, once you have pledged your loyalty to your nation. This is treason. The government even tried recruiting my 60-year-old father! My husband received six letters inviting him to join the war. We ignored these letters. Our leaders will not send their own parents and children to war. Their relatives will be living or studying comfortably in western Europe or America. But they want us to fight and die for them.”

Under a peace agreement reached by Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with the participation of representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, all sides laid down arms starting midnight of 21 July 2019; they ceased all firing, forward movements and reconnaissance activities, and undertook not to place heavy weapons near populated areas. Soon, this agreement was thrown into the dustbin.

Frantic diplomacy followed to avert a war. Russia, justifiably threatened, ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, by the military encirclement of its borders by US-led NATO, is demanding a pull-back of NATO troops from its former republics and a legal guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO, in spite of the promises made to them.

The Russian response is similar to that of the US when USSR sought to deploy missiles in neighbouring Cuba in 1962.
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How a Prolonged Conflict Benefits Russia

Alexander Grushko, Russia's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and its chief negotiator on the Ukraine crisis, roared that if diplomacy fails, the threat from NATO will be “countered by military means”. America’s president, Joe Biden, has alerted the world that if Putin attacks Ukraine, Russia will face massive economic sanctions “like none he’s ever seen”.

Eventually, all the huffing and puffing by the US and Russia will blow the war clouds away. The West will accept Russia’s grievances. Russia will promise not to seize the Donbas region and will withdraw its military equipment. Like in Transnistria and the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia, Donbas will remain a frozen conflict – till it becomes hot again.

Meanwhile, oil-rich Russia will prolong the conflict as long as it can. The rising tensions raise concerns over oil supply and jack up prices. At $87 a barrel, oil prices are at their highest since October 2014, benefiting Russia.

The world has an appetite for oil, not war.

(Akhil Bakshi is the author of 'Ukraine: A Stolen Nation'. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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