Geopolitics | War | Diplomacy | International Affairs | International Relations

The Ukraine-Russia Crisis: An Explainer

Resurgence of the Cold War echoes in the Post-Soviet Republic

- By Sourav Dahal |

Staff Sgt. Jamal Sutter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Staff Sgt. Jamal Sutter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

ALONG THE UKRAINIAN BORDER, Russia has built-up large troops, tanks, arms and artillery. Over 100,000 Russian troops with heavy artillery are reported to have surrounded Ukraine from three sides, which are expected to grow by almost two-fold within a few weeks. The possibility of a new front at the northern border nearby the capital Kyiv signals ensuing military escalations in the border.

Russia continues to maintain unequivocally that it has no “plans” or “intentions” to attack Ukraine. But the ongoing military escalation is clearly much more than a mere strategic signaling. A Russian military offensive against the west-facing Kyiv is now more likely.

To make the matter worse, Russia's demand that the West halts its NATO expansion eastwards once and all – as a precondition to diffuse the security tensions in the region – has been labeled as a "non-starter" by the US.  

NATO, a transatlantic security alliance was formed in 1949, in response to the communist bloc’s collective defense treaty known as the Warsaw Pact, but it has outlived its imagined utility. It has managed to remain equally relevant even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in maintaining the post-Cold War security order.

While some of the former Soviet republics have joined NATO as its member states, the US and its fellow western allies are now inclined to include Ukraine, another former Soviet republic. Admission of Ukraine as a NATO member would provide the West with an edge against the arch-rival in the region – Russia.

Putin observes the joint exercise of the Northern and Black Sea fleet | Source: Wikimedia

Russia, on the other side, has shown resoluteness to go at any length, even war, in thwarting NATO’s expansion.

Given these irreconcilable differences, diplomatic settlements appear unlikely. Last month high-profile diplomatic marathons to ease out the tension have already turned futile. All indications are that Russia and the west-backed Ukraine are now at the brink of a war.

Since NATO’s enlargement is at the heart of the crisis, Russia’s military offensive against Kyiv would inevitably drag NATO into the conflict. Ukraine also has been a major recipient of military equipment, artillery and other aids from the West for decades now. However, US’s direct involvement should the war break out is uncertain.

Regardless, conflict at the crossroads of Europe and Russia is bound to have far-reaching implications, beyond the Atlantic in the west to Asia in the east. This could induce considerable shifts in security status-quo in Europe and beyond. The impacts could very well be long-lasting.

At the heart of the crisis

Who is to blame?

Dominant media narrates that the Ukrainian crisis is simply a monocausal story. Western media persistently blame Putin’s aggressions against Ukraine in the last decade as the sole cause of the crisis.

On the other hand, Russians attribute NATO’s ever-increasing proclivity to bulge eastwards and encircle Russia as the defining cause.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Ukrainian crisis is rather an intricate security issue in which both the West and Russia equally have fair share of misdeeds.

The crisis reflects a resurgence of the Cold War echoes in the post-Soviet republic coupled with Ukraine’s own unique vulnerabilities – its ethnic make-up and geographic position. 

Putin’s Refuge in a historical narrative

Once the Kremlin began military buildup in its borders with Ukraine in early 2021, Putin wrote an article “On Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. The article sets forth a historical narrative; and aims at vindicating Russian aggressions against Ukraine which have occurred intermittently for much part of the last decade.

For Putin and the Kremlin alike, Ukraine is a “Little Russia”, an integral part of Russia which has fallen prey, multiple times in history, to deliberate efforts of foreign forces seeking to undermine Russian unity. There is some historical truth to this narrative.

At one point in history, the Russian empire, commonly known as the Ancient Rus, ranged from the present-day Poland to the Russian Far East, in which Ukraine was a “Malorossiya” - a little Russia. Even now, the Donbas region – an eastern part of Ukraine prone to Russian attack – is home to a large population of ethnic Russians. Ethnic Russians form 46% of Ukraine’s demographic as a whole.

Resting upon these bases, Putin claims Russians and Ukrainians are “one people – a single whole” - a narrative, he believes, is further reinforced by the fact that, for much of the 20th century, Ukraine remained under the Kremlin’s political authority as a member republic of the Soviet Union.

The second most populous of all republics, Ukraine’s economic importance to the Union was indispensable. It was the center of the Soviet arms industry, and home to much of the Union's nuclear arsenals and power stations. The infamous Chernobyl disaster of 1986 had occurred in Pryp’yat’, which is a northern Ukrainian city. Its decision to break ties in 1991 turned out to be the coup de grâce for the already debilitating Union.

Nevertheless, these facts in no way, can justify the Kremlin’s ramped up aggression and time and often exhibited proclivities in invading the now-sovereign Ukraine.

But the Kremlin isn’t merely acting under temptations of restoring the long-lost glory of the Russian Empire. It is no fool to risk a war and fight for a pyrrhic victory. The escalations rather have roots in security fears and economic interests. The historical narrative is simply a façade masking strategic pursuits to unleash nationalistic fervor among its domestic audience and divert their focus from main issues at hand which are largely confined to security and economic realms.

Early post-Soviet days

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukraine declared its independence on 24 August, 1991 – ratified by a referendum with an overwhelming 90% support. In the early post-Soviet days, these two managed to find middle-ground solutions to each of the seemingly intractable problems – management of the Soviet nuclear system in Ukraine, division of the Black Sea Fleet, the Russian Navy Fleet in the Black Sea, and management of Crimea.

Ukraine agreed to decommission Soviet’s nuclear arsenals in exchange for assurances of its security and territorial integrity from the three major nuclear powers – the US, the UK and Russia.

Crimea, which serves as an access door for the Russian Navy to the Black Sea, was agreed to remain under Kyiv. The strategically important peninsula with ethnic-Russians as majority was handed over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic back in 1954. In exchange for the Crimean control, Russia was allowed to place its Black Sea Fleet, and use Crimean ports for its warships.

Ever since, Ukraine’s relationship with its neighbor-superpower has been tumultuous. The Kremlin's influence over Kyiv persisted throughout but the underlying tensions were dormant. The region remained largely calm until 2014.

NATO’s expansion and security conundrums

In 2014, things took a dramatic turn. Russia annexed Crimea. What appeared as a precipitate take-over of the peninsula was rather a deliberate response to NATO's continuous expansion eastwards.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was generally held that NATO was robbed off its main raison d’être. The alliance, however, has remained as efficacious for the US-led West in its pursuit of maintaining security dominance over the European region. NATO was repurposed to check the arch-rival Russia which, despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has been a superpower with a hegemonic potential.

Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in his 1995 speech had warned that NATO expansion was “a major political mistake” which could set “flames of war across the whole of Europe.”

Fearing NATO’s further expansion to Russia's core sphere of influence, Yeltsin’s successor Putin had even made attempts at facilitating rapprochement with the West in the early 2000s. Putin’s charm offensives didn’t yield any results though.

In fact, NATO added eight different states as its members in 2004 - three former Soviet republics of the Baltic region – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and five former communist states – Poland, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania.

Joining NATO was a means to ward-off Russian threats and to integrate their economy with the West for these European nations. For Russia, its sphere of influence shrank exponentially in no time, providing the West with much-needed security and economic leverages in the Eastern Europe - a terrible geopolitical blow almost within a decade after the Soviet collapse.

NATO crosses Kremlin’s Red-line

The Kremlin felt NATO crossed the red-lines when, in 2008, NATO admitted its interest to expand further eastwards, and intake Ukraine and Georgia. The same year, Ukraine applied for NATO’s membership.

This NATO expansion is a core US strategy to contain Russia. Pulling off Kyiv from the Kremlin's influence forms the lynchpin of that strategy.

For instance, the Russian navy accesses Black Sea through Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and through the Black Sea to the larger Mediterranean region, Middle East and northern Africa.

Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sebastapol | Photo by: Nikolay Filchenkov on Wikimedia

Sebastopol, a city in the peninsula, was home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Half of Moscow’s oil exports to the European region, which then accounted for almost two-thirds of European oil imports, passed through Ukrainian pipelines.

If Ukraine joined NATO, Russia would be crippled. It would lose its regional influence, its security would weaken, and the West would dictate its economy.

The Kremlin, thus, warned that any attempts to include Ukraine or Georgia as NATO members would amount to “hostile acts against Russia”. As a display of its willingness to go any lengths to protect its interests, Russia declared a war against Georgia in 2008. Putin’s message to the West was loud and clear.

To the Kremlin's respite, Victor Yanukovych, a Ukrainian leader who preferred non-alignment, ascended to presidency in 2010 shelving Ukraine’s admission to NATO. In late 2013, Yanukovych jettisoned plans to forge formal bonds with the European Union under the Kremlin’s pressure.

As a result, Ukrainians took to streets in dissent sparking a widespread protest commonly referred to as the ‘Euromaidan’, also toppling the Yanukovych’s government.

This led to Putin accusing the West of fueling unrest in the region. The Kremlin believed that Ukrainian protests were merely orchestrations of the final show meant to be staged at the Moscow streets – a grand design to export dissents to Russia. It harbored similar views of the Arab Spring – a series of anti-establishment uprisings that spread across the Middle East in the early 2010s.

The Putin administration perceived these events as the West upping up its ante against them. The region’s history of color revolutions added to this fear. Putin then annexed Crimea, and whipped up rebellions in the eastern region of Ukraine. Peace has been elusive ever since despite a ceasefire agreement in 2015.

Following Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea, public demand to join NATO grew in Ukraine. In 21st February 2019, the Constitution of Ukraine was amended to enshrine the strategic course for membership in the European Union and NATO in the preamble of the Basic Law itself. This renewed attempt is the main reason behind the ongoing Russian military escalations.

Russia first escalated pressure against Kyiv, launching a limited warfare through Russia-backed rebellions in the east of Ukraine. Now, there is a preparation for a major military offensive against Kyiv. Ukraine is again trapped in the quagmire of the great power politics while echoes of the Cold War have resurfaced in the region.  

Determined Putin, divided West

Russia has a clear road ahead. The Kremlin is confident the war will end swiftly in its favor, which is a more likely outcome. Putin favors war for other crucial reasons as well.

Apart from restoring Putin’s citizen approval and distracting them from their economic woes, the war will enable the Kremlin to further quell the internal pro-democratic dissents that peaked during the Alexei Navalny episode. 

Homoatrox, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons | The illustration is based on publications of CSIS and Bild | CSIS is Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a US based think tank and Bild is a German newspaper

The US-led West, on the other side, is in a quandary. The US retreated from the never-ending Afghan war only last year after two long decades. For the Biden administration, selling another major war to its constituents, one with a superpower and in the middle of a pandemic, would be a tough ask.  

But the US can’t let go of the Kremlin with mere sanctions that would have little to no effect. It is still deliberating over the length it can afford to go in rescuing Kyiv.

If views of the senior Washington officials are anything to go by, the US would act in a definitive manner only, if and when, Russian offensive materializes. Biden’s defense secretary Lloyd J. Austin warned, "any swift Russian victory in Ukraine would be followed by a bloody insurgency”. Military assistance – offensive naval missiles, anti-armor, anti-war weapons, cyber and military intelligence would then be ratcheted up.

To add to the quandary, there exist fissures, large and glaring, among NATO members about the way forward – Biden's recent speech is a testament to it. The European Union believes that sanctions would suffice. Germany is deliberating over halting the Russian oil pipelines to Europe which were built bypassing Poland and Ukraine. French President Macron, who believes that NATO is brain-dead and frustrated with the Biden administration over the formation of the AUKUS alliance that sidelined France, is of the opinion that Europe should act on its own. His foreign minister has already initiated a direct conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Suffering for geopolitically sandwiched Ukraine

The differences among NATO members have helped the Kremlin gain a clear edge in what appears to be a brewing European disaster.

Russia might be able to keep Ukraine in its “sphere of privileged interests” but pushing back NATO to its pre-1997 borders - its ultimate goal - is unlikely.

Most importantly, as Ukrainians face an existential threat, their struggles and pains are gone unnoticed suppressed by the noises of the great power rivalry. Their wish to remain free and independent with Ukrainian sovereignty intact is trampled over by the never-ending power-pursuits of the superpowers – both Russia and the US-led West alike.

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Editor's Note: A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the inception of this explainer. Readers are advised to do further reading to get a grasp of the changing situation.

Sourav Dahal is a writer-analyst at the_farsight.

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