WHY VLADIMIR PUTIN IS OBSESSED WITH UKRAINE?
Drumbeats of war were getting louder in Europe, and many expected that Russia might launch an all-out invasion against Ukraine after the Winter Olympics in Beijing come to a close.
To the surprise of many, their worst fears came true when Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine five days ago. There was a well-designed build-up before the final invasion. First, Russia recognized the two independent regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. These areas were held by rebel groups antagonistic to Ukraine.
After this, President Putin sought permission from Duma, the Russian Parliament, to send the Russian military to foreign shores for protection of Russian interests. Once the Duma gave the go-ahead, Russian tanks and troops started rolling into Ukraine.
There has been chaos all around in Ukraine following this. Russia has launched missile strikes against Ukrainian cities. America and the European nations have strongly condemned the invasion but have refrained from any direct military intervention as Ukraine is not a member of NATO.
Both America and Europe have slapped sanctions against Russia crippling the Russian financial system and severely affecting Russia’s capacity to raise finances from the international market. They have not sanctioned the Russian energy companies though. The situation is worsening with the passage of every day.
But the million-dollar question uppermost in everybody’s mind is why Putin is staking everything that Russia has to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO? This is a very complex question, and all the answers are hidden in history.
The geopolitical alignment was not always as we see it today. During the cold war, Ukraine and America were fierce adversaries. In the 9th Century, the region was known as Kievan Rus, and it was home to Slavic people.
The city of Kyiv was their capital. Between 980 and 1015 A.D., Kievan Rus was ruled by Grand Prince Volodimer. Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians draw their lineage from this Slavic state. Kyiv at that point in time was more powerful than Moscow. Things changed in the following centuries during which time Ukraine was under Russian rule. In the 1900s, Ukraine and Russia were Soviet Republics.
Russia was the most powerful of the 15 Soviet Republics followed by Ukraine. Ukraine had defense industries, large agricultural land and housed much of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. For much of the Cold War, Ukraine was the arch-rival of the United States. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Ukraine became independent as did Russia. Ukraine inherited much of Soviet nuclear stock pile but gave it up to Russia in 1994. In exchange, Moscow guaranteed Ukraine security and promised to respect its sovereignty. They signed the Budapest memorandum along with US, UK, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Following the agreement, there was an extended period of relative political stability and peace in the region, and this continued till 2013.
It was in November 2013, when Viktor Yanukovych was the president of Ukraine, that things began to go downhill, and the relationship between Ukraine and Russia started declining. Viktor Yanukovych had a reputation of being heavy-handed, corrupt and above all a pro-Moscow acolyte.
In 2013, Yanukovych rejected a trade deal with EU that could have integrated Ukraine and Europe more closely. Instead, he chose a $15 billion bailout from Russia. Many Ukrainians felt as if Viktor was selling the country to Moscow. This led to widespread protest against Yanukovych. They were called Euromaidan protests. The Euromaidan is what is called today as the Independence Square.
The protests eventually turned out to be a proxy war between Russia and the West as Russia supported Yanukovych whereas the Western powers supported the protesters. In February 2014, the Yanukovych government was toppled, and the president was driven out of Ukraine. Yanukovych fled to Russia. Many in the Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine were not happy with this as they wanted Yanukovych to stay.
The Russian-speaking minorities felt disenfranchised when he was driven out. On the other side of the border, Russia felt threatened as they lost their puppet regime. To salvage the situation, Moscow annexed Crimea.
Crimea is a peninsula located in the Black Sea. Crimea was transferred to Ukraine from Russia in 1954 by the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, with the hope that the transfer would strengthen brotherly ties between the Russian and Ukrainian people. Since Russia and Crimea both were Republics of the Soviet Union, this transfer did not have any political ramifications.
Crimea joined Ukraine in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The peninsula was given special autonomy, even though it remained home to Russian military bases. In return, Moscow did not interfere with Crimean autonomy. Many in Russia believed that Crimea should never have been allowed to join Ukraine.
After the ouster of Yanukovych from Ukraine in 2014, the Russian military started seizing government buildings in Crimea, and soon, the entire peninsula was under military occupation. A referendum followed.
On March 16, 2014, Crimeans voted to become part of Russia. Many people question the integrity of Crimea’s referendum and believe that Crimea was basically annexed by Russia.
Following the annexation of Crimea, Russia started interfering in Eastern Ukraine, where rebels backed by Russian military had seized territories. Initially, the Ukrainian forces did not launch an all-out attack to flush out the rebels.
Things came to a head when July 17, 2014, a Malaysian flight carrying 298 people on board was shot down by the rebels. Ukrainian forces decided to flush out the rebels, and the rebels started losing ground. At this juncture, the Russian military stepped in by invading Eastern Ukraine and started fighting in support of the rebels.
A protracted battle was fought followed by a series of talks between Ukraine, Russia and the West. They resulted in the Minsk Accords being signed in 2014. As per the conditions of the Accord, there was a ceasefire followed by military withdrawal on both sides. Elections were held in the rebel-held areas as part of the Accord.
It has been eight years since the Accord was signed, but the conditions of the Accord remained unimplemented till date.
Ukraine is the largest European country excluding Russia. Ukraine has an area of more 600,000 square kilometres with a population of more than 44 million. It has a GDP of $155 billion and a per capita income of more than $3700.
Today, Ukraine is divided along linguistic and ethnic lines between it eastern and western borders. Western Ukraine considers itself to be part of Europe, most people there speak Ukrainian, and look at Russia rather with suspicion.
On the other hand, Eastern Ukraine is Russian in character and sentiment, a lot of them speak Russian, and look at Russia through the lens of a shared history.
The main reason for Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine is to stop further expansion of NATO. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many former Republics of the Soviet Union have joined NATO along with countries that were signatory to the Warsaw pact.
These countries include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. This has put Russian strategic security at risk as Russia feels surrounded by NATO on all its flanks except Ukraine.
If Ukraine also became a member of NATO as Zelensky wanted to, then NATO forces will be at the doorstep of Russia posing a security and strategic challenge for Russia. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia itself wanted to be admitted to NATO, but its request was spurned by the West, primarily USA. Russia views Ukraine as a proxy for the West, especially USA.
Hence, it is opposing the joining of Ukraine to NATO tooth and nail. Come what may, Russia will never accept Ukraine formally joining NATO and wants a written assurance in this regard from Ukraine as well as NATO. Moreover, this also erodes and tarnishes the image of Russia as a superpower.
Ukraine, for the better part of history, has been under Russian occupation. More than 15% Ukrainians have Russian ethnicity, and more than 30% of them speak Russian as their native language.
This forms the basis of Putin’s claim that historically, Russia and Ukraine were one. In the modern times, claiming an independent Republic in the name of colonial history is both ethically and legally wrong, and it would set a very bad precedent as other regimes may follow suit. China may use this as a pretext to invade Taiwan and annex it. A past colonial history cannot be the basis of modern-day expansionism.
Putin is using this historical connection as the basis for his invasion. Most Ukrainians reject this claim out rightly. Most of them consider Russia to be a hostile state. No wonder, the average Ukrainian is out on the street fighting the Russian soldiers.
Most of them want to join the EU as well as NATO. The present President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, came to power in 2019. He is a vocal critic of Russia and openly opposes Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine.
73% of Ukrainians voted this man to power. Zelensky represents the pulse of Ukraine that wants to remain independent of Russia. The war has transformed into a David and Goliath battle. The million dollar question is will David get to win this time? The chances are bleak. The good news though is that Ukraine and Russia have started negotiations to resolve the conflict. The world is just coming out of the third wave of pandemic.
An escalation of conflict will result in high crude oil prices thereby further dampening the chances of an economic recovery. Lets keep our fingers crossed and hope for a peaceful solution.
edited and proofread by nikita sharma