The Russo-Ukrainian Conflict 2021-22 By Laura Ionescu
ORIGIN OF CONFLICT
Both Russia and Ukraine are former Soviet states. In late 2013, Ukraine was led by the pro-Russian President Yanukovych who suspended talks about joining the European Union as a result of Russian pressures. This led to massive public protests in the capital Kyiv as Ukrainian citizens were frustrated and opposed to their government’s decision to suspend all talks. The government’s response was that of complete silence and reactionary violence as the police stormed the streets with batons and tear gas to disperse the masses.
Following these tensions, Russia annexed the Ukrainian southern peninsula – Crimea – in March 2014. Despite the fact that Russia completed their annexation by holding a referendum in which the largely Russian-loyal population voted in favour of Russian rule, both Ukraine and the rest of the world named Russia’s actions illegitimate. The annexation was closely followed by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk declaring their respective independence from Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine. Since March 2014, more than 3,000 civilians have lost their lives in eastern Ukraine as a result of the conflict.
David Kramer of Freedom House claimed then that Yanukovych “has left his country vulnerable to Vladimir Putin’s threats and pressure” [US Congressional Research Service, Oct. 2021]. More than half a decade later, things have not changed; or if they have, it’s been for the worse.
The military confrontation and international crisis between Russia and Ukraine started on the 3rd of March 2021 and further escalated towards the end of the year as NATO denied Moscow “guarantees of Ukraine’s non-accession” [Chance, Smith-Spark, CNN, Jan 2022], triggering a violent response from the Kremlin. Over 100,000 Russian troops have been transferred to the Ukrainian border despite many warnings from US President Biden and other world leaders.
US Intelligence concluded that Russian forces are so well prepared militarily that they could commence a direct attack on the Ukrainian border as soon as early 2022. Following the American request for satellite photos of the region, Russian hardware such as self-propelled guns and battle tanks have also been identified around 300 kilometres from the conflict area.
The Kremlin does not perceive that their moving troop s around their own territory in 2021 should be perceived as a threat by any nation. The increased support for Ukraine from both NATO and the European Union is viewed as a direct threat to Russian security, this being the sole reason behind their recent mobilization around the Ukrainian border. The increased expansion of NATO towards Russia’s western border is seen as nothing short of a threat to Russia’s security regarding the influence of the West.
In fact, Russia was not the first to mobilize troops around the Ukrainian border. NATO itself deployed weaponry such as missiles in Ukraine and this was perceived with increasing alarm by Moscow who responded, in Putin’s words, “rightly” by them too mobilizing their troops in direct response.
The Ukrainian government, currently led by Zelensky, has experienced a lot of internal and external tensions following the tensions between Russia and the West. A recent third wave of Covid-19 infections is sweeping through the country and, compiled with the country’s “struggling” economy, has led to an unhappy population that perceives the government as non-reactionary and poorly operational. Many anti-government protests have already taken place in Kyiv and many are predicted to follow.
As recent as January 2022, President Joe Biden told Zelensky that if Russia further invades Ukraine, they will “respond decisively”. US Secretary of State Blinken also warned Russian Foreign Minister Ryabkov that “any renewed aggression can trigger serious consequences” however nothing appears to appease Putin or the Kremlin [Chance, Smith-Spark, CNN, Jan 2022]. The US provided Ukraine with over 450 million US dollars in security assistance in 2021 alone and promised to further aid them if Russia takes further actions towards their annexation.
Many think that Putin and Moscow believe the West will be as accepting of their Westward expansion as they have been in 2014. Under the Obama administration, which was taken entirely by the surprise of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US did not take any significant action against Putin’s attacks. However, in November 2021, Blinken reassured the world that even though they are concerned that “Russia may make a serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2013”, the US and the rest of the Western world is prepared to oppose Russian expansion if necessary.
ANALYSING THE SITUATION
If anything, President Joe Biden is more than certain that the Kremlin is further mobilizing Russian forces for an attack on the Ukrainian border in the very near future. When attempting to understand Ukraine’s position, one must note that even though the country shares a border with both Russia and the EU, Ukraine remains a former Soviet republic with extensive cultural relations with Russia.
Moscow’s narrative remains one of firm denial of any plan of attack. Despite this, President Putin has declared – similarly to the US – that “appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures” will be taken in response to any aggressive Western actions. If one takes a step back from the conflict and has a look at the actual actions taken by both sides in this conflict, the resulting image would be that of two major nations flexing their military forces at one another in a way that screams “do not get involved in our business”. Neither side might have any intention of actually putting their military powers to actual use, however, they are both willing to illustrate their superiority to the other by employing them at the Ukrainian border, only making matters appear more serious on the international scale.
Ryabkov nicely summarized Russia’s position in this conflict by stating that for Russia it is “absolutely mandatory to ensure Ukraine never, ever becomes a member of NATO” because that would bring the EU and NATO at the south-western Russian border – proximity the Kremlin is not even willing to consider. The BBC goes so far as to claim that, “in reality, Russia wants NATO to return to its pre-1997 borders” however, this is the West’s perception of Russian aggression that is an actual fact backed by Russian leadership actions or claims.
Despite a series of discussions between Russian and American, leaders Putin and Biden respectively, the BBC has stated that Russian officials have actually warned the West that their rejection of the Kremlins’ key demands is leading to “a dead end” [Kirby, CNN, 2022].
Possible drastic Western actions against Russia’s predicted attack on Ukraine include the disconnection of Russia’s banking system from the international Swift payment system which would be the “ultimate economic hit”
Certain tensions have also risen between Europe and the US as European nations do not appreciate the direct discourse between the Kremlin and Washington. Most European countries now believe that they are more directly impacted by Putin’s possible annexation of Ukraine and are therefore willing to undergo their own discussions with Russia within NATO.
The situation remains tense and seemingly unpredictable as the West and Russia continuously come head-to-head over the Ukraine situation. As recently as a couple of days ago, Biden announced to the public that we need to be ready for a possible attack from the Kremlin at any moment and reassured people that the US, together with other European countries, will be sure to act in response.