1 – Ukraine. An Unnecessary War
To a large degree, the tragic events that unfolded in Ukraine in 2013-14 were driven by developments beyond Ukraine’s borders. Of course, domestic factors also played a crucial role, and Ukrainian political actors at all points across the political spectrum must share in the blame for what transpired. But it was Ukraine’s ambiguous geopolitical position, and the clumsy interventions of competing outside powers pursuing their own self-centred agendas, that pushed Ukraine’s log-jammed domestic politics over the brink into violent civil war.
The three main protagonists were Russia, the European Union, and the United States, in roughly descending order of importance.
The Evolution of Russia’s Relations with Ukraine since 1991
Moscow has had difficult, testy relations with Ukraine ever since the two countries split off from the Soviet Union in 1991. The relationship with Kiev is a sub-set of Russia’s problematic relationship with the outside world at large following the Soviet collapse. In 2014, Ukraine became the touchstone of two decades of Russian frustration and insecurity, with tragic consequences.
First Mikhail Gorbachev, and then Boris Yeltsin, wanted to be treated as an equal partner by the United States. However, the Soviet collapse meant that Russia was stripped of half its population, a third of its territory, and all its bloc of ideological allies and client states. In the 1990s, the loss of superpower status combined with economic collapse and an ideological vacuum created a profound identity crisis in Russia. Yeltsin was humiliated by his dependence on loans from the West, and by NATO’s decision to expand the alliance to include former Warsaw Pact countries.
The bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO forces in 1999, in a bid to stop human rights violations in Kosovo, was a turning point. It underlined the geopolitical marginalisation of Russia, unable to protect Serbia – its traditional ally. In the 2000s, on the foundation of a growing economy (thanks to rising world oil prices) Vladimir Putin forged a new Russian identity – that of a great power, able to stand up to the depredations of the US, the world’s ‘sole superpower.’ The idea of Russia as a great power was something which resonated strongly with the Russian public, and which of course had deep roots in Soviet and Russian history (Mankoff , 2011; Trenin, 2014).
- Ukraine was a litmus test of Russia’s resurgence. With 46 million people, it was by far the largest of the states that had split away from Moscow’s control in 1991, and it was strategically located between Russia and the West. Zbigniew Brzezinski famously argued that ‘without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire’ (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 46).
- Ukraine’s new leaders were keen to build a sovereign, independent country – even those who were Russian-speakers and came from eastern Ukraine, such as Leonid Kuchma, president from 1994-2005. Ukraine joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose association of 11 former Soviet states, but was wary of any closer military or political alliance with Russia. Ukrainians complained that Russia never fully accepted their existence as a sovereign nation. Putin himself reportedly told President George W. Bush in 2008 that Ukraine ‘is not even a country’ (Bohm, 2013).
- Ukrainians resented the policies of the Soviet era, which were aimed at suppressing Ukrainian culture – above all the 1932 famine (the Holodomor) that followed Stalin’s collectivisation drive. Traditionally, Russians treated Ukrainians as a ‘younger brother,’ with a language and culture that were rooted in the countryside, and that were but a pale shadow of Russian civilisation.
- Russia also objected to Kiev’s efforts to persuade the country’s Russian-speakers, who amount to half the population, to adopt the Ukrainian language, and its refusal to legally protect the rights of Russian-speakers.
On the other hand, the two countries continued to maintain close economic ties. Russia remained Ukraine’s largest trading partner, and much of Ukraine’s export industry (focused on steel and chemicals) was based on the supply of cheap energy (principally gas) from Russia (Balmaceda, 2013). Russia, in turn, was dependent on Ukraine for the transit of half its natural gas exports to Europe, and Russia’s defence industry relied on some crucial components from Ukrainian factories (such as the engines for ballistic missiles).
In the 1990s, Russia and Ukraine established a modus vivendi of sorts. Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, brokered by the US, Russia recognised Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – in return for which Kiev gave up any claim to the former Soviet nuclear weapons which were still located on Ukrainian territory.
In 1997, Kiev gave Russia a 20-year lease on the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. In the mid-1990s, Russian nationalists agitated for the return to Russia of Crimea, which had been given to Ukraine in 1954 to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s unification with Russia. However, Yeltsin refused to give any support to this campaign and it fizzled out.
- Russia found itself bogged down in testy horse-trading with Ukrainian leaders over the course of the next two decades. Whether the leaders of Ukraine were ‘pro-Russian,’ such as Presidents Kuchma or Viktor Yanukovych, or ‘pro-Western,’ such as President Viktor Yushchenko or Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the issues remained the same – above all, hard bargaining over the price Ukraine paid for Russian gas.
- The fragile equilibrium between Moscow and Kiev was threatened by the 2004 Orange Revolution, which saw the electoral defeat of Viktor Yanukovych – Kuchma’s chosen successor and Russia’s favourite candidate – at the hands of his West Ukrainian rival, Viktor Yushchenko. A wave of ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005) saw authoritarian leaders toppled by popular protests demanding fair elections. Putin saw this as an orchestrated campaign by the West to spread democracy – and pro-Western governments – into the post-Soviet space, and he took decisive steps to prevent this phenomenon from reaching Moscow, tightening restrictions on the opposition while creating pro-Kremlin popular movements.
The colour revolutions came against the backdrop of the eastern enlargement of the two key Western regional organisations – the European Union and NATO. Putin became convinced that Russia was subject to a deliberate strategy of encirclement and containment by the US. Russia’s relations with the US deteriorated after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Putin bitterly opposed. He was further angered by the Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo in February 2008.
Things came to a head in August 2008, when Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili sent his forces into the breakaway region of South Ossetia, killing several Russian peacekeepers in the process. Russia responded with a full-scale invasion, driving back the Georgian forces and going on to grant recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In retrospect, we can see Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 as setting a precedent for what would happen in Crimea in 2014: Moscow used military force to change internationally-recognised borders.
In 2009, the newly elected President Barack Obama tried to revive the partnership with Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, launching a ‘reset’ of relations with Moscow. This produced some positive results – a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed in 2010 and the US started using the Northern Distribution Network across Russia to ferry troops and equipment into Afghanistan.
However, relations deteriorated once more in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, which Russia saw as yet another example of America’s aggressive democracy promotion. Moscow was angered by the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya following NATO air strikes and, in 2012, vetoed proposed UN action to halt the Syrian civil war. In September 2013, Russia scored a diplomatic coup by persuading President Bashar Assad to decommission Syria’s chemical weapons, allowing Obama to step back from his threat to attack Syria if chemical attacks continued. This showed that Russia and the US could still cooperate where areas of common interest were found.
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