From March 2021, thousands of Russian troops aligned themselves along the Russian border with Ukraine. Since then, Ukraine has become the epicentre of an international standoff. The United States has accused Russia of preparing for an invasion of Ukraine. Russia has expressed deep concern about Ukraine joining the American led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). American President Joseph Biden has promised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the United States will offer military protection to Ukraine against Russian invasion. This is a global concern. The conflict includes two of the worlds largest military alliance networks. Two parties to the conflict are the world’s largest nuclear powers.
Russia insists that the inclusion of Ukraine into NATO would pose a huge security risk. Russia’s largest European border is with Ukraine at over 2,000 km. NATO originated to counterbalance the Soviet Union. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO has expanded closer to Russia. This was despite a promise by the United States not to expand after the fall of the USSR. The United States has had poor relationships with Russia, particularly the Syrian Civil War, where the United States and Russia supported conflicting sides in the war.
Ukraine’s Past with Russia
The nation of Ukraine traces back to the development of the Kievan Rus’ people around the end of the first millennium. Various Russian empires had held the territory at different times. After the Russian Revolution, a movement for Ukrainian self-determination led to the independence of Ukraine. After World War I, the Ukrainian state joined with the USSR to become the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and remained part of the USSR until its dissolution, when Ukraine became an independent country again.
Most former members of the USSR kept strong military and economic ties with Russia after the dissolution of the USSR. Ukraine remained more independent of Russia and forged closer ties with the European Powers.
Support for Russia in Ukraine
The Southern and Eastern parts of Ukraine, for cultural and economic reasons, favoured reestablishing closer relations with Russia. Ukraine still had a large ethnic Russian population, and in 2003, they managed to elect pro-Russian leadership. However, the new government did not have much time to consolidate a new relationship with Russia in the face of mass anti-Russian demonstrations in what has been called the Orange Revolution.
In 2008, the United States opened an invitation to Ukraine to join NATO. This concerned the Russian government. NATO, an alliance developed during the Cold War, not only outlived its purpose but continued to gather allies closer to Russia. Ukraine’s membership would keep Russia at an indefinite military disadvantage.
Discontent led to unrest in the Southern and Eastern parts of Ukraine, culminating in mass unrest. The unrest came when, internationally, Russia had been making claims on part of Ukraine, leading to the Donbas war and the Russian annexation of the region of Crimea, with strong support in separatist groups in the region. Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine carried forward the war until the end. The Donetsk and Luhansk regions were the sites of conflict. The Donetsk and Luhansk both have large ethnic Russian populations
After the Donbas War
After the Donbas War, a trilateral agreement between Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, known as the Minsk Protocol sought to end the war. After extensive talks, a new package, known as Minsk II was signed in 2015.
Minsk II called for a full ceasefire in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Both of these areas have been sites of strong separatist movements. The OSCE was to oversee the withdrawal of heavy weapons. Ukraine was to effect constitutional reforms and promote decentralization. Both Ukraine and Russia feel Minsk II does not fully address their concerns.
Western European countries, particularly France, strongly support Minsk II. The agreement gives the OSCE powers of mediation and oversight, making France a mediator in the conflict. French President, Emmanuel Macron has been in talks with Vladimir Putin to carry through with Minsk II, claiming it to be the best option for Ukraine and Russia.
US and Russia
The end of the Cold War led to a period of unrivalled global military dominance by the United States. In the past 15 years, other powers across the world have recovered positions in different parts of the world. Russia, building off of many of the countries that broke off of the Soviet Union represent a power block that challenges Western dominance. Ukraine has been a neutral actor, hoping to maintain good relations with the west. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO poses a direct threat to Russian interests. After the annexation of Crimea, the United States imposed sanctions on Russia, leading to a huge drop in foreign investments in Russia. This has worsened the relationship between Russia and the United States.
Both sides want to avoid a direct war, as a war between Russia and the United States could be worse than any in the history of mankind. President Biden has already advised American citizens in the area to leave, drawing concern from the international community regarding America’s plans in holding back Russia.
The situation oddly mirrors concerns America raised after the Cuban revolution, where the establishment of a potential Soviet ally close to American borders was considered a dire threat. In American eyes, Cuba remains a threat to this day and has been sanctioned accordingly.
Keeping Ukraine Neutral
The recent assembly of troops by Russia is a direct response to Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO, and the eastward expansion of NATO since the fall of the Soviet Union. Apart from the US, western powers have favoured the diplomatic approach, which would keep Ukraine a neutral power.
While Russia might be capable of covertly supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine, it does not seem interested in a whole-scale invasion of Ukraine. If a diplomatic approach could safeguard Russian security concerns, the conflict could be resolved.
A neutral Ukraine is in the world’s best interest. Ukraine can act as a geographical buffer zone between two of the worlds largest and most deadly military alliances. This can best be achieved through the diplomatic path, which the US is not respecting. Even allies within NATO would prefer the diplomatic solution.
Author is a mathematician and political observer based in Bangalore, Karnataka. Views are personal.