Understanding The Crisis in Ukraine

Foreign Policy Brief #138 | By: Ibrahim Sultan | January 6, 2021

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Policy Summary

Ukraine and Western allies are concerned about a Russian troop buildup near its border that may signal a plan for a further invasion into Ukraine. As a former Soviet republic, Ukraine shares deep social and cultural ties with Russia and, in certain parts of the country, Russian is widely spoken. It borders both the EU and Russia, and won its independence in 1991 during the break up of the USSR. Since its independence it has moved away from Russia, and has sought closer ties with the West. During the last two decades Ukraine has undergone two revolutions in 2005 and 2014, both times rejecting Russia’s domination over it and pursuing a path to join the EU and NATO. In 2014 Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian President rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow which sparked mass protests that eventually led to his removal from office. Russia responded to his ouster and the possibility of Ukraine deepening its ties to the West by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and backing a pro-Russian separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s Eastern region known as the Donbas, and reigniting war on continental Europe.

In 2015, Germany and France helped broker a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine but failed to reach a political settlement. Over 13,000 people have died as a result of the fighting, and about 1.5 million people have been internally displaced. In the final days of 2021 U.S. intelligence determined that Russia has amassed an estimated 100,000 troops stationed along  various points near Ukraine’s border. The military build-up drew criticism and condemnation from the West and sparked fear of an invasion in early 2022. On December 7, 2021, President Biden held a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin to warn against further aggression and encroachment in Ukraine. Russia denies it is planning an invasion and has dismissed the claims as alarmist. It claims its moves are purely defensive and has warned NATO against expanding further eastward to avoid war.

Policy Analysis

So what does Russia want? The Kremlin has warned the West not to cross “its red lines”, and expand NATO further eastward. It also wants NATO to halt military activity in Eastern Europe which would include pulling out troops from Poland and the Baltic republics. Russia is clear that it is willing go to war in order to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is actively seeking a timeline from the alliance for membership.

Another factor in the conflict is Putin’ s declining approval ratings brought on by economic hardships, the COVID-19 pandemic and the jailing of opposition candidate Alexi Navalny. During Russia’s annexation of Crimea Putin’s approval ratings with the Russian public reached almost 90% and he may try to use similar tactics to revive dwindling support.

The Russian troop buildup on the Ukranian border may also be a demonstration of force that showcases the lengths Russia will go to in order to convince the West of abiding by Russia’s demands. The U.S. and other NATO allies have condemned Russia’s provocation but have also suggested they would not go to war to defend Ukraine. President Biden has indicated to Putin that any further aggression will be met with harsh sanctions and that the U.S. and allies would send further military equipment to assist Ukraine. 

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The German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, has also clarified that if there were to be any further Russian escalation, then the Nord Stream pipeline that would provide Germany with Russian gas would not come into service, taking away a huge new source of revenue for Russia. U.S. and Russian officials have scheduled talks for January 10th to discuss the rising tensions.

Putin’s actions and demands show that his true goal is to stop NATO’s advance into Eastern Europe and revive Russian dominance over its former satellite republics rather than conquering all of Ukraine. There still looms the threat of war over the region and we will wait to see what comes out of the scheduled  talks in order to avoid further escalation.

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