The Crisis Between Russia and Ukraine - Causes and Trajectories

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

The Crisis Between Russia and Ukraine - Causes and Trajectories

The tempo of events between Russia and Ukraine has been accelerating. The origin of these events is a struggle whose theme is the Russian vital interests and Western policies. Russia has been vigilantly and anxiously monitoring the activities of the Ukrainian leaders in respect of their current and future orientations vis-à-vis the relationship with Europe and the US, in addition to Ukraine’s potential NATO membership, while Ukraine has been viewing with deep concern what she considers a violation of her sovereignty following the March 2014 referendum when Russia decided to annex the Crimean Peninsula which was part of her lands in addition to the ongoing struggle in Donbas and Luhansk. These two provinces of her lands had announced their secession with Russian incitement and with the Duma recently recognising the independence of Donbas.

The new development in this crisis is the Russian troops on the Ukrainian borders with the aim of exerting pressure on Ukraine and intimidating her in respect of her endeavour to join NATO and lend her ear to the US. This has raised a host of persistent questions, including the potential eruption of the situation and its transformation into a major war.

In order to perceive the motives of the parties to the conflict, it would be imperative to acquaint ourselves with the beginning of the crisis, the Minsk Protocol and the rifts over its implementation, the influential parties, and the interests of the disputing sides and what they evoke in terms of issues pertinent to the struggle of identities and strategic tendencies between Russia and the US and the potentiality of the crisis developing into a conflict or a major war.

As for the beginning of the current crisis, it dates back to 21 November 2013, when the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych halted the preparations to execute a partnership agreement with the EU, the consequences of which were widespread protests and demonstrations, deteriorating conditions in the eastern and southern areas where the majority of the population is of Russian origin and loyal to President Yanukovych. And as the US-backed protests intensified and turned into a big revolution, parliament ousted President Yanukovych, who subsequently fled, on 22 February 2014 and replaced him by parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov. Meanwhile, Russia took control of the Crimean Peninsula and annexed it to the Russia Federation in one of largest annexation procedures witnessed by Europe since the Second World War. Subsequently, a war broke out in Donetsk Oblast and Luhansk Oblast between separatists loyal to Russia and the Ukrainian government.

The US and the EU responded by imposing sanctions on Russia following her invasion of Crimea but the sanctions had no effective impact on the Russian economy; Russia continued to work towards acquiring a leveraging tool on the one hand, and a confidence-building window with European states to dissipate their security fears and nullify the US pretexts pertinent to the perils of the European relationship with Russia on the other hand. This was effectuated through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which made Germany dependent on Russia gas despite the political difficulties and impediments such as the Ukrainian crises that America has engineered to thwart the Russo-European understanding and maintain the state of uncertainty between them.

In fact, Russia has managed to orchestrate the crisis and avert an escalation with Ukraine during the past few years. However, Western manoeuvres and America’s incitement of Ukraine to provoke Russia through military infringements in the east and persisting on admitting the former into NATO, and even citing it in the country’s constitution, has infuriated Russia and led Putin to mobilise his forces along the Ukrainian borders from three sides, north, east, and south. This has made the crisis prone to eruption whenever America wanted to widen the wedge between Russia and Europe, especially Germany and France. Several observers interpreted this scenario as an imminent Russian invasion, as Russian military divisions moved thousands of kilometres towards the Ukrainian borders, Crimea, and Belarus, with their numbers reaching 200,000 soldiers according to Washington. As for the two Minsk agreements, their implementation is no longer practicable, and now that the Duma has voted for the independence of Donbas, they have become irrelevant, despite the persistence of both sides to implement the 2015 “Minsk Agreement” in full, which includes lending Ukrainian legitimacy to the lands torn apart by war within the political system of Ukraine, as per her wishes, while Russia insists on the independence of Donbas, and she has even effectively voted for this.

The motive behind this Russian comportment is the threat Russia has sensed from the Ukrainian policies and behaviours. Russia is endeavouring to establish herself as a geopolitical and geostrategic player in a region that has always been viewed as part of her vital interests, including Ukraine. Consequently, if these interests were physically threatened, Russia would resort to force to confront the threats and impose the secession of east, southeast Ukraine and up to the Crimean Peninsula by force. Moreover, Russia has changed her standpoint towards her interests in Ukraine to exceed rejecting the NATO membership of the latter, and to include rejecting categorically the increasing defence cooperation between Ukraine and the West and demanding the implementation of the West’s pledge pertinent to the military presence in Poland and the Baltic States, and at the same time, she has been endeavouring to review the agreements and settlements concluded after the Cold War, including regaining the regional security system so that she may have a role in European security. Hence, Russia is seeking a host of unconditional guarantees for her security today and in the future, and she would not accept a NATO expansion eastward to include Ukraine as Putin has declared. The direct threat that Russia dreads is Ukraine’s move towards European institutions so that her quest to join the EU and NATO may be accepted. Russia’s main concern is preventing such memberships or preventing Ukraine from hosting any NATO infrastructure on her lands. As for the further dimension of Russian interests, it is reflected in relinking the states that formed the former Soviet Union before its collapse, in order to preserve her lebensraum, which has started to be eroded due to the American infiltration. This is deemed a strategic security matter for the Russian side, especially President Vladimir Putin who is striving to keep Ukraine within the Russian strategic circle, a move corroborated by the common social, cultural and economic ties between Russia and Ukraine.

As for the Ukrainian interests, they are reflected in the fact that Ukraine represents a bridge between Russia and the EU. This geographic position makes her a link or a buffer zone between Russia and Europe. The Ukrainian interests manifest themselves in the endeavour to get rid of the Russian influence on the government and the capital in Ukraine, in addition to the inclination towards the West, and gaining membership to the EU and NATO. And although the electoral manifesto of Ukrainian President Zielinski stipulated a pledge to hold a dialogue and negotiate with Russia, and to pursue a diplomatic channel, and implement the Minsk agreements pertinent to the Donbas region in southeast Ukraine, he however changed his approach under the pressure of domestic chaos and the increasing patriotic streak nurtured by the US in Eastern European states and the former Soviet Union’s republics. Moreover, Ukraine has several apprehensions vis-à-vis the Russian standpoint such as being totally invaded; thus, she tends to amplify the West’s fears of a Russian expansion and urges Western powers to impose sanctions on Russia, considering that, in her view, such sanctions would contribute in weakening Russia and engrossing her in domestic social and nationalistic struggles, which would subsequently lead to recapturing Crimea and the rebellious areas, mainly Donbas.

On the other hand, Ukraine has several demands related to freedom of navigation; these demands were induced by the incident in which Russia seized three Ukrainian navy boats and their crews, claiming that they had illegally entered Russian territorial waters. This was one of the reasons that prompted Ukraine to seek NATO and EU membership and to believe that her future lies with the Europeans, as her EU membership would enable her to acquire a catalogue of economic perks that the EU offers while joining NATO would provide her with the security umbrella and protection of her existence; it would also shore up her negotiating position with Russia in respect of the dispute over the occupied Crimean Peninsula and the rebellious areas. This is the main point of dispute between Ukraine and Russia who, for her part, considers NATO’s presence close to her borders a strategic threat to her national security.

As for the American role in the crisis, it falls within the framework of downsizing Russia while keeping her a source of threat to Europe, even though America has on the surface been endeavouring to generate a form of strategic stability between her and Russia; Presidents Putin and Biden have met several times as part of their constant efforts to establish a stable relationship.

The American role in the Ukrainian crisis is prominent through her corroboration, together with Britain and other NATO member states, of her partnership with Ukraine and through supplying the Ukrainian army with American weapons. The struggle in Ukraine is one of the most prominent aspects of the rift between Russia and the US; this is why President Biden has been attempting, and even demanding from Putin, to place the Ukrainian file on the negotiating table of the Russo-American relationship to review it on a larger scale within the framework of “strategic stability.”

It is common knowledge that the American standpoint vis-à-vis the Russo-Ukrainian crisis is shrouded with malice and deception. At a time when America was averse to the mobilisation of Russian troops on the Ukrainian borders, and was threatening Russia with harsh economic sanctions if she took the step of defying international willpower, she however failed to move in an effective manner to protect Ukraine against potential invasion; she rather worked towards evacuating her diplomats and expatriates from Ukraine in a move interpreted as an abandoning of Ukraine to let her face her fate by herself America contented herself with backing her militarily and devising a host of red lines in respect of the invasion in a move designed to deepen European awareness of the Russian threat and emphasise her role in protecting Europe, and the need of the Europeans for NATO. This is why America and NATO raised the levels of preparedness among their armed forces and deployed NATO forces along the borders with Belarus. She also despatched American FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine and handed the Ukrainian navy two US coast guard boats, while Britain started building two naval bases for Ukraine. Nevertheless, dispatching US troops to confront Russia is a farfetched option; America has compensated for this by dispatching troops to the states of the eastern wing of NATO to corroborate its role in the security of Europe and deepen eastern European dependence on America.

As for the European standpoint, it is tilting between calling for a diplomatic solution, threatening to impose sanctions and warning against an invasion and its consequences; in other situations, the relationship between Russia and EU member states is dominated by a tit for tat expulsion of diplomats, as was the case between Germany and Russia following the assassination of a Chechen opponent. France and Germany for their part are striving to reduce the tension lest the crisis should impact negatively on their interests, and at the same time, they are jostling to lead a Europe divided in her standpoints towards the relationship with Russia.

In light of European statements, the European states may reduce their strategic dependence on Russian gas to please America, and resort to imposing sanctions in case Russia invades Ukraine, even though they would prefer the diplomatic solution to the confrontation to ensure Ukraine’s unity. Hence, the EU offered its services throughout the crisis in its quality as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Germany and France have led several attempts at mediation and at monitoring a ceasefire; in 2014, what became known as the Normandy Quartet was formed comprising of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine. The EU is also expected to partake in imposing stern sanctions against Russia should she attack Ukraine. Such measures may include shutting Russia out of the SWIFT system and delaying the operating of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 in Germany; this is what America has been seeking so that she may impinge on the Russo-German entente, and this notion was corroborated by US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, who told reporters on 27 January during a briefing "If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward."

As for what is expected to happen in the next phase, Russian leaders may come to the conclusion that using force today could be less costly than using it tomorrow if Ukraine were to become a NATO member state. Hence, the choices of Russia’s top brass are limited in respect of preserving Russian interests, even though the use of force will not be easy. Putin may resort to flex his muscles within a limited scope should the political course of action lead to a stalemate and should Russia fail to achieve the desired settlement, and he may be compelled to invade eastern Ukraine to use this manoeuvre as a bargaining chip during the negotiations and impose a settlement that would halt Ukraine’s move to the Western camp. On the other hand, America is attempting to lure Russia into a military action and aggravate the situation in a manner which would carry a message to Russia stipulating that speeding up the invasion would be better than delaying it, so that she may dissipate the Europeans’ trust in Putin and deepen the nationalistic tendency which is hostile to Russia in Ukraine and in the entire Russian lebensraum.

Putin for his part would be aspiring to shore up Russia’s political, military and economic position through this crisis, especially after he had succeeded in Syria and Georgia, orchestrating the Armenian-Azerbaijani crisis and restoring security in Kazakhstan. Hence, Putin would endeavour to regulate the balance afresh through the use of force should he fail to achieve a satisfactory settlement with Ukraine and the US. This may compel Russia to disentangle herself from this booby-trapped process by resorting to military force in order to readjust the Ukrainian orientations and attempt to lift the West’s sanctions, knowing that Russia had resorted to force in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and has to a great extent hampered US plans in those countries. Hence, if Russia were to wage war on Ukraine, it would be hard for her to end it and she may not achieve lasting peace since the war could develop into a long-term confrontation, especially if what is known geographically as Western Ukraine remained through Western supplies. In other words, the war could turn into a war of attrition if Ukraine were supplied with sophisticated Western weapons and equipment. Russia could also facereal diplomatic isolation, especially if the war erupted and turned into an open and major confrontation between the forces of the two countries, namely Russia and Ukraine, whereby the former would be viewed as the aggressor. Hence, Russia would prefer to maintain the status quo, which would be a less damaging option than military confrontation, provided nothing compelling her to undertake a limited military action crops up. The status quo is in Russia’s favour, especially if the independence of Donbas were recognised, even though this would nurture the state of uncertainty in her relationship with Europe.

Hence, US policy towards Russia remains fixed, namely besieging the latter within her lebensraum, turning her into a major regional power, and sealing off her relationship with China, Germany and France, lest the international situation should be destabilised.

Although the presence of a strong Russia adjacent to Europe constitutes an American interest, her strength however should not exceed the extent required to keep the equilibrium with Europe and maintain the latter under the umbrella of American protection with Europe footing the bill of such protection.

The current crisis between Russia and Ukraine is in fact a crisis between Russia and America who aims at besieging Russia within her lebensraum and downsizing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, as well as dissuading the European states from considering France’s calls for establishing a European force independent of NATO, and turning NATO into an international organisation to uphold international peace and security.

As Russia strives to defend her lebensraum, America is attempting to place Europe on a collision course with Russia and humiliate France so that she may ditch her notion of establishing an independent European force. By observing the current Russo-Ukrainian crisis, it has transpired that Russia is adamant to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, which if it materialised, would place Russia within minutes of its missiles, a scenario that Russia would never accept. This is why Putin demanded from NATO, especially America, written guarantees before withdrawing his forces from Ukraine’s borders.

The current crisis has turned into a muscle-flexing exercise by Russia and an intimidation of Europe; and this is what America wants to achieve her aims. And although the Minsk Protocol has given Ukraine the right to regain full control of the country’s borders in all the region of conflict, it has however remained mere ink on paper; consequently, those provinces remained rebellious towards the central government. Nevertheless, Russia continues to contemplate the secession of those provinces and considers them independent of Ukraine, especially now that the Duma voted last to recognise the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, and the independence of Donbas from Ukraine. If Russia were to succeed in exacting an international endorsement of such a step, this would herald the division of Ukraine, and this is what Russia covets and Europe dreads.

17 Rajab 1443h
18 February 2022