In 2013, tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets to protest the government’s decision to abandon an agreement with the European Union. Ukrainians saw this move as a political realignment with Russia after years of economic and political grudges had nearly pushed the country in the opposite direction towards the E.U. and the West. There did not seem to be a Ukrainian path forward; for many, this was a step backward. The protests sent a clear message of the Ukrainian people’s deep-seated frustration with their government. This frustration compounded with Ukraine’s choice to remain more closely tied to Russia than with its western neighbors. By February 2014, then-President Yanukovych had fled to Russia and the opposition government stepped in. Then, in March 2014, the fate of Ukrainians turned irrevocably grim as Russia began a thinly-veiled invasion.
Invasion, Annexation and Occupation
Many still regard Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a breach of international law according to its membership of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its signing of the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. It met with harsh sanctions from the U.S., E.U. and several other nations, many of which targeted Russia’s lucrative oil and gas exports. Despite international condemnation, Russia was at it again the next month.
Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine. They soon received military assistance in their fight against the Ukrainian military. Support came in the form of what has become widely known as “little green men.” Russian troops had already occupied Crimea, but they were also assisting the separatist movements in the newly-declared autonomous zones in the Donbass region. They supplied light and heavy arms, troops and tactical assistance. All this has led to a conflict that remains unresolved to this day. The conflict remains frozen in constantly-violated ceasefires without a clear end in sight. Russia still receives much of the blame from the international community.
The Kremlin Strategy
The war claimed 14,000 lives since 2014, displaced millions of Ukrainians and sent Ukraine’s economy in turmoil, begging the question of why Russia has been willing to commit to this volatile conflict. The answer lies in defense. Ukraine is one of the key former Soviet states that form a buffer zone around Russia’s eastern border. The border has seen numerous invasions throughout history and, according to “The Red Line” podcast, “after World War II, Russia decided that it never again wanted to be only 1,200 kilometers from [its] enemy’s position.”
The Ukrainian path forward is currently at a crossroads. If the country aligns itself with the West, Russia would face a major geopolitical loss. Russia maintains the conflict largely because it provides for the existence of three territorial disputes within Ukraine. This bars it from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a country cannot join the Western alliance if it has any outstanding territorial disputes or conflicts. A similar strategy has worked for Russia in Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. This does not, however, mean that there is no hope for an end to the violence.
Peace by Any Means
In the seven years following the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, a long brigade of ceasefires, peace agreements and mounting international pressure to end the violence have occurred. Perhaps the most notable successes were the Minsk Protocol of 2014 and the subsequent Minsk II Agreement in 2015. The Minsk II Agreement included steps towards a ceasefire, monitoring from the OSCE and the assertion that economic recovery was necessary in the regions the conflict affected the most. The latter attempted to build upon limited successes from the past year, but the ceasefires have followed a consistent pattern of violations along the so-called “security zone.” Aside from two prisoner swaps, increased humanitarian assistance and successive ceasefires in the past two years, a clear Ukrainian path forward to lasting peace still appears blocked.
A Shift in Foreign Engagement
The leaders of Germany and France have spearheaded the majority of peace talks and negotiations. However, the Biden Administration brings hope to the international community that the U.S. will become more involved in negotiations. Increased involvement would help the Ukrainian path forward, rather than Ukraine continuing to rely on defensive aid to its government. Antony Blinken’s nomination to Secretary of State has garnered even more speculation about the possible benefits for the Ukrainian people. The Atlantic Council maintained that “Blinken played an influential role in the imposition of sanctions against Russia over the 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” It is true that the ratcheting up of economic sanctions could force Russia back to the negotiating table. Hopefully this time with genuine aspirations of cooling the conflict down.
– Scott Mistler-Ferguson