The Russia-Ukraine conflict has been on hold since the war in Donbas in 2014 untill the violence escalated recently. Since March 2021, there have been regular reports of skirmishes in eastern Ukraine. First, Russian-backed separatists claimed they “got the permission” to launch a preemptive strike on Ukrainian military positions. Ukraine condemned the statements as a breach of the Minsk agreement, which aimed to stop the conflict in 2014. Nearly eight years of fighting has reportedly caused the death of more than 13,000 people.
However, Russia massed its military along the border with its neighbour, raising fears regarding another Russian aggression towards Ukraine since 2014. Tensions briefly died down when Russia pulled back its forces in April 2021 but again started building up military presence in October 2021. It scared the US, who hinted at a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The Russian-Ukraine Conflict Background
The Russia-Ukraine conflict began when Soviet Union leader Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev transferred the Crimean Peninsula from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine. Crimea became an autonomous region in 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union dissolved. However, Russia never stopped considering Crimea its division. Moreover, Ukraine also established relations with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in 1992, which was a problem for Russia. It enhanced the sovereignty of Ukraine, and old Russian leaders said that the eastward expansion of NATO threatened Russia’s national security.
Russian proxies in Ukraine kept strategizing to stall the NATO membership plans. After the 2010 elections, Pro-Russian President Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych ultimately shelved the talks due to pressure from Russia. He also avoided signing major agreements with European Union (EU). It triggered violent protests in Ukraine, known as Euromaidan, which lasted from November 2013 to February 2014. Demonstrators called for the impeachment of the Pro-Russian President, re-adoption of original Ukrainian Law from 2004, signing of EU Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement, and rejection of Eurasian Customs Union led by Russia.
The protests caused Viktor to flee in 2014 and live in Russia in exile. The unrest developed into the war in Donbas, and Russia managed to annex Crimea after all. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that this move was to protect the rights of Russian citizens and speakers in Ukraine. The crisis intensified conflict between several ethnicities. Then pro-Russian separatists in 2 Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, took independence from Ukraine after the referendum. Since then, the violence between separatist forces and the Ukrainian military has become an international crisis.
Justification by Russia
Russia has denied involvement, but according to NATO and Ukraine, the Russian military presence has been increasing near Donestk. There are also reports of cross-border shelling by Russian forces. The situation has worsened Russia’s relationship with the US and EU. Especially after reports like Malaysian Airlines flight being shot down by an alleged Russian missile system in 2014. France, Russia, Ukraine, and Germany have been trying to broker Minsk Agreement since 2015 to stop violence and allow complete control of the conflict zone to the Ukrainian government. However, the parties have been unsuccessful in reaching a diplomatic solution.
Moscow justified its stance in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a retaliatory effort to counter NATO expansion. Kremlin wants NATO forces out of Central and Eastern European countries that have joined the alliance since the 1990s. It said that NATO could not place its troops or weapons in Ukraine or other former Soviet territories. The 2015 Minsk Agreement did prevent the full-fledged battle from happening but not the conflict. Besides military offences, Ukraine has also faced cyberattacks by hackers reportedly linked to Russia. These attacks damaged critical computer networks and caused widespread blackouts.
Russia has accused the US and NATO of aggravating the situation by providing weapons to Ukraine. If the US and its NATO allies failed to change their course in time, then Kremlin said it would be forced to “ensure” its security interests. Since October 2021, it has deployed almost 100,000 troops and heavy artillery but still denies the invasion plans.
Will the Situation Escalate?
According to reports, 39% of Russians predicted that the Russia-Ukraine conflict would escalate to war. 72% of Ukrainian respondents found Russia to be a hostile state. There are also concerns about Russia’s other interests in Ukraine besides preventing NATO expansion. Ukraine is a huge agricultural land, rich with black soil – the most fertile soil. It is known as Europe’s “breadbasket” and is one of the top grain exporters in the world. Ukraine is a leading producer of soybeans and sunflower oil in the world. Such an agriculture market and running the perfectly located seaports along the Black Sea would be a tremendous economic advantage for Russia. Given the sanctions Russia faced due to its aggression on Ukraine in 2014 and alleged interference in elections of multiple countries, its currency (ruble) had weakened.
In fears of Russia invading Ukraine, the US has also warned to send around 8500 troops to the conflict zone to counter Russian aggression. It also sent around 90 tonnes of ammunition for “front-line defenders” in Ukraine. European countries and the United Kingdom (UK) also said their intelligence was sure that Russia would conduct a raid on Ukraine. The Kremlin maintained that it wanted to stop NATO expansion, but US allies remained concerned about Russia’s possible aggression. The US threatened more economic sanctions for Russia if it invaded Ukraine. However, the European nations are not impressed by the sanctions threat. Since Russia is the top supplier of oil and gas in the EU and its 5th largest trading partner, the sanctions would hurt Europe as well because the gas prices will dramatically increase for the whole winter.
The US responded as if it was the ultimate saviour for Ukraine, but its intentions to protect its strategic allies have fallen short. Joe Biden failed to take a firm stand and explain the economic sanctions. Instead, he gave a loose statement of warning which proved nothing. He could have warned that the economic sanctions would hurt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and ruin Russia’s economy for good. Or disable the ability of Putin and his associates to access the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF).