Russian-Ukraine Debacle: Understanding the Conflict

The recent developments have been nothing but concerning regarding world peace. Vladimir Putin, driven by his tempestuous irredentism, ordered a military operation intended to neutralise Ukraine, which was approaching the West with the hopes of joining NATO one day. The military operation was preceded by Putin’s formal recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics,two states governed by pro Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine i.e., Donbass. The West has imposed stringent sanctions on Russia, but Putin’s resolve is still firm and completely unbothered by the West’s threats. The West, especially the US, can do nothing at the moment to quell Putinism which is one the charge to put Kyiv back under Russian influence. Putin is acting and demonstrating his military might, the West is only speaking and has left Ukraine on its own. Actions speak louder than words. Putin wins here.

There is no doubt that Putin’s irredentism has put the entire region, as well as Europe, in a perilous and vulnerable state. In simple terms, he violated International Law, especially Article 2(4) of UN Charter, which states that no country shall commit aggression against the sovereignty of another country. Putin has multiple times denounced Ukraine’s sovereignty, stating Ukrainians and Russians are one people, having the same history and same culture, as Russia considers Ukraine to be the cradle of its faith and civilization, with Kyiv being the capital of the first Russian state, Kievan Russ. By flexing his military muscle, Putin has instigated an episode reminiscent of the World War II days, a haunting spectre for entire Europe. However, there is more to it than meets the eye, as the US and West were responsible for irking Russia in the first place.

In order to better understand the Russian attack on Ukraine, we need to go back to 1989, the year when the Berlin Wall fell. With Germany on the verge of reunification and the Eastern, Communist bloc soon becoming a part of Germany, Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev was worried that NATO, based in West Germany back then, would expand to East Germany, meaning NATO forces and weapons would move closer to Soviet Union in the East. Gorbachev shared his concerns with James Baker, the US Secretary of State back then, who assured Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastwards. Furthermore, John Major, the British Prime Minister in the early 90s, assured Soviet General Dmitry Yazov that NATO will not expand to the East. In spite of those assurances, NATO kept on expanding by incorporating former Soviet States such as Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Romania etc into their circle. Post Cold War, this manifested as an imbalance in power, because there was no opposition to NATO, as the Warsaw Pact had collapsed when the Soviet Union fell.

Ideally, NATO should have ended when the Warsaw Pact became defunct, as the original motive for the establishment of NATO was to contain and oppose the Soviets.
With the Soviet Union gone, the West and NATO should have actively engaged with Russia and establish a friendly, working relationship with the massive country spanning across two continents. Russia may be economically inferior to the US, but Russian leadership for the Global issues cannot be minimised and given no weightage. However, NATO and the US went against their assurances regarding non expansion, which created fury amongst the Russians. Russian policymakers warned the West back in the 90s that if Russia is faced with the threat of NATO expanding eastwards, autocratic and nationalistic elements will be reignited and only the West will be sorry for it. Putin, initially in his reign, was also friendly to the West and recounted in one of his speeches that he expressed his desire to join NATO, though he never got a response.

George Bush, in 2008, stated he would like to see Ukraine and Georgia join NATO. This irked Russia back then, and invaded Georgia. The same is happening in Ukraine. The overthrow of the pro Russian, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukoyvch by the Euromaidan protestors, supported by the West, with US Diplomats seen waving flags with them, made Russia livid. Furthermore, with a pro European, pro West government taking power in 2014 through controversial means, the Russian ethnic groups in Ukraine felt isolated. This led to the start of the Donbass war, where Russia has been sponsoring pro Russian separatists groups, who have established their breakaway states. Ukraine has become the stranglehold between Russia and the West, and has resulted in Ukraine suffering.

Perhaps the Ukrainian leadership should have better understood the World Order, where Realism reigns. No superpower will tolerate its adversary establishing itself militarily near its borders. Ukrainian President should have exercised some prudence regarding his incessant desires and wishes that Ukraine should become a member of NATO. Ukraine becoming a member of NATO is not a possibility as of now, as Ukraine currently doesn’t fulfil the criteria to become one. US President Joe Biden has already said that the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO is very low. But the damage has been done. NATO kept on expanding, Ukraine kept on wishing without understanding the grave realities, which pushed Russia to attack Ukraine. Infact, one of the Wikileaks cables from 2008 reveals the then US Ambassador to Russia, William J. Burns, expressed his concerns that the West’s and NATO’s obsession with Ukraine and Georgia would become a source of major conflict in to the region, leading to start of a civil war in Ukraine between its pro Western and pro Russian groups. The cable reveals the following information:

Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO aspirations not only touch a raw nerve in Russia, they engender serious concerns about the consequences for stability in the region. Not only does Russia perceive encirclement, and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests. Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene ; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.

-NYET MEANS NYET: RUSSIA’S NATO ENLARGEMENT REDLINES (WikiLeaks February 2008)

Putin needs to realise that Soviet Union is a thing of the past. He needs to let go of his irredentist motives, and needs to realise that his military actions might endanger his rule. His desire to control Ukraine might backfire domestically, as the recent protests have shown. The West too needs to practice caution and let go of its Cold War mentality and sabre-rattling motives. It needs to stop its curtailment around Russia by establishing command centres in erstwhile Soviet States, and listen to Moscow’s concerns and seek diplomatic solutions to solve this crisis. European sanctions might result in Russia blocking gas supplies, which will be problematic for Europe. War in Ukraine is nothing but a continuation of politics between Russia and the West, and Ukrainians are being the victims of their power struggles. Intensive diplomacy and prudence is required from all sides, so that those who had no role in it will not suffer.

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