Why Soviet cousins Russia, Ukraine are on the brink of a war
The conflict rises from a plethora of reasons, from history to geopolitics to economics and culture; and the West is right in the middle
The Russia-Ukraine tension has escalated drastically in recent weeks, with reports that Moscow has amassed about 90,000 troops at the border, and that the duo is ready to war any minute. Amid accusations and counters — between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia and the West — a security crisis looms over the entire region, with possible repercussions for the rest of the world.
Russia and Ukraine have a shared history, and the conflict has been created by reasons ranging from culture and language to geopolitics and security concerns. Often, it depends on who is narrating it. The West, always wary of Russia and its President Vladimir V Putin, has put its weight behind Ukraine.
The current war-like situation
Ukraine says Russia has stationed over 90,000 troops on the border. It also claims there are heavy-armoured vehicles as well as electronic warfare systems, and that Russia could be planning an invasion. Ukraine’s claims are supported by NATO, the intergovernmental military alliance led by European nations, the US and Canada.
Just seven years ago, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine. This marked the first time since World War II when a European nation annexed territory from another nation. It’s a pointer to Moscow’s willingness to annex regions by force, says Kyiv.
Countering the allegations, Russia says Ukraine has stationed over 120,000 troops on the border. It claims its neighbour could be trying to recapture a territory in eastern Ukraine that is currently under the control of rebels. It may be noted that the rebels had been supported by Russia. Per estimates, the conflict has led to around 10,000 civilian casualties till date.
Russia sees historical, cultural unity
Moscow claims Russia and Ukraine share a centuries-old political, cultural and linguistic history, and there are innumerable familial links, too. “One of the colossal problems pushing us into conflict is that Russian identity does not exist without Ukrainian identity,” Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian Parliament, has said.
Before the USSR broke apart, Ukraine was second only to Russia politically, economically and culturally. Russians tend to view the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv as the birthplace of their own nation, with many of their famous thinkers and authors hailing from that region.
Ukraine was an industrial hub and there was a lot of migration within the USSR. Hence, even now, millions of Russians have family members living in Ukraine, and vice-versa.
Ukraine feels smothered
Ukrainians feel their sovereignty is threatened by Russia’s claims of a shared identity. The popular sentiment is that Russia is using emotional appeal to justify its geopolitical ambitions.
While the languages and cultures do share similarities, what Moscow is attempting is misappropriation of Ukraine’s heritage, they argue. Apart from ‘stealing’ their past, Russia is out to steal Ukraine’s future, too, say their leaders.
While Kyiv has had its share of pro-Russia leaders, the current dispensation is against the neighbouring giant. On the other hand, it has found an ally in NATO.
There’s much at stake for the West
NATO views Moscow’s overtures as an attempt to increase Russian influence in Ukraine, which is strategically positioned to the south-west of Russia. Its geographic position in eastern Europe makes it critical for both Russia and the West. Since the USSR split, Russia and the West have been persistently trying to establish their influence in the country.
The US and the EU, key members of the NATO, view Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and the western world, and are keen to keep it out of Moscow’s influence. They fear that if Moscow gets the upper hand in Ukraine, it will expand its hold over the rest of eastern Europe, and get closer to the western side of the continent.
The existing NATO members have been trying to induct Ukraine into the bloc. Russia has strongly opposed this, saying it’s a bid by the West to push NATO eastward.
Today, as troops populate the borders, as claimed by either side, Russia has sought assurances that Ukraine will not join NATO. US President Joe Biden has declined to give such an assurance.
All eyes on Putin
The current conflict largely revolves around Putin. He has strongly argued that Russia and Ukraine belong together, and that their separation is both artificial and unjust. While this has won him popular support among his countrymen, using military force to annexe Ukraine would not go down well, it is felt. Hence, a military invasion does not appear imminent, say political experts.
Western nations have threatened to impose sanctions on Russia if it goes ahead with a military offensive. While this is bound to hit Russia hard, it may not be enough of a deterrent for Putin, whose intentions remain unclear to Western political experts.