The US and its NATO allies are frightened of a possible attack by Russia on Ukraine and they have sent additional troops and military troops to Ukraine. Contrary to it, Russia claims that its actions are vital for its security interests and it has no intention to invade Ukraine. NATO blames Russia for continued military build-up along the Ukraine border as a threat to the territorial integrity of Ukraine while Russia accuses NATO of destabilizing the region.
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley addressing a news conference on Friday has said that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be “horrific and terrible”. In the backdrop of allegations and counter-blames, it is necessary to understand what is the nature of the Russia-Ukraine conflict? And, why is it happening?
Understanding the roots of crises
Ukraine is a former Soviet republic bordering both Russia and the European Union. Ukraine was part of the Russian empire for centuries. It remained part of the Soviet Union till the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and consequently won independence. Ukraine has a large population of ethnic Russians and closes social and cultural ties to Russia. Strategically, the Kremlin sees it as Russia’s backyard.
Kremlin-leaning Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union and chose to establish closer ties with Moscow. This decision led to mass protests in Ukraine which resulted in the removal of Victor Yanukovych as the leader in 2014. In response, Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern the Crimean Peninsula.
It is important to know that Crimea in 2014 had an ethnic Russian majority of about 60 percent whereas the Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars accounted for almost 40 percent of the peninsula’s population. Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to support the pro-Russian separatists who captured large strips of eastern Ukraine while Russia denied it and said that the Russians who joined the separatists were volunteers.
Russia criticizes the US and its NATO allies for providing weapons and military support to Ukraine and holding joint military drills saying that such moves encourage Ukrainian hawks to attempt to recapture the areas by force.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has continually stated that Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO are a red line and expressed concerns about the setting up of military training centres in Ukraine by some NATO countries. According to him, this would give NATO members a military foothold in the region without Ukraine joining NATO.
Ukraine is an issue of the sphere of influence
Russia presented a list of security demands to America and its NATO allies in December 2021 which demanded NATO to deny membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries including withdrawing a 2008 promise of membership to Georgia and rolling back the deployment of troops and weapons in central and eastern Europe.
Russia also called for a ban on sending the US and Russian warships and aircraft to areas from where they can attack each other’s territory and a halt to NATO military drills near Russia’s borders. However, the US and its NATO allies have already termed many of these terms as non-starters.
President Putin has termed this as an opportunity for the West to engage in substantive talks on the issue and emphasised that Russia would need not just verbal assurances but “legal guarantees”.
In a phone call with French President Macron on Friday, Putin said that the US and NATO had not addressed Russia’s main security concern- how the US and its allies intend to follow the principle of security integrity.
The eastward expansion of NATO is a key concern for Russia which considers it as a threat to its vital interests and a blow to the sphere of influence in the region. NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – is a military alliance formed in 1949 by 12 countries, including the US, Canada, the UK, and France. Members agree to come to one another’s aid in the event of an armed attack against any one-member state. It aimed to counter the threat of post-war Russian expansion in Europe.
In 1955 Soviet Russia responded to NATO by creating its military alliance of Eastern European communist countries, called the Warsaw Pact. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several former Warsaw Pact countries became NATO members.
The NATO alliance now has 30 members
Russia considers the expansion of NATO to Eastern European countries, which were the Soviet allies during the cold war era, to squeeze Russia. Therefore, it wants to keep NATO away from its borders. On the other hand, Russia is the largest provider of gas to Europe while Ukraine would be deprived of transit fees under Nord Stream 2. This dependence, including other factors, has given the impression that the West is not united over Ukraine.
Although President Biden has said there is “total unanimity” with European leaders over Ukraine, it seems that there are differences among the countries, especially major countries like Germany and France to handle the Ukraine crisis. Germany has refused Ukraine’s request for defensive weapons, in line with its policy of not sending lethal weapons to conflict zones.
It has committed to sending medical aid whereas President Macron of France has meanwhile urged the parties for dialogue with Russia to de-escalate the situation. Given this situation, one should be hopeful that sanity will prevail and European countries will not indulge themselves in a war that would bring devastation not to others but Europe itself.
Dr. Tahir Ashraf holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and writes extensively on global politics. He teaches at the Department of International Relations, Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, Pakistan and can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.