Author: Ayushi Tomar, II year of B.A.,LL.B.
Ukraine, a 44-million-strong European democracy, has been assailed by Russia. Its forces are raiding city centers and shutting in on the Ukrainian capital,Kyiv, causing a massive evacuation.
The Ukrainian country is already at war with Russia and the answers to all the Ukraine-Russia crisis lies in history, and why Vladimir Putin is so obsessiveabout Ukraine.
There was a time when Kyiv was more powerful than Moscow; when Ukraine and America were adversaries, and was crucial strategically, economically, and culturally.
We will get down to the ninth century. There was a state called Kievan Rus, where the Slavic people lived, with Kyivas the capital. Between 980 and 1085, the Kievan Rus was ruled by Grand Prince Volodymir. In Russian, his name is Vladimir, in Ukrainian – Volodymir; and as fate would have it, these are also the names of the presidents of these countries today. Anyways, Russians and Ukrainians draw their lineage from this Slavic state. Plenty has changed in the centuries that followed.The shared inheritance of the countrieshas been used for electoral and military goals.
Ukraine was under Russian rule. In the 1900s, the two were soviet republics: Russian- the most powerful of the 15 republicans and Ukraine – the second most powerful. It had defense industries, large agricultural lands and housed much of the soviet nuclear arsenal. During the cold war, Ukraine was the chief opponent of the United States.
The USSR collapsed in 1991; Ukraine became independent, as did Russia. Ukraine inherited much of the Soviet arsenal but gave it up to Russia in 1994. In exchange, Moscow guaranteed Ukraine’s security and promised to respect its sovereignty. They signed the Budapest Memorandum along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, the U.K, and the U.S.
Cut to November 2013, Viktor Yanukovych was the president of Ukraine, who had a reputation for heavy-handedness, corruption, and specifically, for being openly pro-Moscow. In 2013, he rejected the EU trade deal, which could have meant greater integration with European Union; instead,Yanukovych decided to take a $15 billion bailout from Russia. To many Ukrainians, it felt like being traded in with Moscow, so, protests broke out. They were called ‘EUROMAIDAN’: ‘Euro’ because these protests were about Europe and ‘Maidan’ because they happened in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti what we today know as the Independence Square. Here protesters chanted, “sign the EU deal”, “Yanukovych must step down”. Russia supported the president, and the west supported the protesters. In February 2014, Yanukovych’s government was toppled, the president was oustedfrom Ukraine, who then fled to Russia. Not the whole of Ukraine waspleased with this, Russian-speaking east wanted Yanukovych to stay. When he was ejected, the minority felt disenfranchised. Yanukovych’s ejection made Russia vexed as it has lost its pawn and to reclaim its ball game, Moscow annexed Crimea, and why Crimea?
Crimea is a peninsula located in the Black Sea, in Eastern Europe. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, a communist of the Soviet Union, handed over Crimea from Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Why? Khrushchev hoped this transfer would strengthen the ties between Russia and Ukraine, he says and I quote, “Brotherly ties between the Ukrainian and the Russian people”. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, the peninsulawas made part of it and was given special autonomy, thoughit remained home to the Russian Military bases with Moscow assuring to respect Crimean autonomy. Many in Russia were of the opinion that Crimea should not have been allowed to join Ukraine. In 2014, when Yanukovych was driven out from power in Ukraine, the Russian military began seizing government buildings in Crimea. So, the entire peninsula was under military occupation. A referendum followed, and on the 16th of March 2014, Crimea voted to become a part of Russia. Was this vote legitimate? Well, it depends on who you ask. For Putin this was Crimea’s liberation, but, for the rest of the world, it was considered Crimea’s annexation.Also, to mention, Russians have an interest in the black sea too.The Black Sea region's distinct topography provides Russia with significant geopolitical advantages. For starters, it serves as a crucial crossroads and key intersection for the entire region. All bordering states require access to the Black Sea, which considerably boosts power projection into various adjacent regions.Second, the region is an important transportation station for manufacture and energy.
In April 2014, the focus was shifted to eastern Ukraine, where Russia backed the separatists, who began seizing territory in eastern Ukraine.Since 2014, a pro-Russian separatist movement has been operating in eastern Ukraine's Donbas area which is deliberately supported by the Russian government. Ukrainian forces did not launch an all-out offensive at first but on the 17th of July 2014, when the flight carrying 298 was shot down by these rebels, Ukrainian forces decided to flush out the rebels. The Separatists were deteriorating so the Russian army intervened. They invaded eastern Ukraine and fought next to the rebels. A series of talks between Russia, Ukraine, and the west ensued and resulted in the Minsk accords. Minsk agreement was first signed in 2014. Both sides agreed to ceasefire and military withdrawal; Ukraine agreed to hold elections in rebel-held areas. Eight years on, Minsk Accords remained unimplemented.
Ukraine stands as the largest European country, after Russia. It encompasses an area of more than 600,000 square kilometers, with a population of 44 million; a GDP of more than $155 billion, per capita income of more than $3700. Today Ukraine is divided into the east and the west, in more ways than one. The west sees itself as more European, the east is close to Russia, be it in terms of geography or sentiments; in the west, most Ukrainians speak Ukrainian while in the east, a-third are native Russians; in the west, Russia is looked at with suspicion; in the east, Russia is looked at through the lens of shared history and heritage.Ukraine remains at war in and out. Its forces are fighting rebels in the east; rebel leaders are ruling at least two regions, Donetsk and Luhansk- together they are known as the Donbas region. Russia has once again sent its troops and this time; they are stationed at the border.
What does Putin want?
Putin wants NATO to stop expanding. NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is a military alliance. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway,Portugal, theUnited Kingdom, and the United States. At present, NATO has 30 members. Ukraine wants to join NATO too but Putin wants NATO to exclude Ukraine and every other former Soviet State.
And this is just half of the story, a lot is hidden in history. For starters, there is domestic politics. When Putin annexed Crimea, his approval ratings sky-rocketed: “Almost nine out of ten Russians approve their President, according to survey and that also highlights support for Ukraine strategy.” Keeping the nationalistic drum rolling helps the Russian president. Annexing parts of Ukraine also helps Putin to restore Russia’s superpower image. Having a glimpse of history again, many Russians view Ukraine’s independence as a mistake. It is true, Ukraine was ruled by Russia. In fact, Ukraine has barely remained independent pre-1991. There was a brief period in World War I, and then another stint in 1600. For the rest of its modern history, Ukraine was under Russia; one in six Ukrainians is an ethnic Russian; one in three speaks Russian as a native language, so, Putin is right when he says, “Historically, we are one.” But claiming Ukraine on basis of colonial history is wrong. It will be like, Britain claiming India or South Africa, or, Spain claiming the Philippines. “Past-imperialism cannot justify present-day expansionism.”
History tells us that Ukraine was forcefully Russified. Cut to 1700, the Russian leader Katherine, the Great, started Russifying Ukraine; ethnic Russians were shifted to this part of the world; schools were instructed to teach the Russian language; by 1800, the Ukrainian language was banned. In 1930, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin steered a famine in Ukraine; millions of Ukrainians were killed and the area was then, repopulated with ethnic Russians. In the 1940s, the ethnic Tatars were relocated, who were, too, replaced with Russians. There is a reason today why eastern Ukraine has so many native Russian speakers. It was designed to be that way. Eastern Ukraine was always dear to Russia- it has coal, it has iron, fertile land. Its historical connection with Russia was forced. Putin, time and again, talks about the ‘HOLY RUS’. He says, “Russians and Ukrainians are one people.” And what do Ukrainians feel about Putin’s view?
Seventy-one percent of Ukrainians reject this thought.
Seventy-two percent consider Russia as a hostile state.
33.3% of Ukrainians are ready to take up arms against Russia.
31.7% are ready to stage civil resistance against Russia.
67% of the Ukrainians want to join the EU.
59% want to join NATO.
The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, came to power in 2019, following a landslide victory. He is a vocal critic of Russia. Zelensky openly opposes the Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine.73% percent of Ukrainian voters voted this man to power. Today, Zelensky represents the pulse of Ukraine, the Ukraine which wants to remain independent of Russia. But Vladimir Putin wants to become the man who revived Russian imperialism. He does not realize the world has moved on.
ARE WE ON THE VERGE OF THE WORLD WAR III?
143 countries vote against Russia at the United Nations for Russia to end the invasion of Ukraine. The United Nations says, “More than a million people have fled Ukraine.” Where did they go? Poland, Germany, Romania, Belarus, Slovakia, Russia. With every passing day, this war is becoming bigger and pulling in more countries. Is this World War III? Are we on the brink of World War 3? The day Russia invaded Ukraine World War 3 was trending on Twitter. So, let’s place the current war against the definition and checklist set by history- ‘a World War is a war that involves the whole world or, at least the majority of it.’ In World War I, for example,between 1914 and 1918, more than 100 countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australasia, and Europe were part of the conflict. As we speak, only Ukraine and Russia are fighting, the rest of the countries are not on the frontline. So, history won’t agree if we call the war in Ukraine, a world war. but here is something else that history tells us- World war often starts small. Flashback 1914, on the 28th of June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Astro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Bosnia by a Serbian Nationalist.The assassination triggered a chain of events that resulted in war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Initially, only these two countries were at war, but due to the European alliance system, all the European major countries were drawn into the war and spreading around the whole of the globe. But it all began with just two countries and one assassination. What about the second world war? Flashback to 1939, Germany invades Poland on the 1st of September, two days later, Britain and France declare war on Germany. Once again it was a domino effect, and before you know it, the whole world is fighting and at least 50 million people are dead. It began just with one country invading the other.
So, outbreaks need not be massive for a war to pull in more countries, even a war between two countries can escalate and become a world war. World wars have clear alliances, prominent countries are divided. WWI had the triple entente and the triple alliance. The entente had France, Russia, and Britain; the alliance had Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. WWII had the axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the allies (France. Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union). At a glance, it appears that only two countries are fighting but if you zoom out, you will see the divided world, each country has picked aside. The United Nations General Assembly held an emergency vote calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.141 countries voted in favor of this resolution, the list includes the United States, the United Kingdoms, Canada, and Australia; four countries voted in favor of Russia: Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea; 35 countries abstained, the countries that decided not to take sides, to not get involved in a war that is neither of their making nor theirs to fight.
America was too in a similar position during the first world war. Initially, it remained neutral,but then American interests started bleeding. Itentered the war on the side of the Allied powers (the United Kingdom, France, and Russia).In 1915, the German aggression escalated, Germany sank British ocean liners carrying hundreds of Americans on board. In 1917, German submarines sank three US merchant ships. There was a heavy loss of life. The then US President Woodrow Wilson decided to declare war on Germany. Back to the war in Ukraine, on the 2nd of March, an Indian student was killed in Ukraine, the same day Slovenia’s consulate building in Kharkiv was bombed. The next day, Sweden accused Russia of space violation;on the 4th of March, Russia put the entire continent in danger by attacking a nuclear power plant. Will countries be left with no option but to join this war if their own people continue bleeding? NATO is already prepared for an escalating. It has beefed up deployment in eastern Europe, but France maintains to be not at war with Russia, at least not yet, but French President Emmanuel Macron has declared that the worst is yet to come. What exactly will the worst look like? Will it be a large-scale European conflict? Will there be a wider armed conflict including countries from around the world?
Our world is already fighting multiple wars. Experts say China’s conflict with Taiwan will turn into a military conflict sometimes in thenear-decade. China is also fighting multiple countries in the South China Sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei. India and China are caught in a standoff. There is a conflict between Iran and Israel; Iran and the US; the US and North Korea are arch enemies, so are the US and Cuba. There is also a war in Syria, a war in Yemen, Israel and Palestine are fresh out of a bloody battle, the United Arab Emirates was recently hit by a missile. It is hard to rule out that countries or non-state actors will cease on a distracted world and pursue their geopolitical dreams. It is hard to rule out that an escalation on the side-lines of Ukraine will drag in more countries. It is also hard to rule out that the war in Ukraine itself will intensify and swallow more nations.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister says, “it is clear that World War three can only be nuclear.” Nine countries are said to have nuclear weapons today: the US, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. In total, there are 13,000 weapons, enough and more to wipe out our world. Russia has put its nuclear deterrent team on alert.
The world cannot afford to go to war. One cannot be sure what lies ahead. Is this a prelude to World War III? Is this cold war II? When asked to Joe Biden if it’sa cold war, “it depends”, he says, “from where I’m sitting, I see ample signs of a new cold war. There are two clear sides: one led by Russia and the other by the US. Then there are countries that have chosen to stay out. There is talk of possible world war or signs of an escalating conflict and I see a President who refuses to back down. Well, one thing is for sure, whichever side our world swings, we are entering an entirely new era of geopolitics.”