By Stefan Dezyk
What does Russia want? A thought racing through the minds of many, no doubt, but an especially important question for Vitali Klitschko, known in Britain as the famous heavy-weight boxer, yet known to the people of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, as their mayor.
In the past few days, the former sportsman-turned-politician announced that alarm sirens would be tested and that underground bunkers were to be inspected in the Ukrainian capital, all in preparation for a possible invasion by Russia. Invasion, war, occupation—these are all words that are relatively foreign to the British lexicon. The concept of London taking such measures has been unthinkable since the 1941 Blitz, yet this is the ever-present reality for Ukrainians today.
The eastern European state, crammed between the European Union and the Russian Federation, has been fighting a low-intensity hybrid war against Russian forces in its eastern Donbas region, ever since Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, invaded in 2014. The only ongoing war in Europe has taken the lives of 14,000 Ukrainians and has displaced millions more, and it is currently in a tense stalemate.
Despite Brexit, the Pandemic, and Afghanistan, the conflict in Ukraine has once again drifted into world headlines. American Intelligence has estimated that 100,000 Russian combat-ready troops have been stationed near the Russian side of the Ukrainian border, a worrying sight. It has been predicted that a further 175,000 soldiers are to be amassed near Ukraine by the end of January, sparking fears that Putin is preparing for a renewed offensive to occupy more Ukrainian territory.
In April of 2021, the world saw tensions when a similar number of troops settled near the border; though largely forgotten about, the majority of soldiers deployed in April were never pulled away. Instead, even more, armoured vehicles have now been added under the cover of darkness in an attempt to keep their movements secret. Moreover, war-time logistical operations have been prepared, which includes the setting up of supply lines and medical routes, suggesting that this may not just be war games. In addition, on the 16th of December, a now erased Russian court case inadvertently confirmed the official existence of Russian regular troops operating in occupied Ukrainian territory. It has been an open secret since 2014 that a majority of the ‘separatists’ in Ukraine are in fact fully funded soldiers sent by Moscow.
So, why are things heating up now and what does Russia really want? Russia claims that they are not preparing to invade and are accusing NATO (a western military alliance between the United States, Canada and much of Europe) of being ‘war-hungry’ and ‘expansionist’, suggesting that it is the US that is taking advantage of Ukraine in order to sell weapons. There is indeed a hint of sensationalism around Russia in American media, yet the West failed to prevent an invasion in 2014, deeming it ‘unthinkable’. Perhaps there is a right to be more concerned this time around. Most experts appear to agree that a full-on invasion of Ukraine is possible, but not likely.
Ukraine is the largest country in Europe by land mass and has a population of over 40 million people, the majority of whom are hostile towards Russia due to historic occupation and oppression. The country also possesses the 25th most powerful army in the world and the backing of most of the United Nations member states. With all this in mind the British might consider it irrational to invade Ukraine, yet, as was the case in 1939, we should not always assume that a nation’s political leadership is rational by our standards.
Putin has asked for ‘immediate’ talks with NATO, inferring that he wishes to negotiate with the West for security guarantees. Putin’s main ambitions are that NATO will not expand into Ukraine or any other post-Soviet state and that sanctions against Russia should be ended. The logic is that ramping up the pressure and demonstrating military capabilities will scare Ukraine and the West into negotiating from a position beneficial for Russia. However, there are some issues with this, namely that NATO is not the expansionist empire that the Kremlin is attempting to portray it as. There is little doubt that Europe is attempting to contain and counter Russia, yet every country in the alliance has voluntarily joined NATO. Russia is depicting the alliance as an attempt to coerce or conquer Ukraine, but the truth is Ukraine is a massive headache for the West, as they are concerned the nation will bring them into unwanted conflict with Russia.
What are the real reasons, then, for a possible Russian invasion? For starters, the ex-President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, has indicated in a recent speech that the Russian leadership is frustrated with the stalemate and lack of progress in Ukraine, and may be prepared to take the situation further into their own hands. Furthermore, looking to the domestic audience, a war with the ‘rebellious Ukraine’, as many Russians see it, may boost patriotism within Russia, causing a distraction from the other major issues plaguing leadership. This includes notably corruption, the failure to deal with the pandemic and the large increase in political opposition, centred on the dissident Alexei Navalny. A diplomatic or military victory against Ukraine and the West would go a long way to increase Putin’s currently low approval ratings and boost morale in an unstable Russia.
In addition, Ukraine is incredibly strategically important. Russia has historically been paranoid about security, and so wishes to use Ukraine as a friendly buffer region to protect the Russian mainland. Crimea was annexed back in 2014, primarily due to its warm-water ports and access to the Black Sea, a place that Russia can use to move its navy year-round whilst its other harbours are frozen in winter.
Crimea is threatened by severe water shortages caused by the Ukrainian government shutting off water supplies from mainland Ukraine. Crimea is not self-sufficient and is a burning money-pit for the Kremlin. Russia must, therefore, further occupy southern Ukraine in order to maintain its control. Simply giving back Crimea would be a diplomatic embarrassment and so invasion is one of the few options left.
History, of course, plays a crucial role in the events of today. Vladimir Putin has revealed in an article he wrote, entitled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, as well as in a recent interview, that he believes that Ukrainians and Russians are ‘one people’ and that Ukraine is a ‘breakaway province’ of Russia that should be united through diplomacy or force. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union in the 20th century and had been absorbed by the Russian Empire before that, leading to an entangled history between the two ethnicities.
Furthermore, many Russians believe the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to be the ‘Jerusalem’ of the Orthodox faith and the centre of the Slavic world. Yet, it is important to note that most Ukrainians see themselves as distinct from Russians, and have a separate language, culture, and social mindset, as well as a separate independent history, in which Russia is viewed as an oppressive occupying foreign power. Putin seeks to end the embarrassment of the Soviet Union’s collapse and restore ‘historical Russian lands’ to their former glory. The Ukrainians, in his mind, have betrayed Russia by seeking independence, and should be punished through destabilisation. This is also a message to any other post-Soviet state—a warning to not mess with Moscow. If this is Putin’s true mindset, and not a complex bluff, then further conflict, unfortunately, appears inevitable.
If Russia invades, what might happen? We will likely see an escalation, blamed on Ukrainian soldiers, to justify Russian involvement and protect ‘Russian speakers’ living in Ukraine. Putin controls the world’s second most powerful military, and so will likely overwhelm Ukraine, possibly reaching Kyiv in just weeks. Ukrainians would put up a fanatical resistance through conventional and guerrilla warfare. The West will likely not get involved militarily but would heavily support Ukraine financially. Boris Johnson has already warned Putin from engaging in war, and the EU has prepared a ‘crippling’ sanctions package. War would affect the West economically, expect the price of bread to rise, as Ukraine and Russia are some of the world’s largest exporters of grain.
At the end of the day, we cannot be certain of what Russia will do. We can hope that war is avoided, but it is a benefit always to look back on history. It is up to the UK, the USA and Europe to be certain as to whether they will help the struggling (but improving) democracy of Ukraine or if the mistakes of the past in regard to appeasement will be repeated. Either way, we could be giving Russia what it wants without knowing what that truly is.
Image: Official Website of the Russian President via Wikimedia Commons