What we know : the Russia / Ukraine conflicts have shaken Europe in recent days. At the time of writing (02/22/2020), Putin recognized last night the independence of the separatist territories of Ukraine (see point 8), in the process, he had an agreement signed to “maintain peace” including the armed presence of Russian soldiers in the territories. This morning, the head of European diplomacy announces that Russian troops have entered Ukrainian territory. Basically, it’s crap and the fear of an explosion of tensions has never been greater.
What we don’t know: Why ? Where do these tensions between Ukraine and Russia come from?
We will therefore try to understand together the origins of this conflict between the two countries, and the role of Europe and the USA in it. WE CALM DOWN IMMEDIATELY: I don’t claim to claim to be an expert on the matter. The goal is only to rough and popularize the main lines of the story a little to grasp the complexity of the conflict.
1. History of Ukraine / Russia relations
You have to go far (very far) back in time to understand the common origins of these two countries. Around 880, the different clans of the “Rus” people formed a confederation. They speak “old Russian” and their capital is Kiev (current Ukrainian capital.) We then speak of the “Kiev Rus”, considered by the Russians as their ancestors. To sum up, Russian civilization was born in this Kievan Russia.
For centuries, the territories are very little separated. From the 18th, almost all of Ukraine belongs to the Russian Empire. In 1922, after a short period of independence, Ukraine became a territory of the USSR, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, the country has been independent, but Russian influence remains strong , especially in the southern and eastern territories.
Therefore, for many Russians, Ukraine and Russia are more or less the same thing. In July 2021, Putin declared that Ukrainian independence was a tragedy and an injustice for his country. For its part, Ukraine does not recognize this single nation.
2. Why is Ukraine’s geographical position strategic for Russia?
It is well known: in Russia, it is cold. In fact, the ports of the vast country are often frozen, which makes navigation very difficult. A major problem in wartime, right? And the only access point to the “warm seas” for the Russians is… In Crimea. A Russian territory, then Ukrainian, and again Russian, we will come back to it. For the moment, let us remember that the port of Sevastopol (Crimea) is on the Black Sea. Black Sea which is in contact with the Mediterranean, itself in contact with the oceans.
Apart from Crimea, the rest of Ukraine is also of interest to Russia, for a completely different reason. Historically, the vast majority of attacks on Russian territory have come from the West (cc Napoleon.) To protect itself, Moscow created a “buffer zone” (translate: countries that bully themselves before Russia, so that they , protect themselves. SYM-PA.) Until 1989, it extends to East Germany. Today, this area is almost non-existent. Recovering Ukraine also means, for Russia, redeveloping a protection zone in the West.
3. Why are we talking about NATO in this conflict?
First, let’s start by understanding what NATO is. Basically, it is a military organization founded by the USA and some European countries in 1949. NATO stands for “North Atlantic Treaty Organization”. One of its first objectives: to defend and protect its members against threats from… The Soviet Union. Well. Today, it is responsible for guaranteeing the freedom and security of its members.
In 2000, several countries of the former USSR joined it. In 2008, the organization declared itself open to welcoming Ukraine. For Putin, who wishes to retain a sphere of influence over the country, this is the line not to cross. For fear of an escalation of tension with Russia, France and Germany have been delaying the inclusion process for years. We will come back to this later, but Putin does not hesitate to press for this inclusion never to take place.
4. And of the European Union?
NATO is not Vladimir Putin’s only target. The Russian president could also fear the democratic progress of Ukraine, which is modernizing its policy and considering joining the EU. When we observe the geographical and cultural proximity of the two countries, we can understand that the Russian government feels threatened. If it happens in Kiev, why couldn’t the same thing happen in Moscow?
In 2013, Ukraine is about to conclude an association agreement with the European Union to promote its trade. Of course, this is not to Putin’s taste. He then counter-attacked by threatening Kiev to restrict certain products, offered 15 billion in loans and promised a drop in gas prices by a third. Ukraine abruptly withdraws from European negotiations and accepts the Russian proposal. This reversal then created major Revolts in the country (we talk about it in point 6), not without consequence on the current tensions.
5. Orange Revolution
A small leap backwards, heading for the year 2004. In November, the Ukrainian presidential election marked a real turning point for the country. .
In short, 2004, two candidates, two “Viktors”: Yanukovych : the pro-Russian backed by Putin, and Yushchenko : the liberal turned towards the West. It is finally the pro-Russian which prevails, which leads to an enormous uprising on the side of the pro-democracies: we speak of the orange revolution. Finally, the Supreme Court, which suspects fraud, cancels the result and organizes a new ballot. This time, it was Yushtechenko who won and immediately began his rapprochement with the EU. A hard blow for Russia which saw, in the same year, 7 countries from the former Eastern bloc join NATO, and 9 countries join the EU between 2004 and 2007.
6. The Maidan Revolution
We are in 2014: a sadly violent year for Ukraine. (See the next 2 points.) At that time, power fell to Russian pro Yanukovych. So as not to lose you: his election was canceled in 2004. He stood for re-election and was finally elected president in 2010.
From the end of 2013, as we said point 4, Kiev was shaken by major revolts. The pro-Europe meet in the capital to protest against the abandonment of the agreements with the EU and denounce the rapprochement with Russia. These movements are heavily repressed. In February 2014, clashes between protesters and police escalated. Hundreds of people die there. Faced with this situation, the president in place fled the country, went into exile… in Russia, then was dismissed in the process. This point marks the escalation of tensions.
The following month, in March 2014, a major diplomatic crisis added to the political tensions. Pro-Russian troops take control of Crimea and organize a “self-determination” referendum there. The question : ” Are you in favor of integrating Crimea into the Russian Federation? Historically, Crimea is a Soviet territory, offered in 1954 by Khrushchev to the Ukrainians to celebrate the 300 years of a treaty uniting Russia and Ukraine. Until 1991, it does not change much, since all these territories are in the USSR. On the other hand, when Ukraine becomes independent, Crimea breaks away from Russia. A situation with great difficulty accepted by the inhabitants of the peninsula who feel more Russian than Ukrainian (8 out of 10 inhabitants have Russian as their mother tongue). For these reasons, it is the “YES” which wins at 97% in this referendum (not recognized by the West and Ukraine). After that, Russia annexes the territory. Inevitably, it does not really please Ukraine, which accuses Putin’s government of “invasion” and “armed occupation. This act, contrary to what Putin hopes, favors the emergence of a Ukrainian national feeling.
8. Why is the situation tense in the Donbass?
Donbass is the eastern region of Ukraine. In this territory, nearly 60% of the population speaks Russian: it is so as not to see their language marginalized that Russian speakers wish to separate from Ukraine in 2014. After the dismissal of the pro-Russian president, the territory became secession. Basically, part of the region separates from Ukraine and gives birth to two self-proclaimed republics: Donets and Lugansk. Tensions escalate further and armed clashes take place between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces. It was in this context of civil war that a Malaysian plane was shot down in July 2014. The West accused Putin’s regime of arming these two new independent regions.
Tensions crystallize. For 8 years, there have been numerous clashes on the “line of contact”, causing several thousand deaths and injuries.
9. Russian Pressure Techniques
As surprising as it may seem (…) Vladimir Putin uses several techniques to put pressure on Ukraine and maintain his influence.
In January 2022, a meeting takes place between Russia, the USA and NATO representatives. Vladimir Putin does not show up empty-handed: he brings fully drafted agreements, ready to be signed. In it, he calls for the non-enlargement of NATO, and therefore, the rejection of Ukraine from the organization. It also calls for the ban for the Atlantic Pact to engage in military activities on Ukrainian territory and the other Eastern States of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. The authoritarian president demands a rapid response and positions 100,000 soldiers at the borders. (By 2021, the president had already massed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, raising fears of an imminent invasion, and announced their withdrawal in April.) All in all, it’s a big fat ultimatum.
The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) estimated that 169 to 190 thousand Russian soldiers were present at the borders in January 2022.
Among the other pressure points: Gas. Russia supplies more than half of what is consumed in Europe. The threat of soaring prices or a total closure of the taps is currently shaking Europe…
10. Why are tensions exploding today?
And the question is legitimate, now that we know that the conflict dates from 2014 and that the issues have not changed since.
First, Ukraine has requested in 2021 that the process of inclusion in NATO be accelerated. It didn’t have any great repercussions, apart from offending Russia.
Then, the current global context is favorable to action by Russia: the United States is weakened by the chaotic withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. In addition, their attention is focused more on their rivalry with China than to Russia. Same observation in Germany: the country is concentrating on its new government. Finally, on the French side, attention is turned to the presidential elections. A time away from the spotlight that Russia seems to have interpreted as an opportunity to act.