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Aggressive Putin and the Ukrainian Crisis
The current crisis in Ukraine triggered by Putin’s aggression is easy to understand seen through the Russian’s lens. For Vladimir Putin, Crimea and Ukraine are spiritual sources of Russian nationhood. In other words, for Putin and for much or Russia, there is no such thing as Russian history, culture and identity divorced from Ukraine. However, there are deeper implications for the rhetoric and actions of Putin. The entire 1989-91 settlement in Eastern Europe will stand nullified if Ukraine is denied its rights to independence. The crisis threatens to escalate into a larger conflict unless the international community intervenes now. Putin’s objective will lead to a perpetual state of war or cold war, if not hot wars along Russia’s periphery.
The Russia-Ukraine relationship goes back to pre-modern era. Many ethnic groups that populate Russia today, according to historians, emigrated from the Rus Civilization in Ukraine in the ancient times. Rus were a group of people who gave their name to Russia and Belarus. In other words, Russia and Ukraine have always shared cultural, economic and political ties, which were further tightened during the Soviet era. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the connection between Russia and Ukraine did not entire break apart. Russian government continued to maintain hegemonic influence over the former satellite states. Their critics have, as a result, accused the Moscow administration of attempting to recreate the Soviet Union.
For many reasons, Ukraine was an important satellite nation. First, Ukraine and Russia share a large border. Ukraine not only reputedly has a large military but it has one of the highest populations. Yet, the extent of Russian influence over Ukraine and the shocking invasion of Crimea could not have been predicted at the time. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia perhaps presaged the current conflict with Ukraine. The Russian and the South Ossetia attack on Georgia was simply an extension of the 1991 war in South Ossetia with Ossetian locals seeking autonomy from Georgia. The war against Georgia eventually dragged into Soviet Russia. The Russian government with international support has today consolidated its position with military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhaza. Recently, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated his fears that the Russian government was planning to recreate the Soviet Union by systematically usurping the sovereignty of Ukraine. Meanwhile, many pro-Russian analysts have justified Moscow’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. President Putin had warned that if Ukraine is integrated into NATO, Russia will move ahead to annex Crimea and Ukraine (Spark 2014).
It is evident that Vladimir Putin wants to control events in Ukraine without going for a full scale invasion. In April 2014, armed men occupied important official buildings in the capital cities of Ukraine’s three eastern regions including Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. These regions have significant Russian minorities. This action in Ukraine resembles the subversive strategy used to take de-facto control of Crimea in February, 2014. While ethnic Russians are a minority in eastern Ukraine, unlike in Crimea, the opinion poll suggest little support for joining Russia. Putin has promised his Russian audience that he will work to restore the greatness of Russia and undo the injustices of post cold-war settlement forced upon his country (Blair 2014).
As of now, it is too early to predict the outcome of the crisis. However, there are three possible scenarios. First, the standoff continues indefinitely with September 2014 agreements nominally observed and no solution in sight. The second possible scenario could witness escalation of conflict in eastern Ukraine with the breakdown of the September ceasefire. Russia would then go on to mount a full scale military invasion leaving a truncated independent Ukraine that includes central and western regions. Under the third possible but unlikely scenario, Kyiv could achieve complete military victory in eastern Ukraine as Russian separatists are defeated. The first scenario of the frozen conflict appears most likely and also perhaps the most desirable, as it would spare the costs and uncertainties of military occupation (Menon & Rumer 2015).
A ceasefire deal was struck on September 5th, 2014 after the April, 2014 fighting that raged for months. The question being asked now is whether the ceasefire will hold well in coming months and years? Although Russia denies any affiliation with the armed, flag waving rebels, it is pretty certain that they are Russian agent provocateurs. They do not wear any obvious Russian military insignia perhaps because any evidence of Moscow insignia could instigate more severe punitive western sanctions against Russia. The two sides refused to completely honor ceasefire, choosing instead to use the period of lull to build up their forces. The rebels attempted to take over strategic national symbols like Donetsk airport from the government forces. In response to ongoing skirmishes, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine intervened to strike a new deal on February 12th, 2015 in Minsk to address the shortcomings of the old deal. The rebels within the Ukrainian territory supported by the Russian government lost the territorial gains they made ahead of the ceasefire line because no change was made to the old ceasefire line. The government forces were also mandated to pull back from the current frontline and they were also denied access to the territory they lost since January. The February deal left the status of Dealtseve undecided for the two sides did not agree on its control, and the future states of the rebel held areas of Donestsk and Luhansk remained unclear. In addition, the February deal has left behind several uncertainties. Ukraine, for instance, has not agreed on autonomy for the rebel areas, the rebels are unlikely to contend with decentralization. The rebels are unlikely to hold elections under Ukrainian law in the areas they now control, while there is little likelihood, if any, of Ukraine restoring control over its eastern border (Kirby 2015).
According to Sokov (2015), the Ukrainian crisis is quite complicated. It cannot be viewed as a simple question of who is right and who is wrong. The western response to this crisis seems to be in terms of Russia as the aggressor and Ukraine as the victim. This is a simplistic perception of what is happening. Nikolai Sokov (2015) claims that there are at least three different but overlapping strategies being played around the crisis, while effectiveness of different policies including sanctions will differ across stakeholders. According to the first and the dominant strategy, the war must be continued until Kyiv restores complete control over separatist regions, notwithstanding Russian support to the rebels each time Kyiv gets closer to victory. The message from Russia is clear: it will continue to pressurize Kyiv with superior force until Donetsk and Luhansk are settled in Russia’s favor. The US, Britain and the Baltic states on the other hand have used sanctions to dissuade Russian involvement. This strategy is complicated by Moscow’s perception of all sanctions as compelling it to roll back, while different countries have different motivations in applying sanctions against Russia making it more intransigent in its approach. The second strategy is about the degree of autonomy to be granted to the two separatist regions, which may be difficult to agree on. A well played sanction card might possibly bring the dispute closer to solution. However, since the warring parties may not agree on the degree of autonomy to the two disputed regions, the likelihood of the success of this strategy is not very high either. Yet, both the strategies are further complicated by the fact that Russia, Ukraine, Washington and Europe do not completely control the relevant agents intimately involved in decision making; including separatists, hard-line nationalists and domestic constituencies. The third strategy is predicated on the wisdom of bringing Russia back into the fold resulting presumably in complete reversal of Russian actions including on Crimea, while U.S, Britain and some other nations could most likely persist with sanctions possibly generating conflict with EU members for whom sanctions have limited goals. In other words, sanctions appear to have limited instrumentality in the present context, while full retreat is perhaps possible with a change of guard in Kremlin (Sokov 2015).
Western media, policy makers, and academics have depicted Putin as a belligerent statesman out to destabilize the existing world order to enhance Russian supremacy. The fear of Russian hegemonic ambitions is pretty much evident across post-communist regions. Although there are several factors that provide a strong rationale for invasion fears including dense ethnic Russian population in eastern Ukraine and divisive East-West cleavage. However, the relevance of these fears are doubtful in view of Russia’s dwindling economic influence and Kremlin’s reluctance to escalate conflicts beyond easy access autonomous territories. Declining oil prices, crumbling ruble and tightening sanctions appear to have severely constrained Russia. In addition, the costs of developing infrastructures in Crimea would cost an estimate of over $4 billion per year and the costs of bearing the burden of eastern Ukraine could severely undermine Putin’s reputation as an agent of economic prosperity. In other words, economic constraints might possibly limit Russian adventurism (Ramani & Semchuk 2015).
In conclusion, it is evident that the Ukraine crisis has no easy solution in the foreseeable future. The issue could possibly lead to a long standoff with both sides unrelenting. According to Menon & Rumer (2015), Russia will not attempt an all out military strike against Ukraine. This is a choice that entails huge economic burdens of war and consequent reconstruction that Russia can ill-afford at present. Yet, it is in the interest of Russia to continue with the low cost proxy war for the dispute over Ukraine is also a battle of nerves, in which the ceasefire offers the much needed interregnum for both the parties to arm themselves and strategize for further moves. What is, however, beyond any doubt is that the dispute has isolated Russia in the global community. It remains to be seen whether the dwindling Russian economy and divided public opinion can withstand this isolation for long.
Blair, David. "What Does Vladimir Putin Want in Ukraine?" The Telegraph, April 14, 2014. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/10765533/What-does-Vladimir-Putin-want-in-Ukraine.html.
Kirby, Paul. "Ukraine Conflict: Why Is East Hit by Conflict?" BBC, February 18, 2015. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28969784.
Menon, Rajan, and Eugene B Rumer. Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2015.
Ramani, Samuel, and Liana Semchuk. "Why the West's Strategy of Containing an 'Aggressive' Putin Is Misplaced." The Huffington Post, April 1, 2015. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/samuel-ramani/why-the-wests-strategy-of_b_6565496.html?ir=India
Sokov, Nikolai. "How the Ukrainian Crisis Is like Three-dimensional Chess." How the Ukrainian Crisis Is like Three-dimensional Chess, March 15, 2015. Accessed April 5, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/03/15/the-ukrainian-crisis-and-the-western-response-is-complicated-by-the-fact-that-three-different-games-are-being-played-simultaneously/.
Spark, Joseph. Cold War 2: The Start of a New Conflict - Russia's Hand in Ukraine. Conceptual Kings, 2014.
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