Russia and the Ukraine conflict


Shahid M Amin

RUSSIA’S stance towards Ukraine, the EU and the West is based on its national interests, which consist of several factors. Firstly, Russia has a Great Power complex. It dominated Eurasia for several centuries and was a Super Power from 1945 to 1991. It still remains the second strongest military power in the world in terms of nuclear and missile capability. Secondly, Russian nationalism remains a strong motivation, based on historical recall of centuries of Russian domination through conquest. After 1945, the Soviet Union headed the Communist bloc for several decades and was virtually ruling over East Europe.
In 1991, the USSR disintegrated and 14 out of its 15 provinces broke away to form independent states. However, Russia was always the dominating part in the Soviet Union, and remains today a giant, due to area, resources and power. Russia has aspirations to recover its Super Power status, which puts it in competition with USA. In Russia’s worldview, USA is still the main adversary: it considers Europe as an appendage of USA. Russia opposes the eastward expansion of NATO and is averse to integration of East European countries in EU. In 2005, President Putin described breakup of Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of 20th century.” As a result, millions of Russians found themselves outside Russian territory. Moscow continues to take interest in welfare of such ethnic Russian population. It describes the States that used to be provinces of USSR as the “near abroad”. Putin has declared these States as Russia’s “sphere of influence”. This is reminiscent of Monroe Doctrine of USA in the 19th century.
The conflict in Ukraine has several facets. The strategic facet is Russia’s opposition to Ukraine drawing closer to EU and NATO. The ethnic aspect is Russia’s interest, bordering on interference, in the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. The economic aspect affecting Russia’s relations with Ukraine and EU concerns the price of Russian gas to Ukraine and the transit pipelines going via Ukraine to Europe. There exist historical links between Ukraine and Russia since 17th century when Ukraine was absorbed in Russia. Ukrainians were treated as “Little Russians” and referred to as Slavic brothers. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, relations with Russia have seen tension and outright hostility. They reached a critical point after ‘Euromaidan revolution’ of 2014 when pro-Russian President Yanukovych had to flee to Russia. But that produced a backlash in Russian-majority areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, known as “Donbass” that escalated into an armed conflict when they declared themselves as People’s Republics.
The secessionists were aided by Russian paramilitaries. Ukraine described this as “a direct invasion” by Russia. A ceasefire agreement was signed by Russia and Ukraine, called Minsk Protocol, in September 2014, but collapsed, and Minsk II was signed on February 12, 2015. Despite the ceasefire, the situation in the Russian-majority areas remains tense. A tragic outcome of tensions in Donbass was the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines plane on July 17, 2014 by a Russian-made missile. An international enquiry stated that the missile had been fired from an area controlled by pro-Russian fighters and the plane crashed into rebel-held territory.
Crimea had become part of Ukraine in 1954. Prior to this transfer, Crimea was included in Russia for two centuries. It has a large majority of ethnic Russians. In the wake of pro-Russia protests in 2014, Russia used force to seize Crimea. A referendum was held on March 16, 2014, when the majority of Crimeans voted to rejoin Russia. Two days later, the treaty of accession of Crimea was signed and Crimea was declared a part of Russia. The UN General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution on March 27, 2014 declaring the referendum in Crimea and subsequent status change as invalid. The EU and USA reacted strongly against Russia’s seizure of Crimea by imposing sanctions.
Another long-time dispute between Ukraine and Russia relates to supply of Russian gas, both to Ukraine as well as through pipelines going to Europe via Ukraine. Overall, Russia supplies 23% of the EU’s gas. Russia’s supply lines run through Ukraine to several EU states and as much as 70% of its gas to the EU is carried through these pipelines. In 2006, Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and this happened again in 2008-09. The Russian media portrayed Ukraine as an aggressive and greedy State that wanted to ally with Russia’s enemies and exploit cheap Russian gas. The bitterness left by the Russia-Ukraine dispute in 2009 damaged Russia’s reputation as a gas supplier. The Lithuanian President said that Russia was using gas as “a tool of political and economic blackmail in Europe.”
While there are technical issues related to price and transit dues, the larger political issue is the tug-of-war between Russia and the EU over the future direction of Ukraine, as to whether it becomes part of EU and NATO. For Ukraine, it has been a struggle to remove the remnants of the Soviet era and drawing closer to the West. It has accused Russia of violation of international law and destabilization of Ukraine, which represented a “challenge to European security at its core.”
Putin’s policy towards EU goes back to the old Soviet perception which saw EEC as the economic arm of NATO. He has accused NATO of “moving its infrastructure closer to the Russian border.” This Russian policy towards East Europe was severely criticized in an open letter in July 2009, signed by several East European ex-Presidents. They claimed that “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.” Using Machiavellian tactics, Russia has formed close ties with Euro-sceptic and populist parties in EU. Its success is shown in that these populist parties supported Russian intervention in Crimea. Finally, the question is what are the choices available to the EU and USA in the context of the Ukraine conflict? The imposition of sanctions against Russia has failed to bring about a change in Moscow’s policies. However, the alternative is confrontation with Russia, which will be destructive. Therefore, the EU must continue its efforts to engage Russia, seeking to remove its misgivings on the divisive subjects.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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