The Ukraine quagmire
THE sense of urgency in Europe, in particular and the world in general about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is undeniable.
The blame game is on from both sides while the world holds its breath watching the events unfold.
Analysts put forward their own perspectives ranging from the prospects of a long drawn out war in Europe with catastrophic results to the conflict remaining limited.
Russia’s resolute and firm reassertion that Ukraine was the red line and any move to include it, NATO would be comprehensively squashed as it would impinge on the strategic security of Russia.
How this saga plays out remains to be seen but it is evident that the Ukraine conflict is a part of a renewed geopolitical rivalry between western powers and Russia.
Russia has deep cultural, economic, and political bonds with Ukraine spanning over five centuries.
Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, is often referred to in history as “the mother of Russian cities,” at par in terms of cultural influence with Moscow and St.Petersburg.
Situated at a strategically important location between Europe and Russia, Ukraine has struggled to forge an independent identity throughout history.
It was traditionally called, “The Ukraine” indicating a geographical construct rather than an independent sovereign state.
There were intermittent periods where one or the other European empires brought it under their jurisdiction but for the majority of the last over 500 years, “the Ukraine” has predominantly remained under Russian influence and sovereignty.
It was only after the disintegration of the Soviet Union that Ukraine emerged as an independent state sitting at the confluence of the European Union and NATO on the West and Russia on the East.
Ukraine has since sought to forge its own independent trajectory as a sovereign state looking to align more closely with the EU and NATO.
However, given its turbulent history of deep internal political, ethnic and linguistic divisions, Kyiv has struggled to balance its foreign relations and to bridge deep internal divisions.
A nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking population in the West of the country has generally supported greater integration with Europe, while a mostly Russian-speaking community in the East and South has favoured closer ties with Russia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian politicians thought that delinking with Ukraine and letting it fall under Western influence was a historical mistake and a major blow to Russia’s international prestige.
Russia views Ukraine as central to its identity and vision for itself as a great resurgent power and a strong pillar of political and economic strength in the emerging multipolar world.
Keen to regain its former power and prestige.“It was always Putin’s goal to restore Russia to the status of a great power in northern Eurasia,” writes Gerard Toal, in his book Near Abroad.
“The end goal was not to re-create the Soviet Union but to make Russia great again.”
Former U.S.National Security Advisor Brzezinski, in early 1994 in Foreign Affairs, described a healthy and stable Ukraine as a critical counterweight to Russia and the lynchpin of what he advocated should be the new U.S.grand strategy after the Cold War.
“It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
Ukraine was historically a cornerstone of the Soviet Union’s Strategic policy, being the second–most populous and powerful Soviet republic, a hub of the union’s agricultural production, defence industries, and military, including the Black Sea Fleet and some of the nuclear arsenal.
Ukraine, has therefore, long played an important role in the global security order.
Today, it is on the front lines of a renewed great-power rivalry that has the potential to dominate international relations in the decades ahead as Russia is determined to preserve its political influence in Ukraine.
Russia was for a long time Ukraine’s largest trading partner, and prior to its invasion of Crimea, Russia wanted to include Ukraine into its single market, the Eurasian Economic Union which today includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
This however, did not materialize.For decades, Russia supplies gas to Central and Eastern Europe through the Ukraine pipeline, by paying transit fees to Kyiv.
The United States and Europe fear that Nord Stream 2, a pipeline Russia completed in 2021 which is under the sea and directly connects Russia to Central Europe, will allow Russia to bypass Ukrainian pipelines and gain greater geopolitical leverage in the region.
Russia believes that the United States and NATO have continually violated pledges made in the early 1990s that the alliance would not expand “an inch” into the former Soviet bloc once Russia agreed to the reunification of Germany and allowed it to join NATO.
While NATO and the EU may be open to new diplomacy with Russia on arms control and other matters, they are unwilling to discuss forever shutting NATO’s doors to new members.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea in a bid to send a strong political message that Ukraine was a red-line for Russia and that it would defend it.
The Crimea conflict marked a clear shift in the global security environment from a unipolar period of US dominance to one defined by renewed competition between great powers.By seizing Crimea, Russia solidified its control of a critical foothold on the Black Sea.
With a larger and more sophisticated military presence there, Russia can project power deeper into the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa, where it has traditionally had limited influence.
Tension between Russia and NATO have reached the point of crisis.Russia has moved troops and is bombarding Kiev in what it says is an effort to de-weaponize Ukraine and not to invade it.
The West as expected moved to slap sanctions on Russia further raising the tensions.There is considerable room for blame on all sides for what has gone wrong.
The Ukraine crisis has led Russia to openly challenge and now reject the post–Cold War, post-Soviet settlement in Europe.
The Ukraine issue has a historical and complex context.The only way to resolve it is through diplomacy, dialogue and negotiation.
Ukraine does not have to be condemned as a battle ground between NATO and Russia.
It could also become a channel, a bridge between the major powers-a land of accommodation and peace.
—The writer is former Ambassador, based in Islamabad.