After the Cold War, Russia faced the most severe economic and political challenges. The collapse of the Soviet Union had the result of categorically sabotaging Russia militarily and politically. In 2000, on becoming President of Russia, there was a serious challenge for Vladimir Putin to get Russia out of political and economic troubles. Putin’s leadership restored Russia. In other words, Russia is powerful and so is President Putin. Conflict with Russia is, unavoidably, a risk for all.
The current Russia-Ukraine conflict must be viewed in the context of the November 2013 crisis when the then President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych who once glorified such a deal, went on to suspend the trade agreement between Kyiv and Brussels because of Russian pressure. The European Union was ready to lend billions of dollars to support the Ukrainian economy, but President Putin called it a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty, and urged President Yanukovych to cancel the deal. As a result, many ordinary Ukrainians started protests against cancellation of the deal and supporting integration with the EU. To support Ukraine’s incumbent government, President Putin announced a bailout package of $15 billion to end the economic crisis.
In February 2014, large scale protests were organised across Ukraine to support an EU-Ukraine union. President Yanukovych moved to Russia and the Ukrainian Parliament ousted him. Oleksandr Turchynov was appointed as the acting President.
In the meanwhile, protests in Crimea and eastern Ukraine started, and supported reunification with Russia. Gunmen seized control of Crimea. Consequently, a pro-Russian government was formed and a referendum held in Crimea, where almost 96% people favoured merger with Russia. Ukraine and the entire West rejected the referendum.
Today, the principal cause behind Russian invasion of Ukraine is to stop what it sees as NATO’s expansionist strategy that aims to make Ukraine a part of that alliance. Such an outcome is categorically a threat to Russia’s strategic interests in the region. Currently, five countries which border Russia are members of NATO including Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. President Putin has already declared that Russia will not allow Ukraine to become member of NATO as this act will threaten Russia’s geostrategic interests and limit its sphere of influence in the region.
Another significant factor behind Russian invasion is what it perceives as US interference. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for help to the US President Joe Biden to join NATO contributed significantly to deepening the current crisis between the two countries. Russia will never allow the US to support and strengthen ties with Ukraine. Putin essentially views it as interference in Russian affairs – based on his view of Ukraine.
Moscow’s support to nationalists in the Donbass region is part of its expansionist strategy. But Putin has also described Ukraine as essentially an inalienable part of Russia, which shares same culture, history and geography. Moreover, Ukraine is rich in resources and a gateway to Europe. Losing Ukraine means losing the entire Europe for Russia. After all the gas pipeline to Europe also goes through Ukraine. President Putin wants to keep the European Union states dependent on Russian gas, which will surely help to influence Germany as well.
The European powers are divided in three groups: the Baltic states favour a hardline response; Germany is unwilling to behave in a reactive way, but aims for “balance”; France intends to stabilise security ties with Russia. In other words, the European countries are ill-prepared to respond Russia – least of all militarily.
If Russia ensures its stated geostrategic interests in the region, it will cement not just regional but also continental influence.