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Thursday, September 29, 2022
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Russia & Ukraine: A Synopsis

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Ukrainian and Russian flag | Image by Vladimir Zotov

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For the first time since World War II, two sovereign states are engaged in a military battle in Europe, with enormous implications for the global geopolitical and security dynamics. At the end of February, the globe awoke to a new period of turmoil. Russia had unleashed a war on Ukraine, a nation of nearly 44 million. Ukraine is strategically located, geographically in the epicenter of Europe’s struggle for power, the New York Times reports. Russia wants to keep Ukraine away from the West and out of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as Moscow feels it would lose influence over the nation. However, NATO has not yet granted Ukraine membership. Moscow wants to oppose Ukraine’s accession to the alliance, claiming that it would jeopardize Russian security. On March 15, however, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that his country would not join NATO, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded before the invasion, Newsweek reports. History of Russian – Ukrainian relations As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to dominate international headlines, a glance back at the long, interconnected history of the adversarial neighbors indicates how the scene was prepared for today’s war. Both countries owe their origins to the first East Slavic kingdom, Kievan Rus, which existed from the ninth to the mid-thirteenth centuries and spanned from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Following the seventeenth-century failure of the Cossack Hetmanate to reclaim statehood, the future Ukrainian region was split between empires: the Russian Empire, the Ottomans, and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great incited outrage amongst the local Eastern Orthodox inhabitants by pledging to protect her people from Catholicism, culminating in the armed rebellion known as “Koliivshchyna” in adjacent right-bank Ukraine. This conflict was a component of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. It resulted in the Polish Bar Confederation, the Russian military conquest of Poland and its internal politics, and successful divisions of the last. By the late eighteenth century, Russia had seized the majority of Ukraine. Ukraine proclaimed independence for the first time in late 1917, after the Bolshevik takeover. After World War I’s end and the signing of the Riga Treaty, Ukraine was again divided between Poland and Bolshevik Russia. The Bolshevik-occupied region became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a puppet satellite state of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). That changed after Mikhail Gorbachev’s disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. In 1989, the political landscape in central Europe had shifted dramatically with the reunification of Germany, heralding the end of the Cold War. Between November 16, 1988, and December 26, 1991, the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) ceased to be a sovereign state and succeeded in forming the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Russia became self-governing in August 1991, while Ukraine and Belarus attained independence a few months later. In 2004, following the Orange Revolution, Ukraine moved away from the Russian model of authoritarian rule, and most Ukrainians decided they preferred to follow the path of other East European nations toward democracy. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded eastward, drawing most of the Eastern European states that had been in the Communist sphere. In 2004, NATO was joined by the former Soviet Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In 2008, NATO proclaimed its aim to grant membership to Ukraine in the future, while President George W. Bush indicated support for this initiative — a critical limit for Russia. Viktor Yanukovych was elected as Ukraine’s President in 2010, with most of his support coming from the eastern regions. He was also backed by Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. In 2011, Putin formed the Eurasian Customs Union, intending to make an anti-European Union (EU) proposition to nations bordering Russia. This prompted the EU to expedite the conclusion of an Association Agreement (AA) with Ukraine. Protests erupted anew in Kyiv, Lviv, and other locations towards the end of 2013, as Yanukovych negotiated and then refused to sign the AA with the European Union. According to Open Society Foundation, these demonstrations, which took place in the dead of winter, became known as the Euromaidan, or “Euro Square.” The Ukrainian government attempted to end the demonstrations, and numerous demonstrators were killed. Unrest developed in regions of Ukraine after the Euromaidan demonstrations, and a revolution that resulted in the ousting of pro-Russian Yanukovych followed in February of 2014. Afterward, Russian forces captured important sites and infrastructures in Ukraine’s Crimea region and seized the Crimean Parliament. Russia conducted a highly criticized referendum, the Associated Press (AP) reported, which concluded with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Despite a 2015 ceasefire deal, the two sides have been unable to maintain a permanent truce, with the front line scarcely moving since. According to the United Nations, about 14,000 people perished due to the fighting, and 1.5 million people were internally displaced. Zelenskyy won Ukraine’s presidential election in 2019. Before entering politics, Zelenskyy was a comedian and portrayed a president on television. Zelenskyy campaigned on a vow to “reboot” peace efforts to end the crisis in eastern Ukraine, including making direct contact with Putin. Recent events preceding the invasion In part, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was sparked by the current Ukrainian government’s invitation to American and NATO forces to conduct joint exercises and other forms of military cooperation; Ukraine hoped it would strengthen its defensive capabilities against future Russian aggression. Reuters reported that Russia and Belarus held large-scale drills in the region that alarmed the West. Putin declared that he regards Ukraine’s potential membership in the Western military alliance as a “red line,” Radio Free Europe reported in 2021. The Russian president presented the U.S. and NATO with a list of security demands in December 2021 which included a promise that Ukraine would never join NATO. He also demanded the organization withdraw its military presence in Eastern and Central Europe. The U.S. and its allies swiftly rejected these plans. Furthermore, Putin implied that Ukraine, by its very nature, should be sympathetic to Russia, not hostile. However, he regards the country’s present leadership as unconstitutional, excessively nationalist, and even fascist. He consistently asserts that the prerequisite for peaceful relations between nations is that they do not jeopardize the security of other states. Putin has long made it known he believes Ukraine is an illegitimate state. Putin wrote that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all members of the same people, belonging to what was traditionally known as one all-Russian nation. “It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine,” Putin wrote in July of 2021, “in the blood ties that unite millions of our families.” Russia began a significant military build-up along the border with Ukraine that year. In mid-February of 2022, the Guardian reported that Russia gathered up to 190,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s borders over several months. On Monday, February 21, Putin recognized two territories in eastern Ukraine as independent republics — Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic — controlled by pro-Russian rebels that are supported by Russia. Putin sent soldiers into the two districts to “maintain peace” — transgressing the West’s red line by stationing the Russian military on Ukrainian soil. The War Begins On February 24, 2022, Putin authorized the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine. Putin said the offensive aimed to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine, particularly those in the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which seceded from Ukraine in 2014. In a February 22 speech, Putin predicated the invasion on an allegation of genocide in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and declared that Ukraine should not exist. On February 28, the first round of ceasefire discussions was conducted near the Belarusian border, but they were abandoned after five hours due to a lack of consensus. Ukraine made a symbolic application to join the EU at the time. On March 5, the Russian army captured the most significant nuclear power facility in Europe, Zaporizhzhya. A section of the facility caught fire, posing the prospect of a nuclear disaster ten times the scale of Chernobyl. Although the situation was avoided, Russia maintains control of the facility. Russian forces have occupied the Chernobyl plant since the early stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Russia made a brief pledge on March 5 to allow the people of Mariupol to evacuate the city through a humanitarian corridor, but the promise was short-lived. Later that day, with the city still engulfed in flames, the evacuation was called off. Chernihiv, nearly 90 miles from Kyiv, has been bombarded since. On March 13, the Kremlin announced that there had been significant progress in peace negotiations and ‘joint position’ might be achieved between the two countries shortly. Ukrainian negotiator and presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said that substantial progress could be achieved in the talks with Russia in a “matter of days,” Forbes reports. Bloomberg reported Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators, declared, “this progress can elevate in a few coming days into a mutual position of both delegations and [a] signing of documents.” Sanctions Imposed Against Russia Since the commencement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western nations have responded mostly via economic penalties. The U.S. and its allies have imposed the most comprehensive financial and technical sanctions package ever levied against Russia. Many countries — including Switzerland, which has waived its neutrality to join the financial sanctions, per Reuters — have blocked the assets of prominent Russian political and commercial elites, confiscated physical property, and even detained a merchant ship. Most critically, Western countries have prohibited transactions with Russia’s most prominent institutions, including the central bank, and blocked its assets to prevent Russia from accessing its $630 billion in reserves. Additional countermeasures include certain Russian banks being dropped from the international financial messaging system SWIFT, which is used to facilitate cross-border money transfers, resulting in a delay in payments to Russia for energy exports. The sanctions also represent the most severe ever to be imposed on a significant economic power. Economic sanctions operate on a “punishment rationale,” as a country’s citizens experiencing financial hardship are expected to mobilize against their political leaders and demand policy changes. The U.S. has refused all Russian oil and gas imports, while the UK has continued to phase out Russian oil. U.S. President Joe Biden said that the move is aimed at “the main artery of Russia’s economy.” The EU, which imports a quarter of its oil and 40% of its gas from Russia, maintains that it will diversify its energy sources and achieve independence from Russia “well before 2030.” On February 27, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that “For the first time, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country under attack.” On March 11, the White House said in a statement, “President Biden, along with G7 leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union, will announce new economic measures to hold Putin accountable for his continued assault on Ukraine and to isolate Russia from the global financial system further.” The statement announced further punitive measures: Russia’s Favorite Nation status is revoked. Russian elites and their family members are sanctioned in full. Exports of luxury goods to Russia are prohibited. U.S. imports of products from several key sectors of Russia’s economy are prohibited. Borrowing privileges to multilateral financial institutions are rescinded. New guidance has been issued by the Treasury to combat sanctions evasion, including through virtual currency. A mechanism for prohibiting new investment in any Russian Federation’s economic sectors has been established. On March 12, President Biden authorized $200 million in increased security assistance to Ukraine. The investment includes anti-aircraft weaponry and small armaments to help Ukraine. These latest moves take U.S. funding for Ukraine’s defense up to $1.2 billion. Apart from these state-sponsored restrictions, countless private enterprises have voluntarily reduced their services and activities in Russia. These corporations are from various sectors, including banking, technology, entertainment, and automobile manufacturing. Implications of NATO’s Involvement Despite allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses in Ukraine, NATO allies have shown their unwillingness to become actively engaged – or even incidentally involved – in the conflict by monitoring Ukraine’s airspace or stationing soldiers on Ukrainian land. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has pushed the U.S.-led coalition to impose a no-fly zone over the nation, claiming it is required to protect people from Russian airstrikes. Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty stipulates that any assault on one of the member nations is an attack on all of them. Throughout the Cold War, the alliance functioned as a deterrent to Soviet Union advancement. However, the organization’s breach of the conflict in Ukraine would lead to a disastrous escalation in the present situation. Even NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that it is the NATO allies’ responsibility “to prevent this war from escalating beyond Ukraine.” In a similar vein, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained that “a no-fly zone requires implementation” and would entail the U.S. military shooting down Russian aircraft and precipitating a possible direct conflict with Russia — “precisely the step we want to avoid.” In response to the no-fly zone request, Putin asserted that “any movement in this direction will be regarded as that country’s participation in an armed conflict.” Military Capabilities Ukraine’s resistance has had the most severe effect on Russia’s army in decades. Russia continues to suffer losses in Ukraine. Thirty-one battalion tactical groups of the Russian Armed Forces lost combat effectiveness during the sixteen-day battle. Approximately 360 tanks, 1,205 armored vehicles, sixty planes, and eighty helicopters were destroyed by Ukrainian soldiers. According to the New York Times, on March 12, Zelenskyy said that Russian forces had killed around 1,300 Ukrainian troops. “We suffered a loss of about 1,300 soldiers, while Russia suffered a loss of more than 12,000,” the Ukrainian president said. Russian soldiers have damaged 3,687 Ukrainian military infrastructure sites so far, according to Reuters reports. Russia outnumbers Ukraine more than five to one in terms of regular military personnel. Russia has 900,000 active soldiers and 2 million reservists, while Ukraine has 196,000 active and 900,000 reserve personnel. Furthermore, Russia has twice as many armed ground forces, with 280,000 soldiers against Ukraine’s 125,600. Its air force is roughly five times the size of Ukraine’s, with 165,000 to 35,000 aircraft. Impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict The Russian assault of Ukrainian towns has produced a massive crisis, with damage to infrastructure, such as bridges and highways, and diminishing supply of food, safe drinking water, medication, and power in certain regions. While many people of the nation’s central and eastern regions have fled to western Ukraine, away from the battle lines, the latest United Nations data estimates indicate that more than 2.5 million Ukrainians have left the country entirely after Russia’s invasion on February 24. As of March 10, 2022, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)  confirmed 564 civilian fatalities during Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine,  forty of whom were children. Additionally, 982 people were reported injured. However, the OHCHR said that the actual figures were likely much higher.

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