The Ukrainian Conflict: Clashes between Russia and the West for geopolitical expansion

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Ukraine’s conflict is mostly referred to as one linked to the clashes between Russia and the West due to the country’s geostrategic position and its intention to joining the EU and NATO organizations. The annexation of Crime is one of the issues—but not central to the conflict. Lack of national identity and social cohesion resulting from the diverse population and divisions between Russian’s and West’s values, including state collapse, corruption, and dysfunctional economy, account for the main factors to conflict. Ukraine is the epicenter where the interests of Russia and the West are confronted.

The Ukrainian conflict is often portrayed as related to territorial disputes between Ukraine and Russia over the Crimea peninsula and the Donbas region—an oversimplified approach mainly used by the U.S. think tanks. The Ukraine conflict is multidimensional, much deeper than a conflict over territory, and involves both internal and external factors. The existing literature highlights political, social, and economic factors—from state collapse and dysfunctional economy to Ukraine’s artificial unification and territorial borders to lack of national identity and authentic history. The prevailing narratives that better fit the conflict description are three: the lack of Ukraine’s strong national identity resulting from divisions between pro-West and pro-Russia forces, the character of its body politics, and Russia and the West competition for geopolitical and civilization expansion (Kaiser, 2019; Kuzio and D’anieri, 2018; Smoor, 2017; Zhurzhenko, 2014; Valdai International Discussion Club, 2014).

The conflict dynamics depend on the Russia-West, respectively Russia-U.S. relations, which have drastically deteriorated in recent years. The prospects for a resolution in the near future are low. Currently, the conflict is in a stalemate with sporadic skirmishes and incidents instigated by all sides. Negotiations to broker a cessation of violence have been going on since 2014, generating the Minsk I (2014) and Minsk II (2015) Accords—both ending in failure.

The conflict in Ukraine started in the capital city of Kyiv in November 2013 as an internal confrontation between the government and demonstrators. The immediate trigger was the decision of then-President Yanukovych to reject a policy package that would push Ukraine toward a greater European economic integration. Soon, the conflict spread throughout the country with clashes between supporters and opponents of the so-called “Euromaidan.” In a few months, the conflict took an external dimension when Russia entered into play by annexing Crimea after a disputed referendum in March 2014, as well as by providing support to separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, which declared independence from Ukraine (Council on Foreign Relations, July 2019). In July 2014, the conflict transitioned into an international one when the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 downed in the territory of eastern Ukraine. Investigations proved that Russia supplied missiles used to shot down the MH17 (Reuters, June 19, 2019).

The dispute between Ukraine and Russia over Crimea annexation: Crimea poses one of the main issues between Ukraine and Russia and in relation to Russia and the West. The parties hold different views on the subject matter. Ukraine regards the annexation of Crimea as an act of aggression, illegal under international law (Pifer, 2019). Russia, on the other side, has justified the action to protect the rights of Russian citizens/and speakers in Crimea and southeast Ukraine, as well as to respect their rights to self-determination expressed in the referendum (Id.). By annexing Crimea and providing support to separatists in the Donbas region, Russia violated several agreements with Ukraine—including the Budapest Memorandum signed by Ukraine, Russia, the U.S., and Britain in December 1994. The memorandum provides security assurances for Ukraine, calling on the parties to respect the country’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and refraining from the threat or use of force against it (Pifer, 2014). Regarding “Donbas,” Russia and separatists maintain that the conflict is a civil war with an ethnopolitical background (Id., 2019).

The U.S., for its part, upholds the stance that the contested territories must be returned to Ukraine, though with Trump in office, it may be subject to change (Pifer, 2019). Academics, mainly those of Russian origin, stand behind Moscow’s actions, arguing that Crimea should be returned to its “natural home” given that the peninsula was gifted to Ukraine by Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union, in 1954. Generally, there is a ruling argument that Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian (Id.). The dispute over Crimea is not about the protection of rights of Russian citizens and speakers, as Moscow pretends to present, as it is about geostrategic objectives. The peninsula is located in the Black Sea and hosts Russia’s major Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol (Sasse, 2017), serving as a bridge that connects Russia with Turkey and Europe. The Black Sea itself is considered by NATO as “important for Euro-Atlantic security” through the Bucharest Summit Declaration in 2008 (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2017).

Crimea presents only one part of the puzzle. The root causes of conflict are internal—Ukraine’s divided national identity and the open-ended character of its status between Russia and West, as well as external—driven by Russia and the West for geopolitical and civilization expansion. Lack of a common national identity along with the internal structure of Ukrainian body politic is regarded as determinant factors to conflict (Kaiser, 2019; Smoor, 2017; Zhurzhenko, 2014). Ukraine’s complex national identity is a result of its social heterogeneity, regional fragmentation, and territorial composition, for the country is still in its early stage of nation-state formation. Ukraine has a diverse internal composition; the society is not compact and cohesive while the country itself is perceived as an “artificial creature” with territorial borders (created as a result of Soviet state-building) that do not represent its ethnic composition (Valdai International Discussion Club, 2014). Practically, Ukraine is divided between East and West regions; the West added as a result of the Hitler-Stalin agreement in 1939, speaks Ukrainian and is Catholic while the East speaks Russian and is Orthodox (Kaiser, 2019).

Russia-West competition for geopolitical and civilizations’ expansion has gained greater currency in explaining the conflict in Ukraine. The conflict is described as driven either by Russia or the West or both in pursuing their geopolitical objectives. One group of scholars put the blame on the West’s expansion towards former Soviet republics, forcing Russia to respond, while simultaneously criticizing the West for not doing enough to integrate Ukraine into the West. The second group regards Russia as the cause of conflict motivated by hegemonic objectives: Russia attempts to undo some of the 1991 results, reasserting its position in the region and imposing a particular notion of Russian identity beyond its national borders. The third group views both Russia and the West as conflict drivers (Kuzio and D’anieri, 2018). This argument is linked to the open-ended character of Ukraine’s status between Russia and the West, where each party tends to resolve in its favor. The West wants Ukraine on the board, pushing the country towards NATO membership, a policy strongly opposed by Russia, former leader of Warsaw Alliance, historically anti-NATO (Kaiser, 2019). Integration of former Soviet states in NATO poses a security dilemma for Russia, which is forced to react against the NATO encroachment in its territory.

That said, by annexing Crimea, Russia wants to reassert its hegemonic power in the region, threatened by the West in the last decades—through the spread of pro-democracy forces (“Color Revolutions”) and the enlargement of NATO with former soviet states. For Russia, this means a NATO invasion in its traditional sphere of influence, which was the reason to enhance its military presence in the Black Sea (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2017). Lastly, by annexing Crimea, Russia intends to prevent Ukraine’s plan to developing Crimea’s natural gas reserves in partnership with U.S. companies; if realized, the plan would be costly for Russia as Ukraine represents one of Russia’s largest customers (Amadeo, The Balance, June 25, 2019).

Russia-West Relations—Determinant Factor for Ukraine Future

The future of Ukraine’s conflict depends on the Russia-West, respectively Russia-U.S. relations, which have dramatically deteriorated recently as both players are engaged in a proxy war (Getmanchuk and Solodkyy, 2018). A near resolution based on these parameters is nearly impossible. As Kissinger observed: “…If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other—it should function as a bridge between them.” (Kaiser, 2019)

The mediation process is complex and difficult. Negotiations have been developed in three formats under Ukraine, Russia, EU, U.S., and OSCE mediation, as well as Germany and France as single players, producing the Minsk I and Minsk II accords. The Minsk Agreements define the modalities for a permanent ceasefire between Ukraine and separatist groups in the eastern territory and the reintegration of the contested territories into Ukraine (Talbott and Tennis, 2019). However, they are violated by all parties—the separatist groups in Donbas through their dictatorial quasi-state structures dependable from Russia, Russia refusal of involvement as a party to the conflict and its unwillingness to advance the implementation of peace accords, and Ukraine’s partial implementation of accords (Fischer, 2019).

In current conditions, a compromise is difficult to be reached due to Ukraine and Russia’s exclusive narratives (Talbott and Tennis, 2019). The western powers bear responsibility, too. Except for Germany, which has been a constructive player, and France to some degree (Getmanchuk & Solodkyy, 2018), the U.S. and EU have been criticized for not doing enough to generate a solution. The Russia-EU, NATO, and U.S. relations cause further obstructions. With Trump and Congress having divergences on this matter, the U.S. policy on Minsk is increasingly subject to volatility (Talbott and Tennis, 2019).

Literature cited:

Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region: A Brief History,” February 2, 2017.

Council on Foreign Relations. Conflict in Ukraine. Last updated July 16, 2019.

Fischer, Sabine. 2019. “The Donbas Conflict: Opposing Interests and Narratives, Difficult Peace Process.” German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Gwendolyn Sasse. 2014. The Crimea Question: Identity, Transition, and Conflict. Harvard University.

Kaiser, Karl. 2019. “Ukraine: Root causes of a prolonged conflict,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.

Kimberly Amadeo, “Ukraine Crisis, Summary and Explanations,” The Balance, June 25, 2019.

Pifer, Steven. 2019. “Russia vs. Ukraine: More of the same?” The Brookings.

2014. “The Budapest Memorandum and U.S. Obligations.” The Brookings. 

Reuters, “Evidence shows Russia supplied missile used to shoot down MH17: investigator,” June 19, 2019.

Smoor, Lodewijk. “Understanding the Narratives Explaining the Ukrainian Crisis: Identity Divisions and Complex Diversity in Ukraine.” WP presented at the Conference on Patterns of Integration of Old and New Minorities in a Europe of Complex Diversity held in Cluj. (8–9 November 2015).

Taras Kuzio & Paul D’anieri, “The Causes and Consequences of Russia’s Actions towards Ukraine,” E-International Relations, June 16, 2018.

Tatiana Zhurzhenko. 2014. “A Divided Nation? Reconsidering the Role of Identity Politics in the Ukraine Crisis.” Die Friedens-Warte, Vol. 89, 1/2, Die Ukraine-Krise (249-267).

Talbott, Strobe & Maggie Tennis. 2019. “25 years after Ukraine denuclearized, Russian aggression continues to rise.” The Brookings.

Valdai International Discussion Club. “The Crisis in Ukraine: Root Causes and Scenarios for the Future.” 2014.

Getmanchuk, Alyona & Sergiy Solodkyy. 2018. “German Crisis Management Efforts in the Ukraine–Russia Conflict from Kyiv’s Perspective.” German Politics, Vol. 27, Issue 4.

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