Ukrainean President Petro Poroschenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at the 51st Munich Security Conference, 7 February 2015
It has been just over one year since the conflict in Ukraine became an international news story, and even now it is often difficult to decipher the events in the country, both unfolded and unfolding, much less their implications for international relations. To understand this, let us remind ourselves of the background behind the 2014 revolution that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, and analyze its ramifications.
In early 2014, Yanukovych refused to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union by signing certain trade agreements after Russia offered better trade and loan deals with the eastern European nation. This action was not well received in the western part of the country, where pro-European sentiment runs high. However, Yanukovych’s actions found support in much of the eastern and southern parts of the country, where much of the sentiment is pro-Russian. With Kiev, the center of government located in the western part of Ukraine, however, Yanukovych’s government was certain to face backlash. Few foresaw the degree of such backlash he would receive, however.
After weeks of protests and clashes between government forces and demonstrators, the Ukrainian parliament removed Yanukovych from office on February 22, leaving an interim, much more pro-European government to take over as Yanukovych fled to Russia.
The major trouble for Ukraine began soon afterwards. Pro-Russian sentiment, long a divisive element of Crimean politics, rose to a boiling point after the toppling of Yanukovych’s pro-Russian regime. Protests began in Crimea, and by late February Russian forces occupied the region, culminating in a referendum (condemned by the West and Ukraine as illegal) in which voters voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
In the weeks and months that followed, separatist movements began in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian militia began fighting to takeover key areas from Ukrainian forces such as Donbass, home of Donetsk, one of the country’s largest cities. The insurgency gained international attention following the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which is widely believed to have been attacked by pro-Russian rebels inadvertently.
Though there is plenty of history to examine regarding the Ukrainian crisis, it is time to consider the ramifications for international relations in light of these circumstances. One of the most prominent theories is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to revive Russia into the great power that he believes it once was (sans communism). In many regards, Putin has been trying to flex Russia’s political muscles in the region and beyond. Russia successfully invaded Georgia in 2008, carving out the separatist states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia while the world did nothing. Even today, these two states are virtual puppets of Moscow.
Beginning in 2010, then-Prime Minister Putin and the leaders of surrounding nations such as Kazakhstan and Belarus pushed for the creation of the new trade and economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union (often referred to as simply the Eurasian Union). Some thought that the bloc was Putin’s attempt to create an economic bloc rivaling that of the European Union. It is clear to see that free trade agreements among the member nations and other countries such as Uzbekistan and Ukraine could give the impression of a rival to the EU.
In late 2013, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was accused by the United States of using chemical weapons against civilians in the course of the Syrian Civil War, President Barack Obama declared that the metaphorical “red line” had been crossed by the regime, vowing punitive military action against Assad’s government. However, weak will to do so by the American public and by members of Congress effectively forced the administration to seek an escape route from launching the strikes. Under Russian supervision, Assad’s regime offered to remove the weapons from Syria and have them destroyed. While this move saved the Obama administration from beginning an unpopular military campaign, likely without congressional approval (though he always maintained he did not need it), the administration came out of the Syrian debacle seeming weak on foreign issues while Russia’s standing in the world grew, at least somewhat.
Looking back only a few weeks before Yanukovych’s ousting is Putin’s grand attempt to impress the world at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The games were riddled with issues, such as deficient sports facilities, hotels, and the threat of terrorist attacks from Caucasus separatists. Though no terrorist attacks took place at the games, the other troubles that plagued the event prevented it from being called a great achievement for the Russian strongman.
It was only a matter of months before Russia began operations in Ukraine. As the war in the Donbass region continued, many lives would be lost and the relative peace of eastern Ukraine would be torn apart.
On February 12, however, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin agreed to a ceasefire at a conference in Minsk, Belarus, moderated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. Of course, the deal made from the talks has a long way from becoming realized. Both Russia and Ukraine differ on what terms were agreed upon in Minsk, with Putin claiming that certain regions in eastern Ukraine are to be given special autonomy, while Poroshenko disputes this.
According to the Associated Press, “the deal…requires the Ukrainian parliament to give wide powers to the eastern regions as a condition for restoring Ukraine’s full control over its border with Russia—a provision certain to trigger heated debate in Kiev.”
Whether either party will follow through on their part of the deal remains to be seen.
The central question still remains: What is Russia’s standing in the world right now? We are certainly not in another Cold War. The Cold War was a battle between ideologies: Communism in the Soviet bloc and liberal democracy in the free Western bloc. Today’s battles are for state power and influence. Putin has shown time and time again that he wishes for Russia to become a great power, if not in the world then certainly in the region. However, as Russia’s economy sputters from falling oil prices and European and American sanctions, it is doubtful that Putin’s dreams will become reality. His domestic support is strong, and his ability to stir up events is unquestioned, but will he have these a few years, or even a few months from now? That is a question that can only be answered by watching events unfold upon the world stage.
Western influence in Ukraine and in the region at-large is also another area in need of analysis. While Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and firmly under the grip of communism in the Cold War, Ukraine is now seen as a buffer zone between the East and the West. Ukraine, of course, is much closer geographically to Russia than to the western European countries, much less the United States. What business, if any, does the West have in Ukraine?
Numerous arguments can obviously be debated. One side argues that the West should not interfere at all in the country’s affairs, with some going so far as to say that Russia has a right to have some say in the country’s governance. The other side says that Western nations should aid Ukraine in its struggle against Russia, particularly to strengthen the West’s standing in the region.
Supplying certain aid, both civilian and military, to Ukraine is a solution that benefits the West. However, if Western nations interfere too heavily militarily, Russia could easily spin the narrative of foreign nations unjustly interfering in the affairs of the region. The justification behind this lies in the fact that while Russia is undoubtedly interfering in another country’s functioning, it deserves a say in the region it (more or less) shares with Ukraine. Thus, if the West wishes to aid Ukraine, flex its own power, and actually have a chance of receiving a favorable outcome in the conflict; subtle, yet effective aid, must be given to the Ukrainian government for their fight against pro-Russian militias. Of course, the ceasefire may hold, but too much faith in this scenario may prove naïve.
Image Attribution: “Poroschenko Merkel and Biden Security Conference February 2015” by Marc Muller, licensed under CC BY 3.0 DE