History will judge the United States and its allies with abundant harshness for its remarkably foolish policy on Ukraine.John Mearsheimer
The Brief History of Russia-Ukraine Relations
Ukraine and Russia both were the founding members of the USSR in 1922. The countries parted their ways with the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 and the declaration of Independence by Ukraine on 24 Aug 1991. The map of independent Ukraine looked like this:
After independence, Ukraine also inherited some of the nuclear stockpile of the former USSR. Under international pressure, the nation agreed to join NPT and transfer/destroy its nuclear arsenal in 1994. Meanwhile, the nations maintained lukewarm relations.
In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was elected as a Ukrainian president. The leader was well-known for his pro-Russia approach, and Ukraine-Russia relations saw some improvements.
Things changed in 2014, when President Yanukovych was ousted in a popular protest (2014 Ukrainian Revolution). Russia quickly annexed Crimea, conducted a referendum and declared its independence. During the period, Russia also extended its support to the separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine, which remained separated from the Ukrainian government. ever since.
In Feb 2022, Russia announced to recognition of the independence of the Doneskt and Luhansk republics (Donbas region). It further declared its intention to demilitarise and de-Natzify Ukraine, launching an attack from north, north-east, south and south-eastern fronts, marking the beginning of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
Currently, the progress of the Russia-Ukraine war is stalled across many borders, but war is apace. So far, Ukraine has been successful in holding back Russia in the northern region but has failed to check Russian advancements on the southern and eastern fronts. The maps below illustrate the current state of war.
There appears no logical end to the war at present, and the future for Ukraine appears bleak. The war has different meanings for Russia, for Ukraine, for Europe, for the USA and for the rest of the world. There are many stakeholders, and what appears a simple war to satisfy the imperial ambitions of Russia, is definitely not what it seems.
Causes behind the Crisis:
The Ambitions of Russia?
The main cause that is advanced as a reason behind the war is the expansionist ambitions of Russia. Its desire is to devour Ukraine and deter the advancement of NATO on its Western borders. It is widely believed that Putin wishes to create a greater Russia, somewhere along the lines of the USSR.
Although popular, this line of argument does not hold ground. In the words of Putin himself, ‘whoever does not miss the soviet union has no heart, but whoever wants it back has no brain’. There is no proof to demonstrate the desirability and feasibility of occupying Ukraine for Russia, and that Russia intends to pursue it. Russia does understand that occupying countries in the age of nationalism is, in fact, an invitation to trouble, and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is a vivid example of that.
To quote Mr Putin again, ‘It is not our plan to occupy Ukrainian territory and we respect Ukrainian sovereignty, but only up to a point’.
Understanding the Root Cause
John Mearsheimer, suggests that the root cause of the ongoing war is ‘American-led efforts to make Ukraine a western bulwark on Russia’s borders’. The Western strategy to integrate Ukraine into the EU, to turn Ukraine into a pro-western, liberal democracy & ultimately to incorporate the nation into NATO.
It was announced in the NATO 2008 Summit (Bucharest) that ‘Ukraine and Georgia will become member states of NATO’. And the West hasn’t stopped making plans for it ever since. Since 2014, NATO has been involved in training Ukrainian soldiers, providing defensive weapons and joint military exercises including the 2021 naval exercise in the Black Sea that included navies of 31 countries including Ukraine.
The intentions are also visible when in a recent NATO summit (June 2021), when the following communique was issued
‘We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest summit that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance… We reaffirm all elements of that decision as well as subsequent decisions including that each partner will be judged on its own merits. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference.
Further in Nov 2021, the US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and his Ukrainian counterpart signed an important document U.S UKRAINE’S CHARTER ON STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP, which mentions that the aim of both parties is to ‘underscore a commitment to Ukraine’s implementation of the deep and comprehensive reforms necessary for full integration into Europe and euro-atlantic institutions that explicitly builds not just on the commitments made to strengthen the Ukraine US strategic partnership but it also reaffirms the u.s commitment to the 2008 Bucharest summit declaration’.
The expansion of NATO in Ukraine and its integration with the West is seen by Russia as an existential threat, the brightest of red lines, the West is not expected to cross. To deal with it, Russia kept increasing its forces stationed on Ukrainian borders. In Dec 2021, Russia even sent separate letters to NATO and US President Biden with 3 specific demands i.e. 1) Ukraine would not join NATO 2) No offensive weapons would be stationed near Russia’s borders & 3) NATO troops and equipment moved into eastern Europe since 1997 would be moved back to western Europe.
The United States responded to these demands of Russia by saying, ‘There is no change and there will be no change’ (Tony Blinken, US Secretary of State).
The Russian president then launched an invasion to eliminate the threat he saw from NATO.
Consequences of War for Ukraine
At present, Russia has conquered around 15% percent of Ukrainian territory. It has destroyed or damaged many Ukrainian cities and towns. More than 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country while almost the same number of people have been internally displaced. Thousands of Ukrainians including innocent civilians are dead or badly wounded and the Ukrainian economy is in shambles.
According to the IMF estimate, the Ukrainian economy shrank by one-third in 2022. Approximately a hundred and fifty billion dollars worth of damage has been already inflicted on Ukraine & it will take close to a trillion dollars to rebuild the country.
There also appears no hope that Ukraine will regain its access to Azov and Black Sea ports, which contribute to approximately 70% of its trade with the external world. It has been more than 15 months since the war started and if it drags further, things could only get worse.
Prospects for Ending the War
To quote Mearsheimer again,
‘Both Russia and the United States are deeply committed to winning the war and it is impossible to reach an agreement where both sides win’.John Mearsheimer
For Russia, victory would mean that Ukraine agrees to become a neutral state, divorcing itself from the West, especially the United States. This may not be acceptable to the United States since it would mean victory to Russia.
It is also suggested that the ‘ultranationalists in Ukraine who wield significant political power have zero interest in yielding to any of Russia’s demands, especially one that dictates Ukraine’s political alignment with the outside world’ (John Mearsheimer). The West is likely to continue supporting these ultranationalists.
While Russia is not likely to give up the territorial gains it has made so far, it’s also difficult to imagine any Ukrainian leader accepting a deal that allows Russia to keep any Ukrainian territory, except possibly Crimea.
There seems no agreeable end that all parties will agree to.
Escalation of War
With complex states involved in the war, it is more likely to escalate than come to an end.
The war is more significant to Russia than that to the United States. A defeat would confirm the worst fears of Russia. And thus, if Russia were to be on the losing end, it is highly likely that it may turn to nuclear weapons.
In the words of Mearsheimer,
‘There is a perverse paradox at play here, the more successful we are – the United States and its allies at achieving our war aims, the more likely it is that the war will turn nuclear. The tragic truth is that if the West had not pursued nato expansion into Ukraine it is unlikely there would be a war in Ukraine today and Crimea would still be part of Ukraine. Washington played a central role in leading Ukraine down the path to destruction. history will judge the United States and its allies with abundant harshness for its remarkably foolish policy on Ukraine.John Mearsheimer