- Russia had objected to NATO’s expansion time and again, and issued clear indications of its increased assertiveness, such as the Medvedev Doctrine
- Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has been accused of harbouring irredentist goals such as furthering the idea of Triune Russian nation which stipulates three sub-nations – Belarus, Russia and Ukraine
- Kiev has been accused of persecution of the ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and Neo-Nazism.
(This is the 1st article in the 2-part series reviewing the Russia-Ukraine War)
Russian action in Ukraine since 24th of February 2022 is an escalation of a war that had been going on between the two countries since 2014 when Russia took over Ukraine’s Crimean territory. Some commentators would have us believe that it is the onset of a world war, others relegate it as a European conflict. The affluent west has tried to present the conflict as an either-or situation for the rest of the world- that Russia is an aggressive nation under the leadership of a brutal dictator waging war against humanity, and if you’re not vociferously condemning Russia, if you’re not sanctioning Russia, you’re facilitating the invasion. The Russian side has tried to present itself as the liberator of the oppressed, and as a nation essentially acting in self-defence. For now, the war seems to have limited itself in Eastern Europe, but the escalating belligerence between Russia and the west, and the impacts of this war might lead to more disastrous consequences that will affect everyone. As such, it is important to delve into a discussion about the causes and effects of the Russia-Ukraine war.
What caused the war?
- NATO’s eastward expansion
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 in wake of the onset of the Cold War, as an alliance for collective security which means that an attack against one NATO country is considered as an attack against all the member countries. It began with twelve founding members, and today has thirty countries. The Soviet Union was the perceived threat at that point, which also formed a similar alliance in 1955, known as the Warsaw Pact, brought to an end with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
Once the Cold War ended, and relations between the Russian Federation and the west moved to normalization, Russia was repeatedly assured that NATO would not extend eastward, as the countries in Eastern Europe were formed from erstwhile Soviet Union, and therefore the region was considered Russian sphere of influence. However, over the years, the exact opposite happened. Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary were included in the Alliance in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Lithuania in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009; Montenegro in 2017; North Macedonia in 2020; Sweden and Finland are in the process of joining it now. Many of these countries like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were once part of the Soviet Union.
Russia had objected against this expansion time and again, and issued clear indications of its increased assertiveness, such as the Medvedev Doctrine, articulated by Russian President Dimitry Medvedev in 2008, which talks about Russia’s ‘privileged interests’ in certain regions. It is natural for Russia to be agitated by this loss, and the first reaction came when pushed forward by the USA, NATO began dialogues with Georgia and Ukraine for membership. Russia backed the separatists in Ossetian and Abkhazia in Georgia and a war ensued in 2008. In 2014, following the Euromaidan protests, when pro-Russian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych was forced to abdicate and Ukraine signed a trade accord with Europe, Russia took action in Crimea. Moscow wants Ukraine to remain a buffer state, and is wary of US weapons systems reaching its border in the name of NATO.
- Russian threat perception
NATO is a military alliance formed with Russia (then Soviet Union) being considered as the primary threat. So, its expansion to include countries that were previously under Russian influence, and are located near Russian borders upsets Moscow. It perceives this as USA’s attempts towards creating conditions of war with Russia with the ultimate aim of subduing it permanently. President Putin seems convinced of this and for him it is only a matter of when not if. Despite an apparently changed global political scenario and power balance (since the Cold War), American security doctrines and policy papers continue to list Russia as the primary threat, and so the political scenario of Ukraine over the past decade has been viewed by Russia as American doctrines being implemented. The three primary demands placed by Russia to prevent the current war have been pretty basic- to stop NATO’s eastward expansion, to not deploy strike weapons systems on Russian borders, and to abide by the Russia-NATO Founding Act of 1997 (among other things, the Act was an assurance that in case of new members, nuclear weapons will not be deployed in their territory, and that permanent stationing of substantial combat forces would not be required).
With its actions in Ukraine, Russia has clarified its stance, that is, it is willing to go to unexpected lengths to protect its national interests. While NATO has not entered this war directly yet, Russia has been issuing statements against such a move and threatening dire consequences. Its actions in Georgia and Crimea too were motivated by this threat perception. There is an understanding in the Kremlin that Ukraine was being pushed against Russia so that eventually it could be used as a war front against Russia. Moscow has sought to pre-empt its war with the west with its war on Ukraine.
- Russian irredentism
Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has been accused of harbouring irredentist goals. Nostalgia for the erstwhile Russian empire found expression in an expansionist foreign policy when the Russian economy stabilized and international power dynamics began shifting. The idea of Triune Russian nation stipulates three sub-nations- Belarus, Russia and Ukraine- all have originated from Kievan Rus– first eastern Slavic state that existed in Europe since around the 9th century. Hence, at its minimum, Russian nationalists consider these three nations as a single entity separated by unfortunate circumstances and external forces, and that these should be reunified with the Russian motherland as one nation.
This is indeed a regular argument put forth by Moscow to justify its action in Ukraine. In his address on 21st of February 2022, President Putin questioned the very existence of Ukraine as a separate nation, stating that it was created only because erstwhile leaders made questionable decisions to consolidate the position of the Bolsheviks. He even penned an essay in 2021 titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. Through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed in 1918 between the Bolsheviks and the Central Powers, Russia had to let go of Ukraine as well as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia- all three of these are in NATO today.
- Persecution of Russian minority in Ukraine
Another cause listed by the Russian side for its war on Ukraine is the persecution faced by ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. It has accused Kiev of perpetrating genocide and Neo-Nazism. While these accusations may seem far-fetched, there is some truth to it nonetheless. Two major instances have showcased that the accusations of Ukrainian majority’s ethnocentric bias against the Russian minority living in Ukraine is real. The first instance happened in 2014 in Odessa. In late 2013, when President Yanukovych opted for closer ties with Russia over Europe, huge protests followed, known as Revolution of Dignity and Euromaidan protests. However, there was a significant amount of the population that supported Yanukovych. A group of Maidan protesters in Odessa locked anti-Maidan protesters in a Trade Union building and set it on fire, killing almost fifty people. No action has been taken against the perpetrators, and even European human rights organizations suggest police involvement.
Second, in 2019, the Ukrainian parliament passed legislation to make Ukrainian language predominant over Russian- education cannot be parted in Russian, majority of shows aired had to be in Ukrainian, shops restaurants etc have to use Ukrainian, and other similar provisions meant to make Ukrainian the primary language and to make the use of other languages disadvantageous. The legislation is a clear attempt to subjugate the Russian speaking population in Ukraine.
Ukraine claims to be a democracy, and yet when through a referendum in 1994 the people in Donbas asked for recognition of Russian as official language in the region, and for greater federalism, Kiev turned a blind eye to it. Ukraine has also been accused of breaching the Minsk agreement on Donbass under UNSCR 2202 concluded in 2015 (for peaceful settlement in Eastern Ukraine). So, if the separatists in Donbass claim government aided repression of the Russian speaking minority, there is truth to it. Russia has used this as an excuse to make inroads in Ukraine. Indeed, one of the first things Moscow did before escalating the war in February was to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics. In fact, the aforementioned Medvedev Doctrine specifically states- “Protecting the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever they may be, is an unquestionable priority for our country”. In the history of global politics, lesser reasons have been used for similar or greater actions.
- Ukraine’s tilt away from Russia
Broadly speaking, eastern Ukraine has a pro-Russian population and western Ukraine favours closer ties with ‘the west’. West Ukrainians blame Russia for internal disturbances and rampant corruption, deny fraternal-historic unity with Russia, emphasize their differences and disregard commonalities with Russia, and seek integration with west Europe. Kiev has been seeking NATO’s membership actively since the early 2000s and has concluded numerous agreements and military exercises with it. It has supported Georgia against Russia. The Holodomor is remembered as Soviet’s genocide of Ukrainian farmers. Georgia and Crimea hardened this anti-Russian stance. The revolution of dignity exemplified that the pro-west population was willing to go to lengths to ensure that Ukraine distances itself from Russia.
The tension between Russia and Ukraine had been building for quite some time, but it appears that neither Ukraine nor Europe or America expected the onslaught that Russia brought on. It is liberal capitalist common sense to assume that countries engaged in significant trade wouldn’t resort to extreme measures such as war in order to prevent jeopardizing their economies. Russia obviously does not subscribe to the west’s world view, and has evidently prioritized geo-strategy over economy.
Another miscalculation on President Zelensky’s part was with respect to the role the west would play in case of a war with Russia. Europe’s dependency on Russian oil and gas was viewed in terms of a contrasting Russian dependency on Europe for a market, and as is well known, the Russian economy is primarily dependent on export of fuel, majority of which goes to Europe. It is impossible for states like Germany which imports almost one third of its gas from Russia alone, to shut down all purchases from Russia in a knee jerk reaction. Most European countries are still recovering from the Wuhan virus pandemic induced economic crisis, and no leader wants to add more burden on the public, ergo, they continue to purchase oil and gas from Russia despite its attack on Ukraine. The Ukrainian President had expected a swifter and stronger reaction from the NATO countries to come to its rescue, but as has been often observed, lofty principles are always subservient to national interest. Perhaps he should have taken a hint from their limited actions against Russian trespasses in 2008 and 2014.
While talking about misjudgments, as a distant observer, it seems Russia too was wrong about the kind of brave resistance it has faced from the Ukrainians. Ukraine is smaller than Russia in all significant aspects- territorial size, economy, weapons- yet Russia was unable to capture the city of Kiev despite a long siege, and has suffered heavy losses in terms of men and material. At the beginning of the war, day after day, defence and other experts predicted the fall of Kiev in a fortnight, but it never came to pass. Initially the Russian attack was directed from North east (from Belarus towards Kiev, and Kharkiv in north east), east (Donbas), and south (Crimea). Now it is limited to the eastern front. Some experts have claimed that Russia had expected a quick surrender from Kiev, and had similar plans for Moldova, but Ukraine’s refusal to surrender foiled those plans.
A second Russian miscalculation being drawn out is that because of the aforementioned limited European sanctions in the past, Russia had underestimated how much the war would cost its economy. Because of the new sanctions, the ruble has fallen to record lows, Russia’s credit rating has been drastically reduced, major companies are pulling back their investments in Russia. Russian GDP is expected to contract by 15 per cent this year. If Europe’s resolve to phase out Russian fossil fuel comes to fruition, coupled with the isolation caused by the sanctions, Russia will most likely not remain a major economy. This would, in turn, create internal problems in Russia.
(The views expressed are author’s own)
Political Science research scholar