A military offensive launched by Russia on the Ukrainian mainland in February 2022 escalated a long-simmering crisis between the two nations, and the impact has been devastating. Almost ten months later, the conflict displaced nearly half of Ukraine’s population and left a similar portion stranded in conflict zones. As Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, advances his assault and self-described “special military operation” on Ukraine, the response of the world has somewhat been ‘unusual’ despite the scale of the conflict, the unimaginable loss and disruption of lives, and its overall impact on the globe. This paper explores the Russo-Ukrainian conflict through history, relationships, and ideological differences between the nations involved, the international response to the matter and what it means to the world, a realist and liberal perspective, and what the future holds for the conflict.
The February 2022 altercation between Russia and Ukraine was not the beginning of the conflict nor the crisis; instead, it marked a dramatic escalation of an eight-year-old conflict and a possible historic turning point for European security. The two nations have had no bilateral or diplomatic relations since the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and the Russian forces’ occupation of the Crimean Peninsula (Giovetti). The invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea resulted in a conflict between the Ukrainian military and the Russian forces and the pro-Russia separatists from the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, who wanted control over eastern Ukraine. Although the relationship between the two countries became hostile following the 2014 events, the 2022 full-scale invasion by Russia severed all formal diplomatic ties. While this may seem surprising, the bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine, the successor states of the Soviet Union, have gone through periods of tension, ties, and outright hostility. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s spread of nationalism, Ukraine adopted policies dominated by aspirations to ensure independence and sovereignty. In particular, the country’s foreign policy provided balanced cooperation with Russia, the European Union, and other global powers.
Relationship between Russia and Ukraine
The relationship between Russia and Ukraine has changed over time, and their intertwined history reveals much about the ongoing conflict. The shared heritage goes back a thousand years to when Kyiv, currently the capital of Ukraine, was at the center of Kyivan Rus, the first Slavic state and the birthplace of Russia and Ukraine. As Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, recently declared, Russians and Ukrainians are a single whole (Conant). In the next ten centuries, Russia flourished while Ukraine was repeatedly invaded and fought over by competing powers; the Mongol warriors from the east in the 13th century, the Lithuanian and Polish armies from the West in the 16th century, and the Tsardom of Russia in the 17th century which brought territories east of the Dnieper River under Russian imperial control. Lands west of the Dnieper were ruled by Poland before annexation by the Russian Empire in the following century. A good amount of the issues between Ukrainians and Russians arguably originate from the events of the 20th century. Following the communist revolution in 1917, Ukraine had to be forced into the Soviet Union. One of the strategies used by Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader at the time, was a famine to force peasants onto collective farms. The widespread famine, infamously known as the Holodomor, resulted in starvation that killed millions of Ukrainians. The historical differences and administrative shifts created lasting fault lines between Ukraine and Russia and between eastern and western Ukraine. People in the east are more likely to support Russia and its leaders as the region came under Russian control earlier than west Ukraine, which spent centuries under European powers such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland. As a result, the eastern population tends to be more Orthodox and Russian-speaking, while the West speak Ukrainian and practice Catholicism. This is also why Ukraine’s transition to capitalism and democracy in the wake of the Soviet Union was chaotic and painful, as Ukrainians in the east longed for the stability of earlier Russian regimes. Despite independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, there still were border and territorial issues between the two nations, particularly over the Crimea, a multilingual and multiethnic Black Sea peninsula offered to Ukraine by Russia in 1954 as a ‘gift.’ Given the symbolic significance of Crimea to both the Russians and the Ukrainians, the ensuing dispute was settled in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, where Ukraine gave up its nuclear warheads in return for sovereignty and respect of the existing borders from Russia and Britain. The U.S. This pledge was later violated by Moscow during the annexation of Crimea.
There is also an ideological and political root to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The Russian government has maintained support for the war by promoting a civilizational narrative based on the Russian culture developed over the last twenty years. Through the Russian Orthodox Church, the government defends the cause and morality of the conflict, citing its fight against the amoral secularism of the West (Pan), the dominance of the western liberal order, and U.S. imperialism. Ukraine’s nationalism, led by Volodymyr Zelensky’s anti-state populism, seems to threaten this vision of the Russian civilization order. The leader affirms a commitment to family values as the basis for social life while maintaining a suspicious attitude toward state institutions.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict, in addition to the intertwined histories between the two countries, is rooted in negotiations between governments and international bodies around the end of the Soviet Union. During the agreements between Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush, the United States did not insinuate bringing Germany and former members of the Warsaw Pact into the North Atlantic Treaty Association (NATO) as there was no evidence of promises made. Three decades later, most countries within the former Soviet Union and neighbors of Russia have expressed interest in joining the European Union or NATO. Given their history of conflict with Russia, joining these international organizations would reduce Russian influence on their affairs and integrate them politically, culturally, and economically into Europe (Jared). The West utilized the European Union memberships to gain more member countries and territories under NATO, which jeopardized Russia’s political and economic influence. Russia’s stance on western influence and encroachment onto the Baltic region has gradually changed during the Putin administration, as demonstrated by the events in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine recently. These moves by Russia and its forces undeniably violate some, if not most, of the international treaties or agreements in place.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing hostilities between the Ukrainian armed forces and Russian armed forces constitute international armed conflict laws governed by international humanitarian treaty laws, comprised mainly of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, Protocol I of 1977, and the Hague Conventions of 1907 which regulate the methods and means of warfare. The conflict is also governed by the rules of customary international humanitarian law. It should be noted that Russia and Ukraine are members of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Protocol I.
The Geneva Conventions recognize the Russian troops in Ukraine as an occupying force regardless of any self-proclaimed justification or label. This, in particular, refers to President Putin’s decrees recognizing the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ (‘LNR’) and ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (‘DNR’) as independent territories, therefore, justifying the Russian armed forces ‘peacekeeping’ missions in the regions. The Russian invasion also violated ceasefire agreements signed in 2014 with the Organization for Security and Organization in Europe (OSCE) and Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which requires member states to refrain from using force against political independence or territorial integrity of any form. While Putin has also tried to justify Russia’s use of force as a response to Ukraine committing genocide against Russians in Luhansk and Donetsk, the Genocide Convention specifies genocide as specific actions intended to destroy in part or in whole an ethnic, religious, national, or racial group. No evidence indicates that Ukraine committed acts of genocide against any specific population in eastern Ukraine. Even if this was true, international agreements do not authorize nations to use force in response to serious human rights abuses or genocide.
The United Nations and Other Intergovernmental Organizations
The United Nations has continuously worked to alleviate the suffering within the conflict zones within the Ukrainian and Russian territories through direct engagement with the Ukrainian and Russian presidents. Given the economic impact of the war on the rest of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the U.N. has partnered with humanitarian aid organizations such as the World Food Program to transport up to 4.3 million metric tons of food to Yemen, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan. The United Nations Security Council has spearheaded investigations into the conflict through the International Criminal Court for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. NATO and the United States have responded by supporting Ukraine through military aid such as equipment, weapons, and personnel training. NATO has also implemented economic sanctions against Russia to weaken Moscow.
NGOs Active in the Conflict
International Non-Government Organizations and humanitarian specialists have continuously made their way into the conflict zone since the invasion of Ukraine, given the estimated humanitarian impact. Notable organizations providing aid to the people of Ukraine amid the violence include CARE, an international humanitarian organization established in 1945 to fight global poverty. The organization’s aim following the Ukraine crisis is to reach four million people in need, especially the elderly, women, and children. The organization has partnered with People in Need to distribute emergency supplies such as hygiene kits, food, and water. The Ukraine Humanitarian Fund is an organization developed by the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator to direct money and resources towards effective and relevant organizations such as the Red Cross and other NGOs vetted nationally and internationally. Project HOPE is another NGO that distributes mental health resources and other medical supplies to victims affected directly and indirectly by the conflict (Lief). The organization helps hospitals maintain standard functionality while providing help to a displaced person with limited access to healthcare services through response teams coordinated with local groups on the ground. The NGO also offers mental health services to refugees entering countries with no support system or social network.
Relevant Countries and Their Interests
The most relevant countries in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict are Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has been wary of Western expansion into countries considered crucial for their security and position in the global power scale. Russia, therefore, has considerable interest in the war and its outcome. In his statements, Putin justified the war as a cause to rebuild Western Europe’s political architecture to prevent the U.S. from positioning mass forces and nuclear weapons in the neighboring countries and on Russia’s borders. Political writers and scholars have explained that in the bigger picture, Putin’s goal with the war is to restore Russia’s status as Eurasia’s great superpower. Seizing and taking control of Crimea gave Russia a strategic foothold on the Black Sea, projecting its power deeper into the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean. In this region, it has traditionally had limited control.
Russia’s interest in the war reportedly goes beyond strategic and economic benefits. Putin’s speeches and articles suggest that the Russians view their historical and cultural identity closely intertwined with that of Ukraine. As discussed above, both Ukrainian and Russian nations originated from the Kievan Rus, which implies that the Ukrainians played a role in developing the Russian state and Orthodox religion. Furthermore, the works of Nikolai Gogol, a great Ukrainian author who wrote in Russian and identified with the Russian Empire, tell much of the Ukrainian influence in modern Russian culture. One could argue that the invasion of Ukraine is aimed at cleaning up western power or ‘U.S. manipulation’ of the Ukrainian people. This also justifies Russia’s desire to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO or any other ‘hostile’ alliance and Putin’s attitude towards Ukraine.
The United States and its NATO allies radically increased Ukraine’s humanitarian, military, and economic assistance while reinforcing their sanctions on Russia. Such moves indicate a significant interest in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and its outcome. Security interest is rooted in the fact that an unchallenged Russia could expand its ambitions onto the United States NATO allies, threatening European security. The U.S. also fears that a lack of retribution towards Russia could encourage other ‘notorious’ nations, such as China, to subjugate other countries and seize territory (Polychroniou et al.). The United States is interested in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as failure to support Ukraine would challenge the American support for democracies, destabilizing the viability of democracy and the liberal international order.
On the other hand, Ukraine seeks admission into NATO and E.U., particularly after gaining public support for its Westward leanings. However, Ukrainians hold mixed views on the E.U. and NATO memberships. Despite the president’s formal applications, membership in the E.U. and NATO seems unlikely in the near term for Ukraine.
Realist and Liberal Perspective
The realist explanation of the Russia-Ukraine war, according to Mearsheimer, is that the root cause of Russia’s decision to destabilize the Donbas region and annex Crimea was the expansion of NATO eastwards (Mearsheimer et al. 4). The continuous promotion of democracy by the U.S. and its NATO allies threatened Russia’s core strategies, triggering a security dilemma that led to the Georgian and Ukrainian invasions. These realist arguments are based on structural realism, which emphasizes the anarchic nature of international relations that views war as a resort, sometimes violent, for nations to compete for security and power. Offensive realism focuses on the need for countries to possess worst-case assumptions over the intentions of others for inherent aggressiveness. The structural geopolitics and changing power structures in Eastern Europe became more problematic for Russia. With the persistent expansion of NATO and the E.U., it had to act upon Ukraine. The realist approach also applies from the perspective of the West, quite ironically, as the NATO and E.U. expansion makes sense for the U.S. and its allies, as this was an opportunity to maximize their power at Russia’s expense.
The liberal perspective, on the other hand, explains that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea resulted from the constant threat posed by a democratic and prosperous Ukraine. Likely, Putin could not stand Ukraine’s leaning towards the West for cultural and economic integration as this is a direct threat to Putin’s political regime more than a security issue. The idea of a democratic and economically comfortable society in Ukraine contrasts with the authoritarian and largely conservative Russian society under Putin as things stand; however, the validity of the greater liberal system as the global model is at risk. There have been constant calls for ethnic and religious nationalism and the appearance of the extremist right and the populist movements with the Western liberal groups. The rise of China under Xi’s leadership, the emergence of Putin’s Russia, and the West’s meddling in the Middle East issues have resulted in conditions hostile to liberal principles.
The Future of the Conflict
As the war rages on, it is uncertain what the future holds for Ukraine, Russia, the rest of Europe, and the United States. There is concern that war fatigue could overtake Europe and the U.S., who have been fundamental in Ukraine’s recent victories in the counter-offensive. The sanctions imposed by the West and some Asian countries on Russia could continue to affect the world economy, and as the energy crisis looms, the U.S. and Europe could become less inclined to support the war. Furthermore, the approach of winter will undoubtedly change the fighting strategies and conditions, and the cold weather is likely to underline Europe’s dependency on Russia for fossil-fueled heat. Depending on the war’s progress, desperation could push Putin toward more extreme means, such as expanding the war to other fronts and countries. In addition, ample Western support could sustain Ukraine throughout the fight and maybe even defeat Russia.
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