Alongside the removal of England’s Plan B restrictions and the ongoing scandal surrounding Boris Johnson’s booze-infused work parties during numerous lockdowns, the news in recent days has been dominated by an ages-old topic that has come back once again to haunt Western leaders: Russia, and Putin’s seemingly eternal fixation on ensuring citizens in the former Soviet Eastern European countries can’t have a moment of peace from him. The latest target of this infatuation? Ukraine, the former Soviet republic which has already seen a part of its territory detached by Russia in 2014, namely the Crimean peninsula. Russia’s military movements in the last couple of weeks, including the relocation of over 100,000 troops to near the Ukrainian border, has prompted the White House to declare that a Russian invasion is ‘imminent’ and the removal of many Western diplomats and embassy staff from the country. The only formal option that Putin has given the West to de-escalate from this standoff entails fulfilling several demands that would be politically and militarily suicidal, including the withdrawal of NATO weapons from Eastern European countries and the prohibition of Ukraine from joining NATO in the future. Yet what lies behind Putin’s maneuvers?
The situation is far more complex than the Russian leader somehow wanting to prove himself and his country against the West. Instead, the reasons are far more historically and culturally oriented. Understanding of this topic has been somewhat facilitated by the publication of a 5,000-word essay on the topic by Putin himself, where he declares himself to be ‘confident that the future of Ukraine is only possible in partnership with Russia’.
In his mind, he does not seek to subjugate a foreign country; he seeks to ensure close relations with his own people. There are multiple references to the idea that ‘Russia was robbed’ following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. His argument is that during the Soviet era, SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic, the different countries that made up the USSR) borders within the country did not matter, as all the different SSRs were ultimately ruled from Moscow. This meant that boundaries and borders could be altered for administrative ease with no cultural or political consequences. The real problems began when the SSRs gained independence between 1989 and 1991, no longer under the rule of Moscow, but still retaining their enlarged territories. Putin refers to Russians and Ukrainians being ‘one people - a single whole’ in the article, and references their shared history under states such as the Ancient Rus and Tsarist Russia, their shared language and religion as justification for saying there is no reason why they should not be, de facto, the same country. One such precedent for this could be the original plans for Union State, a political confederation between Russia and Belarus that entails free movement, Russia’s right to intervene militarily in Belarus, and initially planned for a common currency.
However, there are some big flaws in President Putin’s logic that render his attempts to coerce Ukraine into ever-closer relations with Russia unjustifiable. The last sentence in his article reads ‘And what Ukraine will be - it is up to its citizens to decide’; however, the mass movement of troops to the Ukrainian border and the issuing of lists of demands hardly seems to be emblematic of this spirit.
Putin’s argument for at least closer relations with Ukraine, if not Russian control over the whole country, rests on the past. He talks about the Ancient Rus, a federation of Slavic states that existed during the Middle Ages, and Tsarist Russia, a system that effectively supported slavery until the half-century prior to its abolition. Such emblems of the long-gone past are hardly relevant in deciding the future of a developed modern country. His constant references to the shared language, customs, and religion of Russia and many former Soviet Eastern European states adds little to his argument. It is true that the Orthodox church is the predominant religion throughout much of Eastern Europe, that Russian is spoken as a significant minority language in countries such as Ukraine, and that Eastern European languages such as Belorussian and Ukrainian share many similarities with Russian. Do these features mean Russia has an inherent right to closer relations with, or control over, these countries? Well, put it this way. Does Britain have a right to close relations or control over the United States simply by virtue of both countries speaking English, having a majority Christian population and having been the same country in the past? The answer to both questions is no, yet Putin seems to think differently.
The biggest difference between the two modern-day countries that unravels a lot of Putin’s argument are their political climate and aims. Their Democracy Index scores are telling: Russia sits at 3.81, well within the ‘authoritarian regime’ categorisation, whereas Ukraine’s score of 5.81 places it near the ‘flawed democracy’ band, a band it would likely sit in were it not for Russia’s past interferences. Ukraine’s aspirations of enhancing its democracy, joining NATO and applying to join the EU in 2024 could not be further from Putin’s goals of preserving his own rule, expanding his own sphere of influence, severely limiting Russia’s democracy, and infringing on the sovereignty of his neighbours to the south and west. His statement that ‘modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era’ is shown to be deeply flawed. Ukraine shares far fewer political traits with the Soviet Union than Russia; whilst the Soviet-era orders and concepts such as the oligarchy still feature in both countries, the former is working towards distancing itself from this past whereas the latter tends to embrace it.
Despite the reasoning that Putin voices in his article, the motivations behind Russia’s desire to control Ukraine are not solely political and cultural. It would also be militarily advantageous for Russia to control Ukraine. 95% of the country is very flat, meaning that a hypothetical military advancement into Russia by the West would not be hindered by mountains or hilly terrain. This layout facilitated the invasion of Russia in 1812 by Napoleon, during the 1853-6 Crimean War, and during both World Wars. It provided a big motivation for Stalin to retain control over Eastern Europe following the end of the Second World War. It also explains the motivation behind statements such as that of Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, who said that ‘it’s absolutely mandatory to ensure that Ukraine never, ever becomes a member of NATO’; even if the last thing on Western leaders’ minds right now is the invasion of Russia, the Russian government would fear their capability to do so in the future.
So, all this said, what will likely happen? When deciding his next actions, Putin will have to carry out a balancing act. On the one hand, Putin’s instinct will tell him to invade. His historical and cultural convictions demand that Russia does not suffer the humiliation of yet more of its neighbours falling under the West’s sphere of influence. Russia is militarily superior to Ukraine as well, having 2.9 million troops to Ukraine’s 1.1 million and a far larger array of military vehicles, tanks and planes. Putin has options regarding the manner of the invasion. Troops are massed on the Russia-Ukraine border, however a joint Russian military exercise with ally Belarus in February, whose border is only 100 miles from Kyiv, could also provide the perfect cover for an invasion.
On the other hand, his intellect will tell him that there will be dire consequences for Russia should he invade. Putin may brush off Biden’s threat of personal sanctions against him in the threat of an invasion, however he may struggle to deflect the ‘unprecedented sanctions’ promised by the West as easily. These could range from blacklisting Russian banks, ‘dollar clearing’ preventing Russian companies from trading in dollars, targeted export controls restricting the sale of key commodities to Russia, and blocking Russian access to international debt markets. They could also involve the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas line that goes to Germany and the booting out of Russia from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) which regulates international banking. These measures would have a huge impact on Russia’s economy and ability to trade, and they would come on top of the impact of sanctions that were imposed in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Crimea pushed Putin’s luck; Ukraine could force it over the edge.
Only time will tell Putin’s actions. But he would be wise to also remember the time he lives in. A large majority of the Ukrainian people believe in the democratic system of government, and closer relations with the West. It is irrational to declare that present-day problems can be solved by historical reasoning and justifications. He does not live in the past, and neither do the Ukrainian people.
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