Written by Hannah Holtz, 10 FEB 2019
Russia has been on a global tear for power for most of recent history. The origins of this quest for global domination are long, complex, and for the purposes of this article, unimportant. The bottom line is this: Russia will stop at nothing to achieve worldwide dominance. This is not the story of why, but rather the story of how.
Ukraine is a nation in turmoil. It has only been twenty years since the dissolve of the U.S.S.R. and the declaration of Ukraine as an independent country. Geographically, Ukraine is dead-center between Europe and Russia, so there has been an eternal tug-of-war between the two powers. To which region should Ukraine pledge its allegiance? Leaders sought to solve this question with a deal between Ukraine and the European Union, seeking open trade and paving a potential path to EU membership. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, was not a fan of this deal. He pressured Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovitch with an Eastern European trade union of its own comprised of numerous former Soviet countries, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Armenia. Yanukovitch had a choice: was the future of Ukraine with the rest of greater Europe, or with Putin’s dream of a “Eurasian Union?” Ultimately, after reported increasing pressure from Putin, Yanukovitch backed out of the EU deal – and this is where the real conflict begins.
Facing massive protests from the citizens of Ukraine who had hoped for a European future, Yanukovitch fled the country, and leaders of the opposition stepped in. The interim government was very pro-West, which sparked action from the Russian government. Russian troops entered Crimea, a Ukrainian territory that was demographically Russian, to fan the flames, resulting in the claimed secession of Crimea and subsequent annexation by Russia (although Crimea is still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory). Protests and separatist movements broke out across Ukraine, resulting in a Russian-Ukrainian conflict that remains ongoing. Over 13,000 people have been killed and over 1.5 million have been displaced since 2013, and the region is at a stalemate.
Beyond the military distress Russia has caused in Ukraine, they have also interfered in Ukrainian politics. There is a direct correlation between Eastern European countries wanting to move away from Russia and move towards the West, and Russia getting involved in their politics, as we see in Georgia, Ukraine, and numerous other former Soviet countries. The most influential way they did this in Ukraine was by financing separatist movements, or “People’s Republics,” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine (known as the Donbass), in addition to their invasion of Crimea. Their eventual goal was to achieve what they called a “soft federalization” of Ukraine, essentially breaking the country into numerous regions they could exploit.
It started with a disinformation campaign, distributing propaganda portraying the pro-Western Ukrainian government as a U.S.-backed coup, implying the U.S. (and the Western world at large) was to blame for the economic and political instability and eventual war in Ukraine. Eventually, Russia was directly intervening in the political process, financing protests, propaganda, and communist candidates in the election process. Ukraine had been in an economic recession following the revolution, which gave Russia the opportunity to promote the “normalization of the economic situation of the enterprise” – code for returning to economic ties to Russia. They then paid off journalists to magnify support for pro-Russian policies and candidates, ensuring Putin’s reach extended into Ukraine proper.
By the end of 2015, Russia had forced Ukraine into proposing constitutional amendments to give the Donetsk and Luhansk regions de facto independence in exchange for a ceasefire in the Donbass, in what was called the Minsk Agreements. Russia also wanted Ukraine to declare neutrality between the West and Russia; this would effectively give Russia control over the Donbass region while ensuring the rest of Ukraine never became part of the Western world. However, the Ukrainian government rejected the amendments, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine remains ongoing.
Ukraine has often been viewed as a “testing ground” for Russian interference in other countries. However, it’s evident Putin has a specific affection for Ukraine. It’s unclear exactly what Russia hopes to gain from Ukraine, but whatever it is, they will stop at nothing to get it. In the articles to come in this series, we’ll explore and try to explain the specifics and the highlights in the ongoing struggle for power in Ukrainian territory between Russia, Ukraine, and the west.