Ukraine: Between Europe and Russia

This conflict in Ukraine is a mix of geopolitical and old soviet rivalry roots

When European Union was formed it was seen as integrating platform for all European nations and as former soviet nations started to catch up with the rest of Europe all was looking good until 2013 when the president of Ukraine took a step that put Ukraine in a bloody conflict; and with more than 10000 dead things in Ukraine don’t look good. For a better understating of the situation in Ukraine, we need to dig a bit for a clearer picture. It all started with the man called Victor Yanukovich who was appointed as President of Ukraine in 2010 until he resigned in 2014 following the months long protest. Ukraine had been slowly coming out of the Soviet influence and was pursuing deeper political and economic ties with European Union until there was a setback in 2013 that turned violent. Ukraine and European Union signed an agreement that would make Ukraine a part of a larger European circle that would allow visa-free travel for Ukrainians within the European Union, visa-free work, and would remove trade barriers between the two counties. This agreement came to be known as European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement. This agreement would have lifted Ukraine's economy along with more opportunities for Ukrainians in Western Europe. Under this deal, Ukraine’s oil exports would have increased significantly to many western and central European countries that otherwise rely on Russia for imports. As with many other former soviet nations Ukraine had to meet the EU law and regulation for it to become fit for the agreement. As Russia saw Ukraine getting close to the EU it started to cut supplies from Ukraine that results in over $ 1 billion loss to Ukraine’s economy. What should have been a game-changing deal for Ukraine and its plaguing economy was turned down by president victor Yanukovich instead of pursuing closer ties with Russia. This became the first step towards long and a brutal conflict in Ukraine that would rage on for years to come. After the deal was dropped by Yanukovich's government protests erupted across Ukraine against the President and at many places it turned extremely violent results in deaths and injuries. A series of continuous protests were held across Ukraine against the government's decision not to sign the Pro EU agreement, which spanned over months and caused widespread Anti Government feelings within Ukraine. Initially, these demonstrations were mostly against the government's decision to not forge stronger ties with the EU but later there scope widened with demands of resignation from President Victor Yanukovich along with new elections. As President Yanukovich saw the situation worsening he left the Capital Kiev for Kharkiv in the eastern part where was more popular. But in 2014 Russia took a very bold step that drew international criticism by annexing Crimea. Crimea is in the southern region of Ukraine but people there are ethnically Russian.

Ukraine was one of the most important parts of the old Soviet Union and entire Eastern Europe acted as a buffer between Russia and Western Europe. So when Eastern European nations declared their independence from Russia it was a new threat for Russia to counter as NATO could plant their bases close to Russia border in Eastern Europe. Poland became first nation and with that more and more nations either joined the EU or NATO. As Ukraine was getting closer to the EU it worried Russia and it started to meddle in Ukraine's internal affairs. This has always been the trend as Russia has always been skeptical to accept Ukraine as an independent sovereign state and still considers it as part of a larger Russian empire; people there are mostly of Russian stock and still entrenched in Russian culture. This was reflected in the protest in Ukraine after the pro-Russian move.

For us to understand the importtance of this move we need to know the ethnic composition of Ukraine. Ukraine has a deep division between two ethnic communities, one is Ukrainians and the other are Russians. Roughly 50-55 % population speaks Ukrainian and 40-45% speak Russian. The eastern part is dominated by Russian speaking and the western and the capital Kyiv is Ukrainian dominant. So this division becomes very visible during the Euro maiden demonstration in Ukraine. While the protest was going on in the western half of Ukraine, in the eastern part Russia was slowly sending its troops along with ammunition, tanks, and heavy build up on the Ukraine eastern border and that is where most of the fighting has been going on for years.

Then in March 2014, the situation was tense after Russia annexed Crimea. Pro-Russian separatist in Donbas seized the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, and declared them independent from Ukraine. Very soon Ukrainian army tried to take back the region and the fight started between Russia-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army. This led to continuous fighting between the two sides. Later the Russian army also joined the separatists to fight alongside the Ukrainian army. Then in 2014 came a huge crisis when a Malaysian airline was hit near the Ukrainian airspace and later it was revealed by many investigations that a Russian-made air to surface missile was used to target the plane. It brought NATO and Russia at odds with each other and situation escalated. To diffuse the tensions the two sides agreed on a peace deal in 2015 Known as Minsk 2, which laid down the rules for peace in the security zone. It banned the use of heavy artillery and foreign militaries including Russian were to leave the Ukrainian soil. But very little was accepted of the Minsk 2 by both sides and fighting continued. Russia sent its troops and money to strengthen the separatists while many militias and far-right groups joined to help the Ukrainian army, most of them funded by the Ukrainian politicians and the oligarchy.

This tactic has allowed Russia to destabilize Ukraine and to derail its economy. Ukraine’s budget has been redirected towards fighting the separatists in the two regions that declared independence from Ukraine i.e. Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). Meanwhile, Russia has categorically denied any involvement in Ukraine but its troops have been present there since 2013. Russia has ensured that the separatists and rebel groups of LPR and DPR get a continuous supply of ammunition and arms while prolonging the conflict.

Russia and Ukraine have tough relations as it has been going on since its independence. Russia has always interfered in the internal affairs of its ex soviets states, like Georgia and now Ukraine. It has some worrying aspect to it as Russia's fear of an eastward NATO expansion may come true. But there are other aspects to it as well. One of them being gas. Close to 80% of all-natural gas supplied to the EU comes from Russia through Ukraine and many times there has been frequent interruption from Ukraine to this gas supply. Ukraine was a bridge between the EU and Russia due to gas supply passing through it and it placed it in a very powerful position to negotiate a good deal, both from EU and Russia. This left Russia with a deep crisis as it was a major disaster for the Russian economy. Not only this, but many times in the past Ukrainian government deliberately diverted gas pipeline to its domestic supplies to meet their domestic demand. The state-owned Gas Company Naftogaz has become a behemoth in the deal between the Russia and EU. Ukraine itself doesn’t supply and has no reserves but still over $ 2 Billion annually from the Russian movement to facilitate the gas from Russia to the EU. Russia, to cut Ukraine and its hegemony, tried to bypass the traditional supplies of gas and shifted to a new one. Nord Stream 1 could carry the gas through the Baltic Sea directly to Germany and other routes that will pass through Turkey. Within few years the traditional supplies will become redundant as more and more work is done on the new one. This conflict and war in Ukraine have a mix of geopolitical as well as old soviet rivalry roots. Until there was a Pro Russian government in Kyiv it was all good for Russia but anything westward would put Russia and its interest in deep trouble.

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