Updated: March 5, 2022 9:12:50 am
Increasing hostilities with Ukraine and the West is advantageous to Russia given the tattered relationship between the USA and its European allies, the domestic support for such an endeavour and Putin’s need for a popularity boost ahead of the 2024 Russian Presidential elections. But how do the Ukrainians perceive the current state of affairs, and what they are prepared to do in order to protect their national sovereignty?
When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic, had the third largest atomic arsenal in the world. Anticipating a friendly relationship with Moscow moving forward, Kyiv gave its considerable nuclear stockpile back to Russia in exchange for security guarantees that protected it from a potential Russian attack. At the time, Ukrainians had little to fear from Russia, especially given the fact that in a 1991 referendum, more than 83 per cent of Donbas residents and 54 per cent of Crimea residents voted to have Ukraine secede from the USSR. Even Russian speaking Ukrainians overwhelmingly supported Ukraine’s independence and following years of military and economic decline during the Cold War, Russia seemed to be a toothless power on the international stage.
However, between then and 2014, Russia ramped up its global standing and emerged as a considerable military power once again. As Ukraine veered towards the West, Moscow grew increasingly concerned that its strategic interests in Crimea were being threatened.
In 2014, Kremlin-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an association with the European Union (EU) in favour of closer ties with Moscow. This resulted in a series of protests across Ukraine, ending with Yanukovych’s removal from power the same year. Russia in turn responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and throwing its weight behind a separatist rebellion that broke out in eastern Ukraine.
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Immediately after the annexation, Ukraine seemed to have the upper hand. In response, Russia was forced to send a large part of its regular troops to Donbas in eastern Ukraine, succeeding in causing huge casualties on the Ukrainian side but ultimately failing to capture the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In a show of compromise, Ukraine and Russia adopted the Minsk Agreements in 2015 which stipulated that Russia must remove all its troops and machinery from Ukraine in exchange for Kyiv agreeing to hold special elections in Donbas. According to Ukrainian journalist, Olya Vorozhbyt, who spoke with indianexpress.com, Ukraine has held up its side of the bargain, even though Russia has not. “The Minsk agreements established a ceasefire,” Vorozhbyt notes, and “while Ukrainian soldiers have defended themselves, they haven’t actively attacked Russian soldiers or separatists.”
Conversely, Russia continued to adopt a series of unconventional tactics against Ukraine including cyber-attacks, funding and arming irregular militias, and spreading mass disinformation. Russia also installed puppet governments in Donetsk and Luhansk, creating military dictatorships in the occupied territories which were initially run by Russian citizens. Over time, the Kremlin began to change the narrative of the conflict, framing it as a Ukrainian civil war that Russia was involved in simply as a mediator. Ukrainians have staunchly rejected this notion. Vorozhbyt stresses that the conflict was between Ukraine and Russia and not nationalists and separatists.
Russia’s rationale behind supporting so-called Ukrainian separatists is bellied by its claim that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Putin has depicted Ukraine as the “holy Rus”, the birthplace and antecedent of the Russian state. In his writings in 2014 and 2021, Putin argued that Russians and Ukrainians were not just fraternal peoples, but one, single, united people, part of the same civilisation. This claim stems from the fact that in the late 18th century, Russia incorporated Crimea and the lands of the Black Sea region, which collectively came to be known as Novorossiya or New Russia.
However, Russians and Ukrainians have lived apart longer than they have lived together and, in a poll, conducted in 2021, 70 per cent of Ukrainians disagreed with the ‘one people’ claim. A report from the Brookings Institute further argues that Ukraine was a colony of Russia, much like India and America once were of the British. The fact that many Ukrainians speak Russian and parts of Ukrainian territory were incorporated into the Russian Empire is therefore “irrelevant” akin to any claim that the Brits may have over America due to their shared cultural similarities. However, the devils in the margins, and even with limited Ukrainian support, Russia can point to the interests of the few Russian ‘citizens’ in eastern Ukraine as justification for its involvement in the conflict.
Since 2014, over 14,000 people have been killed in the Donbas and an additional 1.4 million residents internally displaced, with approximately 75,000 of them fleeing to Russia.
Russia has gathered as many as 130,000 troops along different parts of the Ukrainian border with 30,000 troops stationed in Belarus (near Kyiv) alone. The Kremlin seems to be making all the preparations for war, including moving military equipment, medial units and blood to the front lines. Diplomatic talks between Russia and the West have thus far not yielded any solutions. Putin has issued a series of demands on Ukraine and NATO ranging from the removal of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, a guarantee that Ukraine will not be allowed to join the alliance, the granting of autonomy to the Donbas and a recognition that the conflict in Ukraine is a civil war. Those demands have been hotly rejected by all parties involved.
That brings us to the situation today and how it may escalate in the coming months. There are three main theories surrounding this debate. The first is that Russia will continue to destabilise eastern Ukraine without sending additional troops into the country. The second is that Russia may make a play for the Donbas, thus establishing a corridor between Russia and Crimea (and by extension, the strategically significant port of Sevastopol.) The third, and most concerning scenario, is that Russia may wage an all-out offence against Ukraine, including taking Kyiv and subsequently occupying the entire country.
If Russia pursues the first option, much like it has done in Azerbaijan and Georgia, Moscow could continue exerting its influence in Ukraine while prima facie denying its involvement in the conflict. Russia has already issued almost 200,000 passports to Ukrainians in the Donbas in a bid to exert pressure on Kyiv to grant the region autonomy. This would succeed in hurting Ukraine without occupying it and mitigate the risk of a full-blown conflict. Given that Ukraine is as large and populous as Afghanistan with over 300,000 people who have some form of military experience, the Kremlin may look to the past and determine that occupation is not the best route forward. Continuing to issue passports in the Donbas, while covertly supporting the separatist movement, would meet Russian foreign policy objectives while sparing Moscow from much needed international accountability. Vorozhbyt doubts the efficacy of such a strategy however, pointing to the fact that Ukrainians want to have both Crimea and the Donbas returned to them as a matter of state sovereignty. Whether or not they could contend with Russia’s asymmetrical tactics of warfare or amass the support of Western allies in doing so, is yet to be determined.
Another scenario is that Russia might seek to establish a land corridor to Crimea, by seizing 300km of territory along the Sea of Azov. To do so would require imposing massive costs on the government in Kiev including decimating its armed forces and destroying critical infrastructure. Russia could do this with or without placing troops on the ground. Similar to NATO’s airstrikes against Serbia in 1999, Russia could conceivably wage a “stand-off” war against Ukraine, using rocket launchers and cyber-attacks to undermine Ukrainian resistance.
A full-on invasion of Ukraine would be something Europe hasn’t seen in decades. Russia has amassed troops alongside Ukraine’s eastern border and more concerningly, has placed 30,000 troops in Belarus under the guise of routine military exercises. Were those troops to advance, Putin could take Donbas in the east and launch an attack on Kyiv in the west from Belarus. The US has estimated that such an attack would result in a civilian death toll exceeding 50,000.
However, Ukrainians have indicated that they would not take such hostility sitting down. A December survey by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology (KIS) found that 33.3 per cent of Ukrainians would put up armed resistance if Russia started large-scale military actions while a further 21.7 per cent said that they would participate in civil resistance in the form of protests, strikes and demonstrations. In January, the Ukrainian parliament wrote a law for national resistance, according to which, people across the country will be trained to resist Russian aggression. Russian occupation would thus encounter the sort of insurgency that the Russian military was unable to subdue in both Afghanistan and Chechnya, despite the brutality inflicted in both regions.
What is the likelihood of war?
In January 2022, the College of William and Mary, in association with the University of Denver, asked 362 International Relations scholars for their views on the Russia Ukraine crisis. The respondents expect Russia to use military force in Ukraine by a 3-1 margin, although many experts expressed uncertainty. When asked if Russia would use military force in the next year, 56 per cent of scholars said yes, and only 20 per cent said no. These assumptions have some basis in Russian popular opinion. For the past eight years, Russian public support for the Crimean takeover has hovered between 84 and 86 per cent. Another recent survey shows that 50 per cent of Russians blame the US and NATO for escalating tensions, while only 4 per cent blame the Kremlin. Moreover, two US officials have said that Russia has in place 70 per cent of the combat power it would need to occupy Ukraine.
That being said, only 25 per cent of Russians support the incorporation of the Donbas into Russia, while 26 per cent believe that the contested republics should remain within Ukraine. A report by the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute, together with the Institute for the Study of War also argues against the probability of a Russian invasion, insisting that the economic costs of such an endeavour would be more than the Kremlin is able to sustain. The report states that “Putin may be attempting a strategic misdirection that impales the West in a diplomatic process and military planning cycle that will keep it unprepared,” thus destabilising the country and dividing NATO without directly invading Ukraine. According to a recent KIS study, a slim majority of Ukrainians agree with this assessment. It found that only 48 per cent of Ukrainians believe that Russia will attack, however another poll by the Ramzukov Center in Ukraine, found that 71 per cent of Ukrainians think the country is already at war with Russia.
Another deterrent to war is how much Russia would struggle to retain the occupied territories. According to Vorozhbyt, “while perceptions of Russians by Ukrainians was quite high before 2014, when the aggression in Donbas started and Russia annexed Crimea, attitudes towards the Kremlin changed.” Since the outbreak of hostilities, Putin and his allies have repeatedly depicted Ukraine as a brotherly nation that has fallen under the control of extremist elements and foreign control. However, recent polling from the Ukranian Ratings Institute indicates that 72 per cent of Ukrainians consider Russia to be a “hostile state.” Even in separatist held parts of the Donbas, 55 per cent of respondents expressed a preference for being part of the Ukrainian state. In Donetsk and Luhansk, 65 per cent of residents wanted to see the Donbas reintegrated into Ukraine.
This change in perceptions is significant argues Vorozhbyt. Pointing to huge rallies in Russian speaking areas of Ukraine, she states that “even people who weren’t interested in politics are now more patriotic and anti-Russia,” a trend that is likely to continue. “The more aggressive Russia is, the more resistance Putin faces,” she adds.
This resistance holds firm from the top to the bottom. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky is adamantly opposed to Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine and his stance is validated by his landslide victory in 2019, winning the election with 73 per cent of the vote. It is noteworthy that Zelensky also won all of the constituencies in eastern Ukraine, despite the pro-Russian candidate initially having the upper hand. Leading Ukrainian newspapers are also resolute in their opposition to Russia, with one comparing the West’s inaction in Ukraine to the disastrous policy of appeasement pursued by UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin in response to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Speaking about the West, its role will also prove important. The EU and America have tolerated Russian aggression in Ukraine in the past but have seemingly drawn a red line against any escalations that would involve a direct attack.
Moscow has demanded that no former Soviet states be allowed to join NATO and has accused the West of flooding Ukraine with weapons and stoking tensions in the region. While Russia does have some legitimate security concerns, given that NATO was formed as an anti-Russian alliance, upon observation, the Kremlin’s claims seem unsubstantiated. Only five NATO countries neighbour Russia accounting for under 6 per cent of its total borders. Furthermore, European military spending has declined over the last few decades, relative to Russia and for its part, NATO has repeatedly declined calls for Ukrainian membership.
A December 2021 KIS survey found that 67 per cent of Ukrainians wanted to join the EU while 59 per cent want to join NATO. Three years ago, Ukraine even changed its constitution to include a pathway to those organisations as a part of the country’s future development. However, despite public support, Ukraine doesn’t seem likely to join NATO anytime soon. This view has been reiterated by the alliance and by President Biden, with both claiming that Ukraine must root out corruption and meet other development goals before it is considered for membership. This puts Kyiv in a tricky situation. By applying for NATO, it has annoyed Russia and now faces a hostile and powerful neighbour without any protections from the alliance.
Individual countries have pledged their assistance though, and if they maintain their current positions, it seems likely that Putin will have to account for Western support in any calculus for an invasion. In a press conference, Biden warned that “Russia will pay a heavy price” if it chooses to invade Ukraine. His administration has already approved an additional USD200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine, in addition to the USD450 million provided in the last fiscal year. Earlier this month, Biden directed the Pentagon to deploy more than 3000 American troops to bolster the defence of European allies.
However, only 15 per cent of American voters support troops being deployed to Ukraine, and therefore, the likelihood is that Washington will continue to provide monetary support and impose sanctions on the Russian economy, but will stop short of an active military involvement. Vorozhbyt believes that may be enough. She says that “the main thing that Ukraine needs from the West is more weapons, more sanctions and vocal public support.”
European nations have responded to Ukraine’s calls for assistance in various ways. In January, Britain began airlifting thousands of antitank missiles to Ukraine. Days before, Sweden rushed armoured vehicles to the island of Gotland. The BBC has also reported that Spain is sending warships to join NATO’s naval forces in the Mediterranean and Black Sea while French President Emmanuel Macron has offered to send troops to Romania. However, Germany, arguably the strongest European nation, has remained notably subdued. This is likely due to its reliance on Russian natural gas.
Vorozhbyt decries that Russia constantly uses gas as a weapon, alleging that German politicians like former Chancellor Schroder, have been “bought by Russia” due to their dealing with Russia’s largest energy company Gazprom (of which Schroder is a board member.) Reserving a significant amount of the blame on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, she asserts that “there is enough capacity to transport gas without Nord Stream 2, which is transparently a way to reroute gas transportation systems to bypass Ukraine.” Another Ukrainian publication argued that the Germans are literally financing Russia’s war on Ukraine, pointing to the fact that Russia’s foreign gas sales totalled USD54 billion in 2021, while its defence budget was USD62 billion.
Even though Russia has bolstered its economy against Western sanctions, halting the Nord Stream 2 project would have severe ramifications for its economy. While German politicians have muddied around the issue in the past, stating that the pipeline is private sector project, separate from Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz seemed to change his tune after meeting Biden at the White House this month. “If Russia invades…there will no longer (be) a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said during a joint press conference with Scholz. Asked specifically whether Germany was prepared to pull the plug on the pipeline, the Chancellor said, “we are absolutely united
According to Vorozhbyt, Ukraine is prepared for any and all eventualities. “My friends in Kyiv are packing their bags,” she says. “People are going to restaurants and cafes but over the weekend, they are training to fight against an invasion.” Vorozhbyt echoes what seems to be the public sentiment in Ukraine at the moment, stating that “people are calm, but they are also preparing for resistance and will not accept any more infringements upon the sovereignty of Ukraine.”
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