For the past three years, the United States has been captivated by the Donald Trump Presidency and the various attempts by Democrats to impeach and remove Trump from office. While Democrats and Republicans argue over the legitimacy of the phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky and the Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, most are ignoring the backdrop for both issues, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Ukraine became an independent nation after being a part of the Soviet Union for nearly 100 years in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, Ukraine has fought to find its own identity in an increasingly complex international community. During its formal process to free itself from the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian people voted in favor of independence by over 90%, showing the nation was ready to regain its own course.
However for the next 25 years, the country would be plagued by countless corruption from the top to the bottom. In 2004, Ukraine was faced with a major political crisis with the presidential election between Viktor Yanukovych, the incumbent Prime Minister who was supported by Russia, and Viktor Yushchenko, who called for Ukraine to have closer ties to the west and the European Union. In the first election Yanukovych won, but Yushchenko and his supporters took the streets in what became known as the Orange Revolution, claiming Yanukovych committed massive fraud. After a new election, Yushchenko came out on top.
During Yushchenko’s term, Ukraine’s relations with Russia became strained. But Yanukovych made a come back in the 2010 election, and was able to pull off an upset victory when Yushchenko split votes with his former ally turned rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.
As expected, the Yanukovych years were full of corruption and frustrations, with Yanukovych making moves to consolidate power and move closer to Russia. One such move was the subsequent arrest and conviction of Tymoshenko, which was condemned by the west. However, Tymoshenko’s arrest and conviction and Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement in November of 2013 led to mass protests across Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The protests would last for three more months, and went as far as the occupation of various government buildings across Kiev, and even a fight in the Ukrainian Parliament.
At the end of February, Yanukovych fled Ukraine, fearing for his safety and seeing the writing on the wall. His destination? Russia. After Yanukovych left, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove him from power. But it was the next steps that put Eastern Europe in the position it is in today.
After Yanukovych fled, armed, unmarked men began taking control and setting up checkpoints in the Crimean Peninsula. These men were quickly identified as Russian military as they moved to take control of the Simferopol and Sevastopol ports, the latter which was home to a Russian naval base. The international community quickly took notice, but the Russians acted quickly, and leadership in Crimea announced that it would hold a referendum in the coming days to secede from Ukraine. With over 95% of the vote going to leaving Ukraine and joining Russia, the international community and Ukraine were understandably suspicious.
Shortly after the referendum, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is no stranger to winning by suspicious margins, announced shortly after the vote that Russia would annex Crimea. While Putin spoke, denouncing the west and swearing that Ukraine was failing to protect Russians in Crimea, a Ukrainian soldier became the first casualty in the coming conflict at an army base in Simferopol.
(Above: Map shows Ukraine and its surrounding borders, along with highlighting Crimea. Source: NBC News)
While the international community spoke up and raised concerns, it was obviously not enough to deter further Russian aggression. During the Crimea crisis, demonstrations began in Donbass, an eastern province of Ukraine that shares the border with Russia and boasts a heavy pro-Russian presence. In late March, Russia began a massive buildup of military forces as the demonstrations turned violent, with the demonstrators not only growing in number but also becoming surprisingly well equipped. The international community consensus was that Russia both armed these insurgents, and provided additional insurgents in the form of Russian soldiers.
Tensions continued to boil at the Russian-Donbass border through the summer, while conflict was present in small scale skirmishes across the region, a full scale Russian invasion seemed imminent…until July 17, 2014.
On July 17, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it crossed over the Donbass region. Authorities lost contact with the plane approximately 30 miles from the Ukraine-Russia border, and the wreckage was eventually found 25 miles from the border. Immediately, the international community knew the plane was shot down during the fighting in the region. The question was who was responsible.
It didn’t take long for the investigation to uncover that the plane was shot down from an anti-aircraft missile located in Russian territory. Ukraine, Australia and the Netherlands, the nations most involved in the investigation, would later blame professional soldiers from Russia who fired the missile. After the downing of the plane, the Russian buildup slowed, but the fighting continued.
However, the slowing would only last for the remainder of the month. In August, Russian forces began to move into Ukraine. Russia covered the invasion up by claiming that the servicemen in question were “on vacation” in the Donbass region. But by the middle of August, the Russian Human Rights Commission acknowledged that over 100 Russian soldiers had been killed in the fighting in Ukraine.
The situation would only continue to get worse throughout the month, with Russia moving artillery and tanks into the region.
(Above: Map of the Ukraine-Russia conflict zones. Credit: Ukraine National Security and Defence Council, BBC News)
By the end of August, new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared Russia’s actions in Ukraine to be an invasion. By the end of the month, the conflict spilled over into the neighboring Luhansk and Donetsk regions as well as the city of Mariupol. In early September, Poroshenko announced that he had reached a ceasefire agreement with Putin, but Russia denied the ceasefire, noting they were not even involved in the conflict, dispute irrefutable proof.
In November of 2014, NATO forces confirmed that the Russians had indeed violated the ceasefire and the war was not only ongoing, but escalating with more tanks, artillery and troops entering Ukraine.
To this day, the war continues to rage on behind the scenes. The Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker estimates that as of December 17, 2019 more than 10,000 civilians had been killed in the conflict, and over 1.5 million people had been displaced. These numbers are expected to fluctuate as international observers still struggle to gain full access due to ongoing conflict.
US, International Response
Publicly, the international community response to the Russian invasion has been overwhelmingly in support of Ukraine. Behind the scenes, world leaders have been more timid due to the power Russia continues to hold over Europe.
In the United States, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Congress immediately pledged support to Ukraine, promising $1 billion in aid. A number of nations, including the United States, Canada and France also pushed for shows of force and the deployment of additional ground and air units to Poland to counter Russia’s growing aggression.
But it is worth noting a number of units that were moved to Poland had been there before, but were removed at the start of the Obama administration to reduce tensions with the Russians.
After Russia annexed Crimea, they were immediately suspended from the G8, and faced debate in the UN Security Council, though nothing would ever come of UN debate due to Russia’s veto power on the council.
Individually, a number of nations, including the United States pushed heavy economic sanctions on the Russian government, financial institutions and a number of Russian oligarchs who support Putin and hold power in the nation. This, however, has not pushed the Russians back, and many believe that the Obama Administration was not firm enough on the Russians.
The Trump Administration’s Response
When Donald Trump campaigned for President, he promised to take a tougher stance on Ukraine. Under President Trump and the Republican Congress, US aid to Ukraine has fluctuated. In 2016, the US gave approximately $513 million, a drop to $359 million in 2018, and a scheduled increase up to around $400 million in 2019. It is this aid that has been the subject of the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Despite the lower amounts, former Administration officials testified that the nature of the aid has changed, giving Ukraine more substance and military armaments, which the Ukrainians have requested. The same officials also testified that new Ukrainian President Zelensky was optimistic about what President Trump could do for Ukraine.
Many Democrats in the House and the Senate have claimed that the Trump Administration has not been strong enough on Russia, and that instead Trump is giving Putin whatever he wants. The facts of what the Trump Administration has done legislatively and through sanctions however does not back this claim up.
Putin’s Actions and the Russian Propaganda Machine
The biggest question for the international community is why is Russia is Russia pursuing these actions in Ukraine? The answer is simple, Vladimir Putin.
Putin, a former KGB officer who first became President of Russia in 2000, has one major goal in mind: restoring Russia to the very same glory it held under the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union fell, the Russians didn’t just lose territory, but a significant amount of prestige on the world stage. Putin’s actions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria show The Russians are ready to be a major player on the world stage yet again. For Putin, a show of force is the best way to continue to assert his control over Russia and its powerful oligarchs. A country is hardly more united then when it is in a war to protect its own citizens.
To achieve this, the Russians have pursued massive propaganda and disinformation campaigns in Georgia (which they invaded in 2008), Ukraine and even in the United States. BBC News notes that a number of videos pushing far right, anti-Russian and pro-Ukraine propaganda, designed to make ethnic Russians in Ukraine feel threatened, were created by a troll farm in St. Petersburg, similar to the ones used to push disinformation during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign.
This idea that ethnic Russians are “threatened” has been Moscow’s main point in arguing that military action in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea is justified, and has remained a sticking point in the conflict since 2014.
How To Stop The Conflict
The lack of a strong response from the international community was partially due to a certain amount of control that Russia holds over the European Union: natural gas supply. Earlier this year, the LA Times reported that the European Union gets over 50% of its gas supply directly from Russia, with other pipelines running through Ukraine. European powerhouse Germany is one of the biggest recipients of Russian gas, which is why Angela Merkel has been quiet on Russian aggression.
In order to stand tall against Russian aggression, the United States must play the biggest role. If the United States were to move to be not only the number one exporter of gas to Europe, but overwhelming the top exporter. Thankfully under President Trump and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry the United States has done just with, with energy exports increasing by nearly 300% during this administration.
(Above: Graphic shows the Nord Stream 2 Russian gas pipeline, which was completed in the early 2010s, and has raised concerns across the international community. Credit: LA Times, Paul Duginski)
Furthermore, the US and Europe must be united in both calling out Russian aggression when it occurs and when the Russians continue their actions, as well as stand united with Ukraine. During the House Intelligence Committee hearings on impeachment, a number of US officials with Ukraine in their portfolio have stated their public support for newly elected President Zelensky. President Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Merkel must stand tall with Zelensky to proclaim the defense of Ukraine’s independence and denounce Russian aggression.
Finally, the United States and its allies must continue to support the Ukrainians through military arms and aid. If Ukraine’s allies abandon it, then the Russians will either quickly overwhelm the Ukrainians or force the government to move closer to Russia. One of the most effective ways to ensure this defense is to approve Ukraine’s requests to join NATO and the European Union. In the European Union, Ukraine would enjoy significant financial benefits. In NATO, they would benefit from increased military cooperation and the ability to activate Article 5, the collective defense clause, if Russia were to launch a full invasion.
Conclusion: An Important Conflict
I believe that in 20 years time, historians will look back at this time frame and note that the United States and Russia were in another Cold War, centered in Ukraine and Syria. Vladimir Putin’s hunger for power will not stop until he is out of office, which does not appear to be close as he continues to subvert the alleged laws of the Russian Federation to give himself more power and more time in office. Therefore, it is vital that Putin’s aggression is met with world leaders who will not back down.
While direct conflict with Russia is not the proper course, to allow Putin to steamroll through Asia and Europe would have disastrous consequences. Putin has already shown with his interference in the US elections that he is playing a long term and wide spread game of chess, and he is winning. But he can be stopped if the world is able to come together and stop these games.
Just this past week, French President Macron held a peace summit with Zelensky and Putin in Paris, and noted how big of a step it was just to have the sides sitting down at the same table for talks. Macron and Zelensky should be weary of anything Putin says, but be proud of this positive step.
The next year, and the 2020 Presidential Election in the United States will be a vital step for not only the United States, but also Russia and Ukraine. Will Russia yet again sew discord in the American electorate? Will Americans see through Russia’s actions and ensure that their President is someone who will hold Russia accountable? Will whoever takes the oath of office in January of 2021 stand with Ukraine? These are questions that can make or break this conflict, and it is incredibly important that the American people keep that in mind when heading to the polls in the next year.
But for now, the world is watching, and the conflict continues between Russia and Ukraine, even if we don’t see it ourselves.
For more on Russia, Ukraine and other foreign policy issues, check out my latest book America 2020: The Grand American Political Landscape. Available on Amazon!