A Comprehensive Explainer on the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict
Poor Otto von Bismarck. The notorious chancellor and unifier of Germany, famed for his skillful handling of the complex international relations in the 19th century, seemed to have been possibly vindicated for the third time. In one of his last correspondences and quips made available to the general public, the veteran statesman hypothesized that a possible conflagration between the major powers will always have its origins “somewhere in Eastern Europe, specifically in the remote Balkans.” Such remarks proved to be correct in both the First and Second World Wars, and perhaps this time, it may find itself relevant yet again, over 100 years later.
To understand the dynamics of the Eastern European states and their relationship with each other both in civilian and military ties is a tedious process that needs an entire stack of articles dealing with the topic. What’s happening in Ukraine right now is decades in the making, and one article, or even one documentary, is hardly enough to summarize everything that led to this moment.
What we can do, however, is to present a sort of explainer, organized according to the guide questions that are to be highlighted: for these matters are so convoluted, so prone to controversies and so dependent on one’s perspective that giving a “nuanced” account is akin to walking on a tight rope. For brevity’s sake, while not sacrificing the context and the purpose of this piece, here is a summarized background of the entire affair as it is currently unfolding.
What's the deal with Russia, Ukraine, and NATO?
NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was established in the late 1940s with the clear intent of shielding its member states from external aggression. While this is the official line for its founding, one can also interpret that NATO’s purpose is a militaristic modification of the Marshall Plan, a series of aid packages endowed by the U.S. to its European allies, which were used to recapitalize their economies, ruined by a decade of warfare in WWII. Initially, the Soviet Union was offered to join, but it said no due to its assumption that it was nothing more but a ploy to weaken their polity and make America the all-powerful hegemon. Nevertheless, this did not prevent Soviet interest in NATO, for they even tried to apply as a partner, which was obviously refused by the U.S. on the grounds that the Soviets only wanted to delay the purpose of the institution.
In response, the Soviet Union formed its own bloc known as the Warsaw Pact, though much later, with the official intent of being similar to NATO. And while the Cold War was hot in other places like in Asia or in Latin America, there was a lull over Europe, as all factions were aware that if a major war was to be conducted, there will be nothing but mutually assured destruction. Save for the Berlin airlift of 1948, the continent was pretty quiet, though activities by intelligence agencies like the CIA and the KGB continued to be widespread.
By the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was folding, there were informal talks with the West on the guarantee that if the Soviet allies were to abandon them, there will be no assurance of NATO expansion. While there was no coherent agreement to seal the deal, there is an understanding that if peace was to be maintained, a restraint on NATO was needed. This topic continues to generate controversy, as this issue is often used by Russia to strongarm its way to the negotiating table.
In fact, there was even a short period wherein the abolition of NATO or some sort of reform was entertained as part of the peace dividend proposal; of converting the massive expenditures in military budgets to civilian purposes. Such a discourse lost its momentum when Yugoslavia fragmented into various bickering countries. NATO’s purpose was thus renewed, and it was directed against Serbia, then ruled by Slobodan Milosevic, who presided a regime known for genocide, concentration camps for the Bosniaks, and flagrant violations of the Geneva Conventions. The airstrike on its capital Belgrade in 1999 was seen as a turning point.
Fast forward to the 2000s, NATO had considerably expanded to include the Baltic republics, Poland, Romania, Czechia, Slovakia, and Slovenia; all were former associates of the Warsaw Pact. In this scenario, under the new administration of Vladimir Putin, the Russian state began to view these developments with alarm, though since this is the 2000s, such concerns are alleviated by the necessity of conducting the War on Terror contra the Islamic extremists like the Al-Qaeda, in cooperation with the United States and even China. So, for a while, issues about Ukraine, a newly independent state, and its future were put on hold as a bigger threat united these great powers together.
The Warsaw Pact was dissolved in July 1991. By December, the Soviet Union fell and the independent nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were formed.
When did the crisis emerge?
The conditions began to go down south when a color revolution in Ukraine in the mid-2000s led to the installation of a pro-Western government. In 2007-2008, Georgia followed suit, and it culminated in a short belligerency with Russia. Tensions however came to a head in 2013, when the pro-Russian government in that era scrapped the planned membership with the European Union, which triggered an insurrection against them. Russia in turn, made its intentions clear that it will not accept a Ukraine within the NATO or EU sphere of influence. A series of attacks and seizure of military installations by proxy militias backed by Moscow would spur the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing tumult in the Donbass, formerly known as the Donets region during the days of the former USSR.
During 2014 and 2015, a series of documents known as the Minsk Protocols were ratified, which stipulated the release of POWs, cessation of fighting, and even a possible peace process. This would last for six years, as Russia began to mass its troops again. Its reasons for doing so are due to the Ukrainian interest in joining NATO formally, and with the speed of its request a matter of concern for Russian interests, openly provocative exercises and mobilizations were conducted as a consequence. The recent updates on this affair are heightened by Putin’s recognition of the two breakaway regions (Donetsk and Luhansk) that have seceded from Ukraine since the mid-2010s, and his earlier claim that Russia and Ukraine are “brotherly” realms.
The recent Russian assertions of its sphere of influence are a reversal to what it had done in the 90s during the term of Boris Yeltsin. Widely viewed as a puppet of the foreigners in his native country, Yeltsin is blamed for the disintegration of not only the law in 90s Russia, he is also pointed as the reason for the decline of its prestige and the emergence of a powerful oligarchy behind it. Putin’s rise is a consequence of this perceived degradation, as he is able to force the élites to heel and made Russia stable, at the expense of its neophyte democracy.
The borderland of Donbas is a historically significant region of the former Soviet Union. Today, it is made up of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, two breakaway states near Russia.
What are the possible motivations for the Russian demands, and what could Putin gain from it?
The answer for this is simple, at least from the Russian point of view. The expansion of NATO is interpreted as a dagger pointed to its sovereignty. Furthermore, as early as the rule of the Tsars, the Russian state considered itself to be a guardian of Eastern Europe, most notably of the Orthodox religion.
It can also be related to economics. Since 2014, the barrage of sanctions upon Moscow is beginning to be felt: Russia had to offset the losses by importing Western products via Belarus, which is not affected by the ban, and an aggressive campaign of selling arms in Latin America and Southeast Asia. This is able to partially remedy its woes, though not enough to recapture the high economic growth rates that Russia had enjoyed in the initial years of Putin’s administration.
Hypothetically, a Ukraine closer to the Western orbit is a rival to Russia, most especially within the energy sector. If Ukraine either becomes a NATO or an EU member, its vast gas facilities and resources can supplant whatever Russia is supplying at the time being. Russia so far is the fifth largest provider of energy to Europe, and a decrease of its prominence will be seen by Moscow as an attack on its livelihood. While America has promised its colleagues that they intend to increase its output to satisfy the European demand, it is only partially successful, as it is likewise beset by its own supply crisis, the waves of unionization in its laborers, and the Great Resignation in its workplaces.
A Soviet propaganda poster that paints Donbas as the heart of the former USSR.
Will Ukraine join NATO at this point, irrespective of the developments on the ground?
Yes. There is no turning back for Ukraine now. The 2014 insurrection, known as the Euromaidan, is seen by Moscow as a likely outcome for its eventual and possible fate in the near future. Putin, who is suffering from declining approval ratings in recent months, is desperate to cling to his authority. But, since Putin is so pervasive in Russian society, the vast majority of its people are unsure as to who will be his successor. Either way, both governments are acting with their cards stacked and hedged in opposition to one another.
Will this squabble lead to an escalation that can trigger a full-scale invasion of Ukraine itself?
So far, the effects are still mild. The only thing of broad concern is the repercussions on the oil sector. It is already evident that oil prices are already jittering and the business community is anxious about what will happen next. However, the stocks of arms manufacturers have risen, thus implying a greater surge of its priorities. Oil prices have surged as well, which will bring temporary gains for Moscow’s energy sector, despite the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
So, what now?
The present clash of Ukraine and Russia is not only a matter of a regional dispute. The response of America and its partners has been already tested. So far, the U.S. is committed to pursuing the status quo, in which Ukraine must be allowed to join NATO, despite the recent surge of anti-interventionist sentiment within its borders. Washington is fully conscious that its actions in Ukraine will be reflected on the machinations of its competitors, most especially of China over the Asia-Pacific. As such, a resolute U.S. meddling in Ukraine is a necessity to keep the confidence of its brother and sister nations. Meanwhile, Ukraine is fully banking on the West to repel the Eastern threat.
The most interesting wildcards in this scenario will be Poland and Turkey; the former has assured that it will aid Kyiv if Belarus dares to strike from the north, while Turkey’s stance is also crucial because it can put pressure on the Russian front to its southern border and the Black Sea as well, for the United States is allowed by Ankara to anchor and sail freely across the Bosporus.
This is all that we can assess for now. The only thing that we can digest and peruse is that this foreign discord will have comprehensive effects in an increasingly globalized terrain. While we continue to yearn for peace, it is also important to keep in mind that war is around the corner, and may actually come to fruition. We hope that this will not be the case.