The Ukraine Crisis: Underlying Factors and Future Projections

Mahbubur Rahman | 05 February 2022
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The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic was dissolved in 1991. With the dissolution, the dominance of the Russian Federation was reduced to a great extent. Along with the Russian Federation, 14 more post-soviet countries emerged as independent nations. The collapse was not a delightful experience for the Russians; instead, they saw it as a western invasion of their unity. Among those 14 countries, Ukraine was different and special to them. So, their separation from Ukraine was hurtful for the Russian leadership. Russians, especially President Vladimir Putin, never considered Ukraine as a different entity. Even a few days ago, Vladimir Putin referred to the Russians and Ukrainians as one people - a single whole. And the most important thing is, he did not say it in the heat of the moment; he firmly believes it. Recently in an article titled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians," he even tried to justify and logically establish the reason for his means in the Ukrainian territory.

The two countries have cultural, language, and religious ties which go beyond ancient times. Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, holds significant value as the Ancient Rus central point. Most of the people near the Russian border speak Russian and have stronger ties with the former Soviet identity. So back in 2014, during the Ukrainian political unrest, the Russian military took the opportunity to invade the South-Eastern peninsula of the country and gave backing to separatist forces who gained control of a portion of the eastern Ukraine. This move by Putin successfully created a vibe of nationalism in Russia, which compensated for Putin's fear during the 2012 Election of Russia. So, when under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Crimea was annexed, a majority of Russians were happy about the move. The approval ratings of President Putin rose from 60 to over 80 percent, significant considering the previous few years.

Ukraine shares a large border with Russia, almost one-third of its total border length, including 321 kilometers (199 miles) of sea border. It stretches from a point in the Black Sea 22.5 kilometers (14.0 miles) south of the Kerch Strait, where the territorial waters of both states first come into contact, to the north of the strait, passing through the Sea of Azov to a point on the coast that leads to the land border, and on to the tripoint with Belarus to the north. The 2014 Crimean annexation has changed Russia's previously weaker strategic posture in the Black Sea and benefitted Russia in showcasing dominance. It concluded the restrictions imposed by Ukraine on the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet and the fleet's main harbor at Sevastopol, which was given as lease to Russia by Ukraine. According to the 2010 agreement, Russia's choice was limited. But the annexation guaranteed Russian de facto control over the Kerch Strait and, consequently, the Sea of Azov, and it expanded Russia's de facto shoreline on the Black Sea to 1,200 kilometers from 421 kilometers, with an addition of almost 500 kilometers of coastline in the Azov Sea. This attempt to achieve geopolitical dominance gave Russia an advantage over NATO and Ukraine in this particular area.

Three Baltic Post-Soviet states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are already members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. So, the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO means there will be an increased presence of the activities of NATO in the east. Russia - the largest single deliverer of natural gas to the EU feels to keep its continued dominance in the region and see the western expansion as a threat for them.

Another aspect of the Russian aggression in the Ukrainian territory is Putin's biggest fear, Western democracy. The latest public opinion survey initiated by the International Republican Institute's (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research (CISR) in Ukraine shows that, when asked about joining an international economic union, 58% of Ukrainians chose the EU. Only 21% preferred joining a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. If a referendum were held on joining NATO, 54% of people said they would vote to join the military alliance. So, with the presence of western ideology, a more democratic Ukrainian government may bring an idea to the people of Russia of how a culturally-similar country can be alternatively governed and empowered.

The recent tensions on the border and deployment of around 100,000 Russian troops in the eastern border of Ukraine escalated tensions of war, which will be costly not only for the two countries but also for the global market. According to International Grains Council data, Ukraine will be the third-largest exporter of corn in the global market within 2021/22 season and the fourth-largest exporter of wheat, while Russia is the top wheat exporter. Any interruption to grain flow out of the Black Sea region will significantly impact prices and accelerate the ongoing food inflation. Europe is dependent on Russia for around 35% of its natural gas, a large portion of it coming through the pipelines that cross Belarus and Poland to Germany. Among them, Nord Stream 1 goes directly to Germany, running under the Baltic Sea, and rests through Ukraine. So, any clash in the region can impact the supply, causing a price hike in the global market.

As the tension escalates, the necessity of a diplomatic breakthrough has been essential. West has warned Russia about the consequences. However, it is unlikely that west is going to accept the expensive demands from Russia. Ukraine's membership in NATO is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but Russia's desire to remove NATO forces from Eastern Europe is not going to be met. There is a slight possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion in Kyiv. Along with diplomatic effort, Military preparedness is a must. Till now, Ukraine feels the allied support to be satisfactory. The military power of Ukraine has also been developed in the past eight years. According to a research by Global Gunpower, Ukraine has around 1.1 million troops ready to defend the country, although most of them are reserved forces. Nevertheless, Russia has to rethink the casualty and consequences before declaring a full-scale invasion. 

If Russia could attack and annex the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 in front of the nose of the United Nations and NATO, it can do it again in 2022. The people of Ukraine are living in limbo for the past eight years, uncertain of their future, and tense for their families, lives, and country. According to a poll from September 2021 by RBC-Ukraine, 81% of the Ukrainians expressed a negative attitude about President Putin. As Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian MP, said in an interview in Channel 4 News, Ukrainians really want one thing: the interference of Russia to be stopped and allowed to develop as a freestanding sovereign nation, which they actually deserve.

Mahbubur Rahman, Research Assistant, Centre for Governance Studies.

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.