Russia-Ukraine explainer: How has Putin almost triggered World War III?

By Celeste Morton

IT ALL started at the turn of the millenium, when Putin took over Russia. The nation was recovering from the crisis that was triggered by the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent loss of great power status and economic ruin.

Having successfully pulled his country back from the brink and overseen its bounce back into the global geopolitical game, he essentially has made it his life’s work to make Russia great again.

The invasion of Ukraine is the latest, and arguably the most significant, event in the 22 years of Putin’s great power project. To understand this invasion, we must understand how we got here.

Putin’s view of Ukraine

Russia exerts a lot of influence on the “near abroad”: the former Union republics of the USSR, now all independent sovereign nations. Some of these countries have remained dictatorial and undemocratic, such as those in Central Asia. Some have transitioned successfully to democracy and EU membership, such as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Russia has particularly close relationships with Ukraine and Belarus. Linguistically and historically speaking, they are the most similar. Despite their over three decades of independence, Putin considers Ukraine and Belarus more as extensions of itself, and they function as the buffer zone between Russia and EU/NATO nations.

Lukashenko in Belarus is Putin’s closest ally, so Belarus isn’t seen as a threat. Putin views Ukraine’s desires for further democratisation and closer ties with the West as a threat to its power. There are several important moments in Ukraine’s recent history that show how this perceived threat has evolved over the years.

Ukraine democratisation

2004-2005 – Orange Revolution

After an election result electing Viktor Yanukovych was widely viewed as rigged, Ukrainians loudly opposed the result and demanded that opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko be elected instead.

Citizens protested peacefully in what has become known as the Orange Revolution. Civil disobedience, protests, and strikes took place until a revote was ordered by the Supreme Court of Ukraine. Yushchenko won the election and the revolution ended.

The Orange Revolution was viewed negatively in Russia and Belarus. Naturally, the idea of peaceful protest successfully ousting an unfairly elected leader is not an idea that Putin and Lukashenko want planted in the minds of the people.

2013-2014 Euromaidan

By now Yanukovych was president and he blocked the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, a piece of legislation that would have created closer political and economic ties between Ukraine and EU member states.

This would be an important step towards great European integration for Ukraine. By blocking this legislation, Yanukovych demonstrated his preference for closer ties with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. Unrest erupted in Kyiv and people protested agaienst what they viewed as rampant government corruption. Euromaidan led to another revolution – the Revolution of Dignity.

Both events saw civilian deaths and injuries, often at the hands of the police. Despite asking Russia for assistance, Yanukovych was overthrown and an interim government installed until free elections could be held. The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was signed by the new government.

2014 Annexation of Crimea

Yanukoych’s ousting was viewed by Russia as an illegal coup, and served as the impetus for Russia to use military force in Ukraine. In March 2014 Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine with great strategic importance, particularly to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Russian soldiers without insignia took control of Crimea, and Russia used its military presence and nuclear threats to strengthen its power on the ground. Russia claimed that Crimea desired autonomy and independence and to join the Russian Federation, as voted for in what is widely considered a rigged referendum.

Crimea and Sevastopol are technically now federal subjects of Russia, though they are viewed by most nations to be Ukrainian as the annexation is considered a violation of international law. The matter is complicated by the fact that ethnic Russians are the majority in the region.

2014- present – War in Donbas

The eastern Donbas region of Ukraine borders Russia and has been the site of an armed conflict since 2014. After Yanukovych’s government was overthrown, various anti-government protests took place in Eastern Ukraine, leading to two regions declaring independent – the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR).

These two regions, supported by Russia, entered into conflict with Ukrainian government forces. This is how Russia managed to “move in” to Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s integration of the DNR and LPR into Russia as federal subjects last week was a significant moment and trigger for the current conflict in Ukraine. The war has raged on in the background for years, ebbing and flowing in terms of intensity. Thousands have died, with many more injured and displaced.

The present

Now we are here with the current escalation that has led to a full on invasion of Ukraine by Putin. I say Putin and not Russia because Putin seems overwhelmingly alone in this mission.

His usual circle of supporters are struggling to pretend that they are on his side. However it doesn’t really matter, as he has so much power. This is the culmination of years of tensions.

Every action that Ukraine has taken to move closer to the West and democracy – such as requesting NATO membership and making progress for EU integration – is a threat to Putin and his geopolitical goals.

Putin sees Ukraine as an extension of his great Russia that he has built up for the last 22 years. To him, this is disloyalty and treason to the highest degree, and must be responded to with the most force possible. Things are complicated by the East-West divide in Ukraine, with the West leaning more European and the East leaning more Russian. This is Ukraine’s issue to resolve, not Russia’s to co-opt for its own geopolitical goals.

What will happen next

There is no way of knowing. In the last few days, Western nations have slowly begun to respond in a coordinated manner, but it was not immediate. Sanctions can only go so far, and they should be a part of a wider range of tactics to resolve the conflict.

Hitting the wallets of the elite can only achieve so much. Putin himself needs to be destabilised. This will require Western nations – who are heavily reliant on Russian energy – to stand up to Putin.

The stage for Ukraine’s invasion was not set overnight, and this was is not about them – it is about one man who has gone mad with power and will stop at nothing to build up his empire.

Celeste Morton is a postgraduate student in East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She writes about Russia, Bosnia, and environmental issues. Twitter @_veloceleste

Featured Image: Pixabay

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