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Crisis Between Russia and Ukraine Explained

How the world became embroiled in the issue between Russia and Ukraine, what are the demands of Russia, and other questions explained.

There were no details provided by US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Moscow dismissed the US’s fears of an invasion as “hysteria” on Saturday, but the Kremlin appears to be making all the necessary war preparations, including moving more military equipment, medical units, and even blood to the front lines. On European territory, it’s an act of aggression that might lead to the greatest military war in decades. Against this context, diplomatic negotiations between Russia and the US and its allies, including a direct call between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, have yet to generate any results.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is about Ukraine’s future. Ukraine provides a bigger platform for Putin to seal his legacy and reclaim Russia’s influence in Europe and the world. All of this is no small feat for Putin, and he may decide that the only way to accomplish it is to launch another incursion into Ukraine, an act that, if carried out aggressively, could result in tens of thousands of civilian deaths, a refugee crisis in Europe, and a response from Western allies that includes tough economic sanctions.

What’s at stake is clearly defined by the United States and Russia. Russia provided the US with a list of requests, some of which were non-starters for the US and its partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Putin requested that NATO halt its eastward expansion and refuse Ukraine membership, as well as a reduction in force deployment in countries that joined after 1997, which would set the clock back decades in terms of Europe’s security and geopolitical alignment.

According to Michael Kofman, research director in the Russia studies program at CNA, a research and analysis group in Arlington, Virginia, these ultimatums are “a Russian attempt not only to secure interest in Ukraine but essentially relitigate the security architecture in Europe.”

Russia and Ukraine: Diplomatic talks between Russia and the United States which includes a phone discussion between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, still have not reached any agreements.
Diplomatic talks between Russia and the United States which includes a phone discussion between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, still have not reached any agreements.

The United States and NATO, as predicted, rejected such demands. Ukraine, as both the United States and Russia are aware, is unlikely to join NATO anytime soon.

At the conclusion of the Cold War, some prominent American foreign policy intellectuals believed that NATO should never have pushed so near to Russia’s borders in the first place. The open-door policy of NATO, on the other hand, allows sovereign countries to form their own security alliances. As a result of giving in to Putin’s demands, the Kremlin would have veto power over NATO’s decision-making process and thereby the continent’s security.

The world is now waiting in anticipation to see what Putin will do now that he has received the best offer from the US and has stated that he does not like it.

It’s hardly a given certainty that a war will break out. Moscow continues to deny that it is planning an invasion. However, if war broke out, it would be terrible for Ukraine, with unforeseeable consequences for the rest of Europe and the West. That is why the globe is on edge, whether it is imminent or not.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine stems from the collapse of the Soviet Union

Ukraine, a former Soviet country, possessed the world’s third-largest atomic arsenal when the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s. Ukraine worked with the United States and Russia to denuclearize the nation, and in a series of diplomatic deals, Kyiv surrendered up hundreds of nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for security assurances that shielded it from a possible Russian assault.

As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, those assurances were tested. In the eastern Donbas area, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and backed pro-Russian separatists in a revolt headed by pro-Russian separatists. Since the beginning of the Russia and Ukraine conflict in eastern Ukraine, more than 14,000 people have been slain.

Russia’s attack was sparked by enormous demonstrations in Ukraine that deposed the country’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, because he reneged on a trade pact with the European Union, among other things. In symbolic acts that further irritated Putin, US ambassadors visited the demonstrations.

President Barack Obama was sluggish to assemble a diplomatic reaction in Europe and did not immediately deliver offensive weaponry to Ukrainians, fearful of further escalating relations with Russia.

“A lot of us were really appalled that not more was done for the violation of that [post-Soviet] agreement,” said Ian Kelly, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Georgia from 2015 to 2018. “It just basically showed that if you have nuclear weapons” — as Russia does — “you’re inoculated against strong measures by the international community.”

But the idea of a post-Soviet Europe is fueling today’s crisis fueled by conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Putin has been obsessing on regaining part of the empire that was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This vision is centered on Ukraine. Putin has argued that Ukrainians and Russians “were one people — a single whole,” or at least would be if it weren’t for the “wall” that has been built between them by foreign forces (as in the West).

In the foreseeable future, Ukraine will not join NATO, according to President Joe Biden’s statement. According to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, any attack on a NATO member or a NATO member’s country is treated as an attack on the entire alliance, which means that any Russian military action against a hypothetical NATO member Ukraine would theoretically bring Moscow into conflict with NATO members such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

However, the United States provides the fourth-largest military budget to the country, and the two countries’ intelligence collaboration has grown in reaction to Russian threats.

“Putin and the Kremlin understand that Ukraine will not be a part of NATO,” Ruslan Bortnik, director of the Ukrainian Institute of Politics, said. “But Ukraine became an informal member of NATO without a formal decision.”

So, despite Russian aggression having a lot to do with it, Putin considers Ukraine’s stance toward the EU and NATO to be unsuitable for Russia’s national security.

Since President George W. Bush showed support for the concept in 2008, Putin has been enraged by the thought of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO. “That was a real mistake,” said Steven Pifer, who served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000. “It drove the Russians nuts. It created expectations in Ukraine and Georgia, which then were never met. And so that just made that whole issue of enlargement a complicated one.”

No nation may join the alliance unless all 30 members agree to it, and several have opposed Ukraine’s participation, partly because it does not fit the alliance’s democratic and legal requirements.

In the midst of all of this, Ukraine finds itself in an untenable situation: a candidate for an alliance that won’t accept it, while also upsetting a potential adversary next door, and without any kind of NATO protection.

The reason why Russia is currently threatening Ukraine

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a continuation of the one that began in 2014. Recent political developments in Ukraine, the United States, Europe, and Russia, on the other hand, may explain why Putin believes now is the right moment to act.

The election in 2019 of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who portrayed a president on TV before becoming president, is one of such occurrences. Zelensky stated throughout his campaign that he would “reboot” peace negotiations to end the violence in eastern Ukraine, including personally talking with Putin, as well as the other things you might remember him for. As a political rookie, Russia likely considered Zelensky as someone who may be more open to Russia’s point of view, and it was probable that it would gain something out of this.

Russia and Ukraine: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who portrayed a president on TV before becoming president, stated throughout his campaign that he would "reboot" peace negotiations to end the violence in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who portrayed a president on TV before becoming president, stated throughout his campaign that he would “reboot” peace negotiations to end the violence in eastern Ukraine.

Russia wants Zelensky to follow the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, which would bring pro-Russian regions back into Ukraine but would be a “Trojan horse” for Moscow to exert power and control, according to one analyst. Because no Ukrainian president would agree to those requirements, Zelensky, under Russian pressure, has turned to the West for support, publicly expressing his desire to join NATO.

Ukraine’s public opinion has also moved dramatically in favor of joining Western entities like the EU and NATO. Russia may have felt as though it had exhausted all of its political and diplomatic weapons to pull Ukraine back into the fold as a result of this. “Moscow security elites feel that they have to act now because if they don’t, military cooperation between NATO and Ukraine will become even more intense and even more sophisticated,” said Sarah Pagung of the German Council on Foreign Relations in a statement.

In the spring of 2021, Putin put the West to the test again, gathering forces and equipment near the border. The incoming Biden administration became aware of the troop increase, which resulted in a planned meeting between the two leaders. Russia began withdrawing some of its troops from the border a few days later.

According to analysts, Putin’s attitude toward the United States has also changed. To Putin, the messy Afghanistan pullout (which Moscow would know something about) and the US’s political upheaval are signals of weakness.

Putin may also perceive the West split on the role of the US in the globe dividing the West. After the Trump administration, Biden is still working to re-establish confidence in the transatlantic relationship. European partners have been offended by some of Biden’s diplomatic errors, like the aforementioned tumultuous pullout from Afghanistan and the nuclear submarine agreement he struck with the United Kingdom and Australia, which took France off guard.

Europe, too, has internal divisions. The consequences of Brexit are still being dealt with by both the EU and the UK. The current Covid-19 epidemic is affecting everyone. After 16 years of Angela Merkel as chancellor, Germany now has a new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the new coalition government is still attempting to figure out its foreign policy. Germany, as well as other European nations, buys natural gas from Russia, and energy costs are currently soaring. In April, France holds elections, and President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to make a name for himself in these discussions.

Putin may be encouraged by such divides, which Washington is attempting to quell. Putin may believe that such an expedition will bolster his reputation at home, as it did in 2014, because he has his own internal problems to cope with, such as the coronavirus and a weak economy.

So far, diplomacy hasn’t yielded any significant results, but it has the potential to do so in the future

Biden’s administration talked of having a “stable, predictable” relationship with Russia just a few months into his term as president. That no longer appears to be a possibility.

Although the White House is planning to impose sanctions on Russia, provide money and weapons to Ukraine, and increase the US military presence in Eastern Europe, it is still hopeful that a diplomatic solution will be found. Macron, on the other hand, spent five hours with Putin on Monday last week.

Russia and Ukraine: Macron spent five hours with Putin on Monday last week over tensions in Ukraine.
Macron spent five hours with Putin on Monday last week over tensions in Ukraine.

The White House began stepping up its diplomatic efforts with Russia late last year. Russia offered Washington a list of “legally binding security guarantees” in December, including non-starters like a prohibition on Ukraine joining NATO, and requested written replies. Officials from the United States and Russia tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement in Geneva in January. At the end of January, the United States replied immediately to Russia’s ultimatums.

But leaked papers imply that new arms control agreements and more openness in terms of where NATO weapons and soldiers are stationed in Eastern Europe might be possible in response to that approach.

In his chat with Putin on Saturday, Biden is understood to have reaffirmed several of those diplomatic initiatives, which Putin has previously dismissed as unimportant.

Perhaps in response to the US response’s failings in 2014, Biden’s staff has internalized the necessity for European partners to counter Russia’s actions in Ukraine. To confront Putin, the Biden administration has put a lot of focus on collaborating with NATO, the European Union, and individual European partners. “For their safety, the Europeans are completely reliant on us.” They’re aware of it, they talk to us about it all the time, and we’re in the epicenter of it,” said Center for American Progress’ Max Bergmann.

What if Russia invades Ukraine?

Putin used “hybrid” warfare techniques against Ukraine in 2014, including irregular militias, cyber-hacks, and misinformation, among other things.

The West, especially some in the Obama administration, was taken aback by these measures. It also gave Russia the opportunity to deny any direct participation. Military formations of “little green men” – troops in uniform but without official insignia — came in with equipment in the Donbas area in 2014. Since then, Moscow has continued to destabilize and weaken Ukraine through cyberattacks on vital infrastructure and misinformation efforts, as well as provoking unrest.

If Russia does not move its soldiers across the border, it might take forceful measures in a variety of ways. It has the potential to expand its proxy war by launching massive misinformation and cyber activities. (It will also presumably do these things if it does send soldiers into Ukraine.)

However, this path appears to be similar to the one Russia has previously taken, and it has not brought Moscow any closer to its goals. “How much more can you destabilize? It doesn’t seem to have had a massive damaging impact on Ukraine’s pursuit of democracy, or even its tilt toward the West ,” said Margarita Konaev, associate director of analysis and research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

As a result, Moscow may regard additional force as a viable option.

A Russian invasion might take several forms, including deploying additional soldiers into eastern Ukraine’s separatist territories, taking vital areas and obstructing Ukraine’s waterways, or even waging a full-fledged war, with Moscow moving on Kyiv in an attempt to recapture the whole nation. Any of it has the potential to be disastrous, but the more extensive the surgery, the more serious the consequences.

A full-fledged invasion to conquer all of Ukraine would be unprecedented in European history. It might include urban combat, including on Kyiv’s streets, as well as airstrikes on metropolitan areas. It would have enormous humanitarian ramifications, including a refugee catastrophe. The US has predicted that the civilian death toll might approach 50,000, with 1 million to 5 million refugees. All urban combat is brutal, according to Konaev, but Russia’s fighting — as seen in areas like Syria — has been “particularly devastating, with very little regard for civilian protection.”

According to analysts, the massive scope of such an attack makes it the least likely, and it would be extremely costly for Russia. “I think Putin himself knows that the stakes are really high,” Natia Seskuria, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the United Kingdom, said. 

“That’s why I think a full-scale invasion is a riskier option for Moscow in terms of potential political and economic causes — but also due to the number of casualties. Because if we compare Ukraine in 2014 to the Ukrainian army and its capabilities right now, they are much more capable.”

Western training and arms sales, to be sure, play a role in those expanded capabilities.

An invasion of this magnitude would require Russia to march into areas that are vehemently hostile to it. This raises the prospect of a protracted struggle (perhaps even one supported by the US) — and an invasion may evolve into an occupation. “The sad reality is that Russia could take as much of Ukraine as it wants, but it can’t hold it,” said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

What is going to happen now?

China, climate change, the pandemic — all of the Biden administration’s grand plans have been derailed by Ukraine, and it has become a top priority for the United States, at least in the short term.

In a recent interview with the Atlantic Council, Rachel Rizzo, a researcher at the Europe Center, said, “One thing we’ve seen in common between the Obama administration and the Biden administration: They don’t view Russia as a geopolitical event-shaper, but we see Russia again and again shaping geopolitical events.”

The US has sent 3,000 troops to Europe in a show of NATO solidarity and will apparently send another 3,000 to Poland, while the Biden administration has stated unequivocally that US forces would not fight in Ukraine if war breaks out.

US deploy 3,000 additional troops to Poland over Russia and Ukraine crisis
US deploy 3,000 additional troops to Poland over crisis between Russia and Ukraine

The Biden administration, together with its European partners, is attempting to devise a shrewd strategy to punish Russia if it invades again. An oil and gas embargo or cutting Russia off from SWIFT, the electronic messaging facility that allows worldwide financial operations, appear implausible, in part because of the negative effects on the world economy. A significant economy with a lot of commerce, notably in raw resources, gas and oil, Russia is not an Iran or North Korea; it is a huge economy with plenty of trade.

“Types of sanctions that hurt your target also hurt the sender. Ultimately, it comes down to the price the populations in the United States and Europe are prepared to pay,” said Richard Connolly, a lecturer in political economy at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Right now, the Biden administration is allegedly exploring financial penalties against Russia’s largest banks — a step that the Obama administration did not pursue in 2014 — as well as an export embargo on breakthrough technology. Penalties for Russian billionaires and others connected to the government, as well as other types of targeted penalties, are almost certainly on the table. If Russia intensifies hostilities, Nord Stream 2, the constructed but not yet operational gas pipeline connecting Germany and Russia, may also be killed.

Putin must determine for himself what he wants. Olga Lautman, a senior scholar at the Center for European Policy Analysis, stated, “He has two options.” One is “to say, ‘Never mind, just kidding,’ which will show his weakness and shows that he was intimidated by US and Europe standing together — and that creates weakness for him at home and with countries he’s attempting to influence.”

“Or he goes full forward with an attack,” she said. “At this point, we don’t know where it’s going, but the prospects are very grim.”

This is the predicament Putin has put himself in, making a Russian retreat look unlikely. That doesn’t rule it out, and it doesn’t rule out the prospect of a diplomatic settlement that provides Putin enough cover to declare victory without the West accepting all of his demands. It also does not rule out the prospect that Russia and the US may be locked in this standoff for months longer, with Ukraine trapped in the middle and under constant Russian threat.

However, it also suggests that there is still a chance of war. In Ukraine, though, that is everyday life. (US and other countries have already advised their citizens in Ukraine to leave the country as a safety precaution.)

“For many Ukrainians, we’re accustomed to war,” said Oleksiy Sorokin, the political editor and chief operating officer of the English-language Kyiv Independent publication.

“Having Russia on our tail,” he added, “having this constant threat of Russia going further — I think many Ukrainians are used to it.”

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