How Ukraine’s Struggle for Sovereignty Exposes Cracks in the Western Dominated World Order
By Brian Taptick
As those living in the Western world sleep peacefully at night, the stability of the post-World War II international system sits in the hands of the Ukrainian soldiers guarding the trenches in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas, who face Russian backed separatists and await a possible Russian invasion. Ukraine, a young democracy that seeks closer ties to the West through potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), is being held hostage as Vladimir Putin attempts to show the world that Russia is the geopolitical power that he dreams it to be. Many in the United States question why the US and its allies should care about the fate of Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic that is far away and has struggled throughout history to maintain its own sovereignty. Today, Ukraine stands as a young democracy of 30 years, that has struggled with corruption within its own government and manipulation from its Russian neighbor but is being threatened with annihilation by the Kremlin for becoming a better nation for its people, and a more involved member of the international community.
Throughout his reign at the head of the Russian government, President Putin has attempted to undermine the norms and values of the current world order to advance his own imperialistic ambitions. To avoid provoking a strong reaction from the West, Russia’s aggressiveness towards its neighbors that do not obey the wishes of the Kremlin are carried out with unconventional and subversive measures to undermine the stability of countries on Russia’s periphery. These include cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns that the world has grown too accustomed to in the news. Sometimes Russia finds a reason to justify the use of military force outside of its borders to achieve its goals.
Similar to China’s “One China” policy, Vladimir Putin has his own policy known as the “Russian World”, which he uses in the name of protecting ethnic Russians wherever they may be. Lucky for Putin, the countries on his borders have sizable groups of Russian minorities, so the Kremlin fabricates abuses against Russians at the hands of foreign governments to justify intervention. The result is the creation of and support for separatist movements that create long-term destabilization. Russia currently supports separatist regions in Transnistria (Moldova), South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgia), the Donbas and the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula (Ukraine).
Most relevant in the news today is the continued crisis on the borders of Ukraine, where Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops, and reports believe an invasion could happen as early as this month. Winter does not sound like an ideal time to invade, but the frozen ground offers a hard surface for a quick advance across the country, while the soft fertile soil of Ukraine can slow troops movements in warmer weather, and muddy conditions during warmer times can make some areas impassable. The Russian Federation is now moving troops into Belarus for military exercises in February. This places the Russian Armed Forces on the entirety of Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern territorial boundaries, including inside of Crimea and along the Black Sea, until Ukraine’s border touches Moldovan controlled territory outside of Transnistria.
The Struggles of Trying to be a Good Neighbor
Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe, is one of the major breadbaskets of the world with some of the richest soil on the planet and is strategically situated along the northern coast of the Black Sea. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the host of a sizable amount of the Soviet nuclear arsenal that would have made them the third largest nuclear power at that time. In exchange for security assurances to guarantee its territorial integrity, which includes the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 and sent its arsenal to Russia. This agreement was supported by the United States as it attempted to mend a relationship with the new Russian Federation, feeling it is better to keep the most powerful weapons in the world with the nation the United States was already accustomed to negotiated with. Without nuclear deterrence, Ukraine could only rely on the Budapest Memorandum and the international system it was now a part of the guarantee its future.
Almost 20 years later, in November of 2013 Ukraine was on the verge of signing a trade agreement with the EU that would have brought closer economic ties and laid the groundwork for potential EU membership. Putin was not going to allow Ukraine to move closer to the West and strong-armed President Viktor Yanukovych to back out of the agreement. The response from the Ukrainian people was resolute. Protests now known as the Euro-Maiden erupted as the people displayed their frustration with government corruption, and what they viewed as a denial of a better future. As the government attempted to violently break up the protests, they were met by a determined and united population that was ready for its government to serve the people. When the masses did not accept a government proposal of new presidential elections in October of 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia in the middle of the night. Without his puppet at the head of the Ukrainian government, Putin seized on the moment of instability.
The Russian Bear Leaves the Cave
Putin moved his forces quickly and illegally annexed The Crimea, a strategically important peninsula that has long been home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at the naval base in Sevastopol. Soldiers in unmarked uniforms, now referred to as “little green men”, began to appear and forcefully took control of military basis, key terrain, and critical infrastructure. These of course turned out to be Russian operatives sent to take control from within, allowing Putin to avoid open invasion. Many Ukrainian soldiers attempted to maintain control of their bases awaiting instructions that would never come, as the government in Kyiv was frozen in the chaos. Soon Russian forces began to flood into Crimea as Putin claimed he was looking to protect the Russian population, and that Russian troops would only stay until order was restored. With the peninsula firmly under the control of Russian forces, a referendum was held to allow the people to vote if they would prefer to succeed from Ukraine to join the Russian Federation. Unsurprisingly, the illegal vote that was entirely controlled by Russia showed that 95% of the people chose to become part of the Russian Federation. The West only stood by and condemned the illegal actions by the Russian Federation.
Additionally, a Russian backed separatist movement sprung up in eastern Ukraine. With an inexperienced military frozen in the confusion, the separatists moved as far west as Kramatorsk and Slovyansk before being pushed back by Ukrainian civilian volunteer forces. Separatists also overran the regional administrative building in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, and briefly raised the Russian flag before they were repelled by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU or SBU). The Ukrainian military and civilian volunteer forces were able to push back the separatist fighters to the current Line of Contact (LOC) established in the two separate Minsk Agreements, stretching from Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, up through Donetsk and then circling back through Luhansk to the Russian border. The people along this line live in a permanent state of purgatory. As people go to work tend to their garden, kids go to school or play outside with their friends, they do so with the fear of protentional small arms or mortar fire nearby. Mines are another significant issue that threaten the course of everyday life, with no hope for a resolution to the conflict. Today, this area in the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine is where a spark awaits that could ignite the flames of war.
The Western Playbook Hasn’t Worked
As much as Putin is against the current international order that attempts to control his aggressive ambitions, he approaches each scenario in a way that allows him to only draw condemnation from the West, but no true repercussions for his actions. No matter how many sanctions are placed on Russia and Russian officials, they continue the same actions. French President Emmanuel Macron has openly stated that the West must state clear red lines and enforce them. Past failures at enforcing red lines, such as the failure to act on President Obama’s red line in Syria, may have given Putin the confidence he needed to believe he could pull off his land grab of the Crimean Peninsula without much interruption. The US and its European allies are attempting a diplomatic approach to resolve the tensions and prevent a Russian invasion, but the West has not been accepting of Russia’s demands. If Putin is determined to go forward with an invasion of Ukraine, he will most likely fabricate a crisis that justifies Russian intervention, while causes Western powers to hesitate. Unfortunately, that action may already be in motion. Ukraine was hit by a massive cyber-attack on January 14th, and news outlets are reporting that US intelligence is showing Russia is planning a black-flag operation create their own justification for an invasion of Ukraine.
The world stands on edge as the longest period of peace in Europe’s history hangs in the balance. The Ukrainian people want to and deserve to live in peace. It is up to the United States and its allies to ensure that Ukraine is not left alone to fend off its aggressive neighbor, and hold tight the principles of the current world order that have allowed for continuous advances of international cooperation and development, making the world a safer place.
Brian Taptick is a Civil Affairs Captain in the United States Army with a regional focus on European affairs and has served in Ukraine. He graduated from The Citadel in Charleston, SC with a BA in International Politics and Military Affairs and is currently pursuing an MA in International Relations from American University in Washington, DC.