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Understanding the Russian-Ukrainian Escalation

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Hundreds of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about a Russian invasion. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The major event that has taken everyone by surprise is the latest ongoing Russian-Ukrainian escalation, with many fears it may blow into a full scale war. Already over a hundred thousand Russian troops have been stationed across Ukrainian borders including in Belarus and Crimea, with hundreds of tanks, countless of artilleries and fighter jets fully ready to attack anytime now. However, what escalated the matters into such an intense situation?

To understand the ongoing crisis, one needs to understand the history. Geopolitically and historically Ukraine has high significance to Russia. It was the first capital of the first Russian state in the 9th Century. This is also the reason as to why many Russians, including President Vladimir Putin have called Ukraine “Little Russia”. “…no one should be allowed to interfere in relations between us; they have always been the business of Russia itself,” quoted Vladimir Putin.

Both Ukraine and Russia were once part of the former Soviet Union. Additionally, throughout the Soviet history, men from Ukrainian ethnicity had served the Soviet Union in the highest of echelons from Nikita Khrushchev to Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Cherenkov and Mikhail Gorbachev. However, in 1991 with the collapse of Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent state.

Later on, a couple of movements took place inside Ukraine, which were in the attempts of getting Ukraine away from the Russian orbit. The Orange Revolution, that took place between 2004-05, accusation were called over rigging in election for making Viktor Yanukovych the new president instead of Viktor Yushchenko; the former being pro-Russian and the latter being pro-West. Eventually, the call for re-elections were granted, in which Yushchenko eventually was sworn in as the new president of Ukraine. The results had negative connotation in the higher echelons of Russia and Belarus alike.

However, the turning point for brewing the escalation into what it has turned out today dates back to 2013. In the 2010 presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych became the president of Ukraine; the elections being called fair by both, Central Election Commission of Ukraine and international observers. However, later in 2013, when Viktor Yanukovych was about to sign a political and economic deal with Europe, to the surprise of majority, signed a deal with Russia. A lot of Ukrainian viewed this as a sign of pressure from Russia.

This was followed by February 2014 Euromaidan clashes, also called the Revolution of Dignity, in Kyiv’s Independence Square. As a result, Viktor Yanukovych resigned from office, fled to Russia and Petro Poroshenko was made the new president. Russia did not remain silent this time around. They sent their forces to Crimea, a peninsula that has been a part of Ukraine since the 1950s. Ethnically Crimea is Russian majority, and has closer ties to Russia than Ukraine. This was followed by a referendum in which the majority of Crimeans voted in favor of Russia, and as a result Crimea of annexed by Russia, a move considered illegal by both West and Ukraine.

However, the crisis did not stop there; a spillover effect took place in the Donbas region in the east of Ukraine, close to the Russian borders. Again, much like Crimea, Donbas is ethnically Russian majority. In April 2014, pro-Russian separatists starting taking over territories, and as a result, a full-scale war started to take place between the Ukrainian military and the separatist groups. De-facto independence was declared by the separatist groups in their controlled areas of Luhansk and Donetsk of Donbas. Russia has been accused of supporting them with arms and recruitments, something which Russia denies.

Eight years down the line, the diplomatic missions for de-escalations have failed, with over fourteen thousand killed and over a million forced to leave their homes. However, what makes Russia and the West so obsessed with Ukraine?

Besides having a GDP of over $150 billion, Ukraine lies in a very geostrategic location, sandwiched between Belarus to the north, Russia on the east, and the EU in the West. With the collapse of USSR, NATO has been increasingly been expanding eastwards, something which the Russia sees as NATO being in their backyard, making Russia to believe that’s a direct threat to their security. As Ukraine is also interested in the membership of NATO, it could make Russia vulnerable from all the Western fronts.

Though Russia has denied any intentions of a full-scale attack in Ukraine, however, they are demanding certain guarantees from the West such as NATO to stop any kind of military cooperation with Ukraine, not allowing Ukraine to join NATO among many other things. A redline, which the West may not agree upon. Additionally, many speculate that this might be a bluff tactic by Russia to either scare or submit Ukraine and the West towards their demands, terms and conditions or a popular support for Putin at home. In the end, whatever might be the reality, an escalation of a full fledge war would have consequences far beyond the region; and the best policy should be after all peace and dialogue.

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Shaheer Khan

Written by Shaheer Khan

Shaheer Khan is currently working as a Research Assistant at Global Affairs International Magazine. He has completed his degree in the field of Strategic Studies from National Defence University Islamabad. He can be reached at shaheer@globalaffairs.com.pk

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